Stieg Larsson didn’t just write three blockbuster novels and create an iconic feminist sleuth named Lisbeth Salander. The author, who died at age 50 in 2004, introduced the world to Scandinavian crime fiction, a massive iceberg of a genre, decades old, of which Americans have seen only the tip. That’s already changing. In the next year or so, we may well see Zac Efron in a movie based on Jens Lapidus’s Easy Money, an adaptation of a best seller by Danish newcomer Jussi Adler-Olsen produced by Lars von Trier’s company, and Norwegian star author Jo Nesbø approaching Larsson-level fame (if Knopf head Sonny Mehta has anything to say about it). Over the past year, Mehta has been “busy turning Scandinavians down,” feeling that “I was inhabiting some kind of dark Nordic night.” But he plans to market Nesbø’s The Snowman to the heavens; 150,000 copies hit stores beginning May 10. Even academics are catching the fever: On May 20, a symposium on “Stieg Larsson and Scandinavian Crime Fiction” will convene deep in the heart of Chandler country, at UCLA. For those in search of a summer project, a guide to navigating this publishing phenomenon.
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES: An obsession with national identity (and sometimes genetics) in this tiny, until recently very rich country. Some of Norway’s nature and gloom, with a touch of superstition.
BEST OF BREED: Arnaldur Indriðason’s Erlendur series, starring that Nordic staple, a troubled middle-aged detective, has been published Stateside, starting with Jar City in 2005.
THE LATEST: YrsaSigurðardóttir’s series of novels featuring single-mom lawyer Thóra Guðmundsdóttir—the second, My Soul to Take, came out in paperback last year—adds some feminism to Icelandic noir.
Body Count 2006–2008: 2.2 murders per 1,000,000 people
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES: More landscape, less action and adrenaline than in Swedish counterparts. “Much more calm, local, focused on the subtleties in the puzzle,” says UCLA professor Claus Elholm Andersen.
BEST OF BREED: Jo Nesbø is most likely to cross over here, but Karin Fossum attracts more highbrow devotees with her focus on tight-knit communities constrained by Ibsenesque codes of silence and propriety.
MOONLIGHTER: One of many Nordic crime writers who try multiple genres, Nesbø has written a children’s book titled Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder.
COMING SOON: England’s Faber & Faber is pushing Norwegian thirtysomething Thomas Enger, whose debut, Burned, topically features the arrest of a Pakistani on charges of Sharia murder. It hits Britain in July and might just be headed this way.
Body Count 2006–2008: 6.9 murders per 1,000,000 people
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES: The dominant force in Nordic crime is the region’s most populous country, so naturally Sweden boasts the greatest diversity—from the revenge fantasies of Larsson to Henning Mankell’s gloomy Wallander and the various lady detectives who populate the femikrimi books (the best are by Liza Marklund). Most embed a lefty critique of capitalism and chauvinism.
BEST OF BREED: Mankell not only brings together noir, conspiracy fiction, politics, and irreducible Swedishness (he’s even Ingmar Bergman’s son-in-law!), but he’s also the best writer of the bunch, with sales second only to Larsson’s. The Troubled Man, the tenth and last in his Wallander series, was published here two months ago.
ODD DUCK: Tim Davys, the pseudonym of a “well-known Swedish public figure” (per HarperCollins), has written three works of existentialist noir set in a town inhabited exclusively by stuffed animals.
COMING SOON:Easy Money,by defense lawyer Jens Lapidus, due out in November, offers a darker, more American-style tour of Stockholm’s criminal underbelly. “It’ll probably be a big hit with New Yorkers,” says Larsson translator Steve Murray.
Body Count 2006–2008: 10.6 murders per 1,000,000 people
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES: More outward-looking, Le Carré–like spy fiction, à la Leif Davidsen. Denmark had some big early thrillers before the Swedes took over; Steve Murray and others say it’s due for a comeback.
BEST OF BREED: Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow was an important American breakthrough in 1993; 2007’s The Quiet Girl was equally acclaimed.
THE EMIGRANT: Though Christian Moerk’s Darling Jim was a best seller in Denmark, it was written in English and set in Ireland. Moerk left Denmark in 1987 for college in Vermont and became a journalist in New York.
COMING SOON: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series (the one Lars von Trier snapped up) is generating the most excitement. The first U.S. release, Keeper of Lost Causes, arrives in August.
Body Count 2006–2008: 12.2 murders per 1,000,000 people
DISTINCTIVE FEATURES: More psychology than the Swedes—crimes of passion and such. Russians are often villains or victims, reflecting Finland’s complicated relationship with its unruly neighbor.
BEST OF BREED: Matti Joensuu, a former policeman who’s been writing since the seventies, is the Finnish equivalent of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö—a pioneer. His books go in and out of print: Look for The Priest of Evil online.
ODD DUCK: Anja Angel’s books star a slovenly, bitter, obese female detective, fond of delicacies such as lamprey eel, who delegates all physical work to a gay assistant named Marco.
COMING SOON: Literary agent Niclas Salomonsson is on the verge of his first big American sale for a Finn: Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which blends detective lit with near-future dystopia.
Body Count 2006–2008: 23.4 murders per 1,000,000 people
Body Count 2006–2008:56.3 murders per 1,000,000 people