It must have been a week ago that the BBC weather forecast got it more than usually wrong. You remember that night when they said there were going to be blizzards in London? They said it was going to be a white-out. The Almighty was going to Tipp-Ex us off the map, they said.
So, at round about 10pm on Sunday, when the snowstorm had not materialised, I was getting a bit fretful. I switched on the BBC in the hope of finding the news and I was indeed confronted by a blasted landscape – frozen, desolate and rimed with white.
It turned out to be the face of Kenneth Branagh, alternating imperceptibly between horror and depression as he played the role of Kurt Wallander, the Swedish supersleuth. After about 10 minutes I confess I was completely gripped by the mystery. I don’t mean I wanted to know who the baddie was, or why he was importing human organs from Africa. I didn’t really care why the shawl-wearing debt-relief activist had been blown up in her Volvo.
Boris was completely indifferent to Wallander’s problems with women, or his difficult relationship with his father. What he wanted to know was: ” why is the British public so obsessed with Nordic crime yarns? Why has the BBC spent millions of pounds of hard-pressed licence-payers’ money to send Branagh to roam the fjords in search of Swedish gangsters? Can they really affjord it? And don’t we have plenty of perfectly respectable gangsters here in the UK?
I ask the question because Wallander is only one of the new Scandinavian detectives who have been hitting British bookstores with the ferocity of a Viking invasion.
I don’t know about you, but for Christmas I received no fewer than two copies of Stieg Larsson’s latest brick-sized account of the doings of the heavily tattooed Swedish supersleuth Lisbeth Salander, and I gave one to my mother-in-law. That is to say, I gave my mother-in-law a copy I had already bought.
If my Christmas is remotely representative, therefore, there must be tens of thousands of readers who spent some of the recent cold snap tucked up with members of the krispbread-crunching, Volvo-driving, mildy depressed Scandinavian forces of law and order. What is it all about?
I would say the phenomenon began more than 15 years ago when the world was introduced to Peter Høeg’s wonderful Danish heroine, Miss Smilla, and her feeling for snow. We had a new type of detective: young, female, wise, independent, and with a suggestion of bizarre sexual proclivities. Which is exactly the same trick, of course, that Stieg Larsson has played in offering us the diminutive, karate-kicking, bisexual heroine Lisbeth Salander. Then you might add on a Wallander-type male lead – the gloomy but honourable chap in the grip of a mid-life crisis – and you start to assemble the classic ingredients of the Scandiwegian crime superseller.
There is the appeal of the mise-en-scene: the twilit beaches, the Ibsenian gazing through windows at the rain on the fjord. There is the way these Nordic types are like us, but in subtle ways not like us. They look roughly the same. They speak English almost like us (or in many cases, alas, rather better); but in one crucial and fascinating respect Nordic society is different from ours – and it is here that we come to the heart of the mystery.
What is it about the agonised mumblings of Wallander, or Blomquist, his equivalent in the Stieg Larsson novels? It is the earnestness. It is the deep, pale-eyed sincerity with which they try to do the right thing. And what is it about Sweden and the other Nordic countries that serve as the scenes of these crimes? Why are they such powerful landscapes of the imagination?
I am afraid it is because we think of these Nordic societies as being in some important respects more virtuous than our own. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland – these are the pre-eminent UN countries, the people with an international conscience. Wherever there have been earthquakes, famines, diseases – there you have found Scandinavians doing their best to help. For 50 years their model of social democracy has been held up as an example to us in Britain of how you can lead the world in building slimline mobile phones, and still look after the poor.
Just look at the UN’s Human Development Index, and the Scandinavians leave us standing in virtually every relevant category. The Danes are rated the happiest and least corrupt people in the world, closely followed by Sweden. Iceland and Norway are the leaders in maintaining a free press, and Denmark, Sweden and Finland have some of the world’s most open and competitive economies.
Let’s face it, folks, these countries are global goody-goodies. With their historic (and unspoken) aversion to immigration they boast considerable social cohesion, extraordinary literacy rates, beautiful and emancipated women and such an effective health and safety culture that their cars must drive with headlights on in broad daylight in the middle of summer.
And that, of course, is why we are so fascinated to read about whatever crime problems their distinguished authors care to invent. That is why we are thrilled to discover that the whole place is in fact a whited sepulchre of organ trading, prostitution rings, child murder and all the rest of it.
It is precisely because we have grown so used to hearing of the superiority of the Scandinavian system, that we are so gripped by the sight of the underbelly; and it is notable that in Stieg Larsson’s Sweden it is the all-powerful state that is the main purveyor of evil. That, in short, is why we all love a Nordic crime novel.
It’s like our joy in the Iris Robinson story. We wouldn’t be so thrilled to discover her in bed with a 19 year-old if she hadn’t spent all those years ranting drearily on about family values. Nordic crime writers profit from the fact that the blood is all the more vivid on the snow, the corpse more horrifying on the swish hygienic IKEA furniture. Scandinavia is still a mental landscape where crime is shocking, and that is a great compliment to Scandinavia.”
This awesome piece also appears at telegraph.co.uk