Is the Nordic noir craze over?

Some indications show interest in the genre waning

John Erik Stacy
The Norwegian American

Andrew Nestingen

Photo courtesy of A. Nestingen
Prof. Andrew Nestingen of the Universtiy of Washington Dept. of Scandinavian Studies is an expert on Nordic noir.

Has the Scandinavian crime thriller jumped the shark? Perhaps. If the reception of The Girl in the Spider’s Web movie is a bellwether for this genre’s international viability, then things are looking bleak. The Spider’s Web is a posthumous extension of Stieg Larsson’s legacy. The very enterprise conjures images of dead horses being whipped. Another recent but mercifully forgotten big screen Nordic noir was The Snowman—a film so bad that even diehard Jo Nesbø fans kept away.

So, is there a future for Nordic noir in print, television, and film in the world outside of Scandinavia?

That is the question addressed by Professor Andrew Nestingen in a lecture to a full house at the National Nordic Museum in Seattle on March 14. Nestingen is chair of the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington. He wrote the book Scandinavian Crime Fiction, published in 2011, and his lecture provided insights into the genesis and fundamental elements of Nordic noir.

He pointed out that, although the television adaptation of series such as The Killing for American audiences verifies an interest outside of Scandinavia, the viewers still represent a niche audience. Even the popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sold about one-tenth the tickets of mainstream Avatar. But even niche success can make money, and the books and film adaptations of Larsson have made lots of money.

What, then, is the formula that has given Nordic noir its appeal? Nestingen described the layered elements of the Scandinavian crime thriller. There is, of course, the who-dunnit thread, but normally the volume of print devoted to solving the crime is much less than that used to develop the characters and world they occupy.

Then there is the “insider-outsider”—the detective working for the police, but somehow different. Often he or she is “damaged” by life and unwilling to go along to get along with colleagues and powers that be. The private lives and struggles that these central characters face as a result of their special challenges are another necessary element in the narrative. So, like Nesbø’s Harry Hole or Saga Noren of The Bridge, they must be twice as good at their jobs to be respected by the rank and file. In fact, they command not only respect, but fear, since, above all, they will not tolerate rot from within. The exposure of corruption, systemic injustice, or abuse hidden in plain sight is a necessary element of Nordic noir. Some of the early roots of the genre were written specifically as social commentary.

Is there a future for Nordic noir? To me, Professor Nestingen’s lecture suggests that the niche audience outside of Scandinavia is unlikely to grow and will probably recede. But I think that as long as Scandinavians enjoy week-long Easter holidays, there will be novels and TV to meet their appetite for “Påskekrim.” I suspect it will hang on like a misunderstood Scandinavian holed up in a mountain cabin with no need for the outside world.

John Erik Stacy grew up in Wayzata, Minn., but soon moved to Oslo, Norway. He studied at the University of Oslo and married his wife, Robin, in Oslo. They became friends with Norwegians and American colleagues alike. In 2003, they moved to Seattle, Robin’s hometown. They visit Norway often and participate in the Scandinavian community in Seattle.

This article originally appeared in the April 5, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

Norwegian American Logo

The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.