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Nordic noir: Dark, empty, and irresistible

Sanjeev Verma | Updated on September 11, 2020 Published on September 10, 2020

Hands up: Detective Sofia Karppi, played by Pihla Vitala, investigates a murder linked to an ambitious Finnish construction project in Deadwind   -  IMAGE COURTESY: DIONYSOS FILMS

Scandinavian crime fiction and television dramas, operatic in form and manner, have a global fan club that roots for their flawed heroes

* Nordic noir is a genre of Scandinavian crime fiction and television drama that is operatic in its form and manner. Typically, it has sombre, even fatalistic, storylines and bleak urban settings. It moves at a brooding pace, contains haunting, wintry cold vistas, has an indigo-tinted colour palette, and cadenced, minimalistic music.

Welcome, Borgen. The Danish series, all three seasons of it, arrived on Netflix India earlier this month. Borgen is one of a triad of breakout Nordic shows — the others being The Bridge and The Killing — that have swept the globe and piqued our penchant for Nordic noir, which shows no signs of ending.

Nordic noir is a genre of Scandinavian crime fiction and television drama that is operatic in its form and manner. Typically, it has sombre, even fatalistic, storylines and bleak urban settings. It moves at a brooding pace, contains haunting, wintry cold vistas, has an indigo-tinted colour palette, and cadenced, minimalistic music. And, of course, there is overwhelming darkness. That measured tempo is used for carefully laid out crime procedurals.

Borgen isn’t quite Nordic noir but its treatment of politics and political intrigue, not to speak of coalition headaches, is mature and relatable. But Young Wallander, which showed up on Netflix on September 3, is quintessential noir. This is the back story of Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, an emotionally bruised, seemingly down-and-out sleuth who’s somewhat of a legend in Scandi-crime fiction.

They join the ranks of numerous Nordic noir series already present on Netflix:

Deadwind: Finnish series about a female Helsinki detective who investigates a murder on a construction site weeks after her husband’s death.

Laid bare: In Deadwind, bodies keep piling in Finland   -  IMAGE COURTESY DIONYSOS FILMS

 

Bordertown: Also a Finnish series (three seasons) about a Holmesian detective whose investigative gifts are required to solve a series of murders in Lappeenranta, an idyllic town close to the Russian border.

Trapped: A splendid Icelandic crime series (two seasons) about body parts found in a small town and the chief of police going about solving the crime as the place is snowed in by the weather.

The Valhalla Murders: Also an Icelandic series, which has an Oslo investigator joining Kata, the local cop, in finding Reykjavik’s first serial killer before it’s too late and another body piles up.

In cold blood: In The Valhalla Murders, inspired by a real-life incident that took place in Iceland in the 1940s, a police officer chases down a serial killer on the loose

Borderliner: A Norwegian series about a cop who covers up a murder case to protect his family.

Occupied: A Norwegian political drama about Russia invading Norway in order to procure its oil resources.

That lineup does not include the two aforementioned long-form series from Sweden and Denmark that Nordic noir is most identified with: The Bridge and The Killing. Neither of the acclaimed series is available in India, but have made Nordic noir a global success and created a television grammar that is irresistible.

So, how did five countries — Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland — that comprise the Nordics, with a combined population of 28 million (the size of Punjab), establish this hegemony over noir? It is not new either. The first wave of Nordic noir swept the world in the late 1990s with two rather sullen detectives: Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander.

Beck and Wallander were the antithesis of the charismatic sleuths of the English-speaking world — whether Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Philip Marlowe. These Swedes, instead, were unheroic, and seemed misfits in their respective worlds — dealing with failed, or failing, marriages, strained relationships with their children, and a somewhat unprepossessing appearance. The duo recalled the washed-up, boozy lawyers of Hollywood cinema — a la Paul Newman in The Verdict — having their last fling at glory.

Beck was the creation of the Swedish novelist duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote a dozen stories about the implacable police inspector, while Wallander — a cerebral, humourless, alcoholic inspector who solves crimes in the idyllic Swedish coastal town of Ystad — was the creation of Henning Mankell.

Miikki Oikkennen, the creator of the Finnish series Bordertown, points out to BLink that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote their first Beck story in the ’60s and called it ‘a social crime story’.

“In the beginning of the 21st century, a London book club invented the term Nordic noir for these crime series, just like Beck, Wallander, The Killing and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The term was a kind of homage to film noir and the German expressionism,” Oikkennen says.

The flawed hero of Nordic noir appeals to international audiences, tired of the same trope of debonair sleuths triumphantly going about solving crimes. Harald Hamrell, the prolific Swedish director who helmed the TV series Beck, says: “The hero has a wide inner life of questions to deal with, and that allows the story to unfold in a more complex way. Audiences like that. Also, Nordic noir is not trying to be a copycat of Hollywood crime stories.”

The idea of all the murder and mayhem in these successful films and series is somewhat galling; after all, happiness standards in these countries are among the best in the world. Take Finland. It has topped the World Happiness Report for three consecutive years now.

Rike Jokela, creator and director of Deadwind, says that perhaps the high happiness quotient of the Finnish people is why crime stories are so popular. “If your daily life is safe and contented, these films and shows that are dark are one way to deal with your dark emotions in a safe way. For some reason we people kind of need this. Finland has the most heavy metal bands per capita in the world; that may say something about us too.”

***

Another aspect of Nordic noir is the role of women in it. Women tend to outnumber men in Scandinavian police forces. They also hold positions superior to men. Of the investigating partners in these series, the male partner is usually not as intuitive or clever.

Nordic noir has defied the crime genre’s conventions by its treatment of women. Saga Noren (Sofia Helin in The Bridge), Sarah Lund (Sophie Grabol in The Killing), Sofia Karppi (the stunning Pihla Vitala in Deadwind) and Kata (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir in The Valhalla Murders) are sisters-in-arms and hypnotic to watch. They are loners and don’t put much faith in those around them. Cunning and pragmatic, they use grit and womanly instinct to solve crimes.

Take Karppi. The female sleuth in Deadwind has a broken home life, but an obsessive intelligence, which she uses to dominate her male detective partner, and even her bosses. She breaks the chain of command to follow her instinct, risking suspension. Besides, Karppi couldn’t be bothered about sartorial matters; she just does not comb her hair.

Indeed, there are no femmes fatales in Nordic noir, as in traditional crime stories. The women protagonists are spunky and phlegmatic. And Nordic noir is almost always framed within a political and socio-economic framework; its crimes seem to be a way to explore the faults of the Scandinavian welfare model.

***

Iceland would appear to be an extreme version of the other four, relatively larger, countries. It is smaller, even more isolated, crimes are even fewer, and its winters are even darker. And the landscape is even more otherworldly. This tiny country appears to be bursting with creativity. The two seasons of the TV series Trapped may be the most rewarding watch of them all with a riveting tale of murder, human trafficking and political corruption. The feeling of dread rises in the isolated, Icelandic village with a killer on the loose. The show’s creator, Baltasar Kormákur, has called it a mix of Nordic noir and Agatha Christie.

Another Icelandic series, The Valhalla Murders, echoes the style of Trapped. Although the twist here is that the two sleuths — the local cop Kata and Arnar, a profiler who is called in from Oslo — are chasing a serial killer and bodies are piling up in Reykjavik.

The enduring appeal of Nordic noir series has led to other countries crafting their own individual brands of noir: so there’s French noir (Witnesses, The Missing), or German noir (The Valley). Not to mention the profusion of Polish noir, in print and on television, going by which it would seem the Poles think they are ready to challenge the real McCoy.

Then there’s Britain’s fascination with Nordic noir. At the turn of the century, books by Swedes Liza Marklund, Mankell and Larsson, Norwegian Jo Nesbø and Dane Jussi Adler-Olsen hit bestseller charts in such a way that most bookstores in London set up a separate Nordic noir section. Ten years later, the reception given to the Scandi-noir of film and TV series was tumultuous and soon became a national obsession.

Scan the British catalogue on streaming platforms and you will see how profoundly it is influenced by Copenhagen realpolitik and Nordic noir. There’s Broadchurch, Marcella, Hinterland, Shetland, et al.

Take Shetland. The Shetland Islands lie at the extremity of Northern Scotland. The scenery is wild and beautiful, and now ITV and writer David Kane have turned it into an outstanding long-form series, all five seasons of it. If its visual texture doesn’t get you, the aural will; the Gaelic lilt of Detective Jimmy Perez and Sergeant Alison Macintosh is captivating.

The heavy leaning on Nordic noir themes is evident not only in Shetland, but also in American long-running TV series such as Bosch, about the Los Angeles homicide detective Harry Bosch, who believes in swimming against the current and has strong residues of Beck and Wallander in his personality.

The hold of Nordic noir isn’t likely to recede. News about the Norwegian writer Nesbø is just in. He has sold 33 million books worldwide so far and earned $5.1 million in book royalties in 2019. He is the creator of Harry Hole, the alcoholic, anti-hero of Nordic noir. In fact, such is his popularity that his name precedes the title: Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters.

Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi

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Published on September 10, 2020
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