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Top 7 Nordic Noir novels you should read

Top 7 Nordic Noir novels you should read

Veteran Nordic Noir writer Kjell Ola Dahl, whose latest novel Faithless came out earlier this year, talks us through seven essential reads for any fan of the genre.

The Laughing Policeman 

by Sjöwall & Wallhö


One of the best books written by Sjöwall & Wallhö is The Laughing Policeman. While the book is set in Sweden in the late 1960s/early 1970s, its initial premise suggests a much more contemporary thriller about terrorism: all eight passengers on a late-night bus in Stockholm are killed.

While this opening is spectacular, what really makes the book great is the way the authors follow this stunning scene with realistic portraits of Swedish society, police investigation and of solid, three-dimensional characters.

As The Laughing Policeman is the fourth book in a continuing series, the principal players are already well established, giving the authors the space and freedom to show them doing systematic, true-to-life police work, which sometimes takes them down interesting and revealing routes as they track down the killer.


The Iron Chariot 

by Stein Riverton


Another great Nordic Noir author is the early-20th-century writer, Stein Riverton. His novel The Iron Chariot was first published in 1909. Clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was published seven years earlier, this mystery concerns the chariot of the title, which moves during the night but leaves no tracks. The novel is set on an island on the south coast of Norway popular with holiday-makers.

When a forestry agent is killed, Detective Asbjørn Krag starts to investigate, only to find that an old man related to the first victim is also killed. At the times of both deaths the mysterious iron chariot has been heard. This combination of innocence, nostalgia and a classic mystery makes this a charming read.


Smugglers and The Escape 

by Arthur Omre 


While Riverton wrote in the tradition of Christie and Conan Doyle, in 1936 a new writer appeared on the Norwegian crime scene, someone clearly inspired by American hardboiled fiction. His name was Arthur Omre. During Norway’s prohibition era (from 1916 to 1928), he was one of the country’s big-shot smugglers. He was arrested, and did time in jail. But afterwards he began a new career, writing incredibly good Noir fiction. Two of his best books—Smugglers and The Escape—feature the same protagonist.

When Smugglers first appeared, it was something totally new in Nordic Noir: an autobiographical novel, with an authentic, hardboiled setting akin to Dashiell Hammett’s books. The protagonist is a criminal, hunting easy money and easy women. In his elegant speed boat, he sails out of Oslo Fjord to collect drums of liquor from German ships out at sea.

He then heads for the capital, in a race against both Norwegian customs officers and other criminals, who want to steal his cargo. The story closes impressively with the famous Battle of Bygdøy—a real historical battle between the police, smugglers and other criminals that took place in Oslo in 1923.

Arthur Omre. Image via Dagbladet

The Escape sees the same character escaping the police and the law by travelling to the west coast of Norway. Here he starts a business in the fishing industry and becomes successful. However, he realises what drives him to do this is not the sense of achievement, the money, or the respect he gains, but the fact that it's all a cover for his former identity.

He enjoys the fact that he has secrets, that the respectable business is a bluff. But money and success in themselves make for an incredibly boring life. Inevitably he starts to push the boundaries so he can once again feel a sense of excitement. The insights into a criminal mind, the history of the fishing industry, and especially the brutal but well-paced language make this an excellent read. Omre is the Norwegian James M. Cain.


Murder in the Dark 

by Dan Turell 


Another "old-timer" I will mention is the Danish writer Dan Turell. He was nicknamed "Uncle Danny" and was sometimes called the "Lou Reed of crime fiction". He wrote, among other things, a series about a nameless crime reporter, who works for a fictitious Copenhagen newspaper, called simply "the paper", and solves crimes. The series began in 1980 with the novel Murder in the Dark, in which two elderly people are killed in a slum tenement and the reporter hunts for the killer in the dark streets of Copenhagen’s Vesterbro district.


The Varg Veum series 

by Gunnar Staalesen


Three years before Murder in the Dark was published, Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen had already started to write about his Bergen-based hero, Varg Veum. Veum was a new type of character in Nordic Noir—the private investigator; what Staalesen did was to place him in a typically Nordic setting: the social-democratic welfare state.

While Staalesen is a great inventor of plots, he remains very loyal to his protagonist and he has written countless stories about him. Huge numbers of readers follow Varg Veum and his adventures; so much so that in Bergen he has his own bar (which is in the building where his fictional office is located). I enjoy all Gunnar’s books, and it feels unfair to highlight just one; but maybe the first is the one I like the best.

The title, Bukken til havresekken, is difficult to translate, but literally means something like "Let the Fox Mind the Henhouse". My English publisher, Orenda Books, now publishes the Varg Veum series: Where Roses Never Die, which came out last year, is a great read, and its follow-up, Wolves in the Dark, is about to be released.


The Whisperer 

by Karin Fossum 


Last but not least, I will mention the latest novel written by Karin Fossum. The Whisperer is a story of a lonely woman who has lost her voice in an operation, so she can only talk in a whisper. Living alone in her childhood home, she has a son, but he has moved to Berlin, and they only have very occasional contact. She also insists on having order in her life; for example, she likes to sit in the same seat on the bus every day.

When she receives a threatening letter, this lonely, organised woman's imagination begins to run riot, and she immediately thinks she has to defend herself. The Whisperer is a tense, thrilling mystery with an unreliable narrator, and interestingly, Fossum’s investigator, Konrad Sejer, has only a supporting role this time.


About my new book...


My recent novel Faithless is part of a police procedural series inspired by both Nordic and international crime fiction. Four books in the series, which features the Oslo detectives Gunnarstranda and Frølich, have already been published in English: Lethal Investments, The Last Fix, The Man in the Window and The Fourth Man

My initial intention in writing this series was to use it as a place to feature the classic forms of the crime genre: for example, one novel would be a traditional whodunnit, another the story of a femme fatale, and so on. 

While this remains my aim, the books also take inspiration from elsewhere. Faithless, for instance, is partly about the nature of friendship, and in its structure it draws on books written by two Swedish authors: Per Sjöwall and Maj Wallhö, who were, in turn, inspired by Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police stories.


Faithless by Kjell Ola Dahl is out now, published by Orenda Books, price £8.99 in paperback original 

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