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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel / books

Scandinavian Noir

Wendy Lesser

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To purchase Scandinavian Noir

Title: Scandinavian Noir
Author: Wendy Lesser
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2020
Length: 288 pages
Availability: Scandinavian Noir - US
Scandinavian Noir - UK
Scandinavian Noir - Canada
  • In Pursuit of a Mystery

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Our Assessment:

B : enjoyable, quite well-informed overview of Scandinavian crime fiction, as well as a fun travelogue

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 23/5/2020 .
Foreign Affairs . 3-4/2021 Andrew Moravcsik
The NY Times Book Rev. A 2/8/2020 Kate Tuttle
Publishers Weekly . 21/2/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book begins with a breezy, well-informed tour of the genre. (...) She peppers the book with observations on Scandinavian life and writing, from the treatment of domestic space (...) to the copious sexual antics of the fictional protagonists. Beneath the romps lie more sinister themes. (...) She might profitably have woven the two halves of her book together, introducing authors as she wanders around their countries and riffing off the people and places she encounters. The travelogue is needlessly written in the third person (...). Her chatty voice sometimes slips into banality. Still, Ms Lesser is an engaging and amiable guide to a cultural phenomenon that has swept much of the planet." - The Economist

  • "Readers undeterred by self-consciously ironic narrators who describe themselves in the third person may find this frothy mix of travelogue, literary criticism, and autobiography engaging. Spoiler alert: in the end, the book's premise explodes." - Foreign Affairs, Andrew Moravcsik

  • "Lesser isn't here to win converts, but even those unmoved by its subject will thrill to the book, a beautifully crafted inquiry into fiction, reality, crime and place. (...) Her engagement with the source material, hundreds of titles' worth, is rigorous yet playful. (...) Perhaps when it comes to fiction and reality, what we need most are critics like Lesser, who can dissect the former with the tools of the latter." - Kate Tuttle, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Part literary criticism and part travelogue, this exceptionally well-conceived cultural history compares the "mental image" of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that critic Lesser derived from immersion in Nordic noir thrillers, and the reality she found when she finally visited those countries. (...) This fine exploration of fiction as reality and reality as fiction will draw many readers to the authors she covers." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For over a decade now Nordic crime fiction has been extremely popular in the US/UK, and Wendy Lesser has been avid reader of much of it. Indeed, she was already impressed, years earlier, by the series that still towers over all that followed, the ten-book series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö featuring Martin Beck and beginning with Roseanna, but once Stieg Larsson exploded onto the American scene (with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and a flood of it began appearing her fascination with Scandinavian crime fiction really took off, turning into a veritable addiction (as she herself terms it). Scandinavian Noir is, as she explains, her; "take on the three Scandinavian countries -- Sweden, Norway, and Denmark -- as seen through the mystery novels I've read over the past four decades or so" (which is a lot of them ...).
       Lesser warns straight off that: "This is not an Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction", but it does provide a pretty good overview, at least of more or less contemporary crime fiction from the three countries she focuses on -- and, with an Appendix that is 'An Annotated List of Mysteries and Thrillers', actually does offer a solid introduction for readers of many of the major authors and series (with -- as throughout -- contemporary Scandinavian TV series ('The Bridge', 'The Killing', etc.) thrown in for good measure).
       (Her Scandinavian focus throughout is essentially limited to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark; she leaves out Iceland -- because she's not a fan of backwoods mysteries and apparently too many from there: "take place in the wild, frozen countryside" -- while to her mind (or browsing) Finland: "has so far exported only a very limited amount of crime fiction" and thus can safely be ignored as well (yes, Leena Lehtolainen, Antti Tuomainen, Harri Nykänen, and Jarkko Sipilä don't make the cut).)
       Scandinavian Noir is presented in two distinct parts. The first focuses on her reading of Scandinavian crime fiction -- her personal experiences, beginning with coming across the Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels, as well as an A to Z (from 'Alcohol' to 'Zealous') of categories and themes that come up in and observations about the books. This catalogue is a useful way of ordering her impressions and providing an overview of the fiction -- more useful than simply going book by book or author by author, at least to get a general sense of place(s) as well as (apparent) national traits and idiosyncrasies (and all things crime-related). It also reveals what particularly strikes and interests her, and what she takes from these works -- in particular, what they reveal about these places she had never visited.
       The other half of the book, the second part turns the tables: if the first considered 'Fiction as Reality', the second examines 'Reality as Fiction', as Lesser heads for Scandinavia. Having made her way through so many books set there she finds:

     Armchair contemplation, though delightfully comfortable, comes up against these questions, these concerns, and is forced to confess its own limits. To find out whether there is any such place as the Scandinavia I've been imagining, it appears I will actually have to go there.
       It's a decent starting point for an exploration of the foreign, and the comparison of how these worlds are depicted in the fiction she has read with the real-life versions is the kind of exercise many readers of fiction set distinctly elsewhere (in place, or time) probably are curious about. It helps that Lesser really does approach Scandinavia practically like the wide-eyed tourist familiar with a place only from its fiction -- something we're more used to seeing from (especially older) accounts of tourist-travel to Africa and the exotic Orient. She really does seem to have relied, above all else, on Nordic crime fiction (with only a bit of personal experience, such as what Scandinavian furniture design seeped into her American upbringing) to make her own picture of what those lands must be like; presumably she exaggerates her naïveté some (or considerably) for effect here, as it is easier to describe (and more interesting) what surprises than what is expected.
       Lesser does take the unusual step in the second part of the book -- the travelogue-half -- of switching voice, from the first person to the very unusual personal third-person: the 'she' is Lesser, describing her experiences. (Even the first-person plural approach -- the knowing we -- is more common than this approach, and I have to say, it comes across as a very peculiar perspective (and it's quite clear why one doesn't see it being used more often).)
       The first half of Scandinavian Noir tracks many of the things that Lesser picks up on the crime fiction she reads, and how they've changed over the years from the Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels to the current crop of mysteries and thrillers, from local xenophobia -- a rare area where media reports seem also to color her awareness and understanding of the issue -- to how guns figure in the stories (few gun crimes/deaths; few police carrying guns -- something that she finds even more striking when she sees it on the ground) to the lingering aftereffects of World War II (varying from country to country) to the incidental presence of so much art:
(T)here is nothing on our side of the Atlantic to match the profusion of original wall art in Swedish mysteries. It would seem that everyone there, from the wealthy on down, views art collecting as an important social and domestic function.
       Both in the fiction and then on the ground she finds the role of religion striking, getting a sense that there's a: "general assumption that everyone is basically Christian", despite how secular the countries are in many ways. (It's in some of these details that the comparisons and explanations sometimes are a bit off: noting how the Midsummer's Eve holiday "completely outshines the official national holiday, June 6" she suggests the latter -- Sweden Day -- "is equivalent to America's July 4", but it's only 'equivalent' in the sense of being a national/independence day; in most European countries these really aren't much more than a day off (more President's Day, say) -- the French Bastille Day being a rare big exception.) She notes how few Jewish characters she's come across in the Scandinavian crime fiction ("I can think of only two Jews") -- the one area where her omission of Finnish crime fiction comes to bear, since Harri Nykänen's Ariel Kafka-series would have her covered -- but the Jewish populations of the Scandinavian countries have always been small-to-minuscule. Meanwhile, the Muslim populations have become significant -- and she does note: "Muslims abound in these novels, but always as the outsiders, the recent invaders, the pathetic or perhaps dangerous and certainly widely despised refugees" -- though this is also an area (and impression) she isn't really able to follow up much on when actually there.
       Amusing is Lesser's repeated surprise at how few actual murders there are in these places (there were 25 homicides in all of Norway in 2018, for example), though she's on somewhat unsteady footing with her understanding of the numbers here, as when she asks a Stockholm police official about the homicide rate in Stockholm:
He answers by giving her the figure for Sweden as a whole, which he estimates at 100 to 120 murders a year. This is surprisingly high, compared to Denmark and Norway
       Given that Sweden has a considerably larger population than either Denmark or Norway (and not much less than both put together), it's not really that surprising -- and, in fact, the Danish homicide rate is actually slightly higher than the Swedish one (i.e. Denmark is just as dangerous as Sweden -- though the rate is indeed much lower in Norway). (For what it's worth, the number of homicides in Sweden between 2008 and 2018 ranged from a low of 68 (2012) to 113 (2017).)
       (Elsewhere Lesser also relies too readily on the claims she hears, despite how easy it would be to double-check: the lead detective of the Oslo homicide division blithely tells her: "'Guns in Norway are more common than guns in America,' Bård tells her, 'because in Norway we have a long tradition of hunting'", which is absolute nonsense (the number, not that there's a tradition of hunting). In the United States there are over 120 guns per 100 persons while in Norway there are less than 30; the statistics are warped by all the American nuts who own multiple guns, but even just the percentage of American households in which there is a gun (around 40 per cent) is considerably higher than Norway's rate of ownership. As significantly, over 80 per cent of personal firearms in Norway are registered; in the US, the rate is, ridiculously, far below 1 per cent.)
       The contrast between the relative safety of the Scandinavian countries, and how most homicides are domestic, and the elaborate crimes, and their often brutal sadism, that feature in the fiction also strikes Lesser. She is particularly surprised by the focus on crimes against children -- a rarity in real life, but so often featuring in the fiction.
       Lesser speaks with police officials in all three countries, getting the answers to a lot of her questions and providing an interesting insight into and contrast with the crime fiction portrayals. Most noteworthy here is how many women are found, including in higher-level positions, in the actual domestic police forces:
     Once again, she is struck by the discrepancy between the actual numbers of women detectives and their few paltry counterparts in fiction. Why have Scandinavian mystery writers chosen to downplay the fact that fifty percent or more of murder investigators are women ? Surely the authors themselves must know this, if she has been able to find it out so easily. She presumes they must have some ulterior motive for presenting their female officers as isolated and beleaguered, but it doesn't make any sense to her.
       It's also amusing to hear what the local police think of these same crime novels -- summed up well by one official's take on the Henning Mankell books: "The plots are not realistic -- they are ridiculous, all those killings in a small village. But the feelings ...". (Lesser's trip to Wallander-territory -- the town of Ystad -- is also a fun little side-trip.)
       The picture that emerges of the real Scandinavia does not add too much to the preconceived one arising out of her reading, but there are some discoveries along the way, making for an enjoyable travelogue. Lesser remains mainly tourist -- albeit one that does meet and speak with highly-placed officials, which is pretty neat -- and seems satisfied with general impressions (rather than really digging into subjects -- the sale/cost/consumption of alcohol issue comes up repeatedly, but she isn't too concerned with really figuring out the system and some of the ramifications, to name just one of many examples). A few small non-crime-detours -- she learns more about Strindberg (hey, he wrote novels too ...), for example -- also add to the overall picture -- a decent one of these three states.
       Scandinavian Noir does also serve as a good survey-introduction to modern Scandinavian crime fiction (from the three countries she largely limits herself to), with Lesser also acknowledging the weaknesses and faults among the novels she devours -- even the Martin Beck series (which remains the paragon on her literary tour). She's read a lot of this stuff, and is agreeably opinionated about it -- "above all, do not pay good money for Adler-Olsen's inept political thriller set in America, titled The Washington Decree", she warns, or, regarding Mankell's Wallander: "it is best to avoid the filmic renderings (particularly the ghastly Branagh series)" -- though readers probably will differ with regards to some of her assessments. (The only one I really feel differently about is Leif GW Persson; she acknowledges his high local reputation but doesn't take to his work, finding: "Persson's Palme trilogy may well be among the most unsuspenseful mysteries ever composed" (which kind of misses the point of the excellent (if too grandiosely titled) trio that begins with Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End -- though certainly his Evert Bäckstrom (from e.g. He Who Kills the Dragon) is so off-putting that some readers might not want to bother. Amusingly, several people offer to introduce her to the very prominent figure of Persson, as someone who could help her meet police-folk but she demurs, not just because: "her mild distaste for Persson's Palme trilogy (though that would certainly introduce a measure of bad faith into the process), but also her fear that such a forceful and opinionated broker would influence the nature of her results".)
       Fans of Nordic crime fiction who have traveled through the pages of many of these books will surely enjoy Scandinavian Noir, and it's an interesting (if somewhat light) exercise in comparing fiction and real-life -- the personal touch working quite well here (even as that ultimately also limits the possible insight(s)). The third-person narration of the second part is very odd, but the stilted approach does have the benefit of holding the reader's attention -- it's like a camera-angle one has never seen before (say, everything being filmed from ground level), captivating in its own right.
       An enjoyable variation on the usual travelogue.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 April 2020

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Scandinavian Noir: Reviews: Wendy Lesser: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author and editor of The Threepenny Review Wendy Lesser was born in 1952.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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