The noir connection

A literary genre brought about a cultural exchange

Jerry Holt
Purdue University

Jerry Holt - crime fiction

Photo: Bosc d’Anjou / Flickr
Sculpture of Varg Veum, the detective hero in Gunnar Staalesen’s thrillers set in Bergen, sculpted by Vidar Bratlund-Mæland in 2008.

In the late summer of 2018, I embarked on what would turn out to be the great educational adventure of my life. I had received a Fulbright Teaching Award, and I found myself traveling from my professional home at Purdue University to the University of Bergen, in western Norway.

Bergen  is  a lovely city but also one quite conducive to the study of noir writing. It rains A LOT in Bergen — and its historic, cobbled streets glisten as they do in a manner that seems to suggest that everything is not quite as it seems. And that, of course, is the essence of noir. There is not that much actual crime in Bergen, but its remarkable ambiance stirs the imaginations of the several noir writers who call Bergen home just the same.

My first duty there was to prepare and teach a master’s course in American Detective Fiction. What an experience this was. My students — 34 of them — rose to the challenge of a rigorous reading schedule, and they were there and deeply engaged every single time. They immediately understood that our study was interdisciplinary in the best sense — that, for us, the detective story would be a frame through which we could talk about not only crime but politics, sociology, religion, ethnicity ,  and many other subjects. When I could, I surprised them with some special guests: Sara Paretsky, the best-selling creator of Chicago detective V.I. Warshawski, dropped in by Skype from Chicago and became so involved in a discussion of the detective story’s place in TrumpWorld that nobody wanted to leave. Later the Latino author Manuel Ramos Skyped in and absolutely charmed the students; his down and out antihero Gus Corral delighted everybody but instructed us as well: there is a hidden cultural history there that all of us need to know . But the big day was the one when Bergen’s own Gunnar Staalesen, creator of detective hero Varg Veum, dropped by in person to talk to the class about what he learned from reading Raymond Chandler.

Jerry Holt

Photo courtesy of Jerry Holt
Professor Holt conducts a Skype classroom session with Sara Paretsky.

Staalesen and I soon enough found ourselves in the legendary Varg Veum Bar — complete with Varg’s statue — where he sat for an interview with me that then saw print in the international journal Mystery Tribune.

One thing led to another, and I found myself headed for Edinburgh, as part of the Bergen delegation for the Sister Cities evening featuring Staalesen and Scotland’s own Ian Rankin. That was unforgettable.

And unforgettable is also the term I would apply to my visit to the home of Nils Nordberg, the Oslo radio producer, who owns perhaps the most extensive collection of noir in the world. I felt like I had found the Holy Grail — those endless shelves held… everything. My evening with him provided loads of information and will be indispensable to future work that will come from my study here.

But my adventure was far from over. Upon my return, I was asked by Purdue to teach a Norwegian Noir graduate course on THIS side of the Atlantic—and through the wonder of Skype, I was able to personally introduce my American class to Gunnar Staalesen and the excellent Oslo writer Trude Teige—but also to several of my students from the Bergen class. The exchanges between the students were absolutely the most wonderful classroom experiences of my career—and of course they are still visiting through social media.

I learned far more than I taught in Bergen — and the learning has come from directions far and wide. My students were excellent teachers, and their observations will certainly find places in my future writing. But beyond the classroom, it just seems like everybody in this country loves to read and to talk about noir. The captain who took my wife and me on a fjord journey was a Staalesen fan. My downstairs neighbor dotes on Anne Holt and of course wanted to know if she and I were related. And I shall never forget the liquor store clerk who saw me eyeing a bottle of Varg Veum Akvavit, named for Staalesen’s detective hero. “Varg himself doesn’t drink that,” the guy told me. “He drinks —”  (brandishing a bottle)  “ This kind — and he drinks it… religiously.”

Jerry Holt

Photo: Jerry Holt
Jerry Holt learned that Bergen is a very rainy city.

My interaction with Norwegian culture could not have been more rewarding. Weekends were devoted to fjord journeys, cultural events, and hiking through the lovely forests that surround Bergen. One highlight for me was the Bergen Film Festival in October 2017, a stellar presentation of international films that put me in Cinema heaven. I shall also be thankful for being selected to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as a Fulbright delegate.

You can’t buy memories like that. What a year of cultural adventure, and I will remain indebted to the Fulbright organization and to Purdue Northwest for allowing me to experience it. I would encourage students to look at the possibilities that Fulbright offers. These are tremendously enriching experiences that I will bring back not only to my own work to but to the classroom.

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

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The Norwegian American

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