Transported by Nordic Noir

Last week I was facing the prospect of a short stay in hospital – nothing serious, I should make clear – and I was wondering how I would pass the time. It happened that The New York Times book review posted a Guide to Nordic Noir by Tina Jordan and Marilyn Stasio on July 24, so I decided to download a sample of the recommended novels.

In case you are wondering about the title of this post, there is a concept of narrative transportation, in which the reader loses himself in a story, and is mentally transported from her physical surroundings to the imagined context. Trust me, I was definitely looking for narrative transportation out of a hospital.

In choosing four novels, I was looking for diversity over time (when they were written) and space (in which country events happen). In addition, I had a bias towards stories with a political dimension. So I chose Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s procedural The Laughing Policeman, set in Stockholm in the late Sixties; Danish political correspondent Leif Davidsen’s 1996 hitman thriller The Serbian Dane; former Norwegian Justice Minister Anne Holt’s murder mystery 1222; and Norwegian novelist and playwright Samuel Bjork’s 2016 network narrative I’m Travelling Alone.

All four novels were rewarding and indeed transported me out of my institutional surroundings. The Laughing Policeman involves a team of detectives investigating a mass murder – an American innovation in the Sixties’ crimespace – in which one of the victims is a colleague.

The Serbian Dane follows the efforts of a team of Danish police to catch a Serbian hitman who grew up in Denmark and hence can blend in and ply his trade with devastating impact. The hitman is intent on killing a blasphemous author (a la Salman Rushdie) who comes out of hiding in Britain to give a presentation and press conference in Copenhagen.

1222 imagines passengers on a train for Oslo to Bergen, forced by a winter derailment to stay in a small town en route. When murders start to happen, a former detective – disabled and lesbian – begins an informal investigation. Unlike the other three novels, which are narrated in third person, the former detective in 1222 is a first person narrator who is economical in explaining her thinking so as to preserve suspense.

The transportation effect (narrative not locomotive) was particularly marked for me because a few years ago I attended a conference in Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 winter Olympics. It was mid-November, and the snow had already begun falling. The conference hotel was built in 1911, and I heard it had been used as a Nazi headquarters during World War II. I easily imagined myself being snowed in at that hotel as crimes proliferated.

I’m Travelling Alone is a classic network narrative in which a number of seemingly disparate stories link up. A detective protagonist, in addition to investigating the murders of two six-year-old girls, is trying to prevent the murder of his kidnapped granddaughter. Had I a scratchpad with me while reading, I would have enhanced my enjoyment by drawing a network diagram.

There were a number of common elements in these novels that struck me as typifying Nordic noir, in contrast with its American counterpart.

The investigators are usually teams of detectives, rather than heroes or savants working alone. The teams include male and female and young and old members, with individuals having particular skills or habits of mind that contribute to the team effort. In the most recent novel, I’m Travelling Alone, the newest recruit is a young hacker and social media whiz who takes the lead in identifying the murderer’s online footprint.

A second common element is that females play a wide variety of roles, including both investigators and perpetrators.

A third is that the authors don’t present their villains as monstrous embodiments of evil, but rather take pains to explain why they became the people they are. This adds complexity and ambiguity to the narratives.

After reading these four novels, I thought about how I could undertake narratological research about Nordic noir novels, using the methodological approach I’ve taken to studying political, business, and investigative journalism narratives. I would select a reasonably large and representative sample of Nordic noir novels. Based on my reading of the first few, I would develop a comprehensive list of plot and narrative characteristics, and then apply the list to each of them, to search for overall commonalities or areas of difference. From that, I would develop a set of overarching fables and counter-fables in Nordic noir. And I would try to connect the fables and counter-fables with characteristics of the Nordic societies.

To do this, I would apply for research funding to cover the acquisition of texts and commentary, research assistance in finding materials and analyzing them, and travel to the Nordic countries, in summer of course, to meet with local scholars. Having retired, I have no intention of undertaking such a project, but contemplating it is appealing.

The American critic Wendy Lesser’s recent book Scandinavian Noir attempts to do this, but in a much less rigorous way than I would. It happens that the only novel she and I had in common was The Laughing Policeman.

The four novels I’ve discussed helped me make the best of a difficult few days, and I commend them to anyone interested in noirish suspense with Nordic characteristics and settings.

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