Stieg Larsson Opens Cold, Murderous World of Scandinavian Noir

The cover jacket of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" by Steig Larsson. Source: Random House via Bloomberg

There’s more to Scandinavia than pine-scented forests and crystal-clear lakes, as the world was forcefully reminded by Norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik.

Stieg Larsson made the same point to great success in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels. Yet Larsson was not the first of the region’s writers to explore its dark side.

His posthumously published Millennium trilogy, with its brooding critique of Sweden’s misogyny and neo-Nazism, is only the most famous example of a literary phenomenon whose roots can be traced back to the 1960s, when Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck series found an international readership, and continued with the work of Henning Mankell and Peter Hoeg.

And just as Nordic noir didn’t begin with Larsson, so publishers are eager that it doesn’t end there, either. A blizzard of contenders for his mega-selling mantle is sweeping bookstores. Translated from Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic, they emanate a gloomy Scandinavian angst that seems uncannily suited to the economic moment.

We’ve donned our (thermal) deerstalkers to finger six of the most compelling. Leading the lineup is Lars Kepler, whose first book, “The Hypnotist” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is a grisly psychological thriller.

It pivots on a triple homicide in a Stockholm suburb. The sole survivor, a 15-year-old old boy, lies in a coma after sustaining more than 100 knife wounds. To discover what he has seen, Detective Inspector Joona Linna calls on a sometime hypnotist, Dr. Erik Maria Bark, whose actions unleash far more than a witness statement.

Camilla Lackberg

Former economist Camilla Lackberg sets her thrillers in the Swedish coastal village of Fjallbacka, where she grew up. Like so many picturesque communities, it’s a place of closely guarded secrets and stifling silences. Often, motives turn out to be buried decades in the past.

Start at the beginning of her series with “The Ice Princess” (Free Press), the story of a local beauty found frozen in a bathtub, or skip to “The Preacher” (Pegasus), in which a fresh corpse sheds gruesome light on the fate of two long-lost girls.

Both books feature coffee-guzzling writer Erica Falck and diligent Detective Patrik Hedstrom. Intricately plotted, they move at a cinematic clip, zigzagging between plot strands and viewpoints to give your little gray cells a workout.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo’s resume includes not only stints as a stockbroker and financial analyst, but a spell as a soccer player and frontman for a Norwegian rock band.

His appealingly hard-boiled sleuth is Inspector Harry Hole, an Oslo native who struggles with booze and authority, and has a distinctive scar running across his face.

Harry’s past cases include savage bank robberies and a serial killer whose calling card is a red diamond in the shape of a star. “The Snowman” (Knopf), his most recent U.S. release, will ensure you’ll never look at Frosty in quite the same way again.

In his personal life, Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson has a broken marriage and a heroin-addict daughter to his name. Professionally, he’s a veteran of the Reykjavik police force and 11 novels, most of which have been translated into English.

Indridason’s latest, “Operation Napoleon,” is due from Minotaur in September. It’s a stand-alone, so while you won’t meet Erlendur, you will find U.S. military secrets, a missing Icelander and a German bomber that crashed on a glacier in 1945. Its interest in Iceland’s history is typical of Indridason’s deftly structured thrillers.

Hakan Nesser

Hakan Nesser is Swedish, though he sets his most successful series in a fictitious northern European country. There, Inspector Van Veeteren plays chess and philosophizes his way to arrests.

At the start of “The Inspector and Silence” (Pantheon), the latest installment, he is mulling the idea of quitting the force for an antiquarian bookstore. Then comes a call from a colleague in a tranquil lakeside town.

The bodies of a string of girls have been found. All were enrolled at a summer camp run by a sect known as Pure Life and nobody will talk.

The scene of the crime in Karin Fossum’s novels is often the idyllic Norwegian village of Elvestad, where Inspector Konrad Sejer lives with his dog.

A quiet middle-aged widower, Sejer nevertheless has ghosts of his own, and he is called upon to face them in “Bad Intentions” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) when the bodies of troubled young men begin surfacing in nearby lakes.

It’s an intimate study of broken lives that showcases Fossum’s poet past while recalling the gnawing psychological tension of P.D. James’s novels.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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