The lure of Scandinavian crime writing

Jo Nesbo
Jo Nesbo is one of the Scandinavian authors riding the wave started by Henning Mankell in the U.S. Nesbo's new book, "The Devil's Star," was just published in the U.S., seven years after its release in Norway.
Image courtesy Harper Collins

One word which gets many thriller readers' pulses racing nowadays is "Scandinavia."

Yes, the region best known for fjords and Vikings is awash in blood -- if you are to believe the hugely popular novels being written by Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish crime writers. Now the phenomenon is spreading on U.S. soil.

Thriller fans can take their love of books to extremes. Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo knows from personal experience.

"I had a Dutch fan who wrote me and told me she had begun studying Norwegian for the sake of reading the books in the original language," he said.

Nesbo writes about Oslo detective Harry Hole.

"He is the only police officer in Norway who has specialized in serial killings."

Nesbo is touring the U.S. with the third Harry Hole book, "The Devil's Star." He's riding a wave of interest in Scandinavian writing.

It began with the books of Henning Mankell, and his series of stories about Swedish police inspector Kurt Wallander.

"Once Henning Mankell came out and became just extraordinarily popular, it seemed all the publishers were scrambling to find the next Scandinavian Mankell," said Gary Schultz, co-owner of the Once Upon A Crime bookstore in Minneapolis.

Gary Schultz
Once Upon a Crime Mystery Bookstore co-owner Gary Schultz.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Schultz says customer interest in Mankell was phenomenal. It then went through the stratosphere with Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," the first book in the Millenium trilogy. Last year Larsson was second only to "Kite Runner" author Khaled Hosseini in worldwide sales.

Now Schultz says any new book from Scandinavia draws interest from his regulars.

"There's some customers that, as soon as somebody comes in I'll just put it on the counter, and if it's a Scandinavian name, or setting, they buy it," he said.

Schultz has created a whole Scandinavian section in the store. When asked what it is the books share, he laughs.

"They are all so depressing. I don't know. It's bleak tundra with frozen bodies that they have found."

"Seems like the more local you are in your writing, the more universal the stories are."

Schultz says many of the books are excellent, some not so good. There's some Jo Nesbo on the shelf beside him. Schultz says calls started a month before "The Devil's Star" came out, asking when it would be available.

He says Nesbo creates great characters, although maybe a few too many subplots for his taste.

"Sometimes it bogs down the story," he said. "But generally the characters are so engaging you don't care."

Which is the whole point, Nesbo says.

Harry Hole is a skilled detective who believes in the rule of law, but he is a chronic alcoholic who finds himself drawn to the darker side of things as he deals with criminals who commit horrible crimes.

"And it's the moral dilemmas that I give him that is the main source for the suspense in the stories," Nesbo said.

Nesbo says he never intended for his stories to be translated for readers outside Norway, and when publishers began translating his work he worried the stories would not travel well. Yet readers tell him the opposite is true.

"Actually, I think that they find the books more interesting," Nesbo said. "Seems like the more local you are in your writing, the more universal the stories are."

Per Petterson
Author Per Petterson says like all his books, "Out Stealing Horses" is about the relationship between a father and son. He says the success of the novel, winning two major international literary prizes, has been like a dream.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

One of the quirks of the Scandinavian writing craze is the translation lag. It can take years for a book published in Scandinavia to come out in English.

Nesbo has written eight Harry Hole books so far, but only three have been published in the U.S. More have come out in Britain, and hardcore fans order direct from there. "The Devil's Star" came out in Norway in 2003.

Nesbo admits he sometimes gets confused when he tours because his books have been published at different times in different places, and even in a different order in some countries.

It's not just crime publishers getting in on the craze. As a literary press specializing in poetry, Graywolf Press in Minneapolis wasn't really in the market for Scandinavian fiction.

Graywolf's Managing and Editorial Director Katie Dublinski says that changed when a British publisher offered a translation of Per Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses."

"It struck us as quiet, but we also couldn't stop talking about it," she said. "It was the only thing that I've read for Graywolf that brought me to tears at the end."

Katie Dublinski
Graywolf Press Manging and Literary Editor Katie Dublinski.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"Out Stealing Horses" examines the lingering effects of World War II on an aging Norwegian man and his family.

The war also plays at least peripherally into the plots of Nesbo's book "Redbreast" and Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."

Graywolf published "Out Stealing Horses" in 2007. Shortly after, the novel won the Dublin IMPAC, one of the richest literary prizes in the world. Dublinski believes it's also been Graywolf's single best-selling book of fiction.

"We sold the paperback rights to a bigger New York house and they have been selling it like crazy ever since," she said. "So that steady income has made a big difference in our budgets."

Graywolf will publish Petterson's new novel, "I Curse the River of Time," in August.

But before that will come the U.S. release of the third Stieg Larsson novel, "The Girl who kicked the Hornet's Nest," on May 25. It's also been the subject of a lot of transatlantic ordering, as it came out in the UK in October.

At Once Upon A Crime, Gary Schultz still expects to do some brisk business.

Of course this craze, as with all others before, will come to an end. Schultz considers what will be next.

"I really don't know," he says and shakes his head.

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