Nordic noir

Nordic noir, also known as Scandinavian noir or Scandi noir, is a genre of crime fiction usually written from a police point of view and set in Scandinavia or Nordic countries. Plain language avoiding metaphor and set in bleak landscapes results in a dark and morally complex mood, depicting a tension between the apparently still and bland social surface and the murder, misogyny, rape, and racism it depicts as lying underneath. It contrasts with the whodunit style such as the English country house murder mystery. The popularity of Nordic noir has extended to the screen, such as The Killing, The Bridge,[1][2] Trapped,[3][4] and Bordertown.[5]

Nordic Noir in a Helsinki library


There are differing views on the origins but most commentators agree that the genre had become well established as a literary genre by the 1990s; Swedish writer Henning Mankell, who has sometimes been referred to as "the father of Nordic noir",[6] notes that the Martin Beck series of novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö "broke with the previous trends in crime fiction" and pioneered a new style: "They were influenced and inspired by the American writer Ed McBain. They realized that there was a huge unexplored territory in which crime novels could form the framework for stories containing social criticism."[7] Kerstin Bergman notes that "what made Sjöwall and Wahlöö's novels stand out from previous crime fiction – and what made it so influential in the following decades – was, above all, the conscious inclusion of a critical perspective on Swedish society."[8]

Henning Mankell's books on "Kurt Wallander" made the genre a mass phenomenon in the 1990s. Norwegian author Karin Fossum's books on "Inspector Sejer" were also highly influential and widely translated.[9] British author Barry Forshaw suggested that Peter Høeg's atmospheric novel Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow was "massively influential" as the true progenitor of the "Scandinavian New Wave" and, by setting its counter-intuitive heroine in Copenhagen and Greenland, that it inaugurated the current Scandinavian crime writing wave.[10]

One critic opines, "Nordic crime fiction carries a more respectable cachet... than similar genre fiction produced in Britain or the US".[11] Language, heroes and settings are three commonalities in the genre, which features plain, direct writing style without metaphor.[12] The novels are often police procedural, focusing on the monotonous, day-to-day work of police, often involving the simultaneous investigation of several crimes.[13] Examples especially include Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander detective series, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels.[14]

Until the 2010s, the genre had no particular name, but was sometimes referred to descriptively as "Nordic crime fiction" or "Scandinavian crime fiction". Within the Nordic countries themselves, this is still the case. The terms "Nordic noir" and "Scandinavian noir" are used largely interchangeably in English. In the English-speaking world, the term "Nordic noir" was coined by the Scandinavian Department at the University College of London and gained further usage in the British media in the 2010s beginning with the airing of the BBC documentary called the Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.[15] The Guardian also referred to The Killing as Nordic noir.[15][16] These factors underscore that the term is considered typical of a phenomenon seen as uniting the viewpoint of foreign eye towards recognizable Nordic context.[15] Nordic noir remains a foreign term, as it is not normally used in the Nordic countries and has no equally established equivalent in the Scandinavian or other languages of the Nordic countries.


Some critics attribute the genre's success to a distinctive and appealing style, "realistic, simple and precise... and stripped of unnecessary words".[12] Their protagonists are typically morose detectives[17] or ones worn down by cares and far from simply heroic.[12] In this way, the protagonists' lives cast a light on the flaws of society, which are beyond the crime itself.[18] This is associated with how this genre often tackles a murder mystery that is linked with several storylines and themes such as the investigation of the dark underbelly of modern society.[19] This is demonstrated in the case of the Insomnia films, which featured crime-solving linked to the decline of the Nordic welfare state.[20]

A description of Nordic noir cited that it is typified by a dimly lit aesthetic, matched by a slow and melancholic pace, as well as multi-layered storylines.[19] It often features a mix of bleak naturalism and disconsolate locations, with a focus on the sense of place where bad things can happen.[17] These were the distinguishing emotions of the series Bordertown, which were further combined with an atmosphere arising from the fear of Russia.[17]

The works also owe something to Scandinavia's political system where the apparent equality, social justice, and liberalism of the Nordic model is seen to cover up dark secrets and hidden hatreds. Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, for example, deals with misogyny and rape, while Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers focuses on Sweden's failure to integrate its immigrant population.[12][21]


The term "nordic noir" is also applied to films and television series in this genre, both adaptations of novels and original screenplays. Notable examples are The Killing, The Bridge,[22] Trapped, Bordertown and Marcella.[1]

Critic Boyd Tonkin has suggested that the British but heavily Scandinavian-influenced Shetland Isles and Outer Hebrides have produced authors in an allied, if not precisely identical tradition.[23] Exponents include Ann Cleeves, whose Shetland books have been adapted for television, and Peter May's Lewis Trilogy. The relatively slower narrative pace of UK crime dramas Broadchurch, The Missing and River is also credited to a "Scandinavian noir" influence.[24]

Subtitled original programmes have proven more popular with British audiences.[citation needed] International adaptations such as Sky Television's French/British The Tunnel (adapted from the Swedish/Danish The Bridge) have their own identity whilst retaining a stylistic and thematic affinity with the original series. While American cinema brought the English language movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to a worldwide audience, receiving plaudits and was a box-office success, the American adaptations such as The Killing have fared less well critically[25] and have proven less popular in terms of audience reaction than original productions, an example being the enduring interest in Arne Dahl's Intercrime series, originally titled The A Team, and its TV adaptations.

In February and March 2021 UK's BBC Four broadcast the Finnish psychological thriller Man in Room 301 (Finnish: "Huone 301"). BBC Head of Programme Acquisition, Sue Deeks, said: "We are delighted that Man In Room 301 is our very first series from Finland. It is a tense psychological drama set between Finland and Greece that will keep BBC viewers intrigued and engrossed to the very end." The drama is written by British actress and writer Kate Ashfield and directed by Mikko Kuparinen.[26]


Authors who have contributed to the creation and establishment of this genre include:[10]


  1. Hale, Mike (24 October 2017). "In Three Nordic Noir Streaming Series, Women Investigators Fight the Chill". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  2. "Netflix goes Nordic Noir with new Swedish thriller". 8 September 2017. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  3. Mike Hale, “Review: Like Nordic Noir? ‘Trapped’ Is Chilly, and Pulls You In.” New York Times, Feb. 17, 2017.
  4. The Futon Critic. 11/13/20. Acclaimed Icelandic Series "Trapped" Gets a Sequel Season and Goes to Netflix.
  5. Dan Webster. “More Nordic noir: Finland’s series “Bordertown.” The Spokesman-Review. Wed., Aug. 26, 2020.
  6. Nordic noir author Henning Mankell loses battle with cancer
  7. Mankell, Henning (2006). Introduction to Roseanna. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-00-743911-3.
  8. Bergman, Kerstin (2014). Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir. Mimesis International. ISBN 978-88-575-1983-8.
  9. Barry Forshaw, Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, Oldcastle Books, 2013.
  10. Forshaw, Barry (2013). Nordic Noir. Pocket Essentials. ISBN 978-1-84243-987-6.
  11. Forshaw, Barry (July 8, 2011). "New stars of Nordic noir: Norway's authors discuss their country's crime wave". The Independent. London. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  12. "Scandinavian crime fiction – Inspector Norse – Why are Nordic detective novels so successful?". The Economist. March 11, 2010. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  13. Miller, Laura (January 15, 2010). "The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  14. "Nordic Noir and the Welfare State". Ideas (blog). The New York Times. March 19, 2010. Retrieved 5 September 2011.
  15. Garcia, Alberto (2016). Emotions in Contemporary TV Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 138. ISBN 9781349849369.
  16. Frost, Vicky (2011-11-03). "The Return of The Killing". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2019-01-18.
  17. Mrozewicz, Anna Estera (2018). Beyond Eastern Noir: Reimagining Russia and Eastern Europe in Nordic Cinemas. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9781474418102.
  18. Hansen, Kim Toft; Peacock, Steven; Turnbull, Sue (2018). European Television Crime Drama and Beyond. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 27. ISBN 9783319968865.
  19. Hansen, Kim; Waade, Anne (2017). Locating Nordic Noir: From Beck to The Bridge. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 17. ISBN 9783319598147.
  20. Hjort, Mette; Lindqvist, Ursula (2016). A Companion to Nordic Cinema. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons. p. 444. ISBN 9781118475256.
  21. Marc Sidwell, "Sweden turns the page and Scandinavian noir explains why" Archived 2014-01-07 at the Wayback Machine, City AM, August 28, 2012
  22. "Nordic Noir & Beyond". NordicNoirTV. Retrieved 2016-04-15.
  23. Tonkin, Boyd (29 December 2012). "The new wave of 'Nordic' noir comes from within the UK". The Independent. Independent Newspapers. Retrieved 28 April 2016.
  24. Lawson, Mark (15 March 2017). "Scandi noir is dead". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2017.
  25. Hale, Mike (28 March 2012). "The Danes Do Murder Differently". New York Times - Television. Retrieved 30 April 2016.

Further reading

  • Bergman, Kerstin (2014). Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir. Mimesis International. ISBN 978-88-575-1983-8
  • Forshaw, Barry (2013). Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials. ISBN 978-1-84243-987-6.
  • Lesser, Wendy (2020). Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Nestingen, Andrew & Arvas, Paula, eds. (2011). Scandinavian Crime Fiction. University of Wales Press.