Décembre 2023 | How Far South does North Go: Researching Nordic Noir as an Epitome of Popular Culture across the Boundaries of Academic Disciplines, Genres and Geography

Nina Muždeka, University of Novi Sad


Although audiences, publishers and academics in general agree that Nordic Noir exists as a separate generic group, defining its generic traits is significantly more difficult. It would appear that Nordic Noir emerged as a geographically specific subcategory, which leads to the question of the geographical limitations of the genre. Or, in other words, where exactly does this ‘north’ begin for Nordic Noir? A separate streak of positioning issues—dictating the scope of academic disciplines involved in the research—stems from Nordic Noir’s ideological positioning. The questions of ethnicity, culture, gender and race, as well as other diversifying factors in a highly globalized world and an increasingly multicultural society reflect the threatened break-down of a welfare state and its egalitarian democracy and show the world for what it is today. Therefore, studies of identity, otherness and liminality, but also studies of criminal, political and social justice must be part of research into Nordic Noir.


Bien que le public, les éditeurs et les universitaires en général s’accordent sur le fait que le Nordic Noir est un genre à part entière, il est beaucoup plus difficile de s’entendre sur ses caractéristiques génériques. Il semblerait que le Nordic Noir soit apparu comme une sous-catégorie géographiquement spécifique, ce qui conduit à la question des limites géographiques du genre. Ou, en d’autres termes, où commence exactement ce “nord” pour le Nordic Noir ? Une autre série de problèmes de positionnement—dictant l’étendue des disciplines académiques impliquées dans la recherche—découle du positionnement idéologique du Nordic Noir. Les questions d’ethnicité, de culture, de genre et de race, ainsi que d’autres facteurs de diversification dans un monde hautement globalisé et une société de plus en plus multiculturelle, reflètent la menace d’effondrement d’un État-providence et de sa démocratie égalitaire et montrent le monde tel qu’il est aujourd’hui. Ainsi il est important que les études sur l’identité, l’altérité et la liminalité, mais aussi sur la justice pénale, politique et sociale fassent partie de la recherche sur le Nordic Noir.



The Popularity of Nordic Noir
        In her 2014 study, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir, Kerstin Bergman writes about criticism of the welfare state, gender equality, strong female characters, and the exotic landscapes and settings as the common foundation of the Nordic Noir genre. To these, she adds a strong bond to the Anglo-American crime fiction tradition, as well as what she terms the “Stieg Larsson Effect.” The fact that Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was translated into 37 languages and sold over 60 million copies worldwide by 2016 (Nilsson 1) is indeed both the quantifiable measure of the genre’s popularity, but also a contributing factor to it.
The most notable exponents of the Nordic Noir TV series confirm what Bergman established in the domain of the literary genre. Both Forbrydelsen (The Killing, Denmark, 2008) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge, Denmark/Sweden, 2011)—arguably two series that “established the nature of Nordic Noir” in Denmark (Philipsen 10), but also in the pan-Nordic area—feature strong female lead investigators and thus open a space for investigating not only the crimes in question but also gender-related topics in contemporary supposedly-inclusive Scandinavian societies. Both Sarah Lund and Saga Noren inhabit ex-centric and liminal positions in society, but also in the police force, as will be discussed later.
Although Nordic Noir—especially in its textual form—has not followed a linear upward trajectory of popularity, the fame of these series was and remains enormous: Forbrydelsen “has been exported to 159 countries and territories on all continents,” received several Emmy nominations, and won the UK International BAFTA in 2011 (Stougaard-Nielsen 89). International export, however, also came in the form of remakes all over the world that soon followed: the American adaptation of Forbrydelsen, The Killing (2011), relocated the characters and the plot from Copenhagen to Seattle and turned Sarah Lund into Sarah Linden. In 2014, a Turkish version of The Killing was made, bearing the title Cinayet. With its characteristic twist of the crime scene being split between two neighbouring countries—and thus two police jurisdictions and two detectives—Bron/Broen had as many as three remakes: The Bridge (2013, USA/Mexico), The Bridge (2018, Singapore/Malaysia) and The Tunnel (2013, UK/France). What is interesting here is that Nordic Noir, thus imported into other, non-Scandinavian settings, not only remains connected to the Anglo-American crime fiction tradition as one of its models, but also now enforces this link in reverse, by influencing the Anglo-American (and more generally, world-wide global) detective genre market. The popularity and the ensuing transnational and transmedia mobility is exemplified in yet another way, through novelization: the British crime fiction author David Hewson adapted Forbrydelsen into three crime novels (Stougaard-Nielsen 89) that, in their turn, attracted international translations and through them reached an even greater audience.
If creating remakes is taken as a testimony to the original’s (and the genre’s) popularity, Henning Mankell’s literary series featuring detective Kurt Wallander (created between 1997 and 2011) is yet another excellent example of the popular crossing of boundaries of artistic medium, language and region. In 2005, the Swedish TV series Wallander was created, starring Krister Henriksson, and it ran until 2013. In 2008, Great Britain followed with its own version, starring Kenneth Branagh, that ran until 2016. In 2020, a prequel TV series was created—Young Wallander—that returned to the rookie days of the eponymous inspector.
So, what is the appeal of Nordic Noir that explains such popularity and mobility? The first answer to this question is obvious: crimes and their investigation, as in any other subcategory of the crime fiction genre. However, in addition to this prerequisite, Nordic Noir offers a captivating mix of an “exotic” bleak location, defective detectives and social realism, each of which will be analyzed here as one of the genre-defining factors.


Generic Positioning of Nordic Noir        
        Scholars generally agree that Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series (originally published in Sweden from 1965 to1975 and comprising 10 novels) established the template for the genre that Nordic Noir has continued to follow ever since (see, for example, Tapper or Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction). Characteristics include political engagement, strong social commentary, as well as ideological positioning. It was then that the exploration of the pitfalls and the ultimate breakdown of the social welfare state in an egalitarian democracy—which developed at the crossroads of socialism and capitalism—was first presented (in Scandinavian crime fiction) in the form of a police procedural, featuring a gripping crime investigation plot and a memorable detective figure for a protagonist.
This being said, placing Nordic Noir within the boundaries of the traditional genealogy of crime fiction is not an easy task. Despite the claims that the corpus of Nordic Noir is “too textually diverse to be considered a genre in the traditional sense,” both the audience and various scholars are witnesses to the fact that it is “a functioning and distinct unit” (Broomé 272). In terms of the form, themes and styles, however, it crosses the boundaries of Todorov’s traditional detective genre subcategorization, and this is one of the reasons why reaching a unanimous generic definition is such a tall order. Nordic Noir does not resonate exclusively with any of Todorov’s three categories of the genre—roman à énigme/roman policier classique (translated into English as the whodunit), roman noir (or the thriller), and roman à suspense/roman à victimes (the suspense novel)—(42-52; also see Muždeka). However, the sub-genre of the neo-detective or néo-polar novel, introduced during the 1970s and 1980s and seen as offering “an invigorated critique of social corruption” (Herbeck 66) and a new cast of characters appropriate for the social, criminal and judicial milieu of the times, appears to be far more useful for the generic classification of Nordic Noir, as will be shown here. Indeed, in their illuminating study on Scandinavian crime fiction, Paula Arvas and Andrew Nestingen highlight the genre’s social criticism, directed at “national institutions and gender politics in particular,” and conclude that this fact, together with the statement that the most dominant sub-genre is the police procedural and that the general tone is “gloomy, pensive and pessimistic,” forms the “unique constellation” of defining criteria of the genre (Scandinavian Crime Fiction 2). In this respect, the investigation of Nordic Noir’s attitudes to specific national pasts, collective identities, and cultural memory are important generic markers, but also factors of its appeal.

Where is “North”?
        Agnes Broomé is not the only critic to come to the conclusion that, paratextual parameters set aside, in the case of Scandinavian crime fiction generic classification usually boils down to the place of origin. It would appear, thus, that Nordic Noir emerged as a geographically specific subcategory of the detective fiction genre. Another question then arises, that of geographical limitations of the genre. Or, in other words, where exactly does this ‘North’ begin (and stop) for Nordic Noir? The examples of British TV series such as Shetland (2013) and Vera (2011), both based on the novels of British author Ann Cleeves, but also Hinterland (2013), Marcella (2016), Broadchurch (2013), and French TV series Les Témoins (Witnesses, 2014) offer a plethora of reasons why they could be classified as Nordic Noir, despite being set in Great Britain and France. Not only the specific gloominess of their settings, but more importantly their political engagement, ideological preoccupations and identity qualms in a contemporary multinational society are what makes them very similar to the Scandinavian exponents of Nordic Noir.
While Barry Forshaw writes that in this genre “individual identities of Nordic countries are remarkably pronounced” (2), Paula Arvas and Andrew Nestingen contend that it is the features of specific localities—seen as murky, cold, bleak, and desolate—that lend the genre its characteristic haunting, “gloomy, pensive and pessimistic” general tone (Scandinavian Crime Fiction 2). Jeremy Megraw and Billy Rose follow a similar line of thought when they state that there are two key appeals of Scandinavian crime literature: “the stoic nature of its detectives and their peculiarly close relationship with death,” as well as “the often bleak Scandinavian landscape which serves to mirror the thoughts of the characters” (1). Hansen and Waade use the term “local colour” (9) for this particular way of referring to the local places and their specific atmosphere in Nordic Noir. Hence, if it is these features themselves, and not their exact Northern geographical location, that marks the genre, then it is only natural to question the very concept of the North as the determining factor. While it is true that the described atmosphere features in TV series such as Icelandic Trapped (2015) and Brot (The Valhalla Murders, 2019), Danish Borgen (2010) and Unit One (2000), and Finnish Sorjonen (Bordertown, 2016), it is also true that it is present in other, non-Nordic TV series as well, such as those mentioned above.
As contemporary analysis contends, crime fiction is increasingly seen as a safe space to not only explore but also confront “some of the tensions of globalized living” (Anderson et al. 5) in an increasingly multicultural society. In this way, crime fiction, as a cultural expression, “forms a microcosm of broader social reality through which readers can sharpen their understanding of society” (Jacobsdóttir 47). This applies to Nordic Noir as well. In his Millennium trilogy, Stieg Larsson links the origin of some forms of vice to a society affected by globalization. The statement, however, holds true not only for the urban settings of Nordic crime fiction—as Kerstin Bergman notices, even Henning Mankell’s “fictional rural Sweden is affected by the changes caused by globalization” (42). Since local landscapes are intrinsically connected to local culture, local settings in crime fiction serve as a backdrop against which diversifying concepts such as race, culture, nation, gender, and ethnicity can be investigated. Given their particular treatment in different periods of 20th century crime fiction, these local settings—aside from securing ethnographic credibility—can be seen to function as socially conditioned metaphors of space and time, or chronotopes. As the theory of chronotopes suggests, “all the novel’s abstract elements—philosophical and social generalizations, ideas, analyses of cause and effect—gravitate towards the chronotope” (Bakhtin 250), which is in turn fashioned by the society within which it occurs. In agreement with Bakhtin’s insistence on a social and political reading of time and space, for the purpose of social and political contextualizing of texts, these chronotopes reveal both the time and place-specific circumstances that determine diversifying concepts present within a society.


Ideological Positioning Through Identity Construction
        The analysis of the local settings—as socially conditioned metaphors of space and time—provides “metonymical, ‘additional connotation’” (Klapcsik 37) to understanding of a specific historical and cultural climate that gave birth to the identities and Othernesses exhibited in Nordic Noir. In accordance with this claim, after asking the question of whether it is possible to discern a specific “prototype” in contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction, Gunhild Agger answers that this particular genre “is first and foremost associated with a contemporary setting, conveying a critical attitude to the contemporary welfare state, its dilemmas and its shortcomings” (131). Nordic Noir’s ideological positioning and subversive socio-political commentary are therefore dependent on and preconditioned by the process of identity construction and the position of the Other.
As Nestingen and Arvas claim, Scandinavian welfare states appear to be “premised on assumptions about ethnic, social and cultural homogeneity” (“Others Knowing Others” 125). The questions of ethnicity, culture, gender and nation in crime fiction, coupled with their particular representation, further produce the issues of identity and Otherness. Although criminals in crime fiction were traditionally seen, in themselves, as Others—the Otherness being imposed on them by their criminality (Worthington 86)—there are significant differences in the way this Otherness is portrayed in different historical periods (Muždeka 220). In late 20th century crime fiction, the figure of the detective becomes “the ideal locus in which to foreground and explore difference” (Worthington 86)—in other words, as a perfect vehicle for exhibiting and familiarizing various aspects of national, cultural, racial, ethnic, sexual, or any other Otherness. As such, a detective inhabits the liminal, though presumably objective, position of someone who is at the same time an insider and an outsider. In the hybrid, globalized world, this is how s/he is depicted in Nordic Noir, these liminality-defining concepts, however, are different from those found in the traditional crime fiction of the 20th century.
Although clearly “not all heroes of Scandinavian crime fiction fit the stereotypical description of depressed, lonely, middle-aged men with substance abuse problems” (Broomé 272), there is a remarkable overlap between Nordic Noir investigators and the typical protagonist of the néo-polar novel: “broke, marginal, marginalized, unemployed, rejected by society, outraged, etc.” (Deloux 66). Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, for example, is the embodiment of this definition. On the other hand, police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen, the protagonist of Anne Holt’s fiction, is marked by her homosexual orientation. Nordic Noir abounds in characters with different national and racial backgrounds, but also with different sexual orientations. The resulting image of a transnational and inclusive contemporary Nordic society is a complex one—and one which provides plenty of space for delving deeper into what lies underneath this surface image.
Obviously, female protagonists of Nordic Noir are not marked as Other only on account of their sexual orientation. In a traditionally conceived Western white patriarchal society, they are already Other through their gender (Muždeka 228). Such is the case of Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, as well as for her “intertextual and commercial predecessor” (Nestingen & Arvas, “Others Knowing Others” 124), Smilla Jaspersen in the Danish writer Peter Høeg’s novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Both protagonists are doubly positioned as outsiders—first by the community they inhabit, and secondly by their own wish to be positioned as such. Besides being stigmatized by the emotional traumas that contribute to their sense of personal identity, they are made Other in terms of ethnic identity as well, being of mixed origin. The same is true for Ann Cleeves’s Jimmy Perez, the protagonist of her Shetland series of novels and the TV series of the same title, whose origin brings him a dual position in a very isolated and enclosed community where, because of “nuanced local differences” (Norquay 132), identity is all the more precisely and strictly determined.
Perhaps more obviously than in other national streams of Nordic Noir, the Icelandic branch deals predominantly with the issue of national identity, seen as disturbingly fragmented. Following the path set by general debates in Icelandic academia on the subject of Icelandic nationality and national identity, its crime fiction also explores “the role of nature, culture and language,” as well as “political concept of nationality” (Jacobsdóttir 47) and the influence of gender in the creation of identity. Such is the case with Arnaldur Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur series of novels, but also crime fiction written by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir.
The position of the Other in Nordic Noir, however, is not reserved strictly for the investigators, but is found in other loci of diversity—suspects, victims, witnesses, police aides—who challenge assumptions and prejudices. Because of the inferred polarization between ‘self’ and ‘Other,’ and the fact that identity is constructed at the watershed between the ‘familiar’ and the ‘foreign,’ identity in Nordic Noir (and the societies it depicts) is explored not as an inherent quality, but as a construct highly dependent on the relevant society’s attitude towards diversifying concepts. In its turn, identity influences the viewpoints, perceptions and reasonings of the participants in the investigation process, as well as the use of stereotypes in the presentations of hybrid societies and their inhabitants.
As McQuillan posits, “the contemporary thriller has been constituted not around a method of presentation but around the milieu represented; its constitutive character is in its themes” (124). Or, as Cowart states: “Every detective story concerns an encounter with vice, inherent or otherwise. The more inherent the vice, the more noir the fiction” (24). In Nordic Noir, vice is present both in the overall sense of conspiracy and plotting in the high structures of society and state, and in actual graphic representations of violence and killings.
Ever since Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s 1960s Martin Beck series, Swedish Noir has readily followed the tradition of political engagement and strong social commentary given alongside the basic crime investigation plot. The threatened breakdown of a well-organized and dependable social welfare state and its egalitarian democracy, spawned at the cross-section of the most favourable features of socialism and capitalism, has been eagerly analyzed as an important, if not genre defining, aspect of Swedish Noir and its urban setting. Cultural memory and historically rooted notions of national identity, thus, prove to be the foundation stone of Stieg Larsson’s socio-political engagement, since he demonstrates a relentless interest in “the influence of right-wing ideology during and after the Second World War” (Meyhoff 68). Norwegian crime fiction, on the other hand, provides opportunities for investigating socio-political issues both in the city and in the countryside. Nesbo’s Harry Hole series provides astute insight into Oslo’s criminal environment, drug trade milieu and deprived city dwellers’ lifestyle. His topics include investigation of current neo-Nazi activities, but also Norway’s problematic World War II past—with the issues of power struggles and corruption in the police force and high governmental ranks strongly echoing in the background of the entire series. On the other hand, focusing less on police procedure and more on human nature, Karin Fossum in her Inspector Sejer series explores the circumstances of socially and otherwise challenged outsiders—ill, deprived, disabled, vulnerable, of other ethnicities—placing them in both urban and rural settings, as well as in scarcely populated areas and those at the mercy of the elements. Set in similarly barren areas, Cleeves’s Shetland series produces an overall impression that Shetland’s historical and cultural links to Scandinavia have seeped into its crime fiction as well, not only in the form of a bleak, secret-suggestive setting, but also in the form of an ideologically coloured undertext. With Anne Holt, the target is significantly larger than might be anticipated based on her choice of a lesbian protagonist—her Hanne fights not for gay rights, but for a much more diverse society in general. Holt in this way unarguably advocates “an ideology of solidarity, equality and participation” (Nestingen and Arvas, Scandinavian Crime Fiction 105) within a highly functioning and somewhat idealized welfare state.
This designated ideological position facilitates the exploration and unmasking of various forms of social and political injustice and enables the authors of Nordic Noir “to settle accounts with ‘la raison d’état’ (‘interests of the state’) and its narratives” through the process of recovering clues “that the official narrative has chosen to ignore” (Peltier 269). Just like the néo-polar, which “paved the way for the roman noir to be considered as a significant cultural phenomenon,” Nordic Noir appeals to “an intellectually discerning and politically active audience” (Gorrara 77). Expressed through the specific treatment of identity and Otherness as a construct of hybridized societies, Nordic Noir’s ideological positioning gains momentum through a socio-political commentary that is always subversive.


        Nordic Noir’s focus on the exploration of the changing diversifying concepts (such as nation, ethnicity, culture, gender, race) relevant for identity construction facilitates the reading of the genre within the realm of the social novel. More generally and in other media, Nordic Noir is naturally relevant to disciplines such as cultural anthropology, social studies and cultural studies. While it is certainly true that the fluidity of the territorial, national, and cultural boundaries of Nordic Noir presents challenges for scholarly work, it is also this fluidity that explains its popularity and appeal to wide audiences. By focusing on the complexity of globalized living in contemporary transnational and hybrid societies, Nordic Noir fulfills one of the goals of popular culture—that of reflecting “genuine popular dreams and aspirations, struggles, and discontent” (Hall 185). Despite its apparently strict geographical boundaries, the world depicted in Nordic Noir is the world familiar to other regions as well—the one in which man feels alienated, where social injustice is still rampant with its continuing patterns and practices of social exclusion, and where liminal positions, often imposed on people, give birth to socially constructed hybrid identities.


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Dr Nina Muždeka is Associate Professor of English Studies at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, where she teaches courses on Anglophone literatures and culture. In her research so far, she has focused on genre theory, gender theory, identity construction, and global literature, in relation to the twentieth century Anglophone novel. She is the author of a monograph on the issue of genre in the novels of Julian Barnes and recently published a monograph on magical realism in the novels of Angela Carter.



Nina Muždeka est Maîtresse de conférences en études anglophones à l’université de Novi Sad en Serbie où elle enseigne la littérature et la culture anglophones. Ses recherches ont jusqu’à présent porté sur la théorie du genre/gender, la construction identitaire, et la littérature mondiale en lien avec le roman anglophone du XXe siècle. Elle est l’auteure d’une monographie consacrée à la question du genre dans les romans de Julian Barnes et a récemment publié une monographie sur le réalisme magique dans les romans d’Angela Carter.