Strangers, comrades, and crime fiction

“Noir Brigadoon” in Bergen

Photo: Endre Knudsen / VisitNorway
With its charming wooden buildings, Bergen can seem like a fairy tale town during the day, but when night falls, a shroud of mystery can fall over the city. This is the world of Varg Veum and Norwegian Noir.

In 2017, I came, in a very real sense, as an immigrant to Norway. I was a Fulbright scholar, assigned to teach noir writing at the University of Bergen. It was quite an opportunity: Scandinavian Noir had been booming for several years, in part due to the staggering popularity of Stig Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo series—but in the United States I had gone on to read other excellent writers—principally Bergen’s own Gunnar Staalesen. I was devoted to his Varg Veum series, and one of my goals in Bergen was to get an interview with him.

By the time I was one week into my “immigration,” the very generous Staalesen had not only given me a stellar interview—but we had begun a lifetime friendship. The warmth and hospitality of Gunnar and his wife, Ellen, was my first introduction to Norwegian culture—and they are indeed a hard act to follow.

Of course, what formed that friendship was our mutual devotion to noir writing. And as the months progressed, I found that in Norway, such a devotion actually works as a calling card. Outsider or not, if you understand what Påskekrim—Norwegian Easter crime fiction—is all about, you will find an infinite supply of friends in that country. Here is an example:

For the first half of my Fulbright year, I was fortunate enough to have my wife, Lucrecia, traveling with me. One of the first things we did was attend services at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a block from the harbor. The church had an English-speaking service, and we thought we might meet some kindred souls.

Did we ever—and in a way we had not foreseen. After the service, a coffee hour takes place across the street from the historic but timeless structure that is St. Mary’s. As I walked in to the little building where the coffee hour takes place, the first sight that greeted me was a big bookcase of paperback books—paperbacks in my favorite genre. Yes—they were mysteries—not only Scandinavian but from pretty much all over the world. I asked a gentleman who would later become a good friend what that was all about, and he replied that the parishioners were all mystery readers, and that when they finished a good one they brought it to the bookcase to share with others.

And who were the others? I found out over coffee. They were immigrants—longtime ones, in most cases. A lovely trio of Scottish women soon became dear friends of both Lucrecia and me. One of them is a person you may well know by name: the beautiful and talented Rosemary Lund, who has graced a number of Norwegian films and television series—principally the very popular noir offering Aber Bergen.

And did these Scottish ladies ever know their mystery fiction. During that first coffee hour, we bonded over first Agatha Christie (of course) but also over Karin Fossum (dark, but they still eagerly awaited the next Inspector Sejer installment), Ann Cleeves (a real favorite, especially the Detective Vera books), and the Aberdeen-based police procedurals by Stuart MacBride.

And Ian Rankin? For them, John Rebus might as well have been a family member. And back on the home front they had all read and loved Gunnar Staalesen’s work, and some of them even knew him. Bergen, in the last analysis, is not that large a place, and Staalesen is also a man who loves his city: he’s a true ambassador, and he’s often out and about. Then the Staalesen hero Varg Veum popped up in that first confab in another way: the man who first greeted me lives next door to the home where Varg Veum star Trond Espen Seim was housed when the Veum television series was shooting. I’m telling you: I felt like I had died and gone to “Noir Brigadoon.”

Wherever Lucrecia and I went, we encountered Norwegians who loved their mysteries, but we also encountered many people like those Scots who had found a new and wonderful home in Bergen and who had brought their love of mystery writing with them. I think there are several reasons why this bond among readers is almost a code they all know.

For one thing, there are few ways to get to know a culture faster than to read its mystery writers. They tend to locate their recurring characters in cities, and those cities then inevitably become characters in the book. Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles and Sara Paretsky’s Chicago are of course prime examples—and if you want to learn the city of Bergen quickly, there is no better guide than a Varg Veum novel. Where is the hospital? Where is police headquarters? What about the Funicular? They’re all there—and on top of that, there is plenty of information about what makes a citizen of Bergen tick. Another factor is that you will certainly—and effortlessly—learn plenty of Norwegian, even though you are reading in translation. The names of places, organizations, and just about anything related to society are still going to be in Norwegian—and many of them are going to stay with you.

But the most important connector of noir fiction comes from the very reason why we read these novels and stories in the first place: in any country, they are centered on a character—the detective—who needs to know more—in fact must know more. For Kinsey Milhone and Lew Archer, it’s life’s blood, the very juice that propels them. And in that way these sleuths become all of us. Their tragedy is that finally they, like us, cannot know everything—they can’t ultimately pull away the curtain and answer the eternal questions about God and existence. But they try. Oh yes—they try. And along the way they all have a pretty good track record of solving a crime or two. Or more.

I cannot tell you how enriched my Fulbright experience was for finding the noir community early on in my stay. A stranger? Yes—until that first coffee conversation about great writing in a genre we all loved. And then—a stranger no more.

This article originally appeared in the October 7, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Jerry Holt

Jerry Holt is a novelist, playwright, teacher, and public speaker. He is professor emeritus of English at Purdue University Northwest and a recipient of Purdue's 2015 Dreamer Award, recognized for work as that has "embodied Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of service to others.” Holt has written four major plays, one novel, and nine short plays. His acclaimed novel, The Killing of Strangers, focuses on several mysteries surrounding the Kent State University shootings on May 4, 1970.