A Journey into Nordic Noir: New tendencies and best titles in 2019
A Journey into Nordic Noir: New tendencies and best titles in 2019
At the same time, we have seen new players emerge in the field. Streaming services have made a serious and competitive entrance on the television market with a number of series that deliver a more edgy result, compared with the output of customary linear television providers. In television crime fiction, we see the market shifting very fast at the moment.
Nordic crime literature appears affected by the contemporary True Crime tendencies. This comes at a time when true crime documentary has become an international well-established genre, often blending usual techniques from fiction with real events. We have also seen the initial tendencies towards this in television series (for instance, with the Norwegian series Acquitted), but we still await the overall breakthrough in television crime fiction. This may come next year with the TV 2 Denmark premiere of The Investigation, as series based on the spectacular 2017 murder of the Swedish journalist Kim Wall on board the submarine of the Danish celebrity inventor Peter Madsen.
One thing that appears remarkable in 2019 is the lack of crime film titles on the Nordic market. At the time of writing, only one Nordic crime film – one from Sweden – has premiered. We still anticipate the 2019 premiere of the adaptation of André Bjerke’s classic Norwegian supernatural crime story Lake of Death as well as A White, White Day, the Icelandic follow-up film from the new rising director Hlynur Pálmason. However, it is safe to say already now that the lack of crime films on the Nordic market indicates that the genre has steadfastly proven itself to be a literary and television genre much more than a film genre.
The overview of 2019 Nordic crime narratives appears slightly focused on Swedish titles. On the one hand, this is rooted in the fact that Sweden has historically produced the most crime narratives in the Nordic region – and still does. However, it still shows that the list of titles from 2019 is slightly coincidental. The Icelandic second season of Trapped appeared in December 2018, while the awaited next novel from the upcoming Danish crime writer Ane Riel Beast was published after the deadline of this article.
A selection of 2019 titles is a still image of a dynamic situation, but it still takes the pulse of new sparks and on-going tendencies.
These are the titles that we have found the most interesting in 2019 for different reasons.
Jonas Bonnier, Knutby
One of Sweden’s best known – and still widely discussed – crimes took place in the small village of Knutby in 2004. A young nanny was arrested for murder and attempted murder, and when the story eventually unraveled, it contained more drama than the most well composed soap opera. A charismatic and very sexually active pastor in a Pentecostal church had convinced the nanny to commit these crimes – to kill the pastor’s own wife and his mistress’ husband – and day by day more was revealed to the public. The pastor is now serving a life sentence in prison.
Author Jonas Bonnier treads carefully and respectfully when he transforms the true crimes into a fictional novel. He finds a new way into the story via the pastor’s first wife, who moves to Knutby with him. She is portrayed as a curious and open-minded woman, who wants to support her husband in his job. She pushes all feelings of doubt aside, and ignores the fact that he always seems to be attracted to other women. She was found dead in the bathtub in 1999, but the pastor was not convicted of a crime in that case. The crime novel then alternates between different characters’ point of view and narrates brilliantly the small Christian congregation and its many unwritten rules and power plays.
Beforeigners, HBO Europe
The first original Norwegian HBO series, Beforeigners, premiered on HBO Nordic in August. Anna Bjørnstad and Eilif Skodvin, the creators of the first original Netflix co-production Lilyhammer (2012-14), created the show for HBO. Once again, the production company Rubicon was behind the production.
The plot revolves around the sudden reappearance of people from the past, people with so-called multitemporal background. Of course, the context around the series is the present refugee situation in Europe and the rest of the world. However, when an alleged ‘beforeigner’ turns up dead, the series crime plot starts to unfold. The first multitemporal detective Alfhildr and the policeman Lars are the odd couple that investigates the murder.
While being a crime show at root, the six-episode drama is also a spoof of the crime genre and the world-famous style Nordic Noir. Of course, Alfhildr’s straightforward attitude comes from her background as a beforeigner, but at the same time she displays obvious similarities with the famous Saga Norén character from Bron │ Broen (2011-18). Although the series in this way clearly stays within the socio-critical vein of the Nordic crime genre, it also – tongue in cheek – steers through the most obvious clichés of Nordic Noir.
Oslo appears stylistically as a multicultural and multitemporal setting for the series, while the Finnish actress Krista Kosonen and the Norwegian actor Nicolai Cleve Broch work well as the generically original police couple. Essentially, Beforeigners is an enjoyable execution of a great idea.
Beforeigners initiates the Norwegian endeavours for HBO Europe and continues their original productions in the Nordic region that started this year with Lukas Moodysson’s Swedish drama Gösta (2019). However, HBO’s European branch is well-experienced in producing crime dramas, including several remakes of Nordic Noir titles in the Eastern European territories. The ‘spoofy’ approach to the Nordic crime genre in Beforeigners stresses a deliberate and considerate strategy in a region that produces several well-working crime narratives itself. In order to stay ‘edgy’, HBO needs to metacommunicate about the genre, and by using parody, they can avoid the most obvious pitfalls and use the clichés of the genre in a self-conscious manner.
The first original Swedish Netflix series, Quicksand, premiered on the streaming service in April. Camilla Ahlgren, one of Sweden’s most prolific crime writers for television, created the series. She wrote episodes for Bron │ Broen, the British production Marcella (2016-18) and Swedish Spring Tide (2018), among many others. Quicksand is Ahlgren’s first series as head writer, and the series is based on the crime novel by Malin Persson Giolito.
The series starts with a school shooting in Sweden. The story composition interchanges between the background story leading up to the shooting, mostly a youngster’s love story, and the investigation of the shooting. The high school girl Maja is charged as accomplish, while the background story revolves around Maja falling in love with the rich, troubled Sebastian, the school shooter.
The series is remarkable because it bridges two important contemporary genres. On the one hand, it clearly departures from the crime plot and stylistics of Nordic noir, but on the other hand it integrates this into a youth drama with a number of similarities with the famous American Netflix series 13 Reasons Why (2017-).
Historically, television crime stories have not found their main audience among younger viewers. Other television producers have – without success – tried to integrate the Nordic crime genre in youth dramas, e.g. the Norwegian series Where is Thea? (2017). Predating the very crime-investigative third season of 13 Reasons Why, Quicksand successfully tells an unequivocal and suspense-filled high school crime story.
During the past few decades, public service television drama in the Nordic region has increasingly become international co-productions. Naturally, this has also influenced storytelling and settings. In addition to the customary Nordic regional collaboration, the eight-episode television series DNA is a Danish-French co-production with Czech production services. The series was shot in Denmark, the Czech Republic and France, but takes place in Denmark, Poland and France.
Five years after his daughter disappeared, the police officer Rolf realizes an error in the Danish DNA-registration system. A new disappearance case leads him to Poland where he discovers that his daughter may still be alive. Unpretentiously, the series’ plot blends Danish, Polish and French settings through the route of the investigative plot.
Unfortunately, the opening episode of the drama was criticized for lacking credibility in the character motivation behind the disappeared baby, while some of the plot set-up seeks too hard to associate Rolf’s personal story with the overall plot about baby trafficking. Subsequently, though, the series slowly and strongly identifies connections between the Polish and the Danish plots – some of them quite surprising. The Polish parallel story about the pregnant girl Julita supplies the traditional Danish police procedural with a sense of Eastern European new wave as well as a tense subplot for the storyline.
The series is created by the experienced Danish TV-crime writer Thorleif Hoppe, co-writer of The Killing, while the Polish rising star Zofia Wichlacz (from the Netflix series 1983) plays Julita. The Danish actor Anders W. Berthelsen (from the third season of The Killing) balances well in his personal grief. In general, DNA shows a promising international route available for Nordic public service drama.
The Danish television drama Below the Surface premiered on the Danish channel Kanal 5 in 2017. The first season was a fast-paced drama revolving around a terror attack in the Copenhagen subway system. The story appeared to close the narrative around itself, and the first season gave the impression that it would be hard to follow up on the show’s new action-oriented tendencies. Nevertheless, in April this year the second breathtaking season was broadcast on Kanal 5 and on Discovery’s Nordic streaming service D-Play.
The main character of the series is Philip, an elite soldier, former war prisoner, and leader of the Danish anti-terrorism unit. Entering the second season, Philip has left the position, and tries to lead a calm life with his girlfriend and her daughter. At the same time, the accused Danish-Syrian rebel fighter June is abducted, and the circumstances pulls Philip into the investigation. The search for June leads to a terrorist hostage situation on a ferry between Denmark and Sweden, although without the terrorists’ awareness of Philip’s presence on the ferry.
Below the Surface is produced by SAM Productions, a still fairly new Danish production company owned by well-known television writers and producers Søren Sveistrup (creator of The Killing), Adam Price (creator of Borgen) and Meta Louise Foldager (producer of Below the Surface). The series was commissioned by Discovery Networks Denmark for the commercial channel Kanal 5. It was their first – and so far only – television series, but this indicates a market situation where everybody wants original content, including especially fiction.
As a series, Below the Surface shares a number of similarities with the DR series The Protectors (2009-10), a series also dealing with anti-terrorism, and the Swedish fast-paced series Johan Falk (1999-2015). The action-affinities and editing-style of the drama, however, is original in the Nordic region, usually recognized for slow-paced dramas. Fitting the commercial television brand of the series’ channel, the series shows new ways of developing drama on a fiercely competitive market.
Wisting, Viaplay Norway
The television series Wisting is based on two novels by the former police officer Jørn Lier Horst, produced for TV3 and Viaplay in the Nordic region. Essentially, the series provides what is expected to service an international demand for Nordic Noir: a haunted main character, daunting Norwegian landscapes and an addictive plotline, a surprisingly successful merger of two novels. Perhaps the presence of Horst himself as an executive producer supervising the process created a believable result.
The plot is the very oft-used serial killer plot that works very well as a structuration principle for crime narratives, but as a verisimilar storyline, it is less plausible. However, this does not matter because the style and narrative pace is well-executed, while the import of a very American genre is highlighted by the literal import of an American detective (Carrie-Anne Moss from The Matrix) to collaborate with Wisting (played by Sven Nordin from Valkyrie). The series also ironically comments on the fact that Norway is housing a serial killer.
Allegedly the most expensive Norwegian television series so far, Wisting is produced for the television channel TV 3, available in all Scandinavia. However, during the past few years Nordic Entertainment Group (NENT) has invested much money in competing with other streaming services in the region, primarily Netflix – and they do so by producing much more local content than other services for the cross-Scandinavian Viaplay service. Wisting is very representative of this tendency.
While some of Viaplay’s dramas have been less convincing, Wisting clearly shows that the NENT Group investments is a productional and narrative force to be reckoned with. The series is created by Trygve Allister Diesen (the Arne Dahl series and The Third Eye) and Kathrine Valen Zeiner (Valkyrie and Eyewitness), both experienced crime producers in Norway. Even if the series appears almost generically standard, Wisting still shows that Nordic Noir is a well-oiled machine that still churns out suspense-filled crime narratives.
In 2008, together with his colleague, public service investigative reporter Hannes Råstam began investigating the case that involved the convicted serial killer Thomas Quick. He was convicted for eight murders and had confessed to many more, but Råström was curious because there seemed to be no technical evidence whatsoever. Quick had stopped talking to journalists, but made an exception for Råstam.
What happened is remarkable in the history of the Swedish system of justice, a massive legal scandal was revealed, and Quick was eventually released. Unfortunately, Råström had died before Quick’s release. The film is based on the book he wrote; The Case of Thomas Quick: How to create a serial killer and was adapted to the screen by Norwegian author Erlend Loe, with well-known actors such as David Dencik and Jonas Karlsson.
The result is a beautifully shot film which is deeply moving and scary, but also has its funny moments. The film is focused around the meetings between Quick and Råström and it is those conversations, between the psychologically ill convict and the reporter dying from cancer, that will stay with the audience for a very long time.
This is the author’s second novel about detective inspector Charlie Lager. The first novel, Annabelle (2017), was a success, both critically and publically. There, Charlie returns to her small hometown in the countryside. She has to face her troubled background in order to solve a case. Once again, in Francesca, Charlie goes back home, to Gullspång, and this time she is investigating a cold case, a young girl from a very rich family in the area disappeared thirty years ago. The girl, Francesca, went to a boarding school and was very unhappy there, and after her best friend died, she tried to take her own life. Her family wanted to help her, and above all wanted her to stop speaking of her friend’s death as murder. And then, she suddenly disappeared.
Many years later, Charlie is troubled by mysterious dreams and vague but disturbing memories about her dead mother, and realizes that her own past may be connected to Francesca’s past. However, she also discovers that many people are not happy with her investigation. Bengtsdotter has a unique voice and style in Nordic crime fiction and her protagonist Charlie is a very complex character with an equally complex backstory. The plot itself is intriguing, and little by little the reader gets clues about the fates and lives of both the investigator and victim, and the result is a very convincing story about betrayal, depression and alienation.
Jo Nesbø, Kniv (Knife)
Norwegian Jo Nesbø is one of the most popular crime fiction authors from the Nordic region. His last novel was a clever and hard boiled interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2018), but now Nesbø has returned with the twelfth novel in the series about Inspector Harry Hole.
This series has always been dark; Harry Hole is a miserable person with slim chances of experiencing any sort of happiness. This novel, however, might be the darkest thus far. Hole is drinking heavily again and, when he one morning wakes up in blood soaked sheets, he cannot remember what has happened. He sees that he has tried to contact his wife, Rakel, many times. But the night before is a blank. When he receives terrible news, he once again has to face his demons in order to battle both old and new enemies, but perhaps most of all, himself and his very destructive self-doubt.
As is usually the case, Nesbø has created an extremely well composed plot, with many twists and turns. A sense of paranoia grows when it becomes clear that nobody can be trusted, and especially not Harry Hole. Despite the impressive length, this is a fast read, it is impossible to stop once you have started reading the novel. And yes, it is sharp as the titular knife.
Christoffer Carlsson, Järtecken (Augury)
Christoffer Carlsson is a Swedish criminologist and awarded crime fiction author. His eighth crime novel has been nominated for best novel by the Swedish crime fiction academy in 2019. He has chosen “a Novel about a Crime” as a subtitle, giving homage to authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. However, while Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote about a team of police detectives in an urban environment, Carlsson has chosen a story about the individual detective and set in the small town Marbäck ̶ where the author himself grew up.
In 1994, a man, Edvard, is convicted for setting fire to his girlfriend’s house after having first murdered her. His nephew, 8-year-old Isak, considers Edvard to be his best friend, and Isak’s life is turned upside down. Young police officer Vidar initially believes Edvard to be guilty, but as time goes by, his hesitation increases. At the same time, Isak is growing up, feeling he is forever marked by his uncle’s crime; that he is doomed in a way and Isak continuously gets into trouble.
The story ends in 2017 and many characters are still affected what happened many years ago. Grief changes people, and sometimes it never goes away. One character says that every person has an inner struggle nobody else knows about, and that is why it is important to be kind. The pace of the storytelling is slow and at the same time very gripping, and it is a beautifully written story, and the pain and agony of the characters are palpable.
The author Niklas Natt och Dag (the name means Night and Day and is the name of a noble family) is quite a sensation. He won an award for best debut novel – 1793 (2017). He writes historical crime fiction and this is his second novel in a planned trilogy he calls Bellman Noir, alluding to the Swedish 18th Century famous songwriter, poet and entertainer Carl Michael Bellman. Among other things, 1794 describes a tragic part of Swedish history, namely the colonization of the West Indian island Barthélemy where Sweden became involved in slave trade.
The first part of the novel takes place on the island, retold by a patient in a mental hospital and we find out why he has been incarcerated there. The other three parts take place in Stockholm where the one-armed former soldier Cardell tries to solve a murder case nobody seems to care about.
Despite the words of liberty, equality and brotherhood which have spread from France, injustice and poverty are still what govern many people’s lives. This is a terrible and gruesome story, and terribly, terribly good.
The first season of Before We Die premiered in 2017 on Swedish television. It became a success and was sold to multiple countries. The series is an excellent mixture of family drama and thriller. Hanna (played by Marie Richardson) is a police inspector who works in the organized crime unit in Stockholm. In the first season, Hanna’s lover and colleague Sven is kidnapped and murdered and she eventually realizes her own son Christian (Adam Pålsson) is involved in the case. The mother-son relationship is strained, to say the least, since Hanna once sent Christian to prison on a drug charge. The first season was filled with suspense – sometimes unbearable – and it ends with Christian leaving the country to escape the mafia family who wants him dead.
The second season starts with a gasp, and Hanna is trying to find out which one of her colleagues in the force is playing both sides. When her son suddenly returns, their relationship remains complicated but Hanna is obsessed with finding the leak in the police force, and Christian once again goes undercover, this time with a new crime network.
The acting is outstanding, and although the suspense is non-stop, it is not at the expense of characterization. Again, the writers Wilhelm Behrman (Beck) and Niklas Rockström (Thicker Than Water and Alex) have created a story boiling with intensity and drama, and which deals with heavy subjects such as trauma. It is one of those shows you hope will not be cancelled too soon.
Deliver Us, DR
With the eight-episode series Deliver Us, DR returns to the central island in Denmark, Funen, where The Legacy (2014-17) also took place. Privileging location shooting, Deliver Us is, however, perhaps the most local series produced so far from DR. On the one hand, this may come from the attractive collaboration with local funding from Funen. On the other hand, this may also be the first great footprint from Christian Rank, the new head of DR’s fiction department.
In fact, Christian Rank worked on The Legacy before he became an executive producer at the commercial public service channel TV 2. Returning to DR, now as head of fiction, he brings with him experience with local Danish series production as well as international co-production (e.g. Norskov). Deliver Us also includes a TV 2-like sensibility through both the actors as well as some of the creatives behind the series, including series creators Christian Torpe (Rita and The Mist) and Maria Østerbye (Rita and The Rain). In other words, Deliver Us is really the final ‘apprenticeship test’ for Rank – and with the series, DR delivers to us a new and refreshing path for DR fiction.
The original title of the series is Fred til lands, literally meaning ‘peace in this country’, but at the same time alluding to a classic Danish midsummer ballad. The title is, of course, ironic, since what the series deals with the opposite, a local community breaking up, because a town bully haunts everybody through malicious control mechanism. The series departures from a car accident where a young boy dies with the local bully behind the wheel. At first, the bereavement is considered unintended, but a suspicion that the bully had ill intend spreads and pollutes the community. However, the local police appears worthless – and some of the inhabitants in the township chooses to take matters into their own hands.
Undeniably, the international title Deliver Us is an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer and, metaphorically, to the deed that the township is planning. The title screen and various scenes in the series includes a wolf drifting around the area. Of course, the wolf holds a strong symbolic meaning in various mythologies, including the Christian contrast between the innocent lamb and the demonic wolf. However, recently the wolf as an animal returned to Danish nature, upsetting communities around Denmark. This is no great problem in Denmark, but in media and in public it has been seriously debated – and advice from some has been that a wolf in Denmark is unnatural and should be shot. Once again creating a symbolic resonance around the impending killing of a bully by the local township.
Deliver Us breaks new ground for DR. Until now, the psychological thriller has not, as a genre, found the greatest position in Danish public service traditions. At the same time, Deliver Us is a well-executed relationship drama and a surprisingly thrilling psychological experience. In other words, the series stays within the complexities expected of DR Fiction, including slow-paces drama narratives, but at the same time delivers a curated genre work with unforeseen binge-qualities.
It is an interesting – and demanding – task to look back and try to evaluate a year’s production. What is clear, however, is that there is a great diversity in the genre of crime narratives from the Nordic countries. Essentially, we see well-known tendencies continue, but at the same time new features in crime narratives surface. Internationally, we have seen the interest shift slightly away from following the investigation toward following the perpetrators. In 2019, this has really impacted Nordic crime narratives.
Looking forward to 2020, exciting things are happening and, at least, it appears clear that 2020 will be an interesting crime year. Both The Investigation and The Hunt for a Killer, two stories based on true events (the murder of Kim Wall and the infamous Swedish Hörby case, respectively), will premiere on television probably establishing True Crime as a suspense-filled and debated crime fiction genre in the Nordic region. The Killing-creator Søren Sveistrup’s novel The Chestnut Man, an international bestseller, is in production for Netflix alongside the prolific production of the much-awaited Young Wallander. Already later this year, the Danish art-film director Christoffer Boe continues his new-found interest in the crime genre with his series The Interrogation. The strong Nordic tradition for churning bestsellers into television series will continue with the adaptation of Anna Grue’s novels about Dan Sommerdahl and probably a few additional adapted titles. To this list we may also add the upcoming 2020 cinema adaptation of The Marco Effect, the fifth installment in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series about Department Q, this time with a new cast and a new production company.
In crime literature, publishers hold back with news in a more convoluted way that screen production. However, we await Arne Dahl’s final novel about Molly Blom and Sam Berger, Freedom, as well as Anders de la Motte’s fourth and last part in the critically acclaimed ’season quartet’ Våroffer (Spring victim). Pitbull, Danish Anne Mette Hancock’s third novel in the series about journalist Heloise Kaldan and police officer Erik Schäfer is also expected to come out in the spring of 2020. Rumour also has it that the Danish writer Jesper Stein has been to rural Southern Denmark, researching for his seventh novel about Axel Steen, and his name has already turned up for the major Danish crime fair in Horsens. It is a safe guess that the pot-smoking detective Axel Steen will endure further hardship in a 2020 novel. Late 2019, the Danish world-bestselling Sara Blædel returns to her usual police detective Louise Rick in the new novel Pigen under træet (The Girl under the Tree).
Although some have claimed it to be the case, it is safe to say that Nordic Noir is not dead. It appears alive and kicking, still breathing new and compelling subgenres and styles into a significantly productive Nordic crime region.