The origins of Norway’s bloody Easter

Norwegians invented modern crime fiction and celebrate Easter by reading about murder

påskekrim

Photo: Aftenposten.no
Long before “fake news,” there was this advertisement masquerading as a headline, sparking rumors about the train robbery, book sales, and a tradition of Easter reading that continues today.

Glenn Folkvord
Gjerdrum, Norway

One would think that after a long, dark, and bitter winter, Norwegians would welcome spring, sun, and the promise of summer. That is probably true for the cold challenged, but many Norwegians choose to extend the winter by spending the Easter holiday in their mountain log cabins, armed with mutton, eggs, and chocolate wafers.

However, one more ingredient is needed to really get into the spirit. For some it is the highlight of the holiday. Murder. Preferably many of them, safely experienced between two book covers.

Between shoveling snow or skiing on it, Easter means Norwegians wallow in crime fiction. In Norway you can’t avoid it that one week of the year. TV bursts with high-profile British mystery shows. On radio, NRK has produced radio plays. Your newspaper’s weekend supplement has probably commissioned a crime short story and interviewed an expert on why Norwegians read Easter crime fiction, or “påskekrim.” Want milk? Not without spotting the crime cartoon on the cartons. And then there was that bakery that asked its Facebook followers to find out who had stolen their cupcakes. A fictional cupcake kidnapping case, because what is Easter without crime everywhere the word can be typed? All subgenres of crime and thrillers are being read, but classic whodunnits and slow paced “cozy crime” are the traditional choices. You don’t even have to cave in to the publishers’ suggestions, as nobody flinches if you bring a stack of old dog-eared flea-market finds.

The classic media for Easter crime is paperbacks, a practical format with their small size and weight, suitable for backpacks and suitcases. You can buy them at gas stations and local convenience stores on your way to your holiday destination. (More than half the population travel somewhere during the Easter week.)

The reading of crime fiction during Easter is believed to be a tradition unique to Norway. Unlike many other popular traditions, establishing this one was a planned happy accident. The seed of the Easter crime phenomenon can be attributed to a specific day in history, because it was a book publisher’s marketing ploy that started it all. On March 24, 1923 (the day before Palm Sunday), the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten printed the headline “The train to Bergen was robbed last night” across the font page. The news spread like a rumor of free money.

påskekrim - Bergenstoget plyndret i natt

Book cover: 1975 re-edition of Bergenstoget plyndret i natt.

In reality, there was no headline. What Aftenposten had printed was an ad for a novel of the same name, but few picked up on the small disclaimer printed next to it. Bergenstoget plyndret i natt was written by Jonathan Jerv, or Jonathan Wolverine, an alias for two students, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie, who were both born in Bergen. Grieg went on to be one of Norway’s most prominent authors in the 1920s and ’30s, while Lie would become a major figure in publishing. However, it is widely regarded that it was the publisher Gyldendal’s director Harald Grieg, Nordahl’s brother, who was responsible for making the book a bestseller. Fifteen years before Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio drama caused panic because of its simulated news, Harald Grieg achieved the same effect by employing the method known today as clickbait. When word got out that the robbery only took place in a book, readers rushed to bookstores.

Harald Grieg probably did not intend to create a specific and lasting tradition. Granted, he wanted to sell books, but even though he realized that selling light literature in March and April was a way to branch out for an industry that usually released their books in the fall, reading detective fiction instead of going to church is thought to have fastened its roots because of the specifics of Norwegian Easter.

The most far-fetched theories, as mentioned by Norway’s crime fiction expert Nils Nordberg, stretch back to pre-Christian times. Blood sacrifice was made by our Viking ancestors roughly around the time when Easter would fall centuries later. The plan was to secure crops and keep the gods happy. Maybe traces of this remain in Norwegian genes in the form of fascination with stories about violence? The metaphorical sacrificial lamb and the scapegoat are indeed always included. Easter itself has a dark backstory. When God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the ancient Egyptians, blood smeared on houses saved Israelite families. Later, the criminal case, punishment, and death of a religious rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, gave Easter additional meaning. Unfortunately, had these theories held water, Easter crime should have been a thing in many countries, and it is not.

Harald Grieg

Oslo Museum / Wikimedia Commons
Harald Grieg was the director of Norwegian publisher Gyldendal, which in 1923 published Bergenstoget plyndrett i natt and deployed the fake headline that got people talking about it—and reading it.

The most probable explanation is much less complex but still about a form of death: killing time. According to Nordberg, this makes the most sense, because Norway’s Easter holiday is the longest in the world. Norwegians leave their jobs for up to 10 days, with five of them being compulsory days off. One in four Norwegians spend their Easter in a mountain or coast cabin, where daily life is associated with simple pleasures and unwinding. After skiing, murder mysteries are perfect brain fodder next to the log fire. Paperbacks wear down, but as they are cheap, they can be left in the library for the next guest, or for that winter when you are snowed in and can’t get out. Even for those who stay at home, murder, a wool blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa is all it takes for a carefree day. Combine that with how Scandinavian crime literature tends to comment on social issues and topics readers can identify with, and the recipe for Easter escapism that is both easy to process and relevant is set.

Reading crime fiction has been a pastime for Norwegians since long before the Nordic Noir trend. In a country so safe—or boring?—that people seek danger in the form of words, Jo Nesbø, Jørn Lier Horst, and Anne Holt are just the latest generation of thrill providers. Sven Elvestad (1884-1934), also known as Stein Riverton, was the first Norwegian crime author celebrity, having created the Christiania (now Oslo) detective Knut Gribb in a series of murder-free stories in 1908. Even before that, Maurits Hansen (1794-1842) published the novel The Murder of Machine Builder Roolfsen in 1839, predating the book that is thought to have created the modern murder mystery, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by two years. The habit of reading about invented illegalities is older than Easter crime, but thanks to Harald Grieg’s clever marketing 95 years ago, Easter opened up as the high season.

Norwegian crime authors do not face unemployment. Last year, in the two weeks before Easter, crime novels made up 55 percent of all fiction sold in bookstores, three times more than crime’s portion of Christmas book sales. British, French, and German authors can’t get their heads around this when they talk to their Norwegian colleagues. The Norwegian Easter seems to remain crimson red for the foreseeable future.
 

Glenn Folkvold is a Norwegian journalist and media developer specializing in culture and the arts.

This article originally appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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