The Happy Planet Index consistently ranks the Scandinavian countries higher than Britain, the United States, and Canada. Despite this surplus of joie de vivre, we don’t find in these nations’ literature perfectly crafted utopian ice castles but a distinctly macabre taste for crime. The import of Nordic crime fiction is a booming industry. You might have noticed. If not, expect more visibility following the American theatrical release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010), adapted from the first novel in Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, a series boasting a staggering 27 million copies sold internationally.
“In a perfect world there will be no need for detective stories,” argues Erik Routley, cited in Talking about Detective Fiction, but if history teaches us anything, it’s that the more orderly the environment is, the more unsettling and fascinating the threat of disruption becomes. Agatha Christie didn’t set her crimes in placid English vicarages because they were famous for murder.
P.D. James goes on to confess that “we certainly feel more threatened by crime and disorder than at any other time” in her long life. Crime and crime fiction are on the rise everywhere. The British lay claim to the detective story’s Golden Age, but how are they faring in the midst of this Nordic invasion? Is there a detective bold enough to replace Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus now that he officially retired in the masterful Exit Music?
Peter James seems to be among those stepping up to the mantle, at least in terms of sales. For his efforts, he was awarded in 2009 an Honorary Doctorate of Letters at Brighton University. With screenwriting and producing credits under his belt, Peter James has written over twenty novels, the most recent of which track the career of Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Beginning with Dead Simple, the Brighton-based crime novels have built themselves an impressive following. Dead Tomorrow was released in 2009.
The body of a teenage boy is recovered from the seabed off the coast of Sussex. Organs are missing. More bodies start turning up. The fast-paced story goes in two directions. Fifteen-year-old Caitlin Beckett would have had the world at her feet if God hadn’t handed her “a liver from the wrong box.” Every passing day makes her mother more desperate for a donor. Official Brighton channels are too slow, too uncertain. Meanwhile, like the witch with her poisoned apple, a shady German company is offering the Romanian destitute new lives and hope abroad. This translates into an endless supply of donors. Delivery can be ensured within a week, at a cost.
Caught in the middle is the illustrious Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, recovering from a lost love, settling into a new relationship, trying to balance life as a cop with life itself, and discovering he’s soon to be a father. Questions on criminality and justice are dredged up along with the first body: is a mother seeking to save her daughter a victim, or is she complicit to murder?
According to Mary Evans’ study of Scandinavian fiction, The Imagination of Evil, the very best of the genre explores the fact that Nordic writers hail from organized, wealthy countries boasting the world’s most secure welfare states. The novels that rise to renown plumb the ties that link insider and outsider, whether in reference to wealth and poverty or native and immigrant, and they trace the cracks in an otherwise icy cool reserve.
Britain has a famously stiff upper lip of its own. It is also, quite literally, an island unto itself with the same insider-outsider dichotomy. In fact, the logic applies in every instance of crime fiction where order is disrupted and sought to be restored. What sets Nordic crime fiction apart is not language, setting, or even theme, but how well it’s written. Peter James writes a clever yarn, though, at 500 pages, it requires a more committed donor than me. I won’t be going under a second time, but Steig Larsson’s Millennium series, weighing in at 1,500 pages, might be just what the doctor ordered.