We’re greatly pleased to have Nils Nordberg, the leading Scandinavian crime authority, contribute to Crime Time. His analysis of Nordic Noir was written in 2005 and describes the world as it looked then, before the current surge.It was originally written for a German book: "Fjorde, Elche, Mörder" (which says it all, if you know your German), sub-titled "Der skandinavische Kriminalroman", published in 2006. Nils, a former radio drama producer/dramaturgist at the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, has been in charge of crime & thriller productions, past president of Rivertonklubben, the Norwegian Crime Writers’ Association, for over 20 years. He is an author, dramatist, translator, editor of crime short story anthologies and books, including the first complete Norwegian edition of the Sherlock Holmes stories,and has written Døden i kiosken (Death at the News-stall), a history of the penny dreadful detectives in Norway and abroad.
Murder in the Midnight Sun: Crime Fiction in Norway 1825–2005
"The detective story needs more constructive imagination, more sense of composition and the economy of effects than any other form of fiction. The writer must be stringent; he must have a feeling for the mathematics of details, because everything has to fit into a strictly limited unity and point towards one definite denouement."
This was not written by Agatha Christie nor by John Dickson Carr, though they would in all probability gladly have signed their names to it. It can be found in a first detective novel, Nattmennesket (‘The Night Person’), written by a 22-year-old Norwegian, André Bjerke, published in 1941 under the alias Bernhard Borge. The fact that he was also a poet and a translator of Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe, is likely to be more than a coincidence. There is a distinct and close family relationship between crime fiction, poetry and drama, all of them literary genres of strict rules but infinite variety.
And, after all, the modern crime story was invented by a poet, the American Edgar Allan Poe. That is at least the accepted truth. But the fact is that the first tales to deserve the name "crime story" in the sense that we use it today were written by a Norwegian, Mauritz Christopher Hansen (1794–1842). Like Poe he was a poor man of letters, a poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer, as well as a lexicographer and teacher.
And, like the American, he was influenced by the double forces of European Romanticism, with writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Friedrich Schiller and E. T. A. Hoffmann, and the philosophy of Rationalism, which had a strong footing in the merchant and civil servant classes to which both Poe and Hansen originally belonged. These two inspirations created in both writers a strong attraction towards mystery on the one hand, and, on the other, an equally strong desire to explain the inexplicable. Triggered by this and the growth of nationalism in Europe, Hansen set out to create something that hadn’t existed in his country before: a national prose literature. He wanted to describe, in realistic fictional form, the life of people of Norway. Here he parts ways with Poe, who was mainly interested in the soul. But both were led, like many others at the time, to the themes of murder and mystery.
Hansen wrote over 20 stories that in a broad sense could be classified as crime fiction. The earliest one was published in 1821, "Den gale Christian" (‘The Mad Christian’), a psychological thriller. In 1825 came what Hansen himself labelled a "Criminalhistorie" (‘crime story’), the short novel Keadan, eller Klosterruinen (‘Keadan, or the Abbey Ruins’). But although there certainly are murder and plenty of mayhem as well as a court trial in this tale set in a remote mountain community of Norway, it doesn’t quite make the mark; with its strong emphasis on romance and rambling storyline it is popular melodrama, rather than crime fiction in the generic sense.
The short story simply called "Novellen" (‘The Short Story’), published in 1827 is, however, a different matter. In it, an old and odd tale about a local madwoman forms the basis of one man’s speculations about what really could have happened, and a murder plot is uncovered. But it isn’t presented as the resolution of a mystery, but rather as an exercise in literary technique, a demonstration of how real life can be used as material for fiction, hence the title. And so "Novellen" misses by a split hair the honour of being the world’s first armchair detective story.
But it did point in the right direction. And in the short story "Jutulskoppen" (1836, ‘The Troll Mountain’) there are two murders, an innocent suspect, an investigation by means of documentary evidence, a trial and a sensational court-room revelation of the real culprit (the suspect’s husband, in fact), in the fashion of Perry Mason a hundred years later.
Then, at the end of 1839, Hansen published the short novel Mordet paa Maskinbygger Roolfsen (‘The Murder of Engineer Roolfsen’).
It is set in the author’s native city of Kongsberg in the late 18th Century and focuses entirely on the investigation of a suspected crime committed by person or persons unknown. There is a detective, lawyer and local chief of police Barth, who patiently and persistently interviews suspects and witnesses and gathers clues – one of them provided by an early example of forensic chemistry – which are all presented fairly to the reader. Putting all his information together, Barth arrives at a surprise double solution – one of them being that the guilty party is the city’s most powerful man, the one who has urged most strongly for a quick and successful result of the investigation and the other – well, the very title contains an Agatha Christie type of fair misdirection: Roolfsen wasn’t murdered but made to disappear in such a fashion that everybody thought he had been. The detective is, in contrast to messieurs Dupin, Holmes and Poirot a realistic, everyday character, even to the point of having a weak spot: The chief suspect’s mother was the love of his young life; she refused his proposal, thinking herself socially beneath him, but he still harbours feelings for her.
There can be no doubt that Mordet paa Maskinbygger Roolfsen, written a year and a half before Poe published "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," was the world’s first detective story proper. But Hansen wrote for a very small readership, basically the couple of thousands who formed the educated classes of contemporary Norway. And when he died shortly afterwards, he had few followers. No one attempted another detective story, but some writers continued to write sensation novels in which crime played a part.
And there was yet no market for popular mass fiction. What little there was tended to sympathize with the law-breaker rather than the police. The autobiography of master thief Gjest Baardsen, written in prison, was one of the most popular books in those mid-19th-century years.
Hansen did have one famous pupil, though. The retrospective technique employed by Henrik Ibsen in his contemporary plays, where secrets of the past are revealed, layer by layer, owes a great deal to Hansen’s example. And Ibsen, of course, was no mean thriller writer.
Some of Hansen’s stories were published in Germany. Were they seen by a certain American writer who could read German (and, incidentally, set one of his stories in Norway)? It remains at best a shadowy possibility.
The First Golden Age
But despite Mauritz Hansen’s achievement, the history of Norwegian crime fiction properly begins in 1897, with the publication of Karl Monks Oplevelser (‘The Adventures of Karl Monk’), which contained two long stories about a former Head of the Kristiania (Oslo) C.I.D. turned private investigator.
By then, the great pioneers of the genre, such as Gaboriau, Collins, Fergus Hume and Conan Doyle, had been published in translation and the detective story had quickly become immensely popular, especially with the rapidly increasing middle class. And the working class reading audience had multiplied, paving the way for cheap fiction of the penny dreadful kind, much of it marginally crime fiction. Norway had grown into a very different country from the one that Mauritz Hansen knew, a modern world of steam engines, electricity, telephones and bicycles, and with a capital that had speedily grown into a small metropolis, complete with an underworld.
Karl Monk was created by the Navy officer, later Admiral, Christian Sparre (1859–1940), writing under the pseudonym Fredrik Viller (this was the start of a long tradition of using aliases for crime writing in Norway). Monk is described as "the complete opposite to Sherlock Holmes", and true, he is a more emotional character – he resigned from his police job for the love of a woman who was a suspect in a case. But there isn’t really much doubt as to where he finds his inspiration; like everybody else at the time, Viller/Sparre found it difficult to escape from under the shadow of the Master of Baker Street.
So did at first Sven Elvestad (1884–1934), journalist and sybarite extraordinaire, who published a couple of detective stories at the tender age of 17 and then started in earnest two years later, in 1904. Elvestad’s private detective Asbjørn Krag (altered to Osborne Crag in one English translation!), also a former police investigator, is mysterious, romantic, infallible and aristocratic. But over the years he develops a rather split personality; on the one hand he is a full-blooded action hero, always on the track of some master criminal, quick to brandish guns and command the railway’s "latest steel giant" in order to pursue the villains; on the other – in Elvestad’s best novels – he is a patient, quiet but unrelenting hunter of the truth, willing to spend unlimited time waiting for the villain to break down, rather similar to Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, who was an important inspiration to Elvestad, along with Doyle and Poe.
Sparre continued to publish new books sporadically, some of them thrillers and spy stories rather than detective stories, over the next couple of decades. But he and others of the time were overshadowed by Elvestad, who, it can be claimed, was the first golden age of Norwegian crime fiction. And his influence is still felt; his police detective Knut Gribb, created for a penny dreadful series in 1908 to compete with Nick Carter who then had his breakthrough in Scandinavia, was given a permanent life in magazines and books and is at present the hero of a popular radio drama series. By now, more than 80 writers have contributed to his saga, and if Gribb doesn’t top the list in the number of adventures (about 1,500 against Sexton Blake’s nearly 4,000) he is certainly the longest running.
Elvestad, who used the crime writing alias of Stein Riverton in Norway and Sweden, but was published under his real name elsewhere (in fact, he was baptized Kristoffer Elvestad Svendsen), was immensely prolific. Even while producing every week for seven months a 60-page story about Knut Gribb, he continued to write of Asbjørn Krag and pursue his calling as a journalist. In all, he published 90 titles. Only a small handful of his crime fiction was short stories, the rest varied from short up to full-length novels. In later years he sometimes had to call in a ghost writer in order to meet the demand.
And his popularity didn’t stop at the borders; in the years from 1910 to 1925 he reigned supreme as King of Crime in northern Europe; he had books published in 17 languages, including Hungarian, Spanish and Serbo-Croat, and he had a particularly large following in Sweden and Germany. In fact, there were more titles published by him in those countries than in his native Norway. Very few were translated into English, though, but Fænomenet Robert Robertsson (1925, The Case of Robert Robertson) was published in the U.S.A. and received high praise by no less of an authority than Dashiell Hammett.
His books were highly topical; they spanned all layers of society from the alluring demi-monde of the restaurants to the mean streets of crime and squalor; they caught the pulse of their time. Elvestad considered the detective story the perfect fiction for the modern age of speed and technical innovation, "the age of the screaming disharmonies". He was himself part of this world; most of the novels were written for magazine and newspaper serial publication and then appeared in book form. They were composed at restaurant tables and in hotel rooms while the author pursued the noisy "moveable feast" that he craved, often with the office boy waiting at his side to take the next chapter to the printer. In consequence, too many of them are loosely plotted and haphazardly developed. But Elvestad was never less than a brilliant stylist – there is an echo of the early Hamsun in his work – and even in his less successful stories there are gems of description, where time and place come marvellously alive.
And a dozen or so of his books are truly great. A couple of them belong arguably among the best crime novels ever written, both tales of haunting psychological terror: Jernvognen (1909, ‘The Iron Chariot’), a murder mystery set in the pale Nordic summer, anticipates by 17 years the trick that Agatha Christie would use in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (it may have been suggested to Elvestad by Anton Chekov’s The Shooting Party). And Morderen fra mørket (1913, ‘The Killer from the Dark’), based on an actual, still unsolved Swedish murder case, has a similarly surprising denouement and an intensely observed feeling of nature and light – or darkness as it were: in contrast to Jernvognen it is set in the bleakest part of winter.
Elvestad was an international celebrity with a distinct appearance, gigantic in stature, but extremely myopic and with a face and a circumference that betrayed his passion for food, drink and tobacco. As a journalist he was capable of all kinds of stunts, he was also one of the first foreign reporters to interview the rising leader figure of the German Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, and he spent a lot of time abroad, especially in Sweden, Germany, and Italy. But in his best work – characteristically, one of the novels he published under his own name in Norway, is called Angsten (1911, ‘The Fear’) – the face of another man appears, a complex personality, deeply concerned with guilt and anxiety, the man who wrote prophetically about the rise of militarism and the possible abuse of technological progress long before World War I. Curiously, in his later years he became an admirer of Mussolini and Fascism, though it is hard to picture him marching along with booted Blackshirts; he was to much of an eccentric and individual for that.
Adventurers and Trouble-Shooters
In his time and country, Sven Elvestad had only one serious competitor for the favours of the reading audience, one whose books were also especially popular in Sweden and Germany. Like Elvestad, Øvre Richter Frich (1872–1945) was a larger-than-life character, a journalist turned fiction writer, who wrote about larger-than-life characters.
However, although some of Frich’s 42 novels could be categorized as crime, most of them are adventure thrillers set in exotic locales (Frich was a globe-trotter), many with strong science fiction elements, including death rays, marvellous inventions and flying machines, even a trip to another planet. The first ten or so of the books are also set in the then near future (Flyvefisken (‘The Flying Fish’), published in 1914, is about "the World War of 1921"). In half of Frich’s titles the hero is Doctor Jonas Fjeld, a brilliant surgeon who in the first novel, De knyttede næver (1911 – ‘The Knotted Fists’), has been driven to crime by boredom and un-sated lust for adventure. But he is redeemed by love and the realization that he has more important work to do, mainly fighting anarchists and terrorists. He goes on for the rest of the series as part free-lance adventurer, part trouble-shooter for the Norwegian government.
Fjeld is a blonde giant, an Übermensch and a latter-day Siegfried, as well as a precursor to Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, Indiana Jones and any number of comic strip action heroes. The fact that he has an unpleasant resemblance to the Aryan ideal of the Nazi posters might not have handicapped him in the long run. But Frich, who originally had a certain reluctant admiration for anarchists – he was attracted to outsiders – became increasingly anti-Semitic, proto-Fascist and reactionary, which is probably the reason why he has not survived to become the Norwegian Jules Verne, as he might have been. One gets the feeling that the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to his optimism and exuberance; from then on he ceased to antedate his stories and set them in the present, and his Bolshies and Socialists (all members of the global Jewish conspiracy, of course) have none of the redeeming features he gave his anarchists.
However, the early novels remain rather mindless, jolly fun, written in a deliberately over-the-top style, and have in slightly laundered dramatic adaptations been a hit on the radio in recent years.
The idea that some people are entitled to take the law into their own hands – for the best reasons, of course – was rather prevalent in Norwegian crime fiction during the time between the wars. The war, leading to wild financial speculations (Norway was a neutral country during WWI), the great political unrest that followed, the prohibition of liquor which brought the country its first experience with organized crime (and, for a while, a new kind of folk hero, the smuggler), all this created a distrust of established society and conventional ideas of right and wrong.
And maybe it also inspired the feeling that fun was to be had outside the straight and narrow. In his three books about millionaire playboy Peter van Heeren, who "decides to do something useful for a change" and become a crime fighter, Alf B. Bryn (1889–1947) created a character strongly reminiscent of the later "gay desperados" of British crime fiction, such as The Saint, complete with a slight streak of cruelty. Van Heeren is a typical merry Jazz Age character; he does things for his own pleasure and thinks nothing of kidnapping or breaking and entering to achieve his rightful purpose. But he has none of the political radicalism that would be a feature of ’30s version of The Saint and his fellow modern buccaneers and made them heroes of the working class. And van Heeren’s crime fighting doesn’t really amount to much – it is basically concerned with saving foolish upper-class women friends from blackmailers.
The young students in Bergenstoget plyndret inat! (1923, ‘The Bergen Train Robbed Tonight!’), however, are not interested in righting wrongs, they just need money. (In the end they give everything back, but it is said that this was due to pressure from the publisher brother of one of the authors; he refused to take the book unless crime didn’t pay.) This single novel by Jonathan Jerv, the joint pseudonym of Nordahl Grieg (1902–1944), who would go on to become a famous poet, novelist and war hero, and Nils Lie is unique in the sense that it probably started the particular Norwegian custom of linking crime fiction to Easter.
There is, despite the hard times, a certain champagne-popping exuberance in the ’20s novels. The next decade Norwegian crime fiction would take on a much more sombre aspect. This is not least evident in the books of one of the most important ’30s writers, Jonas Lie (1899–1945), who, for a change, chose a German-sounding alias, Max Mauser.
Lie, a grandson of another famous writer of that name who was at one time considered the equal of Ibsen, was a police superintendent; he represented Norway at the foundation of Interpol, served in the international police force in the Ruhr, and accompanied Leo Trotsky when he was shipped from Norway to Mexico (and was inspired to write the novel En hai følger båten (1938, ‘A Shark Follows the Ship’). But though he had earlier professed no great love for The Third Reich, during the war he became Minister of Police in the Quisling government and the most hated Norwegian Nazi next to Quisling himself. This of course has come in the way of the fact that he was a very talented crime writer.
Lie wrote five detective novels, most of them with DCI Ove Bjelke as the hero. The plotting and the writing – Lie used Hamsun as his stylistic model – are good, sometimes exceptionally so. But the novels are not least interesting as descriptions of the mood of this fateful era – in one of them the story goes back to the last years of WWI – and for their dreamlike undercurrent of mystical destiny. Which maybe is a clue to the author’s own fate. Surprisingly, in view of the fact that Lie was a policeman (or perhaps significantly): two of his books seem to advocate the view that murder in some cases may be justified, that there are passions and motives which are above the law.
Even closer to the political realities of the time was Muren (1936, ‘The Wall’), written by the journalist Torolf Elster (1911–). The original edition of this book was signed Hans Brückenberg, probably to lend credibility to the story, which is set in Germany and concerns the secret machinations of the Nazis before their takeover. This is an unusual book for its time; it came when most people in Norway were still blind to the dangers of Nazism, and Graham Greene had barely started to develop the political thriller into something more than Ruritanian intrigue. (The other pioneer of the modern political thriller, Eric Ambler, first appeared that same year.) Muren is that rarity, a thriller that really thrills. It also introduces psychoanalysis as a method of detection: The secret is buried in a childhood trauma that the main character, a young pianist, has suffered.
Elster is probably the cleverest plotter in the history of Norwegian crime fiction. This is even more evident in his next novel, Historien om Gottlob (‘The Story of Gottlob’), one of the most brilliantly constructed thrillers ever. It starts in a Decameron/Canterbury Tales setting: After the torpedoing of a passenger ship, a rag-tag collection of survivors in a lifeboat begin to tell stories in order to pass the time. But eventually all the stories turn out to be pieces of one large puzzle, concerning the death of a Swedish financier and secret political activism in Europe before the war. Surprisingly – its theme is the rise of Fascism – it met with no trouble when it was published in occupied Norway in 1941; maybe the censor failed to read between the lines.
Over the next dozen years Elster published the occasional thriller, mainly with a political theme. And after a long and distinguished career as journalist, historian and general director of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, he wrote another series of books, one them almost as brazenly plotted as Gottlob, Skyggen av det som skal skje (1988 – ‘The Shadow of What Will Happen’), where the story is told backwards, beginning in the present with the ending (almost), and then going chapter by chapter back to the beginning, in the 1930s.
Police and psychoanalysis
In the decade before WWII Norwegian crime fiction left the romanticism of the Elvestad era behind and became more realistic, in some cases to a degree that we don’t find in the genre as a whole until twenty years later. There were at least two reasons for this: For one thing the brilliant amateur investigators and the intricate, bloodless plots of the British Golden Age detective story didn’t seem very credible in a Norwegian setting, nor did the noir American world of gangsters, corrupt police and hard-boiled private eyes. For another, there came several writers who had personal experience of real crime, both as perpetrators and pursuers.
Arthur Omre (1887–1967) was a successful entrepreneur who landed on bad times in the post-WWI depression and turned to the lucrative and (as it was then regarded) romantic business of liquor smuggling. For ten years he pursued a criminal career; then, seeing that it led nowhere, he started to write while in prison, as a last attempt to lay the foundations for another life. His first novel, Smuglere (1934, ‘Smugglers’), based upon his own experiences, written in a terse, clipped, Hemingway’esque style, was a tremendous success. His next three novels also were more or less autobiographical; then he wrote one straight police procedural novel, before he turned to mainstream subjects.
Of several crime reporters who started writing crime fiction, the one most interesting and prolific was Fridtjof Knutsen (1894–1961). During the 1930s he published a series of low-key realistic novels, several of them inspired by contemporary trends in crime or based on actual cases, including one of the decade’s most sensational murders (which remains unsolved). During the war he wrote another series of novels with his wife Lalli (1905–1980); they were detective stories rather in the established style although usually with a realistic police inspector (and sometimes a real life one) investigating. Lalli Knutsen later wrote on her own one very good historical crime novel, and became a prolific contributor to the Knut Gribb saga.
The realistic policeman, rare in English language crime fiction at the time, was very much part of the scene in Norwegian crime fiction. Even in the John Dickson Carr-inspired Åndemasken (1942 – ‘The Spirit Mask’), one of several novels by Stein Ståle alias Trygve Hirsch (1912–1992), a tale of murder in occultist and spiritualist circles, the investigator is – wisely – a stolid, tobacco-chewing inspector of the Oslo C.I.D., closer to Maigret than to Sherlock Holmes or Poirot.
Still, there were those who tried to introduce the puzzle story into a Norwegian setting. The most successful attempt was made by André Bjerke (1918–1985), the writer of the quotation at the head of this article, and a man very much conscious of the particular demands of this type of story. But he did it with a twist. In three of his four novels published as by Bernhard Borge, the mystery is solved by the psychotherapist Kai Bugge. As if to demonstrate the shortcomings of traditional investigation techniques, the amateur detective in one of the books becomes a victim of the murderer. Bugge’s methods are those of Freud and Jung, rather than Gross and Bertillon, the clues are not footprints in the flowerbed or the bullet in the victim’s head, but rather dreams and symbols, and the miniscule reactions and Vehlleistungen of the guilty party.
Bjerke undoubtedly took his inspiration from Riverton’s psychological crime novels and Elster’s Muren, and all his four novels are extremely clever exercises in playing the game. In one novel there isn’t really a crime at all; the whole murder plot is in the imagination of a young woman who has entered a sort of fairy tale universe. But what lends strength to the books, even today when we tend to be more sceptical of the way the psychologist makes it all add up, is the haunting atmosphere of horror and the supernatural which permeates them. De dødes tjern (1942, Death in the Blue Lake) and Døde menn går i land (1947, ‘Dead Men Go Ashore’), especially, have become true evergreen classics of Norwegian crime fiction, like Jernvognen, Gottlob and a just a few others of the pre-1950 era.
Bjerke left crime fiction after his fourth novel, Skjult mønster (1950, ‘Hidden Pattern’). He returned with Enhjørningen (1963, ‘The Unicorn’), which contains two very good detective stories although with supernatural elements, and then wrote some short stories of a lesser calibre. He became the Grand Old Man of Norwegian Crime and remained faithful to the genteel traditional mystery; in his seminal anthology Store detektiver (1972, ‘Great Detectives’) he excluded the American hard-boiled writers, including Hammett and Chandler, on the grounds of ‘foul play’.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
On 9 April 1940 was occupied by Nazi Germany. Paradoxically it was good news to crime writers, though nobody knew at the time. Despite paper rationing, in sheer volume the next seven years was the second Golden Age of Norwegian crime fiction, with no less than 140 titles, almost a quarter of all the books published until then – not counting the increased contribution of Norwegian writers to detective magazines and popular weeklies.
The reasons were simple. The publication of books from other than the Axis countries dwindled to nothing because of censorship. Blackout, curfew, cinema and theatre strikes, the confiscation of radio sets (to prevent people from listening to London), the scarcity of goods, and the sheer misery, terror and anxiety that became a feature of everyday life created an insatiable need for entertainment. And perhaps the crime story with its sense of order and the assurance that good will prevail in the end, had a specially strong appeal in times like that. Perhaps also, since the new regime clearly had no love for crime fiction – not only did it seduce people into a life of crime, the argument went, but it also "revealed the secret methods of the police" (sic!) – the reading of it could be seen as a small but significant act of resistance.
However, it didn’t last. A couple of years after the war, Norwegian crime fiction went from a flood to the tiniest trickle.
The reasons may be several. The continued rationing of paper did its bit. More important was the introduction of the modern paperback or pocket book, which made translations significantly cheaper than any original Norwegian novel. And the cheap mass market crime fiction aimed at the male audience – with the exception of some hard-boiled Americans such as Mickey Spillane and Richard S Prather – was fighting a losing battle against the western which rode in, guns a-blazin’, and became the most popular of popular fiction genres for more than a generation of Norwegian men.
And along came, too, comic books and true crime magazines and all sorts of fictional entertainment. Television was introduced around 1960 and for the better part of the following decade your average Norwegian did little more than spend his evenings glued to the box.
And perhaps there is yet another reason: For five years people had been living a thriller, one that was re-told over and over again in books and films after the war. Compared to the awful reality, crime stories may have looked pale; compared to the adventures of saboteurs and resistance fighters the feats of fictional detectives may have seemed insignificant.
Add to this another fact: There was no way a writer could create a career out of writing crime novels in Norway. Even a big producer like Elvestad had another profession – that of a journalist, like so many other Norwegian crime writers. The history of Norwegian crime is full of one- and two-book authors, and this is especially typical of 1950s and early 1960s. There were some who tried, like Waldemar Brøgger (1911–1991) who wrote four thrillers in quick succession, starting with the elegantly plotted Morderen plukker fluesopp (1957, ‘The Murderer Picks Fly Agaric’). Others simply hadn’t many books in them, such as Gerd Nyquist (1913–1984), who on the strength of two pleasantly old-fashioned detective novels, published in 1960 and 1966, became Norway’s unofficial Queen of Crime.
Maybe it was also a question of medium: When the NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) in the ’50s and early ’60s aired drama serials about Paul Temple and other popular radio detectives, the streets were swept clean. And the fact remains that for almost twenty years the continuity of Norwegian crime fiction was upheld by the occasional radio serial by domestic writers (Bjerke, Elster, Brøgger and others contributed episodes), and the Knut Gribb penny dreadful, Detektiv-Magasinet, which persisted until 1966, ten years longer than similar publications in the other Scandinavian countries.
By the middle of the 60s, the future of Norwegian crime fiction looked pretty bleak. Within a decade all that would be changed.
The 1970s Renaissance
In 1972 Rivertonklubben (‘The Riverton Club’), the Norwegian Society of Crime Fiction, was founded. Its members included writers as well as other professional labourers in the field, such as editors, critics and so on. Its purpose was to encourage the progress of crime writing in Norway, both in quality and quantity. To that end, a price for the best piece of crime writing of the year, The Golden Revolver, was created. The first went to Sigrun Krokvik for the novel Bortreist på ubestemt tid (‘Indefinitely Absent’). Gerd Nyquist was elected the club’s first president.
And it would seem that the club succeeded almost instantly, beyond anyone’s wildest expectations: From 1972 to 1976 the annual number of Norwegian crime titles went up from three or four to over twenty. It has remained there, more or less, since. A whole new generation came to the reading and writing of mystery stories.
I hesitate, though, to claim the honour for this on behalf of the Rivertonklubben. It certainly played its part, but it was probably a case of lucky timing as well. There were a number of reasons for this explosive increase, one of them being a clever piece of packaging: The quality paperback, slightly larger and more expensive and much more ambitious than the pocket book, which had fallen into disrepute, revolutionized the book market in the early 1960s. It had created a whole new market of young, mainly left-wing, readers with huge appetites but little money. Just before the turn of the decade, several publishing houses started putting out the great names of mystery fiction in this new format; the first and most prestigious was Gyldendal’s "Den svarte serie" (‘The Black Series’), inspired by Marcel Duhamels famous La Série noire. The paperback readers were tempted to try crime fiction, and became convinced, especially by Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Chandler, that the genre was more than bourgeois murder games of the Christie type and worthy of serious attention. In the august company, which also included names such as Conan Doyle, Len Deighton, Patricia Highsmith, Ed McBain and Dick Francis, the publishers introduced both old and, most important, new Norwegian writers. The domestic product was no longer inferior to the imported.
But the chief reason for the increase in crime readership – and writing – was probably the fact that Norway in the ’70s went through a process of social and political change that turned her into what she is today. It started more or less with the North Sea oil industry. Cities or not, Norway had been a mainly rural society; in just a few years it turned into an urban and urbanized one. The media, especially television, and travel brought her closer to the world — and the world closer to her; drugs came in, and trailing behind, organized crime. Reality was taking a resemblance to the crime novel; murder and mayhem didn’t seem out of place any longer. Consequently, a recurring theme in the mystery novels published over the past thirty years, is the loss of innocence.
Writers would still come and go, like Tor Edvin Dahl (1943–), aka David Torjussen, who was the first new Norwegian writer in The Black Series, with six police procedurals over three years. Since then he has published crime novels sporadically; in his latest books the investigator is a young female vicar – signs of how the detective character has developed over the past thirty years! But for the first time it now became possible to make a career of crime writing, and several of the authors that arrived during the 70s are still active members of the Norwegian crime writing establishment. In the event they took their inspiration less from the police procedurals of McBain and Sjöwall & Wahlöö, than from the hard-boiled fiction of Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett, the spy thrillers of John le Carré, and especially the private eye stories of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Forty years and more since he had started walking the mean streets of L.A. and San Francisco, the time had come for the honest, poor, idealistic, wise-cracking private eye to set up office in this country. It happened in 1977, on the West Coast, of course: in Bergen. His name was Varg Veum. He is not the only one of his kind anymore, but he was the first.
Private Eyes and Counterfeiters
Veum’s adventures are still being recorded by Gunnar Staalesen. Staalesen, like Dahl, started with writing about policemen, the burlesque, partly Chester Himes-inspired characters of Dumbo and Mask-face. But with the creation of Veum he found his proper groove.
Like his American counterparts, Veum has a problem with alcohol (Norwegian aquavit, not whisky), the tenacity of a terrier, a splendid command of quick repartee, a troubled relationship with the official police, and a big capacity for taking punishment. But he doesn’t carry a gun and, as long as he has a choice, will rather run than fight to get out of a sticky spot. And although he is, figuratively speaking, wearing the trench-coat of Philip Marlowe, or perhaps rather Lew Archer, he is a man of his own country, and very much of his generation; he is the proverbial politically and socially conscious ‘sixty-eight’er. Veum used to be a social worker, not a cop or a soldier like most American PIs; he got sacked for "leaning too hard on a drug pusher", then became a private investigator. And whereas Philip Marlowe’s name hints at an Elizabethan Golden Age, Veum’s is a pun on an expression from the Viking era. Vargr í veum, literally "wolf in the sanctuary", means outlaw, a man without peace.
In the late 1990s Staalesen, an admirer of the great 19th Century storytellers such as Dickens and Tolstoy, took time off from Veum (though not quite, as it turned out) to write the 1900 trilogy, an ambitious attempt to cover the entire century in one continuous, epic narrative. It was a success, both artistically and commercially. Starting with a murder mystery, which is solved (by Varg Veum) in the concluding chapter of the last volume, the trilogy also qualifies as the world’s longest detective novel.
So far, the Veum series proper consists of thirteen novels and two collections of short stories. Veum has also, unique among Norwegian crime fiction characters, started to appear in a series of original graphic novels. Strangely, there has never been a Veum film or TV series, though one is now in development, but his adventures have become very popular as radio drama serials. And Staalesen is, deservedly, one of the most respected names in Scandinavian mystery fiction; his novels have been published in a large number of countries. He is one of the three or four most important names in 20th Century Norwegian crime fiction; he, like it was said of Chandler, "writes like a slumming angel", and is one of the best plotters around, very conscious of the crime novel form; some of his puzzles are almost classic in their dove-tailed perfection.
No one who read Dahl and Staalesen could be in doubt that Norwegian crime fiction had been re-born with a strong left-wing critical attitude to society and its institutions. And the same year as Staalesen came Jon Michelet (1944–), Marxist-Leninist revolutionary and crimson journalist with a past as longshoreman and sailor. His first two books, published in the same year, respectively about white collar crime and super-power espionage, could have been written by a radical social democrat, but in the prize-winning Jernkorset (1976, ‘The Iron Cross’), he throws himself and his series character, the "red" cop, Vilhelm Thygesen, into the fight between Maoists and neo-Nazis. Thygesen kills a man in self-defence and is sent to prison.
However, the revolutionary fervour had lost most of its bright glow in the next novel, published five years later, and throughout the books that have appeared sporadically since, Thygesen increasingly becomes an Ulysses character, in search for his Ithaca; he works variously as a TV celebrity, and as a defence attorney, and in the latest novel, published in 2002, he is an aged, resigned man who wants to be left alone and work in his garden. In contrast to other crime heroes he is not so much a doer as someone that things happen to.
The third 70s writer who is still going strong, is Fredrik Skagen. He published his first mystery — a political thriller — four years after Staalesen. The greater part of his large output concerns Morten Martens, a Trondheim book-printer who turned counterfeiter, then arranged his own death, and finally found sanctuary in Britain, where his talents and ready lack of moral scruple made him useful to his new country’s intelligence services. In a way, he is thriller fiction’s answer to Peer Gynt, a drifter, a liar and a dreamer, forever changing his identity, a human onion, layer upon layer, but no kernel or core.
All the Skagen books take place within the same universe, and minor characters from one novel play the main part in another. Skagen is generally thought of as a writer of stories about espionage and international intrigue. But only part of his work belongs in that category; he has written suspense novels, police procedurals, and crime thrillers as well as spy stories, and his favourite theme is that of the little man faced with overpowering odds. Events that take place in the real world while he is writing often find their way into his stories, and sometimes change the course of the action. He even happens to be ahead of the facts; ten years after his first Morten Martens novel, a counterfeit ring was broken up in Trondheim. In 2001 Skagen introduced a partner team of journalists as new series characters.
The 1970s brought a renaissance of Norwegian crime fiction. The next decade was one of establishment. Another characteristic was that several mainstream writers were tempted to write crime. Some had done so earlier, like Kjartan Fløgstad – a connoisseur of popular culture – who published two hard-boiled thrillers around 1975, and Roy Jacobsen who wrote two borderline crime novels. Lars Saabye Christensen, one of the pre-eminent novelists, as well as poets, of present-day Norway, published the thriller Jokeren (1981, ‘The Joker’) and two noir detective novels featuring lawyer Ernst Smith. The last one, Sneglene (1987, ‘The Snails’) was awarded the Riverton Prize.
Then there was Ingvar Ambjørnsen (1956–), who in a sense started out as a writer of offbeat crime novels, from the drugs & despair scene. Stalin’s øyne (1985, ‘Stalin’s Eyes’), featuring the rather scruffy husband-&-wife private detective team of Ronny and Laila Olsen, was a regular crime novel set in the seedier parts of Oslo. The Olsens had the makings of series characters in them, but Ambjørnsen chose another protagonist, widowed wartime sailor Harry Kramer, for Heksenes kors (1987, ‘The Witches’ Cross’), which takes place in Edinburgh. And in the Riverton Prize-winning Den mekaniske kvinnen (1990, ‘The Mechanical Woman’) Ambjørnsen introduced Victor von Valk, private eye in Hamburg’s tough St. Georg quarter. Unfortunately, he stopped there, except for his popular children’s series about Pelle and Proffen and a short novel about von Valk, which has only been published in Germany. Indeed, none of the mainstream writers stayed on, either because they lost interest or realized that the crime genre although easy to read is very hard to write. In recent years the established novelist Knut Faldbakken (1941–) has started on a crime writing career that he seems intent to follow up.
One author came from the mainstream in the 80s and remained (though writing other books in-between) to become the most idiosyncratic of Norwegian mystery mongers, Gert Nygårdshaug (1946–). For one thing, he was until recently the only practitioner of the art of the pure detective puzzle, in absolute defiance of all modern trends, even to the point of including locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes. For another, his detective character, Frederic Drum, is the proprietor of an exclusive restaurant, a wine expert, an amateur archaeologist and an authority on ciphers and ancient scripts. Thirdly, the cases Drum encounters take place in a weird universe of ancient lore, mystical speculation and modern science. The Drum novels takes quantum physics to detective fiction; they change as you observe them. In the fifth book Drum is shot and killed, and the sixth begins with the revelation that all the earlier novels have been the psychotic fantasies of a police detective – who happens to have a young nephew called Frederic Drum. The author claims to have a plan in mind for a total of ten books, and there is no telling how it may end.
Another writer who moves between genres is Pål Gerhard Olsen (1959–). In 1987 he launched his series character, the private eye Aron Ask, who has since moved from his native Bergen to Oslo. Olsen writes as though language is his special kind of speed, and is a rebel against the established formula of crime fiction. In 1995 he started the biggest press debate so far about the genre and its Norwegian practitioners (most of whom he castigated).
Another Olsen who is hard to pin down (no relation) is M. H. (for Morten Harry), who made a success of the Norwegian Mystery and Thriller Book Club as its editor. All his novels are of a different kind, and he seems intent on pursuing all the possibilities the genre has to offer. Mississippi (1990) is a combination of mainstream and suspense novel, set in America; Syndenes forlatelse (1991, ‘The Remission of Sins’) is a hard-boiled detective story from the sleazy side of Oslo; Begjærets pris (1993, ‘The Price of Desire’) is an equally hard-boiled noir story of sexual obsession, materialistic greed, and the shedding of values, with echoes of James M. Cain. Tilfeldig utvalg (1996, ‘Random Selection’) is about the hunt for a serial killer who acts out the ancient myth of the Egyptian God Seth. Through its quiet, analytical, almost clinical style and approach it actually managed to re-kindle interest in a subject that had already been thrashed almost to death in English language mystery fiction, and of course films, over the past years.
Most of the Norwegian mystery novels are set in the cities, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim. But some writers go abroad; in many of Skagen’s novels the action takes place in England and Wales; in fact, Martens officially becomes Welshman Iago Davies. Den gule djevelens by (1981, ‘The City of the Yellow Devil’) by Jon Michelet is in part a documentary novel about the unsolved murder of a Norwegian sailor in New York.
But in one of the developments of the late 80s–early 90s an increasing number of authors began to find their thrills in what is still left of the countryside. One typical example is Kolbjørn Hauge (1926–), who published his first novel at the ripe young age of 65, and is one of the few of his kind to write in nynorsk, the second official language of Norway. (The reasons why we have two languages are too complicated to go into here.) Hauge’s books are set in his native rural Western Norway, and are clever exposures of the changing way of life in these areas, presented with a mischievous glint in the eye.
The discovery of the criminal countryside, as it were, is partly responsible for a re-vitalization of Norwegian crime fiction during the last decade of the century. Another factor was the introduction of several new writers.
The spy thriller was quite common in the political 1970s, but became, with the exception of Skagen and one or two others, more scarce since then. But in 1991, Arild Rypdal (1934–) started a lengthy series of novels about the British MI6. He moves close to actual international events: Djevelens stoff (1993, ‘The Devil’s Matter’) is about the smuggling of plutonium from Russia but also the efforts of the German intelligence service to ensure the re-election of Bundeskanzler Kohl, by way of creating a feeling of crisis.
In 1996 a government commission revealed strong bonds between the Police Special Branch and the Labour Party, and a tradition for extensive secret political surveillance of Norwegian citizens. This resulted in a big scandal and several thrillers, among them Idar Lind’s Hysj (1996, ‘Hush’). Lind (1954–), who started writing hard-boiled crime novels in 1984, one of them about the rock and folk music movement of the 70s, also published one of the first "data age" thrillers. In Usynlige spor (1994, ‘Invisible Tracks’), electronic traces left by credit and telephone cards are used both to create alibis and as a means to track a person. This book was also published on the Web, the first of its kind. Lind’s original series character, the Caribbean-Norwegian António Steen, night watchman at a seedy Trondheim hotel, was eventually partnered with woman DPI Telma B. S. Hansen, and Lind, who enjoys playing with meta elements and has introduced other writers’ characters in his books, has put her name as sole or co-author (with Steen) on some of his novels, including Hysj.
Kjell Ola Dahl (1958–), who published his first book in 1993, the white-collar crime novel Dødens investeringer (‘Death’s Investments’) has developed into one of the most interesting and capable of present day crime writers. In several books, including the splendid noir thriller Siste skygge av tvil (1998, ‘Last Shadow of Doubt’), he explored various sub-genres of crime fiction; then, in En liten gyllen ring (2000, ‘A Little Golden Ring’), he went back to the policemen he introduced in his first novel, the grumpy police inspector Gunnarstranda (first name unknown), a tiny bald man with false teeth, and his assistant, the robust Frank Frølich, and incidentally won the Riverton Prize. Lille Tambur (2003, ‘Little Drummer Boy’), partly set in Africa, is one of his finest achievements so far.
One has a feeling that Dahl still hasn’t received the attention that he deserves. The same is the case with Jørgen Gunnerud (1948–), who started his series of low-key procedural novels, featuring the police investigator Knut Moen in 1994.
We are far from done with the 90s. But the moment to look at the most important development during this decade is long overdue.
Thanks to the early examples set by Roberts Rinehart, Christie, Sayers, etc., crime fiction writing has for a long time been one of the least gender segregated professions. Still, despite Lalli Knutsen and one or two others, women crime writers have been few and far between in Norway. I’ve mentioned Gerd Nyquist. There was Ella Griffiths (1926–1990) who wrote almost a score of novels and hundreds of short stories over three decades, and even sold one of them to the Roald Dahl TV series Tales of the Unexpected, but despite this, success somehow eluded her, maybe because she didn’t have a voice of her own, but kept shopping around for popular trends. More successful in her chosen field was Edith Ranum (1922–2001), the blind (!) author of several popular radio drama serials starring crime writer and amateur detective Julia Tinnberg. Among Norwegian writers, Ranum remains also unique by the fact that she was the only practitioner of the modern detective puzzle story with psychological elements, the P. D. James type, if you like.
Ranum, who started writing crime serials in 1979, was a pioneer. Despite the fact that this was the heyday of New Feminism, and Scandinavian women were no less ardent than their sisters elsewhere, they left it to the Americans and the British to create a feminist crime fiction. And they took ten years to pick up the idea.
One may wonder why. Norwegian girls also grew up with Nancy Drew for a role model. Norway can even boast of what is possibly the first woman mystery writer ever. Hanna Winsnes (1789–1872), a parson’s wife who became, literally, a household name through her cookbook, a standby of Norwegian housewives for generations, wrote in the early 1840s two sensation novels, under the alias of Hugo Schwarz; stories of murder, abduction, and illicit love. She was, more than likely, inspired by Mauritz Hansen.
The only comfort is that the Swedes and Danes were even slower. They had to pass into another millennium for Liza Marklund & Co. to appear. And in fact, in Norway there was one early representative of the new generation of women crime writers.
In the years following the 70s renaissance of Norwegian mystery fiction, the honourable but down-at-heels male hero so proliferated that the present writer, in an article published in the spring of 1983, felt urged to pray for at least one plucky dame, unhampered by emotional stress and feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As though in answer to that, half a year later Kim Småge published her first novel, Nattdykk (‘Night Dive’).
Like its author, the heroine, Hilke Torhus, is a scuba diver (Småge was in fact the first woman scuba diving instructor in Norway); in other words a lone female in traditionally male territorial grounds, or depths, as the case may be. True to the habits of mystery heroines, she stumbles upon a crime — that of diamond smuggling — but unlike those dizzy damsels of yore she overcomes, on her own, the worst physical trials, such as gang rape, attempted murder and cliff-hangings. The book, although written in the third person, is told in a sort of breathless stream-of-consciousness style, hazy with the steam of sweat and menstrual blood.
Nattdykk was greeted with favourable reviews, big sales, the Riverton Prize, and translations into several European languages. It did not, however, create an overnight flurry of crime fiction by and about women. Kim Småge published a sequel to Nattdykk, called Origo (1984), a less feverish tale concerning the threat to small communities generated by Cold War games. Then she abandoned Hilke Torhus, but went on to write about strong women in the worlds of male conspiracy.
All the books were thrillers, but Kim Småge seemed reluctant of being classified as a crime writer, insisting that she wrote mainstream novels with suspense elements. But finally, she came into her own, as it were — perhaps due to the realization that women overseas were pouring into the world of crime writing in brash, Miss-Marple-be-damned fashion. In the title novelette of the 1992 short story collection Kvinnens lange arm (‘The Long Arm of Woman’), she introduced detective Anne-kin Halvorsen of the Trondheim police. Halvorsen, early thirties, single, working class background, bright, opinionated, self-sufficient, more or less a younger version of her creator, rose to full-length format in Sub Rosa (1993). This novel won the award for Best Scandinavian Mystery of that year – no mean feat, especially given that another entry was by Sweden’s eminent novelist Kerstin Ekman.
Anne-kin Halvorsen has gone on to explore the worlds of drug smuggling and women trafficking. But she didn’t remain alone for long; at her very heels came Hanne Wilhelmsen, the creation of Anne Holt, who published her first book in 1993, Blind gudinne (‘Blind Goddess’). Hanne Wilhelmsen is a chief inspector of the Oslo police, in her early thirties when we first meet her, beautiful, extremely competent. But with a secret: she lives with another woman and takes great pains to hide this fact from the rest of the world.
What with feminist publishing houses in the USA specialising in lesbian detectives, it might seem that Holt was doing the trendy thing. She was in fact unaware of any such trend. And, anyway, in the first book Wilhelmsen is just one of three protagonists, the other two being the successful business lawyer Karen Borg, and the not so successful assistant public prosecutor Håkon Sand. But the readers (as well as the author) seemed to root for Hanne, and from the next book she became the star. In fact, the Hanne Wilhelmsen books are both crime novels complete in themselves, and chapters of an on-going story of Hanne’s struggle to come to terms with herself, losing her lover to cancer along the way.
Blind gudinne has a rather sensational plot, featuring several murders and a drug-smuggling operation organized by people in high places to finance the activities of Norwegian Military Intelligence. Holt’s second book, Salige er de som tørster . . . (‘Blessed Are Those Who Thirst . . . ‘), which won the Riverton Prize for 1994, is much more sombre, concerning the most common form of violent serial crime in Norway, rape. But its real theme is the problematic relationship between justice and revenge. Then, sensationally, Holt’s third novel, Demonens død (1995, ‘Death of the Demon’), became a runaway bestseller, with almost 120,000 copies in hardback (in a country of four million people), unheard of for a crime novel before or since – only Jernvognen has sold more, if one counts foreign editions. If nothing else, it proved that the regular readership for crime fiction had grown, and that the genre was beginning to appeal to all kinds of readers, not just the die-hard murder enthusiasts.
Holt has been a lawyer, a TV news anchorwoman, a public prosecutor (which brought her into a traumatic encounter with organized crime), and, for a short while before she had to step down because of severe illness, Home Secretary. This accounts for the nitty-gritty realism of her work. Her detectives are constantly hampered by the strict rules and regulations that govern police investigation. Lately Holt has introduced two new series characters, the investigating team of forensic psychologist Inger Johanne Vik and DPI Yngvar Stubø.
Queens of Crime
For several years Småge and Holt remained the leading women mystery writers of Norway, but competition was building up. In 1994 Kjersti Scheen (1943–), illustrator and writer of children’s books, launched her private detective, Margaret Moss, former actress (she makes a come-back on stage in Ingen applaus for morderen (1996, ‘No Applause for the Murderer’) and policewoman. Like many of today’s female sleuths she is divorced; unlike most of them she is boozy, past forty, and sleeps around, although she has a regular thing going on with the lorry driver Roland, "her knight of the road". In many ways she is a female version of the typical scruffy male hero, served up with a mischievous smile. And, although Moss (don’t let her name fool you, it doesn’t grow on her) has been involved in cases concerning neo-Nazis and Russian mafiosi, Scheen, more than her sister crime writers, seems to be into mystery mainly for the sheer fun of it. And she is so consistently entertaining that one tends to overlook the fact that plotting is not her strongest point.
Having fun seems also part of the game for Pernille Rygg (1963–), who has had great success with her – so far – two books, Sommerfugleffekten (1995, The Butterfly Effect) and Det gyldne snitt (2000, The Golden Section) starring psychologist Igi Heitman, who inherited a detective agency from her late father, as well as an unsolved case. (Shades of P.D. James’ Cordelia Grey and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, but the similarity ends there.) The books concern modern-day Satanism and the art world, respectively, and Rygg’s writing can probably best be described as spunky, with a nice sense of pawky humour. In a rather original touch, and unlike most detectives, male or female, Igi Heitmann is married and even bears a child between the books. Her husband, moreover, is a bisexual transvestite. She stoically accepts his occasional philanderings with other men (another woman would be a different matter!); in fact the relationship is rather touching. In a much quoted line she reflects: "He will make a much better mother than I."
But if there were a struggle for title Queen of Norwegian Crime today (there isn’t), it would probably stand evenly between Unni Lindell and Karin Fossum. The prolific Lindell (1957–), who has also had huge success with collections of children’s sayings ("Old women don’t lay eggs," etc.), started in crime writing with short stories – some of them were collected in En grusom kvinnes bekjennelser (1993, ‘The Confessions of a Cruel Woman’) – and then, in 1996, she introduced a series of novels, all except one featuring police inspector Cato Isaksen. The middle-aged Isaksen is a very good detective in his own slow, methodical fashion, but is typically uncertain of his own emotions, a philanderer who lives in an on-and-off marriage and worries about his children. Lindell’s only non-Isaksen novel, Rødhette (2004, ‘Little Red Riding Hood’), takes the fairy tale character of the title into the territory of female rage and lust for revenge.
Lindell’s specialty is the introduction of fear into quiet, everyday suburban life (she admits to being a very scared person). The same could be said of Karin Fossum (1954–). Her first novel, Evas øye (1995, ‘Eve’s Eye’) was a darkly gripping psychological suspense story of what might be termed the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine school. The main character is a woman, a struggling, desperately poor painter, who meets by chance an old friend who is doing well as a high-class prostitute, and is tempted to follow the example. She finds murder, instead. The novel also introduces the mainstay of Fossum’s crime novels, police detective Konrad Sejer. He is slightly older than Isaksen and a widower whose only family is a grown-up daughter, and gets his occasional kicks by parachute jumping. The loneliness of his life has been tempered by the introduction of a psychologist lady friend whom he met in Den som frykter ulven (1997, He Who Fears the Wolf). In a humorous gesture to Sjöwall & Wahlöö, his dog is called Kollberg, and indeed, among active detectives in Norwegian crime fiction, Sejer is certainly the one who most strongly resembles Martin Beck (and we might add Maigret). Fossum is one of the few Norwegian crime writers to really break into the English-language market and Calling Out for You (Elskede Poona, 2000) was short-listed for the CWA Golden Dagger Award for 2005.
Fossum is arguably one of the greatest stylists among Norwegian crime writers of her day; she can raise the hair on your back with a single sentence. She is also, it seems, moving towards the mainstream; Sejer is increasingly playing a background part, and Fossum’s later books end, as often as not, with a question mark instead of a reassurance that truth has been found.
The women crime writers have been tremendously successful. Holt’s novels have been adapted for the cinema, TV and radio. All but two of Fossum’s Sejer novels have become TV serials; the others have been filmed for the cinema. And at the time of writing, two TV serials based on Lindell’s Cato Isaksen books have just been aired.
However, less than one in four Norwegian crime novels is written by a woman. In terms of population statistics, that still seems too few. Perhaps the presence of such strong – albeit few – women writers, seems daunting to prospective authors. (Another point worth figuring is the absence of female heroes; why is it that women prefer to write – and as a matter of fact, read – about middle-aged lonely men? Could it be, because they are the men that need women? But I’ll leave that to my female readers.)
Meanwhile, let’s not overlook the fact that over the past ten years three or four new male writers have also made a success of it. Sociologist Jan Mehlum (1945–), starting in 1996, writes about Svend Foyn, who is based in the small town of Tønsberg – another example of the crime story moving out of the big cities (and Sejer’s headquarters, incidentally, is in Drammen, south of Oslo). Foyn is another middle-aged, divorced loner, with a daughter and a dog, a deeply concerned human being, inclined to fall in love with the wrong woman. Despite being handicapped by a tendency to stutter, he is a (not successful) lawyer by profession, but we rarely see him in court; most of the time he is acting as a private detective, and in fact, Mehlum is the most Chandler’ish of Norwegian crime writers since Staalesen.
Jo Nesbø (1960–), economy expert and journalist, was already famous as a songwriter and singer with his own band, when he made a sensational début as a crime writer in 1997. Flaggermusmannen (‘The Bat-Man’) won both the Riverton Prize and the prize for best Scandinavian crime novel of the year. Set in Australia, it introduced Nesbø’s series character, police detective Harry Hole, a younger man for a change but one with even stronger demons to haunt him than most of his fellow fictional detectives; he is an alcoholic and was responsible for the death of a colleague, and he is constantly living on the edge, a situation not made better by the fact that his girl-friends keep getting murdered. The second Hole novel, Kakerlakkene (1998, ‘The Cockroaches’) was set in Bangkok, but then Nesbø took him home to his native country. Nesbø sometimes have problems knowing when to pull in the reins, but he is never less than a terrific story-teller, witness the flashback scenes to the East Front in Rødstrupe (2000, The Redbreast). He is also good at weaving his novels into a continuous whole; it takes Hole three books to get to the final confrontation with a corrupt and murderous colleague.
Of the recent arrivals in Norwegian crime fiction, there are several worthy of keeping an eye on. They are such as Tom Kristensen (1955–), who has made a specialty of thrillers in high finance; Magnhild Bruheim (1951–), who has written several nynorsk crime novels set in a rural environment; policeman Bjørn Bottolvs (1946–), who writes – not surprisingly – realistic police novels; rock musician Sverre Knudsen (1955–), who writes non-series thrillers in the noir style; Jon Ewo (1957–), with three novels about an underworld torpedo, set in a near-future Oslo; and Stein Morten Lier (1967–) who is at work on series about the influx of Eastern European mafiosi.
Tom Egeland (1959–), TV journalist and producer, has written several thrillers, some with supernatural elements, since 1988, but is really moving up front now. In the wake of the success of The Da Vinci Code, the public finally discovered that he had actually written a very similar story, Sirkelens ende (2001, ‘The End of the Circle’), based upon the same premise – that Jesus and Mary Magdalene was married and had children – two years before Dan Brown published his novel (but then, of course, not much in The Da Vinci Code was Brown’s original idea). Egeland’s most recent book, Ulvenatten (2005, ‘The Night of the Wolves’) is quite different; in it, Chechen terrorists take a TV studio hostage during a live show and demand to be kept on the air.
And finally, before I end this overview, it should be mentioned that since 1999 those two rare sub-genres – in Norway, at least – the classic detective story and the historical crime novel, have flourished again in the books of one single author. Danish-born Kurt Aust (1955–) is doing a series of novels starting in 1699, featuring the Holmes and Watson – or should we say William of Baskerville and Adso? – team of professor Thomas af Bouenberge, of the University of Copenhagen, and his assistant, the young Norwegian student Peter Hortten, who is also the narrator of the stories. Aust has the ability to make the past come alive, is a meticulous researcher and plotter, and his third novel, Hjemsøkt (‘Haunted’), was awarded both the Riverton and best Scandinavian prize for the year 2003.
On a rough estimate, about 1300 novels and short story collections have been published throughout the 180-year history of Norwegian crime fiction. About half of them have appeared over the last 30 years.
As for the present-day situation:
The predominant plot form in Norwegian mystery fiction is that of the detective story: a crime or several crimes are committed, the perpetrator is unknown, we follow the investigator(s) and it ends (in most cases) in a surprise solution. The crime story told from the criminal’s point of view is still rare.
The majority of the main and series characters are police. The professional official investigator is clearly the most believable protagonist in a Norwegian environment, to an audience who craves a certain degree of realism. And yet, as the case of Gunnar Staalesen and Varg Veum shows, it is possible to create a different kind of reality where an honest private eye can constantly stumble over dead bodies, without loss of credibility. Perhaps Staalesen’s colleagues could be less literal-minded, less scared of taking the crime novel into the universe of crime fiction. Which is, after all, distinct from reality, even if it bears a strong resemblance.
As it is, another feature of Norwegian crime fiction is that the unveiling of the criminal leads also to an exposure of society. There is almost invariably a message of social, moral or political content. The crime novel isn’t just for its own sake; it is also a means to an end. Now, over the past thirty or forty years, crime fiction has moved from the role of the black sheep of the literary family to a position of eminent respectability; but the fact that Norwegian writers are so concerned with the message as well as the medium, may suggest that there is a remnant left of the old puritanical worry, that whatever is purely for pleasure must be, somehow, sinful. Or at least fattening.
But viewed from the opposite side, and to quote crime fiction expert professor Willy Dahl: "To the extent that the literature of today has a socially critical function, this is served by the crime novel." And when the urge to pontificate is handled with care, it does give strength to Norway’s crime fiction, a true-to-life feeling, a heart as well as a mind.
I’ll finish on one small note of worry: As the birth years of the authors mentioned in this article show, to-day’s Norwegian crime writers are all of certain age. The new authors who discovered the crime genre in the 1970s were in their late ‘twenties–early ‘thirties, but today, few writers of that age seem to be interested in trying. Has the success of crime fiction writers, male and female, over the past ten or fifteen years created a bastion that makes the field hard to break into? Or has the crime novel become too established, too set in its ways, to appeal to younger authors?
Only time will show. Still, when I’m asked what was the real Golden Age of Norwegian crime fiction, my answer will be: It is now.