cover image Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery

Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery

Wendy Lesser. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-374-90471-5

Part literary criticism and part travelogue, this exceptionally well-conceived cultural history compares the “mental image” of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden that critic Lesser (Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance) derived from immersion in Nordic noir thrillers, and the reality she found when she finally visited those countries. In the book’s first half, she relates how Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 10 novels featuring detective Martin Beck jump-started her fascination with the genre. She then exhaustively identifies themes common in the work of Scandinavian crime novelists, including the sadism of their criminal characters, the alcohol problems shared by their detectives and criminals, and the relative lack of emphasis on judicial proceedings. Traveling to Copenhagen, Oslo, and Stockholm in the book’s second part, Lesser discovers that the murders so rampant in the novels are comparatively low—100 to 120 per year for all of Sweden, for example —and that the violence against children so frequently depicted “doesn’t happen all that often in real life,” which is “precisely why it appears in fiction.” Lesser is remarkably encyclopedic in her knowledge of Nordic noir and easily conveys her enthusiasm to readers. This fine exploration of fiction as reality and reality as fiction will draw many readers to the authors she covers. (May)