No longer a niche strand of crime fiction tucked away on a hard to find shelf deep within the backroom of your friendly neighbourhood book store or buried at the rear of a foreign films DVD section, Nordic Noir now has a much greater cultural presence. Its profile is currently strong enough for commissioning editors to be confident that the publishing an image of a Scandinavian actor on the front cover of the Radio Times or a weekend newspaper supplement will promote whatever series is being trailed, not impact upon sales figures, and may encourage fans who otherwise may not have purchased the title to buy additional copies for archiving amongst their private collection of memorabilia. Supermarket chains, famed for their reticence to stock unprofitable brands, routinely sell Scandinavian fiction at heavily discounted prices and frequently give the books a prominent place within its fiction departments
Further evidence of the sub genre’s absorption into the mainstream was provided by a screening of the final episode of Borgen‘s second season at the Edinburgh Playhouse accompanied by a question and answer session with the lead actor. The event proved to be more popular than was initially anticipated, leading to further sessions being arranged to cater for those who wanted to attend the event but thought they might not be able to due to initial plans for a single event underestimating the high number of fans that were willing to travel great distances for the experience of seeing an episode on the big screen, quizzing a member of the cast, and finally meeting those with whom they’ve celebrated and debated the series on Twitter or Facebook. This fan gathering generated a surprisingly level of coverage from media organizations. In a break from an already overloaded schedule fielding questions from enthusiasts and holding a brief private audience with a prominent Scottish politician, Sidse Babett Knudsen was invited by the BBC and Sky to appear on news programmes.
No doubt feeling validated that the event in Edinburgh was successful in terms of promoting the show, Nordic Noir as a brand, and its accompanying fandom Arrow Films capitalized on both the attendant media coverage and its core customer base feeling bereft after relatively recent season finales of The Killing and Borgen by releasing Above the Street, Below the Water. Using this particular title, alongside Unit One, to kick start what promises to be a thoroughly rewarding year in terms of new productions and the distribution of those shows which might otherwise have slipped under the radar is both an award to long term fans that have followed this range since its emergence a few years ago and a play upon the theme of spectatorship that is very cleverly woven into the script’s spine. Fans who have remained loyal to Nordic Noir, both as a subgenre and brand, finally have the opportunity to buy a movie that invites the viewers to draw from their stored knowledge of Scandinavian film and TV series and engage in the activity of “actor spotting”.
The discovery of archival content that had previously not been made available in the UK and its subsequent distribution has been central to the formation and maintenance of several fandoms. Autobiographical and ethnographic accounts from members of several musical subcultures including Northern Soul and Rockabilly have suggested that in the group’s embryonic stages the recovery, exhibition, and rehabilitation of previously unavailable items ranked equal in importance to the consumption of new material as it enabled fans to engage in critical dialogue with each other thereby assisting in the formation of group identity and facilitating participants being able to establish a provisional consensus regarding generic parameters.
Whilst Nordic Noir already existed as discrete cinematic, televisual and literary forms long before UK audiences were first exposed to Jo Nesbo, The Killing and Yellow Bird’s adaptation of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, obtaining information of the key developments within the movement has until now been compromised by insufficient data being made available to English speaking readers about titles that whilst hugely influential within a Scandinavian context have not been distributed in other territories. The publication of Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir represents the first attempt by a mainstream imprint to provide a historical and critical overview of the sub genre’s antecedents, cultural influences, political subtexts, gender representations, and possible explanations for the phenomenal sales figures which have repeatedly defied industry expectations. Subtitled The Pocket Essential Guide To Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, this is a comprehensive work of reference that aficionados will return to repeatedly to enhance their knowledge of a particular book, author, film or TV show.
In the introductory section, Forshaw addresses with refreshing honesty the problematic notion of being designated as an expert in any given field, how he has acquired his knowledge and what he wants readers to do with the information in the book. As a long-time editor of Crime Time and author of several non-fiction titles, including a sterling biography of Steig Larsson, Forshaw has been acquainted with Scandinavian fiction for several decades. The roles of media professional and fan are not mutually exclusive and throughout the text, Forshaw writes as an enthusiast keen to share his discoveries in the hope that readers might feel sufficiently enticed to order some of the tiles he has recommended.
As this remarkable example of scholarship reminds us, Nordic Noir didn’t arrive on our shores as a fully formed subgeneric movement. The earliest titles available to UK readers were appreciated as competently written crime novels and possibly early critical commentary may have primarily focused on the left-leaning political subtext that was prevalent in those books. Scandinavian fiction, as a marketing brand, didn’t exist back then and titles were lumped in with other foreign authors but received less critical praise or sales figures that were awarded to, for instance, Georges Simenon.
Intriguingly, Forshaw’s historical overview references authors and stylistic approaches which were prevalent before Sjöwall and Wahlöö embarked on their influential ten book series.
Wherever possible the author enhances his analysis with appropriate use of interview extracts culled from his many years of researching and writing about crime fiction. This enables the reader to become better acquainted with the cited writer’s working methods, life history, and individual approaches to the movement.
With regards to individual authors, Larsson, Nesbo, Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the big hitters in terms of sales and influence, and whilst they are accorded the greatest scrutiny Forshaw’s encompassing and celebratory investigation references many lesser-known writers.
That a free to air broadcaster would regularly devote two hours each Saturday evening for the screening of a foreign language series would once upon a time have been classed as ratings suicide and yet BBC4 has shown that imported subtitled content can be viable in terms of audience viewing figures and the appreciation index. Similarly, Arrow Films DVD range has been successful enough to warrant the licensing of several titles not currently scheduled for UK TV transmission and has also been awarded a vibrant and critically aware online fan community. This is essentially a second wave of Nordic Noir that feeds from and back into the literary strand. Several notable films and TV series are analysed by Forshaw, including, but not exclusively, Borgen, The Killing, Wallander. An appreciation of these series is balanced with behind the scenes information some of which may surprise even the most knowledgeable of aficionados.
One thing the book does incredibly well is to draw attention to generic inflections or cultural cues that the reader might have missed out on when they last read a specific book or watched a particular film and TV series. Armed with this new information the reader might want to go back and devour these titles all over again but with an enhanced perspective.
Closing with a section on names to watch out for over the coming months and years one can’t help but wish for this excellent text to be updated at regular intervals to accommodate new perspectives on the subgenre that occur following the release of each book or DVD from Arrow Films.
Nordic Noir – The Pocket Essential Guide To Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV is published by Pocket Essentials.