Twelve. This is on average the number of murders that Oslo, the capital of Norway, records each year. The same statistic is true for Copenhagen, Denmark. In Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, the situation worsens: 30 homicides on average. Nationwide, 120 per year.
Over the past decade, all three countries have seen an increase in homicides resulting from gang warfare. They all have two or three serial murder cases spread throughout history.
Most crimes, however, result from domestic fights. As a Swedish policeman puts it to American essayist Wendy Lesser, “the most dangerous place is your kitchen, and the deadliest weapon is your bread knife.”
In view of these facts, it is curious that the Nordic policeman has become a kind of export. Henning Mankel, Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbo – all published here – are to Scandinavia today what Jorge Amado did to Brazil in the mid-twentieth century.
Even more intriguing is the fact that this fiction is particularly brutal, at times almost sadistic, and has a sizable team of villains and sex monsters.
There are, of course, “ready-made” explanations. For example: in orderly and egalitarian Scandinavia, with incomparable indices of human development, black would represent the “return of the repressed”.
Or the theory that a young waiter from Oslo presented to the aforementioned Wendy Lesser: Scandinavian noir is the pop version of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, “a search for solutions, knowing that they don’t exist”.
Founder of the literary magazine Threepenny Review and author of several books on cultural criticism, Lesser is cautious with this type of generalization. She started reading about Nordic cops in the 1980s, long before fashion, and never stopped. After four decades devouring dozens of novels, he felt he carried with him an incredibly vivid and detailed imaginary Scandinavia. He decided to write a book, “Scandinavian Noir”, to find out what kind of knowledge fiction had given him.
The first part of the book is a collection of recurring themes in Scandinavian darkness, a mini-encyclopedia that ranges from alcohol consumption to xenophobia, from home decor to sexual violence.
The second part is the diary of a trip to Sweden, Denmark and Norway, with compulsory visit to police stations. The goal is to find out how much fiction has changed reality.
Lesser discovers significant discrepancies, not just because of homicide statistics. The almost exclusively male point of view of the novels, for example, is clearly at odds with the reality of police stations, where there are women in all kinds of functions.
She also can’t find a palpable reason why sexual violence, especially against children, is so prevalent in the books. Rape and pedophilia online are concerns of society, but not in the degree of obsession with which they appear in fiction.
Ultimately, however, Lesser’s mental Scandinavia survives the clash with the outside world.
Indeed, suggests the author, the tradition of the Nordic policeman was fortunate to be inaugurated, in the 1960s, by an incredibly talented duo of realists: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, authors with four hands on the mysteries of the agent Martin Beck. After them, each new generation of writers has continued to add, consciously or unconsciously, elements to the same framework.
So, if the action of the books is almost always exaggerated, and sometimes even delusional, the description of the scenarios, customs and daily rituals is so solid that the plots are redeemed and reality is imposed. In Scandinavia, Lesser says, fiction is indeed a good guide to reality.