Addicted to Nordic noir, Wendy Lesser set out to unravel its appeal

In ‘Scandinavian Noir,’ the Berkeley author explores what the genre tells us about the countries that spawned it.

Wendy Lesser reads more Nordic noir than I do, and that says a lot. As she notes in her charming new book, Scandinavian Noir, she’s been addicted to the stuff for nearly 40 years. It all started for her when someone (she can’t remember who) recommended the ten-book Martin Beck series of police procedurals by the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

By contrast, I’ve been exploring this genre for a mere 20 years. And my introduction to Nordic noir wasn’t Martin Beck, a more recently acquired obsession, but Henning Mankell‘s gloomy Swedish detective Kurt Wallander. Lesser has clearly read hundreds of these novels. I can’t claim to have made my way through more than a few score. Truth to tell, I’m not trying to catch up. I wonder if anyone could.


Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery by Wendy Lesser (2020) 289 pages (4 out of 5)


An insightful introduction to Scandinavian noir

Lesser devotes most of her attention to the Martin Beck novels. But she refers to a great many other Nordic noir series, describing the protagonists and their circumstances and exploring how they reflect life in the countries where they’re set. (She limits her account to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, ruling out Iceland and Finland.) Principal among the books are those of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson (the Lisbeth Salander trilogy), Jo Nesbø (Harry Hole), and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Carl Mørck). But she notes, and in some cases describes, a number of other authors as well, many of them unfamiliar to me.


A book divided into two very different parts

In the first of the two parts into which Scandinavian Noir is divided, Lesser recounts her experiences with the Martin Beck stories and many of her other excursions into the genre. Along the way, she describes the picture the authors paint of Scandinavia as their characters (and the sometimes omniscient narrators) perceive it. Throughout, she wonders to what extent the reality of the region matches that picture.

In the book’s second part, Lesser writes about a trip to Norway, Sweden and Denmark to investigate that question. It’s a travelogue, enlivened by her occasional interviews with police officers and social and political commentary on the conditions she observes in the region. On the whole, she finds that the most recently written novels tend to reflect the reality on the ground. However, there is one intriguing respect in which they differ. Female police officers are few and far between in the books. In fact, women tend to outnumber men in today’s Scandinavian police forces and often hold the most senior positions.

If you too are a fan of Nordic noir, or if are intrigued by the sketchier images of Scandinavian life that surface in our news media, read this book. You’ll enjoy it.

What another reviewer finds

In reviewing this book for the New York Times Book Review (August 2, 2020), Kate Tuttle terms its first half “a spellbinding long essay in which Lesser tells us what she has learned in four decades of reading Scandinavian noir.” Like me, she finds the book’s second half less compelling. “It’s charming and illuminating, if not quite equal to the brilliance of the first section,” she writes. I agree. Tuttle writes about books for the Boston Globe.

About the author

Wendy Lesser (1952) is a critic, author, and editor based in Berkeley. Scandinavian Noir is the twelfth book she has written over the past three decades. She is also the founding editor of the arts journal The Threepenny Review.