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Fear Factor

Scandinavia is full of mysteries. For instance, though it's almost crime free, it's overflowing with crime fiction. Why?

Author Mike Guy Illustration Ben Gibson

SCANDINAVIA IS CRAZY about crime. Norwegians celebrate Easter with a tradition known as Paaskekrim, which entails reading murder mysteries and watching detective shows. In Sweden a few years ago, there were slightly fewer novels about murder published (84) than actual murders (91). In Iceland, the murder rate is among the lowest in the world.

So why did Scandinavia become a hotbed of top-shelf crime fiction? Is it the gloomy frostbitten winter? The unrelenting insomniac summers? Either way, Nordic crime fiction—characterized by fast-paced plotting, smart writing and crackling atmospherics—is creeping onto shelves crowded with CSI-driven procedurals. Somehow, the unabashedly literary tone of these Nordic stories has captured our imaginations. Mssrs. Cornwell and Connelly, meet Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø and Arnaldur Indridason.

The breakthrough Nordic hit is Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson, a prominent journalist, died of a heart attack in 2004, before his completed series saw the light of day, but Dragon Tattoo along with sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (out in May in the U.S.) have gone on to sell 20 million copies. The trilogy’s success is surprising. Centered on the travails of a sexy young hacker, they are long, complex and slow-paced—not exactly catnip for sleuth fans.

This month, the genre’s godfather, Mankell, releases The Man from Beijing. Opening with the discovery of a puzzling multiple murder in a Swedish hamlet, the story follows judge Birgitta Roslin through a fascinating maze to China and Africa. It’s part white-knuckler, part historical fiction and part exegesis on colonialism.

“That’s a link that connects all of the Scandinavian thrillers,” says Barbara Fister, a Nordic crime aficionado at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. “These societies spend a lot of time contemplating social justice.”

Mankell, a 62-year-old Swedish icon, has been churning out crime fiction since 1977. “I use the mirror of crime to look at the whole society,” he has said. “I would never, ever think of writing a crime story for the sake of itself.”

Other spring releases include Norwegian writer Nesbø’s virtuosic The Devil’s Star, due out in March, about a brilliant alcoholic detective who follows a serial killer to the top ranks of the Oslo PD. And in May, Icelander Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill mines similar territory with the murder of a dark-skinned teenager. Stick around for the surprising ending—nearly as surprising as the way Scandinavian writers have brought heat back to a tired genre.

Executive editor MIKE GUY has never seen CSI.

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