Is Nordic Noir Too Grim?

Poster for the film version of Stieg Larsson’s Men who hate Women

.The British crime writer Ann Cleeves attacks Nordic Noir’s sexual violence against women in a recent interview with The Observer:

although there had always been violence in crime fiction, it was now “much more embedded”. She said: “I especially don’t like the graphic violence against women and children, often depicted in novels such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and others. I’m not sure if it’s being done just to entertain, or whether it really is necessary for the characters involved.

It is no surprise that violence against women is a central theme in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy; viewers of The Killing will have seen another instance of violence against women as central to popular fictional crime plots. However, this is not a recent phenomenon. Scandinavian crime fiction has at least since the 90s been concerned with this theme (think Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Mankell and Nesser etc), however, there may be something to the argument that crime fiction today both in print and on the screen doesn’t spare the readers and viewers the most gruesome details of the crimes perpetrated. But is this a trait of Nordic Noir in particular, or is it a common trait of crime fiction today?

For an excellent presentation of recent critical responses to rape and violence against women in Scandinavian crime fiction, read the volume Rape in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and Beyond: Contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone Crime Fiction, edited by Berit Åström and others. Among many interesting points, the editors remind us that violence against women has a long and complicated history in crime fiction going back to at least to the 19th century, and the individual articles point out that rape in contemporary crime fiction (Both Scandinavian and Anglophone) is often used to voice social and political criticism – so maybe the violence does have a point beyond entertainment value?

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