The truth is, Scandinavia is neither heaven nor hell

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

By Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, University College London

Earlier this year, British travel writer and resident of Denmark, Michael Booth, riled Guardian readers with a provocative article claiming to dispel the myth of Scandinavia as the perfect place to live. Many are now confused. Is everything we believed about the social ideals of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland a lie? Well, not entirely but we’re not all drunk serial killers either.

Based largely on his book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle, Booth’s “revelations” about the rot eating away at Scandinavia’s welfare societies were meant to “correct the imbalance” of the recent utopian idealisation of the Nordic countries in the British media.

It’s true that the Nordic countries have received unprecedented good press in the UK. This is partly due to a a trend that emerged in the early years of the 21st century for assessing the well-being of nations not according to their GDP but other, more human factors. Nordic countries consistently come out top.

In the 2005-2011 Gallup World Poll, Denmark ranked first for happiness, followed by Finland and Norway. The OECD’s Better Life Index of 2012 had Norway, Sweden and Denmark among the top five nations and the 2014 State of the World’s Mothers report from Save the Children, assessing the well-being of mothers and children world wide, had five Nordic countries in the top six. Meanwhile, lifestyle magazine Monocle’s Quality of Life survey named Copenhagen the most liveable city in the world for the third time in 2014.

But these figures are starting to be undermined by people in many different quarters. If life is perfect in Scandinavia, why are there so many dramas and books that depict Nordic societies as rampant with corrupt institutions, alcoholics, dysfunctional families and men who are violent against women? These dark depictions can’t come out of a clear blue Nordic sky.

While the Killing and The Bridge are new though, interest in the rotten states of Scandinavia is not. The perception of the Nordic countries abroad has swayed between two extremes for nearly a century.

In 1936, the American journalist Marquis Childs published the international bestseller Sweden: The Middle Way. Written in the time of the Great Depression, Childs viewed the Swedish Social Democratic compromise between liberal capitalism and state communism as a pragmatic model that could guarantee full employment, social security and equality without jeopardising economic development and democratic institutions.

In the 1970s, the image changed radically with the British journalist Roland Huntford’s book The New Totalitarians. To Huntford, Swedes, dominated by the Social Democratic party for 40 years, had come closer to living in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World than the Soviets. Even Sweden’s otherwise much admired sexual liberalism became an expression of totalitarian state control in Huntford’s eyes. High suicide rates and heavy taxation were other less than perfect trends he sought to highlight.

The utopian view has since made a come-back but perhaps that is less of a reflection on Scandinavia and more of the rest of the world. Global recession and austerity have taken their toll across Europe in recent years and people are starting to look around for better models. When fearing the corrosion of well-being and social cohesion, it is natural to seek consolation elsewhere, even if that elsewhere only exists in the imagination (as any good utopia) or in surveys that lack any form of cultural context.

Defending his dystopian counter-narrative against thousands of critical comments on The Guardian, Booth explained that his portrayal of jingoistic Danes on anti-depressants, lethargic Norwegians drunk on oil wealth, and gun-toting, binge-drinking Finns is largely based on what Scandinavian experts themselves have reported. That said, you could equally argue that he has carefully selected data to prove a predetermined narrative.

Booth’s book does prove an important point regarding perceptions of the Nordic countries, though. Scandinavians are predominantly satisfied with their lives but they are not utopians. Nor are they blinded by their success. They might not experience social problems on the same scale as people in other countries but they still fiercely debate what issues they do have. These include the purpose of the welfare state in the 21st century and how large it should be.

The Nordic countries are real places – not utopias – and as many other countries they struggle to overcome social divisions as they adjust to changing global realities. Austerity measures and welfare reforms have been implemented across the nations and it seems no entitlement previously guaranteed by the welfare state is off the table when it comes to cuts. A rise in mental illness may be the first severe consequence of widening socioeconomic gaps in the Nordic countries – just the kind of problem that is proving so fascinating to lovers of dark Nordic crime stories abroad.

The Conversation

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


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The Glass Key 2014 goes to…

Gard Sveen with Jørn Lier Horst

Gard Sveen with Jørn Lier Horst

The Scandinavian Crime Foundation (SKS) has the pleasure of announcing that their great award, The Glass Key 2014, will be awarded to the Norwegian author, Gard Sveen, for his novel ”Den siste pilegrimen” (The Last Pilgrimage).

This is his debut novel, and is thus the first in a planned series about the investigative detective, Tommy Bergmann, who is trying to piece together a connection between a murder during the summer of 2003 and a skeletal finding from World War II.

Not only has he won the Glass Key as a debutante author – he also won the Riverton Award. This is the first debutante who is awarded with both awards since Jo Nesbø in 1998.

Gard Sveen (1969-) is the senior adviser in the Norwegian Department of Defense.

The other nominees for this year’s Glass Key was:
Simon Pasternak (Denmark)
Reijo Mäki: Sherrifi (Finland)
Christoffer Carlsson: (Sweden)
(Iceland did not have a candidate this year)

This year, at the crime festival, Krimimessen, the three candidates from Norway, Sweden and Denmark were introduced to the enthusiastic readers, along with last year’s winner, Jørn Lier Horst.

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Forshaw’s new Euro Noir published.

ImageBarry Forshaw’s Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV is out!

From the publisher:

Barry Forshaw covers influential Italian authors, such as Andrea Camilleri and Leonardo Sciascia and Mafia crime dramas Romanzo Criminale and Gomorrah, along with the gruesome Gialli crime films. He also considers important French and Belgian writers such as Maigret’s creator Georges Simenon to today’s Fred Vargas, cult television programmes Braquo and Spiral, and films, from the classic heist movie Rififi to modern successes such as Hidden, Mesrine and Tell No One. German and Austrian greats are covered including Jakob Arjouni and Jan Costin Wagner, and crime films such as Run Lola Run and The Lives of Others. Euro Noir also covers the best crime writing and filmmaking from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Holland and other European countries and celebrates the wide scope of European crime fiction, films and TV.

There is even a new section on Nordic Noir!

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by | May 21, 2014 · 2:23 pm

Trust in Nordic Welfare States

A public event on Monday 19 May in London will discuss the history and future of Nordic Welfare States and particularly their role in making citizens trust each other and the public institutions.

The event is called Generating Social Trust in the 21st Century and will feature the Danish Ambassador, Prof. Klaus Petersen of the SDU Centre for Welfare Studies, Claire Fox, Uta Steiger and UCL’s Mary Hilson.

Please find more details from the following link including how to sign up for this free event:

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The Glass Key: The best Nordic crime authors crossing swords


The Nordic cooperation when it comes to crime fiction is blossoming – and the countries are contributing to each others’ publications like never before. But on the stage at the crime festival, Krimimessen, in Horsens, there was also room for a fierce sense of competition between the candidates for the Scandinavian crime award, The Glass Key, which is handed out in June.

On the stage, we have three out of the four candidates for this year’s crime award representing Sweden, Norway and Denmark, as well as last year’s winner from Norway, Jørn Lier Horst. At the head of this battle of crime fiction is the Danish critic Bo Tao Michaëlis who asks them questions about their candidacy as well as the international interest in Nordic crime fiction.

This year, the battle is between Swedish Christoffer Carlsson (Den osynlige mannen från Salem), the Norwegian Gard Sveen (Den siste pilgrimen), the Finnish Reijo Mäki (Sheriffen) and the Danish Simon Pasternak (Dødszoner). Iceland has not submitted a candidate this year.

There are plenty of smiles, humorous remarks and friendly banter on the stage. But The Glass Key is not a pity award; as a consequence, there are no room for the selected authors to rest on their laurels. There is a general consensus among the candidates that The Glass Key plays a huge part in opening doors for the nominated authors as well as the winner.

According to the Norwegian candidate, Gard Sveen, the Nordic crime fiction achieves its massive international popularity due to the outside world’s romantic notions about the Scandinavian countries, where the crime fiction is able to take you behind the scenes of this rosy picturesque image. However, the Swedish candidate Christoffer Calsson has a more cheeky and direct suggestion: “Because we are better than everyone else.”

But the remaining question begs to be asked – who is best? As Bo Tao Michaëlis ends the panel by saying: “May the best man win.”

And speaking of being the best. After this year’s crime festival in Horsens, one of Denmark’s most popular crime authors, Jussi Adler Olsen, complimented Krimimessen on being the best in the world – even when up against big book fairs and festivals in the rest of world, including USA etc.
“We are happy and proud,” says Vibeke Johansen, program director for Krimimessen.

Photo: Willy Wegner. From the left: Gard Sveen, Simon Pasternak, Jørn Lier Horst og Christoffer Carlsson.

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Crime Story – a weekend festival for crime writers and readers

Spend a weekend getting under the skin of a fictional crime with top crime writers, criminologists, lawyers, police and forensics experts. New Writing North and Northumbria University invite crime writers (aspiring or established) and readers to Crime Story – a weekend of discussion and workshops focusing on a fictional crime and how it would be investigated in real life.
Ann Cleeves, prize-winning author of the Vera Stanhope series (now a major ITV series) and Shetland Island Quartet series, has created a crime especially for this weekend. (To read the crime click here.)

Throughout the Crime Story weekend criminologists and forensic scientists will give insights into how labs work, experts in policing will talk you through scene of the crime procedure and journalists will discuss the moral responsibility of reporting on heinous crimes. There will also be prize-winning crime writers at the festival – Louise Welsh, Margaret Murphy (AD Garrett) and Ann Cleeves – who will talk about how to incorporate the forensic facts into fiction. Participants will be guided ably throughout the weekend by author and former crime fiction critic for The Observer Peter Guttridge.

This is an unmissable opportunity for any lover of crime fiction, whether you’re an aspiring writer or want to dig deeper into your favourite fictional world. To find out more about Crime Story, and to book your place, go to

New Writing North is the writing development agency for the North of England. We work with writers, publishers, libraries and bookshops across the region to promote and encourage regional writing. You can get more information about us at

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Criminal peripheries: Dahlberg’s Memory Wound and the national trauma of Utøya, 22. July 2011

I wanted to share the introduction to my research paper on Criminal Peripheries in Scandinavian Crime Fiction with the Nordic Noir Book Club, as I think many of you have also seen and been impressed by the winning project for the Oslo/Utøya memorials.

I am giving the paper at the annual SASS 2014 conference at Yale University on Thursday. My introduction discusses the recently revealed memorial commemorating 22. July 2011, and in the paper I wonder about why the Swedish artist wants to cut up the landscape.

Last week the winning project for the “Memorial Sites After 22. July” was revealed in Norway. These are the site-specific memorials that will commemorate the most notorious criminal periphery in recent Nordic history, the terrorist attacks on the government quarters in Oslo and the Worker’s Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011, attacks that claimed 77 lives. 

The Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s memorial to the Utøya massacre entitled “Memory Wound” has been met with almost unanimous positive reactions in the global and social media – which by no means was a given, since such national memorials are more often than not widely contested sites, since they inevitably make a claim for representing a particular and permanent version of what is in essence a complex collective memory.

For the memorial the artist proposes to ‘slice a three-and-a-half-metre-wide slit into the Sørbråten peninsula, which faces the island of Utøya and to transfer “one hundred cubic metres of the stone cut from Sørbråten to the governmental quarter in Oslo, where another memorial will mark the spot where a car bomb was detonated”. Dahlberg explains that his concept for the memorial: “[…] proposes a wound or a cut within nature itself. It reproduces the physical experience of taking away, reflecting the abrupt and permanent loss of those who died. The cut will be a three-and-a-half-meters-wide excavation. It slices from the top of the headland at the Sørbråten site, to below the water line and extends to each side. This void in the landscape makes it impossible to reach the end of the headland.” (see

It is in many ways an evocative memorial that produces in the visitor an immediate emotional response – not least when one is reading Dahlberg’s almost clinical forensic description of an autopsy on memory and the landscape. The memorial inscribes into the very landscape, so central to the Norwegian national imagination, the immediate shock and permanent trauma of the mass murder experienced by the victims’ families, the survivors and the nation as a whole.

The void in the landscape replicates a mode of representing collective traumas that we recognize in Daniel Libeskind’s architectural voids in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. As Libeskind’s voids represent the absence of Jews in the heart of the German capital, Dahlberg’s Earthwork clearly signifies absence, the permanent absence of the victims. As a void that fractures the landscape and precludes access, it also signifies history: “a broken history without continuity” (Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts, 68).

It suggests that just as the void visualizes the permanent trauma and loss experienced by the survivors and those who lost a child or a friend, it also points to a more collective impossibility of “going back to” a time before the events, and as such, the Memory Wound figures the history of Norway itself: a secure, trustful, modernised and wealthy welfare society, whose peripheral self-perception had left the nation untouched by the evils of global risks, now wounded and exiled permanently from its innocent past.

Only a few days following the attacks, the Norwegian bestselling crime writer Jo Nesbø wrote an article entitled “The past is a foreign country” that was printed both in The Guardian and in the New York Times. While the article ends with his hopeful belief in the resilience of the Norwegian people to resist becoming fearful and lose its social trust, the title also suggests that merely a week following the attacks, the innocent Norway had become but a memory, imbued with nostalgia and a deep sense of loss. “Until Friday,” Nesbø writes, “we thought of our country as a virgin – unsullied by the ills of society”. His anxieties for the attacks’ effect on life in Norway are expressed in the compulsively repeated phrase “There is no road back to the way it was before”, which reveals the traumatic condition under which the article was written. Nesbø’s Norway after the attacks is a country whose extraordinary sense of security and innocence has been forever lost, a past in which the prime minister could cycle the streets and chat with the public with security guards safely in the background while wearing a cycling helmet.

Henning Mankell also wrote about the loss of innocence in an article where he refers to Hannah Arendt’s studies of the Holocaust: “The distant and in many ways idyllic Norway, the country with the oil and the wealth, is suddenly exposed to the banality of evil”.
Dahlberg’s memory wound, the void in the landscape, concurs with Nesbø and Mankell’s early conclusions: Norway is no longer “unsullied by the ills of society” – this is a wound in the very foundation of the nation that cannot heal. The crimes in Oslo and on Utøya have made this geopolitical periphery a great deal more like the rest of our globalised ‘runaway world’. And soon, with Dahlberg’s monumental Earthwork, Norway will have a memorial to match the global craze for large-scale memorials to, for instance, the Holocaust, the World Wars or 9/11.

The Memory Wound is particularly interesting in the way it and its artist engage traumatic memories with the age-old confrontation between nature and culture, which is, of course, always central to Earthworks or LandArt. And it is with the following cluster of phenomena that my paper will explore an example of the literary Nordic criminal peripheries: nature, landscape, forests, crime, trauma, the welfare state and ecology.
After revelling in the sublime site of the Memory Wound, an environmentally inclined spectator may wonder why the artist has found a violent attack on nature to be a fitting commemoration for the youth who fell so numerously as victims to the violent acts of, granted, a very different man. Jonas Dahlberg recounts that one “emotional observation” has informed his overall concept:
During the initial site visit to Utøya, I noticed how different the feeling was of walking outside in nature, compared to the feeling of walking through the rooms of the main building. The experience of seeing the vacant rooms and the traces of extreme violence brought me — and others around me — to a state of profound sadness. In its current state, the building kept close within it the memory of the terror acts of July 22, 2011. Like an open wound. But while the building produced these feelings, nature was somehow different. Although we stood directly on the very place where many people had lost their lives, nature had already begun to obscure all traces.

The emotional experience of absence and the void left by the traces of extreme violence on Utøya is produced in the buildings on the island – it is when going through the vacant rooms that the visitors are faced with the “open wound” of the events. But what seems almost as horrific is the difference, or should we say indifference of nature towards the location in which people had lost their lives: “nature had already begun to obscure all traces”.

The Memory Wound, as other memorials, is only partly about remembering the events that happened here and the people who died, the memorial is only partly about the traumatic event itself. It is, however, as much a work attacking the very nature or precondition of memory, namely forgetting. By revenging itself against nature, on behalf of those in mourning, the memorial fights against cyclical time, regeneration and the healing of wounds, against forgetting, by inserting a man-made fissure into nature itself. Nature has to be interrupted in its growth lest it should forget what it has witnessed as a passive bystander to the atrocities.


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