Nordic noir (also known as Scandinavian or Scandi noir) is a genre of crime fiction set in Scandinavia or Nordic countries, mainly police procedurals, usually set in bleak, dark landscapes and written depicting a tension between the apparently bland, quiet social surface and the violence lying underneath. The popularity of Nordic noir has succesfully extended to the screen, thanks to tv series such as The Killing, The Bridge, Trapped, and Bordertown. Most commentators agree that the genre, well established by the 1990s, was pioneered by the Martin Beck series of novels written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö from 1965 to 1975. 

Original artwork for the book cover of “Uomini che odiano le
donne”, the Italian release of Stieg Larsson’s
“Men who hate women” (by Ale+Ale

Swedish writer Henning Mankell noted that “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.” Kerstin Bergman noted that “what made [their] novels stand out […] was, above all, the conscious inclusion of a critical perspective on Swedish society.” Among the most influential authors are the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, with his series of books on “Kurt Wallander”, Norwegian author Karin Fossum, with his books on “Inspector Sejer”, and possibly Danish author Peter Høeg with his novel Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, a sort of progenitor of the “Scandinavian New Wave” that sets its heroine in Copenhagen and Greenland, thus inaugurating the current Scandinavian crime writing wave. Nordic crime fiction are mainly police procedural, focusing on the monotonous, day-to-day work of police, often involving the simultaneous investigation of several crimes and feature plain, direct writing style without metaphor. Examples include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels by Stieg Larsson, and the above mentioned Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander detective series, and Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels. Within the Nordic countries themselves the genre is referred to descriptively as “Nordic crime fiction” or “Scandinavian crime fiction”, whereas the terms “Nordic noir” and “Scandinavian noir” are used largely interchangeably in English. 

Actor Mikael Persbrandt as Gunvald Larsson
(from the ‘Beck’ Swedish tv series)

The term “Nordic noir” was coined by the Scandinavian Department at the University College of London and gained further usage in the 2010s after the airing of the BBC documentary ”Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction”. Although the term unites the viewpoint of foreign eye towards recognizable Nordic context, “Nordic noir” remains a foreign term, and it is not used in the Nordic countries. One could attribute the genre’s success to a distinctive style, “realistic, simple and precise… and stripped of unnecessary words”, possibly similar to Scandinavian design, to some extent. The protagonists are often detectives worn down by the weight of life: investigating beyond the crime itself, their actions cast a light on the flaws of Scandinavian society, deep down to the dark underbelly of modern society and the decline of the Nordic welfare state. This feature is owed 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. For example, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy deals with misogyny and rape, while Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers focuses on Sweden’s failure to integrate its immigrant population.