Norse Code: New Mysteries & Thrillers 2019

Just over a decade ago, a heavily tattooed Swedish computer hacker with a traumatic past and a big European following burst onto the American thriller scene. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has since sold more than six million print copies in the U.S., per NPD BookScan, and launched a global franchise that, to date, includes three novels by series originator Stieg Larsson and two more by David Lagercrantz. Knopf will publish The Girl Who Lived Twice, Lagercrantz’s third installment in the Millennium series, at the end of August.

Larsson’s success sent U.S. publishers searching for more books about especially bleak crimes committed under the winter-dark skies of the brooding north. The resulting boom in Nordic crime fiction expanded the readerships of authors including Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø, who were bestsellers in Europe a decade before Larsson. Over time, it also spawned a sameness, some editors say, with many books featuring a middle-aged man with an uneasy family life as the central investigator.

As a result, where just a few years ago publishers were racing to get more Nordic crime authors signed and translated, the challenge now is finding fresh voices who are upending the genre’s conventions.

“We started signing fewer of these books because you started seeing cookie cutter characters stuck into different Scandinavian countries,” says Daniela Rapp, senior editor at St. Martin’s. “All of us got very tired of those things. It’s been a deliberate effort to acquire stories that are disrupting that model.”

That effort has yielded a wave of books that include the forthcoming The Truth Behind the Lie (Minotaur, Sept.) by Sara Lövestam, translated from the Swedish by Laura A. Wideburg. In it, Pernilla, whose child has been kidnapped, responds to an ad offering the services of a private investigator to those who, for whatever reason, can’t contact the police. That PI is Kouplan, an undocumented Iranian refugee who dwells in Stockholm’s shadows, awaiting the opportunity to apply for asylum.

The vulnerable underbelly of the social welfare state is an undercurrent that runs through much of the Nordic noir genre, but in this book, says Sara Karrholm, an associate professor of literary and publishing studies at Sweden’s Lund University, it’s a defining element of protagonist Kouplan’s character. “Many people are trying to do something new with the genre,” says Karrholm, whose research includes the history of Swedish crime literature with a focus on gender. “In Sweden, it’s become more and more difficult to stand out. It’s a dilemma—how to break the model and still have a good story.”

As Nordic crime fiction continues to evolve, we look at new and established authors who are pushing the genre’s narrative and geographic boundaries.

True North

The terms Nordic noir and Scandi noir are often used interchangeably, but the more expansive Nordic acknowledges the Icelandic and Finnish authors who are putting their own twists on the genre.

In May, St. Martin’s imprint Minotaur will release The Island by Ragnar Jónasson, translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb, which is the “masterly sequel,” PW’s starred review said, to his 2018 series launch, The Darkness. Det. Insp. Hulda Hermannsdóttir is facing mandatory retirement age and is frustrated that her male superiors haven’t promoted her into their leadership ranks. She elects to pursue one last case—a weekend getaway turned deadly—and struggles to keep her boss from wresting control of her investigation.

“After a wave of male inspectors,” Rapp says, “we need to hear from more women as protagonists.”

In February, Minotaur published The Reckoning by Icelandic crime maven Yrsa Sigurdardóttir. Second in a trilogy, it features a demoted detective and a child psychologist who crackle with sexual tension while investigating the appearance of body parts around Reykjavik. PW called it “must-reading” for fans of Nordic crime fiction.

Sigurdardóttir has become such an important figure in Icelandic crime fiction that she’s referred to by first name only in a brief, sly appearance in Lilja Sigurdardóttir’s forthcoming Trap (Orenda, Apr.), translated by Quentin Bates. “Fans of Nordic noir will find plenty to like,” PW’s review said, in this “edgy sequel” to the 2018 series launch, Snare, the author’s first title to be translated into English.

As Trap begins, protagonist Sonja has run off to Florida with her young son to escape her ex-husband, who had forced her into the drug trade. Meanwhile, her lover, Agla, awaits sentencing for her role in the 2008 banking crash but is more worried about the repercussions of a debt owed to characters more menacing than financial regulators. The women return to their illegal ways to pull off one last job that, if successful, will set them both free.

“This is more of a modern thriller rather than a police procedural,” says Karen Sullivan, publisher and founder of Orenda. “There are no detectives chasing down murderers.” Instead, she says, the series revolves around damaged characters whose crimes are rooted in issues that have only come to the fore in Iceland in recent years. Palomar Pictures has acquired film rights for the series.

Orenda is also publishing Palm Beach, Finland (Apr.) by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston, which PW’s review called an “inspired meld of crime and dark comedy.” The proprietor of a pastel-colored beach club hires a pair of hapless goons to make life difficult for the owner of a property he covets. The thugs accidentally end up killing someone, and they’re not even sure who it is. The National Central Police send their best private investigator to figure it all out.

“Obviously, there’s a familiarity with the genre,” Sullivan says of the context for Orenda’s forthcoming titles. “Everyone knows what to expect, so Sigurdardóttir and Tuomainen feel they can play with its tropes.”

Other Voices, Other Crimes

Out of the dozen-plus works of Nordic crime fiction discussed in this piece, several, including Trap and the Millennium books, have queer main characters. Martin Holmén’s Slugger (Pushkin, July), translated by Annie Prime, concludes his Stockholm Trilogy, set in the 1930s and centered on Harry Kvist, a boxer turned debt collector who is bisexual. In the final installment, Kvist is newly released from prison and drawn back into violence when his friend and former lover, Pastor Gabrielsson, is found nailed to the floor of his church, next to a Star of David painted using his blood. Kvist pummels his way through Stockholm’s gritty underworld as he homes in on a plot that reaches to Nazi Germany.

“I don’t consider myself a writer of LGBTQ novels,” Holmén says. “I write noir fiction with an antihero protagonist who happens to be gay.” He sees his tough-guy character as a provocation to the way gay men are often portrayed in literature, and also as a way to stand out. “Ever since the Millennium series, it’s getting hard to find a niche of your own,” he notes. “I found mine, and a story that had not yet been told—the conditions of working class gay men in the past.”

The central relationship in Joakim Zander’s trilogy-ending The Friend (Harper, July), translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, was originally intended to be a heterosexual love affair. But in the final version, Jacob Seger, who has just landed his first job in diplomacy in Lebanon, falls in love with a man named Yassim, who claims to be a war photographer while intelligence officials say he is a terrorist.

When Zander traveled to Beirut for research, a local friend, who is gay, showed him around. Zander’s exposure to Beirut’s gay scene prompted the author to incorporate its complexities into his narrative as a way of heightening the tension. “I think that progressive Scandinavian culture allows writers the choice of a wide spectrum of protagonists to choose from without the decision in itself being necessarily political,” he says. “Rather, it’s based on the needs of the story.”

Home and Away

Other authors, too, are pushing geographic boundaries, acknowledging increasing global influences on Scandinavian life, or reaching beyond procedurals into legal and psychological thrillers.

In the next novel from crime writing duo Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, Three Hours (Quercus, Sept.), translated from the Swedish by Elizabeth Clark Wessel, 73 refugees are found dead in a shipping container in Stockholm. The discovery kicks off a plot that takes Det. Insp. Ewert Grens to Niger, while Swedish undercover operative Piet Hoffman is running out of time to extricate himself from a West African trafficking ring.

Jonas Bonnier’s The Helicopter Heist (Other Press, May), translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies, fictionalizes a real-life crime in which four men, three of whom arrived in Sweden as youths fleeing wars, plotted to steal a helicopter and $6.5 million. Netflix acquired the film rights in 2016, with Jake Gyllenhaal attached to star and produce.

Other Press is also publishing Beyond All Reasonable Doubt (June) by Malin Persson Giolito, whose 2017 English-language debut, Quicksand, won several awards in Europe; PW’s review called it “haunting and immersive.” In her new book, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, a lawyer fights to exonerate a man believed to be one of society’s most ruthless criminals. The case against him was deeply flawed, but the more she learns about him the more difficult her job becomes.

Another legal drama is at the center of A Nearly Normal Family (Celadon, July), the first novel to be published in the U.S. by M.T. Edvardsson; Rachel Willson-Broyles translated from the Swedish. Eighteen-year-old Stella, the cosseted only child of an upper-middle-class family, is accused of murdering a man nearly twice her age. The story is narrated by the accused and each of her parents, one a pastor and the other a lawyer.

Despite the book’s Swedish locale, Celadon isn’t promoting the title as a Nordic thriller. “It could be set anywhere,” says Deb Futter, senior v-p and copublisher at Celadon, who signed Edvardsson to a two-book deal. “To me, it transcends the Nordic setting.” Family has sold in 31 territories including the U.S.

Familial bonds take a menacing turn in Alex Dahl’s The Heart Keeper (Berkley, July), her follow-up to The Boy at the Door, which PW called a “heartrending first novel” in a starred review. When Alison’s five-year-old daughter, Amalie, drowns, her heart is donated to Kaia, a seven-year-old who has been ill since birth. Soon after the transplant, Kaia begins waking up throughout the night, screaming that she can’t breathe, and adopts mannerisms that puzzle her mother, Iselin. Alison discovers who received her daughter’s organs and ingratiates herself into the lives of Kaia and her unsuspecting mother.

Staying Power

Even before Stieg Larsson was published in his native Sweden, Karin Fossum’s work was already sitting comfortably in American bookstores. HMH released Don’t Look Back in 2004 on the strength of Fossum’s growing popularity outside her native Norway, says Nicole Angeloro, an editor at HMH. In August, the publisher will release The Whisperer, translated by Kari Dickson, the 13th installment in Fossum’s Inspector Sejer series.

For much of the book, Sejer sits at his desk listening to a woman describe how her life unraveled after the arrival of a threatening letter. A death has occurred, but it’s not clear whether Ragna Riegel, the quiet, lonely woman confined to a Norwegian jail, is the perpetrator or a victim of a crime.

Sejer isn’t a traditional detective putting clues together, Angeloro says. “He doesn’t have the murder board; there aren’t the bread crumbs you may expect.” He’s the connective tissue of the series, but the stories don’t revolve around him. Fossum has always put the victims and perpetrators at the center of each story, meaning any book in the series can be read as a standalone, she says.

The forthcoming book offers the same deliberate probing of the human psyche that Fossum’s readers have become accustomed to. “In a series, you are, at some point, publishing to the devotees,” Angeloro says.

In the wake of the smash success of the Millennium series, publishers and culture watchers casting about for the “next Stieg Larsson” would sometimes alight on Jo Nesbø, a Scandinavian man writing about a troubled detective—never mind that, like Fossum’s Inspector Sejer, Nesbø’s Harry Hole preceded Larsson’s work by nearly a decade in his native Norway.

Following 2017’s The Thirst, which PW’s starred review called “exceptional,” the police detective remains an angry alcoholic in The Knife (Knopf, July). His life takes a nightmarish turn when he wakes up one morning after a drunken blackout to find someone else’s blood on his hands.

Fossum and Nesbø’s protagonists—both Scandinavian male detectives of a certain age—have demonstrated a longevity that defies the ongoing search for what’s new and next. Ultimately, as publishers of Nordic crime fiction seek out new characters brought to life by different voices, one constant will remain, Rapp at St. Martin’s says: “The actual story—it still has to be a great story.”

Jasmina Kelemen is a former Bloomberg News editor who now writes from Houston and Caracas about books, food, and travel.

A version of this article appeared in the 03/25/2019 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Norse Code

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