The Scandinavian crime fiction phenomenon

by Peter

I recently read a sad article in the Wall Street Journal: “The Strange Case of the Nordic Detectives” by Laura Miller (see also the Scandinaviancrimefiction blog). The reason why it is sad, is that it seeks to explain away the qualities of Scandinavian crime fiction. I don’t know why it was written, maybe as a kind of defense for American crime fiction.

Laura Miller has noticed (how perceptive) that “Stieg Larsson’s hugely popular Millennium Trilogy (beginning with “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) is the most visible example of the global mania for Scandinavian crime fiction.” So far so good. But she also writes:

It’s a truth universally acknowledged—in literary circles, at least—that gloomy novels don’t sell. Inform a reader that the book in his or her hands tells a grim story about depressed characters in a bleak setting, and you’ll see it dropped instantly in favor of some breathless thriller about secret messages implanted in famous paintings or a sentimental yarn about love that transcends time. There’s one big exception, though: Take that wintery landscape and add a dead body, then take that mopey main character and make him a sleuth trying to figure out who’s responsible for the corpse. Double check to make sure we’re not far from the Arctic Circle, and suddenly you have the recipe for an international best seller.

So, in essence – readers like these books because they are set in Scandinavia (sic)? Well. Hmm. If this is true, why did it take so long for Scandinavian crime fiction to achieve this status in the US then? Is this love for the Arctic cold a newly acquired taste by Americans? She goes on to say that

The American procedural requires at least one car chase, a dollop of gunplay and a few showdowns with the rules-bound, overly political department brass, so that our hero can demonstrate that his commitment to justice is purer and more passionate than his bosses’. And while the policemen in American crime novels often have messy personal lives, they remain the noble, two-fisted, larger-than-life crusaders you’d expect from a nation of hopeful individualists. Mr. Mankell’s Wallander, by contrast, is decidedly life-size.

So, maybe that’s just it. People are bored by those larger than life heroes. Most Americans don’t live larger than life lives, even not, I venture to guess, those working in the Wall Street Journal. And perhaps they enjoy reading about pretty real, ordinary people doing their jobs and solving crimes more by blood, sweat and tears than by muscles, high speed car chases and uppercuts.

Laura Miller prefers to think people prefer Scandinavian crime fiction because it is set in Scandinavia. She prefers not to ponder whether it is a style of crime fiction that challenges mainstream American crime fiction. But I tend instead to think that it does. I think people love Stieg Larsson’s books because his heroes are real, ordinary and modern. They love, make love, make mistakes, communicate by SMS and email, hack computers and use surveilance systems. They plot smart responses. They use as means the things the ordinary American surrounds herself or himself with. And they live in an age where agility and brains matter more than muscle and speed. They certainly are not “two-fisted”. “Two-fisted” is no longer a competitive advantage, neither in real life nor in literature. Fortunately.

The reason I write this, is that I have noticed that Miller’s flawed, superficial arguments have been repeated all across the US in newspapers and blogs, even though they are not plausible, and most often even more clumsily stated than in Miller’s original and somewhat funny article. So, to me, Miller’s article is bad because it fuels the literary xenophobia of the US and sad because it is badly reasoned.

For those seriously interested in the topic of Stieg Larsson’s success, I can instead recommend a column written by Elizabeth Farrelly in The Sydney Morning Herald which is much better reasoned and lists a set of plausible factors behind the success.

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