Thu, Aug 04, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Will Breivik massacre lead to a surge in Nordic crime writing?

By Brian Oliver  /  The Observer, LONDON

On Oct. 5, 1999, a courtroom in Oslo heard a defendant, a man who was proud to show his swastika tattoos and to describe himself as a racist, speak of “the great betrayal” of Norway.

“Since 1945, National Socialism’s enemies have been masters of the land; they have developed and put into practice their democratic and economic principles,” he said. “Those who are supposed to protect our interests have let us down. They let the enemy build mosques in our midst, let them rob our folk and mingle blood with our women. It is no more than our duty as Norwegians to protect our race and to eliminate those who fail us.”

“Europe is threatened by mass immigration and the resultant chaos, deprivation and struggle for survival ... Those of you who pretend that there is not a racial struggle going on here are either blind or traitors,” he said.

The defendant, who had attacked a Vietnamese kebab shop owner with a baseball bat, was not a young Anders Behring Breivik, nor one of his associates. He was not a real person. His name was Sverre Olsen, a shaven-headed character in one of Jo Nesbo’s acclaimed thrillers featuring the troubled Harry Hole, Oslo’s famous alcoholic detective.

Nesbo is not alone in writing of political extremism and deep social problems in Norway, just as many Swedish, Danish and Icelandic authors do in their own homelands. A fear of outsiders is voiced by characters, be they criminals, police, politicians or ordinary citizens, in the works of many writers who have been translated into English. British readers, as well as many others in Europe and, slowly, the US, are turning to Scandinavia for its crime writing and drama.

The work is full of social commentary, many of the writers are former or working journalists, and there is a clear sense of difference from the mainstream: more introspective, more gloomy, and with far more depth than most American and British crime writing.

In the words of Hakan Nesser, one of Sweden’s top writers: “In general, the pace is slower. It’s a European rhythm. There isn’t as much action as you need to have in a US crime novel.”

Among the most popular Norwegian crime writers whose books — or some of them — are available in English are: Anne Holt, the country’s former justice minister who writes about a former FBI profiler in one series and a hard-headed female investigator who has to work from a wheelchair in another; Gunnar Staalesen, whose Varg Veum series is set in picturesque Stavanger; K.O. Dahl, whose thrillers are set in Oslo and contain much comment on modern Norwegian life; and the best, in my view, Karin Fossum.

Having “experienced a murder among my friends, at close range” in her youth, Fossum is noted for her empathy with the perpetrators, as well as the victims in her books. She writes, she says, about death, whereas most crime writers focus instead on killing — “and that’s something else.”

Of the central figure in her best-selling Konrad Sejer series, she says: “He is not very important to me, not intended to be a major character. He’s in the book because he has a job to do.”

Strangely, you will hear more of these Norwegian writers, and doubtless others too, in the coming months. When neighboring Sweden was traumatized by infamous crimes, it led, directly or indirectly, to a surge in crime writing that made many authors, the better ones, globally popular.

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