Nordic Noir and Scandinavian Cool

Apparently the world once thought of the countries that make up the Scandinavian region as dull and boring. Nothing much happened in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark besides endless winters, ABBA, Volvo and utopian socialist experiments. Not any longer. Over the last couple of decades this region has become a hotbed of artistic, literary and business creativity.

[div class=attrib]From the Economist:[end-div]

TWENTY YEARS AGO the Nordic region was a cultural backwater. Even the biggest cities were dead after 8pm. The restaurants offered meatballs or pale versions of Italian or French favourites. The region did come up with a few cultural icons such as Ingmar Bergman and Abba, and managed to produce world-class architects and designers even at the height of post-war brutalism. But the few successes served only to emphasise the general dullness.

The backwater has now turned into an entrepot. Stockholm relishes its reputation as one of the liveliest cities in Europe (and infuriates its neighbours by billing itself as “the capital of Scandinavia”). Scandinavian crime novels have become a genre in their own right. Danish television shows such as “The Killing” and “Borgen” are syndicated across the world. Swedish music producers are fixtures in Hollywood. Copenhagen’s Noma is one of the world’s most highly rated restaurants and has brought about a food renaissance across the region.

Why has the land of the bland become a cultural powerhouse? Jonas Bonnier, CEO of the Bonnier Group, Sweden’s largest media company, thinks that it is partly because new technologies are levelling the playing field. Popular music was once dominated by British and American artists who were able to use all sorts of informal barriers to protect their position. Today, thanks to the internet, somebody sitting in a Stockholm attic can reach the world. Rovio’s Michael Hed suggests that network effects are much more powerful in small countries: as soon as one writer cracks the global detective market, dozens of others quickly follow.

All true. But there is no point in giving people microphones if they have nothing to say. The bigger reason why the region’s writers and artists—and indeed chefs and game designers—are catching the world’s attention is that they are so full of vim. They are reinventing old forms such as the detective story or the evening meal but also coming up with entirely new forms such as video games for iPads.

The cultural renaissance is thus part of the other changes that have taken place in the region. A closed society that was dominated by a single political orthodoxy (social democracy) and by a narrow definition of national identity (say, Swedishness or Finnishness) is being shaken up by powerful forces such as globalisation and immigration. All the Nordics are engaged in a huge debate about their identity in a post-social democratic world. Think-tanks such as Denmark’s Cepos flaunt pictures of Milton Friedman in the same way that student radicals once flaunted pictures of Che Guevara. Writers expose the dark underbelly of the old social democratic regime. Chefs will prepare anything under the sun as long as it is not meatballs.

The region’s identity crisis is creating a multicultural explosion. The Nordics are scavenging the world for ideas. They continue to enjoy a love-hate relationship with America. They are discovering inspiration from their growing ethnic minorities but are also reaching back into their own cultural traditions. Swedish crime writers revel in the peculiarities of their culture. Danish chefs refuse to use foreign ingredients. A region that has often felt the need to apologise for its culture—those bloodthirsty Vikings! Those toe-curling Abba lyrics! Those naff fishermen’s jumpers!—is enjoying a surge of regional pride.

Blood and snow

Over the past decade Scandinavia has become the world’s leading producer of crime novels. The two Swedes who did more than anyone else to establish Nordic noir—Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell—have both left the scene of crime. Larsson died of a heart attack in 2004 before his three books about a girl with a dragon tattoo became a global sensation. Mr Mankell consigned his hero, Kurt Wallander, to Alzheimer’s after a dozen bestsellers. But their books continue to be bought in their millions: “Dragon Tattoo” has sold more than 50m, and the Wallander books collectively even more.

A group of new writers, such as Jo Nesbo in Norway and Camilla Lackberg in Sweden, are determined to keep the flame burning. And the crime wave is spreading beyond adult fiction and the written word. Sweden’s Martin Widmark writes detective stories for children. Swedish and British television producers compete to make the best version of Wallander. “The Killing” established a new standard for televised crime drama.

The region has a long tradition of crime writing. Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, a Swedish husband-and-wife team, earned a dedicated following among aficionados with their police novels in the 1960s and 1970s. They also established two of Nordic noir’s most appealing memes. Martin Beck is an illness-prone depressive who gets to the truth by dint of relentless plodding. The ten Martin Beck novels present Sweden as a capitalist hellhole that can be saved only by embracing Soviet-style communism (the crime at the heart of the novels is the social democratic system’s betrayal of its promise).

Today’s crime writers continue to profit from these conventions. Larsson’s Sweden, for example, is a crypto-fascist state run by a conspiracy of psychopathic businessmen and secret-service agents. But today’s Nordic crime writers have two advantages over their predecessors. The first is that their hitherto homogenous culture is becoming more variegated and their peaceful society has suffered inexplicable bouts of violence (such as the assassination in 1986 of Sweden’s prime minister, Olof Palme, and in 2003 of its foreign minister, Anna Lindh, and Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage in Norway in 2011). Nordic noir is in part an extended meditation on the tension between the old Scandinavia, with its low crime rate and monochrome culture, and the new one, with all its threats and possibilities. Mr Mankell is obsessed by the disruption of small-town life by global forces such as immigration and foreign criminal gangs. Each series of “The Killing” focuses as much on the fears—particularly of immigrant minorities—that the killing exposes as it does on the crime itself.

The second advantage is something that Wahloo and Sjowall would have found repulsive: a huge industry complete with support systems and the promise of big prizes. Ms Lackberg began her career in an all-female crime-writing class. Mr Mankell wrote unremunerative novels and plays before turning to a life of crime. Thanks in part to Larsson, crime fiction is one of the region’s biggest exports: a brand that comes with a guarantee of quality and a distribution system that stretches from Stockholm to Hollywood.

Dinner in Copenhagen can come as a surprise to even the most jaded foodie. The dishes are more likely to be served on slabs of rock or pieces of wood than on plates. The garnish often takes the form of leaves or twigs. Many ingredients, such as sea cabbage or wild flowers, are unfamiliar, and the more familiar sort, such as pike, are often teamed with less familiar ones, such as unripe elderberries.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: ABBA, Eurovision, 1974. Courtesy of Time.[end-div]