The Mystery of Nordic Noir and the Welfare State

A new series of essays investigating the relationship between Nordic Noir and the welfare sate, curated by Bruce Robbins, is being published on Post45. So far, two essays have been published. Bruce Robbins considers in his excellent piece, ‘The Detective is Suspended‘, the first season of the TV-series Forbrydelsen. If you have wondered why so many female Nordic detectives are presented as difficult and ‘unsozialised’, Bruce Robbins has the intriguing answer.

In my own piece, ‘The Policeman in the Ill-fitting Uniform‘, I discuss Anne Holt’s crime novel Skyggedød and how its uses the attack on Utøya, a Norwegian tragedy, to consider the care for children and the fate of social trust in a neo-liberal welfare state. The novel by Holt has yet to appear in English translation, so beware there might be some plot spoilers in this piece.

Look out for further essays in this series.

Leave a comment

Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

“Sex and Scandinavians” – extract from Barry Forshaw’s new book

Thanks to Barry for sharing the extract below from his exciting (!) new book Sex and Film: The Erotic in British American and World Cinema.

In much the same way that Ingmar Bergman had tackled sexual themes in his much-respected arthouse classics, other directors were moving into this edgy territory. The Swedish I am Curious Yellow and its less successful sequel I am Curious Blue, directed by Vilgot Sjöman in 1967 and 1968 respectively, had supporters who were able to mount a defence based on the films’ avowed social and political agendas, with a left-wing critique of Swedish society clearly being foregrounded as much as any sexual content in the film (famously, the plump Lena Nyman’s nudity and her fondling of the actor Börje Ahlstedt’s genitals), though it was the sex that (unsurprisingly) gleaned the column inches more than the dour agitprop, the latter very much of its time. Ironically, other more contentious foreign films – which might be said to wear their exploitation credentials more overtly on their sleeves — such as Michael Miller’s West German film Pornography in Denmark (1970) and Jorgen Lhyne’s American-made Pornography: Copenhagen 1970 (1970) were passed uncut in America as they were promoted as ‘documentaries’, even though both featured unsimulated sexual intercourse (the film Pornography in Denmark was able to show the sequence as part of a visit to a film studio where the sequences were supposedly being filmed; had it been simply incorporated into the narrative of a mainstream film, it would not have been allowed.

Sex education films had long been utilised as a way of circumventing censorship from the days of such films as He and She and Man and Wife which had demonstrated sexual positions (and even cunnilingus and fellatio), talked about dispassionately by clearly serious (it seemed) sexual experts. But by the time of Torgny Wickman’s Language of Love (1969), the treatment of sexual dysfunction was routinely included in unblushing fashion, the apparent seriousness underlined by the narration of a writer had worked on the Alfred Kinsey reports, Dr Wardell Pomeroy. These films (ran the defence) had a point to make beyond titillation, and were thus more defensible than popular entertainment which simply invited the audience to enjoy the carnal activity on offer.

A constant source of annoyance – or wry acceptance – among Swedes visiting Great Britain is the fondly-held, slightly envious British notion (also nurtured by Americans) of Sweden as a fount of sexual liberation and erotic adventure; a land without inhibitions where all forms of erotic behaviour are tolerated, and saunas are used more creatively than simply to open the pores of the skin. Much of this perception stems from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which was by no means a solely Swedish phenomenon. The writer Håkan Nesser is fond of nailing one particular culprit in this identification of unbuttoned sexuality with the Swedes: the great international success of the 1967 film I Am Curious Yellow (as mentioned above), which, though largely a dispiriting (and would-be humorous) left-wing political tract, famously featured a deal of nudity and startling sexual scenes. According to Nesser, the massive international success and censorship furore surrounding this film (largely because of its relatively minimal erotic content) established a template in the minds of non-Swedes for the country; a template, what’s more, which hardly told the whole story. Swedes, according to Nesser, have been living with this lazy cliché ever since. But other, more prestigious, Swedish filmmakers might have been said to have contributed to this perception of Nordic carnality, notably the man many cinéastes consider to be non-pareil, Ingmar Bergman. His mid-period masterpiece Summer with Monika (1952) enjoyed a great deal of attention not only for its undeniably impressive cinematic qualities, but for a scene in which a nubile Harriet Anderson removed her sweater – at a time when actresses kept their bodies largely covered. Later Bergman films such as The Silence (1963) further expanded the sexual parameters with actress (and then-Bergman muse) Ingrid Thulin in a particularly joyless masturbation scene, while a young couple have sex in a cinema in a sequence that was considered very graphic that time (despite the impeccable reputation of the director, The Silence encountered much crass tampering by censors at the time – and, as with most such storms-in-teacups occasioned by moral guardians, the film’s sexual candour is mainstream today).

Interestingly, this perception of Scandinavia as a land of erotic lotus-eaters has not been explored in Nordic crime fiction to any great extent (no doubt because native writers know the truth behind such erroneous perceptions), although Karin Alvtegen – while utilising the form of the traditional ‘cosy’ mystery – incorporates audacious sexual elements into her narrative. The Icelandic Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, a woman not afraid to confront the shibboleths of her society, utilises asphyxiation for sexual ends in Last Rituals. The author, of course, who most fully explored the sexual arena was the late Stieg Larsson, whose unblushing and graphic descriptions of sexual acts have caused much controversy (not least inspiring debates over whether or not the author’s unflinching – and repeated – descriptions of sexual abuse are exploitative or feminist). Interestingly, the duo who are the inspiration behind much current Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, are notably chaste and discreet in their treatment of sex. Regarding other areas of sexual politics (including homosexuality), certain Scandinavian writers have been much more upfront – notably Anne Holt with her lesbian protagonist Hanne Wilhelmsen – although the character’s sexuality is utilised as a means of creating her personality rather than introducing any erotic elements. If the Nordic Noir novel may be considered as subversive of a generic form (which is ostensibly concerned with the restoration of the status quo), it is not so in the sexual arena (despite occasionally addressing gender issues) but in the political field.

Sex and Film: The Erotic in British American and World Cinema by Barry Forshaw is published by Palgrave Macmillan


Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

Quality crime fiction from across Scandinavia is shortlisted for the 2015 Petrona Award

Six high-quality crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2015 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. They are:

THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Arcadia Books; Finland)
THE HUNTING DOGS by Jørn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)
REYKJAVIK NIGHTS by Arnaldur Indriðason tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker; Iceland)
THE HUMAN FLIES by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle; Norway)
FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM by Leif G W Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)
THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winning title will be announced at the annual international crime fiction event CrimeFest, held in Bristol 14-17 May 2015. The award will be presented by the Godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall, co-author with Per Wahlöö of the Martin Beck series.

The award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia and published in the UK in the previous calendar year.

Leading Scandinavian crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw said “The Petrona Award goes from strength to strength, with both winners and shortlisted authors representing the very finest in the Nordic Noir genre; I’m pleased to be involved.”

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

THE HUMMINGBIRD: Kati Hiekkapelto’s accomplished debut introduces young police investigator Anna Fekete, whose family fled to Finland during the Yugoslavian wars. Paired with an intolerant colleague, she must solve a complex set of murders and the suspicious disappearance of a young Kurdish girl. Engrossing and confidently written, THE HUMMINGBIRD is a police procedural that explores contemporary themes in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

THE HUNTING DOGS: The third of the William Wisting series to appear in English sees Chief Inspector Wisting suspended from duty when evidence from an old murder case is found to have been falsified. Hounded by the media, Wisting must now work under cover to solve the case and clear his name, with the help of journalist daughter Line. Expertly constructed and beautifully written, this police procedural showcases the talents of one of the most accomplished authors of contemporary Nordic Noir.

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS: A prequel to the series featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson, REYKJAVIK NIGHTS gives a snapshot of 1970s Iceland, with traditional culture making way for American influences. Young police officer Erlendur takes on the ‘cold’ case of a dead vagrant, identifying with a man’s traumatic past. Indriðason’s legion of fans will be delighted to see the gestation of the mature Erlendur; the novel is also the perfect starting point for new readers of the series.

THE HUMAN FLIES: Hans Olav Lahlum successfully uses elements from Golden Age detective stories to provide a 1960s locked-room mystery that avoids feeling like a pastiche of the genre. The writing is crisp and the story intricately plotted. With a small cast of suspects, the reader delights in following the investigations of Lahlum’s ambitious detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen, who relies on the intellectual rigour of infirm teenager Patricia Borchmann.

It’s 2007 and the chair of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson, has reopened the investigation into the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. But can he and his dedicated team really solve this baffling case? The final part of Persson’s ‘The Story of a Crime’ trilogy presents the broadest national perspective using a variety of different techniques – from detailed, gritty police narrative to cool documentary perspective – to create a novel that is both idiosyncratic and highly compelling.

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has said ‘I really love making people’s flesh creep!’, and she is the supreme practitioner when it comes to drawing on the heritage of Icelandic literature, and channelling ancient folk tales and ghost stories into a vision of modern Icelandic society. In SILENCE OF THE SEA, an empty yacht crashes into Reykjavik’s harbour wall: its Icelandic crew and passengers have vanished. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates this puzzling and deeply unsettling case, in a narrative that skilfully orchestrates fear and tension in the reader.

The judges are:

Barry Forshaw – Writer and journalist specialising in crime fiction and film; author of four books covering Scandinavian crime fiction: NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR and the first biography of Stieg Larsson.

Dr. Katharina Hall – Associate Professor of German at Swansea University; editor of CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI for University of Wales Press; international crime fiction reviewer/blogger at MRS. PEABODY INVESTIGATES.

Sarah Ward – Crime novelist, author of the forthcoming IN BITTER CHILL (Faber and Faber), and crime fiction blogger at CRIMEPIECES.

More information can be found on the Petrona Award website (

The Petrona Award was established to celebrate the work of Maxine Clarke, one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers, who died in December 2012. Maxine, whose online persona and blog was called PETRONA, was passionate about translated crime fiction but in particular that from the Scandinavian countries.

The winning author will receive a full pass to and a guaranteed panel at the 2016 CrimeFest event.

Previous winners of the Petrona Award are Liza Marklund for LAST WILL, translated by Neil Smith and LINDA, AS IN THE LINDA MURDER by Leif G W Persson also translated by Neil Smith.


Leave a comment

Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

Barry Forshaw’s book on Sex and Film reviewed favorably – with some Nordic Lust

See the first review in The Times ‘In Short’ column! The Times on Sex and Film: ‘Forshaw… has probably watched more sex films than any furrow-browed censor ever did’

SEX AND FILM: The Erotic in British, American and World Cinema by Barry Forshaw (Palgrave Macmillan, £19.99)
Iain Finlayson/The Times

“Barry Forshaw concurs with Orson Welles who declared that “two things can never be filmed in an interesting way: prayer and sexual intercourse.” Nothing daunted, film makers have certainly given sex their best efforts, with varying results and reactions. In a very thorough review of cinematic sex from the witty Hollywood sex comedies of the 1930s and the 1960s to the European post-war reputation for frank sexuality and mesmerising, post-millennial shockers such as ‘Nymphomaniac’ by Lars von Trier, the explicit, the erotic and the exploitative are analysed with witty erudition. The section on the UK film industry is, pitifully, titled ‘British Smut’: typical were the cheap, camp, comic ‘Carry On’ films, or the fearful 1976 anti-sex comedy “I’m Not Feeling Myself Tonight”, heavy on innuendo but light on lust. Forshaw, one of our best film critics, has probably watched more sex films than any furrow-browed censor ever did: for his own good, maybe now he should find a good prayer movie.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction

Nordic Noir expert Barry Forshaw discusses our fascination with Scandinavian fiction

Thanks to our friends at Nordic Noir & Beyond, here is a short video captured at last year’s Nordicana of Barry discussing the influences of particularly Nordic TV crime and drama.

Leave a comment

Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction, Television drama, tv crime

Who Reads the Literatures of Small Nations and Why?

What was the last book you read in English translation? What made you read it? Do you go out of your way to read books in translation? Are they easy to find? Can they tell us or show us things that English-language literature can’t?

You can help us to learn more about the habits of UK readers by answering this short and simple online questionnaire: We are particularly interested in the thoughts of readers following our Nordic Noir Book Club

And join us for an evening of sharing experiences with the reading, publishing and selling of literature in translation in the UK on Wednesday February 4th 2015, 7pm; Elwin Room, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16 Queen Square, Bath BA1 2HN

Leave a comment

Filed under Crime Research, European crime fiction, Related events

Barry Forshaw to interview Indridason

Barry Forshaw is looking forward to interviewing Arnaldur Indridason at Harrogate Theakstons – & they’ve got a competition to win his Nordic Noir & Euro Noir books! Visit

Please do also keep an eye out for Barry’s new book on Sex and Film which has a big Scandinavian section, of course.


Leave a comment

Filed under Icelandic crime fiction, Nordic cinema, Nordic Crime Fiction Event