Thursday, October 22, 2009

Nordic Noir Finally Arrives

SOME called 1991 – a decade and a half after the rumbles in London – “the year punk broke.” If so, 2009 is shaping up as the year Nordic Noir finally arrived.

Stieg Larsson – a Trotskyist sci-fi fan now, inconveniently, dead – is the movement’s Nirvana, and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a mystery novel with Nordic Noir’s coolest heroine ever, his “Nevermind.” The book’s recent sequel, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” which continues the adventures of a tattooed hacker and crusading reporter, also kicks ass.

The Exene and John Doe might be Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish husband-and-wife team whose classic ‘60s and ‘70s-era policiers – “The Laughing Policeman,” “The Man Who Went Up in Smoke” – are being reissued on Black Lizard.

What makes this grim, snowy stuff, with its umlauts and suns hidden for months at a time, so irresistible? You get, in Henning Mankell’s Wallender books, an existentialist detective who resembles “Point Blank”-era Lee Marvin, dropped into a Bergman movie. (Three of these were just ably adapted by Masterpiece.) With Norway’s Karin Fossum, penetrating glimpses into the psychology of killers. And with Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, storytelling so epic it’s almost medieval.

Modern crime hardboiled fiction first came out of California in the ‘20s and ‘30s, in newish cities where it was easy to fake a past, and where fog and dark alleys kept everything shadowy.

Scandinavia is an old land, overrun for centuries by Vikings swilling mead. But it’s got contemporary problems – drugs, immigration, global organized crime – that make these books feel pressing and urgent. That fact that it’s usually overcast doesn’t hurt.

“It’s the frontier independence frontier self sufficiency and frontier stoicism, combined with frontier weather, frontier isolation and frontier violence that makes these Nordic books so familiar to a US reader,” Junot Diaz of “Oscar Wao” told me. ”And yet the extremities of all these tendencies (and the almost alien history of these nations) are what gives them their unique compelling and ultimately terrifying tenor."

If 2009 is the year of Nordic Noir, then, we say it’s about damn time.

Photo credit: chatirygirl

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