Bloody Easter

They extend winter, invented modern crime fiction, and celebrate Easter by reading about murder. Who? The Norwegians, of course.

By Glenn Folkvord

This article, originally published in The Norwegian-American, is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, who retains the copyright. Tusen takk!

påskekrim (reading crime fiction at Easter)

Påskekrim (photo by Tormod Ulsberg)

One would think that after a long, dark and bitter winter, Norwegians would welcome spring, sun and the promise of summer. That is probably true for the cold challenged, but many Norwegians choose to extend the winter by spending the Easter holiday in their mountain log cabins, armed with mutton, eggs and chocolate wafers. However, one more ingredient is needed to really get into the spirit. To some it is the highlight of the holiday. Murder. Preferably many of them, safely experienced between two book covers. Between shoveling snow or skiing on it, Easter means Norwegians wallow in crime fiction. In Norway you can’t avoid it that one week of the year. TV bursts with high profile British mystery shows. On radio, NRK has produced radio plays. Your newspaper’s weekend supplement has probably commissioned a crime short story and interviewed an expert on why Norwegians read Easter crime fiction, or “påskekrim”. Want milk? Not without spotting the crime cartoon on the cartons. And then there was that bakery that asked its Facebook followers to find out who had stolen their cupcakes. A fictional cupcake kidnapping case, because what is Easter without crime everywhere the word can be typed? The classic media for Easter crime is soft cover paperbacks, a practical format with their small size and weight, suitable for backpacks and suitcases. You can buy them at gas stations and local convenience stores on your way to your holiday destination. More than half the population travel somewhere during the Easter week. All subgenres of crime and thrillers are being read, but classic whodunnits and slow paced “cozy crime” are the traditional choices. You don’t even have to cave in to the publishers’ suggestions, as nobody flinches if you bring a stack of old dog eared flea market finds.

The reading of crime fiction during Easter is believed to be a tradition unique to Norway. Unlike many other popular traditions, establishing this one was a planned, happy accident. The seed of the Easter crime phenomenon can be attributed to a specific day in history, because it was a book publisher’s marketing ploy that started it all.

Aftenposten ad, 1923

Ad in the newspaper Aftenposten

On March 24, 1923 (the day before Palm Sunday), the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten printed the headline “The train to Bergen was robbed last night” across the font page. The news spread like a free money rumor. In reality, there was no headline. What Aftenposten had printed was an ad for a novel of the same name, but few picked up on the small disclaimer printed next to it. “Bergenstoget plyndret i nat” was written by Jonathan Jerv, or Jonathan Wolverine, an alias for two students, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. Both born in Bergen on Norway’s west coast. Grieg went on to be one of Norway’s most prominent authors in the 1920s and 30s, while Lie would become a major figure in publishing. However, it is widely regarded that it was the publisher Gyldendal’s director Harald Grieg, Nordahl’s brother, who was responsible for making the book a best seller. 15 years before Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio drama caused panic because of its simulated news, Harald Grieg achieved the same effect by employing the method known today as clickbait. When word got out that the robbery only took place in a book, readers rushed to the book stores.

 

Harald Grieg did probably not intend to create a specific and lasting tradition. Granted, he wanted to sell books, but even though he realized that selling light literature in March and April was a way to branch out for an industry that usually released their books in the fall, reading detective fiction in stead of going to church is thought to have fastened its roots because of the specifics of the Norwegian Easter. The most far fetched theories, as mentioned by Norway’s crime fiction expert Nils Nordberg, stretch back to pre-Christian times. Blood sacrifice was made by our Viking ancestors roughly around the time when Easter would fall centuries later. The plan was to secure crops and keep the gods happy. Maybe traces of this remain in Norwegian genes in the form of fascination for stories about violence? The metaphorical sacrificial lamb and the scapegoat are indeed always included. Easter itself has a dark back story. When God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the ancient Egyptians, blood smeared on houses saved Israelite families. Later, the criminal case, punishment and death of a religious rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, gave Easter additional meaning. Unfortunately, had these theories held water, Easter crime should have been a thing in many countries, which it is not.

The most probable explanation is much less complex, but still about a form of death; killing time. Also according to Nils Nordberg, this makes the most sense because Norway’s Easter holiday is the longest in the world. Norwegians leave their jobs for up to 10 days, with 5 of them being compulsory days off. One in four Norwegians spend their Easter in a mountain or coast cabin, where daily life is associated with simple pleasures and unwinding. After skiing, murder mysteries are perfect brain fodder next to the log fire. Paperbacks wear down but as they are cheap, they can be left in the library for the next guest, or for that winter when you are snowed in and can’t get out. Even for those who stay at home, murder, a wool blanket and a cup of hot cocoa is all it takes for a carefree day. Combine that with how Scandinavian crime literature tends to comment on social issues and topics readers can identify with, and the recipe for Easter escapism that is both easy to process and relevant is set.

Reading crime fiction has been a pastime for Norwegians since long before the current Nord Noir trend. In a country so safe – or boring? – that people seek danger in the form of words, Jo Nesbø, Jørn Lier Horst and Anne Holt are just the latest generation of thrill providers. Sven Elvestad (1884 – 1934), also known as Stein Riverton, was the first Norwegian crime author celebrity, having created the Christiania (now Oslo) detective Knut Gribb in a series of murder-free stories in 1908. Even before that, Maurits Hansen (1794 – 1842) published the novel “The Murder of Machine Builder Roolfsen” in 1839, predating the book that is thought to have created the modern murder mystery, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, by two years. The habit of reading about invented illegalities is thus older than Easter crime, but thanks to Harald Grieg’s clever marketing 95 years ago, Easter opened up as the high season. Norwegian crime authors do not face unemployment. Last year, in the two weeks before Easter, crime novels made up 55% of all fiction sold in bookstores, three times more than crime’s portion of Christmas book sales. British, French and German authors can’t get their heads around this when they talk to their Norwegian colleagues. The Norwegian Easter seems to remain crimson red for the foreseeable future.

Glenn Folkvord, (c) March 2018

country house in Norway

Country house in Norway (Photo by myszysz at Flickr)

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a few bits and bobs for the ScandiFan

Thanks to Urbanomic’s Yarnwork podcast series there’s a really wonderful in-deph interview with Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen, whose Varg Veum series is a long-running and much-beloved private detective series that gives the American PI tradition a Nordic twist. Though there were not a lot of private eyes at work in Norway when the series started in the 1970s, this character was able to solve the kinds of crimes that fit Norwegian society from then to the present, winning a pasionate audience. It’s delightful to hear from the author and also to hear him read from his books. Brilliant.

Jørn Lier Horst is joining the group blog, Murder is Everywhere, where he will join a number of writers who take us to various interesting parts of the world.

Novelist and reviewer Sarah Ward of Crimepieces compiles a good list of Scandinavian crime novels in translation for W.H. Smith booksellers.

Another novelist and reviewer, Margot Kinberg, takes a spotlight to Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, giving it a thorough and thoughtful analysis.

In other not-really-news, I’m still very slowly updating my site. So happy that there are people who are more on top of new things like Karen Meek of Euro Crime and the dynamic duo, Lucinda Suber and Stan Ulrich, who are behind the Stop You’re Killing Me Site. I don’t know what avid readers would do without you and other Internet-based forms of perpetual motion.

perpetual motion machine

Norman Rockwell Popular Science image courtesy of Wikipedia.

call for contributions to Mystery Readers Journal

Janet Rudolph has just issued a call for contributions – reviews, short essays, or author reflections – for a forthcoming issue on Scandinavian crime fiction. Here are the details:

The next issue of Mystery Readers Journal (Volume 30:4) will focus on Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Looking for reviews, articles and Author! Author! essays. Books can be written by Scandinavian writers or set in Scandinavian countries (or both). Reviews: 50-250 words; Articles: 250-1000 words; Author! Author essays: 500-1500 words. Author essays should be first person, about yourself, your books, and the ‘Scandinavian connection’. Think of it as chatting with friends and other writers in the bar or cafe. Add a 2-3 sentence bio/tagline. Deadline: January 10. Send to: Janet Rudolph, Editor. janet@mysteryreaders.orgMRJ 2007 cover

I’m sure some of this blogs’ readers have good things to share. If you’re not familiar with this publication, you may want to browse past issues or check out the 2007 issue devoted to Scandinavian crime fiction.

CFP: Essays for The Scandinavian Invasion

This just came across the radar and may be of interest to the academically inclined. Oh, and we’re talking Nordic crime fiction, not Vikings.

The Scandinavian Invasion: Perspectives on the Nordic Noir Phenomenon
Edited by William Proctor

The crime genre has a long-established history in the Scandinavian countries: from the ten-part series of novels by Sjöwall and Wahlööfeaturing Inspector Martin Beck to Henning Mankell’s critique of Swedish society through the lens of the Kurt Wallander novels. Since the publication of Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy in 2005 featuring anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, we have seen the birth of a global phenomenon that has spread across multiple media windows including literature, film and, most notably perhaps, television. Authors such as Jo Nesbo (The Snowman), Lars Kepler (The Hypnotist), Lotte and Søren Hammer (The Hanging) and more besides, regularly feature in book store charts and on internet shopping sites.  In the UK, BBC Four continue to champion the genre by airing The Killing, Borgen, and more recently, The Bridge alongside other series, such as Mammon and Arne Dahl. How can we begin to account for the popularity of the so-called Nordic Noir genre in the UK and beyond? How has this impacted other texts outside of the Scandinavian Peninsula? What can audiences and fan cultures teach us about this phenomenon? More simply, why Nordic Noir and why now?

The term itself, Nordic Noir, has also grown beyond its initial ambit to encompass multiple genres rather than restricted to crime or the police procedural. Arrow Films releases Scandinavian drama on the Nordic Noir label which includes crime, but also, other genres, such as history (Anno 1790), for instance. In this way, the genre has expanded in significant ways as a ‘cultural category’ that is discursively constructed rather than confined to a limited and finite designation. Following Jason Mittell, the Nordic Noir genre ‘operates in an ongoing historical process of category formation genres are constantly in flux, and thus their analyses must be historically situated’ (2004: xiv).

This collection aims to offer a varied range of perspectives on the Nordic Noir phenomenon and invites scholars to submit abstracts of 300 – 500 words. I am particularly interested in audiences and fan cultures, but other avenues of exploration may include (but not limited to):

  • Genre analysis.
  • History
  • Society and Culture.
  • Literature, Cinema, Television.
  • Non-Crime texts (such as Akta Manniskor or Anno 1790 and so forth).
  • Reception and Audiences.
  • Gender.
  • Sexuality.
  • Representation.
  • Influence and impact in other cultures.
  • The new wave of literature.
  • Industry.
  • Branding.

All proposals will be considered within the remit of Nordic Noir and its impact. Deadlines for abstracts: October 1st 2014. This will form part of the proposal to Edinburgh University Press who have expressed an interest in the project.

Abstracts to be forwarded to: billyproctor <at> hotmail.co.uk. Please send any queries, ideas etc to the same.

Some Criminally Good Scholarship

Infinite Earths, an online journal that unpacks popular culture in a variety of ways, has published a special issue on Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Invasion, focused on the impact Nordic crime dramas has had on Anglophone culture and what makes Nordic noir tick. There are four articles in the issue:

My thanks to Brownen Thomas of the Digital Reading Network who pointed the issue out to me.

Second, Taylor & Francis, one of the giant commercial publishers of scholarly work provided freely by scholars in exchange for organizing the free labor of peer reviewing, adding some copyediting and layout, then distributing to the academic libraries that can afford it and who promise not to let it travel beyond the library’s digital walled garden, has given a collection of articles on crime fiction a temporary release. They will return to serve out their life sentence at the end of the year, so read them while you can.*

Routledge Crime Fiction Collection

Articles address craft, genre, gender, historical crime fiction, and world crime fiction. Though not focused on Scandinavia, it’s very interesting stuff. I was particularly blown away by Margie Orford’s essay, “The Grammar of Violence: Writing Crime as Fiction.

*Sorry if I sound ungrateful. but I get frustrated when all of this valuable work is generally available to so few in order to support T&F’s 35% profit margin.

 

Happy Easter Crime!

Påskekrim

creative commons licensed photo courtesy of Rockspilden

The Spectator has a fascinating article about the origins of Påskekrim, Norway’s tradition of reading crime fiction at Easter. It seems a couple of enterprising guerrilla marketers of the late 19th century placed and ad for their novel about a train robbery that looked very like a news headline in Aftenposten. A tradition was born. As Norwegians head to their country cottages for the holidays, they take candy and entertaining books with them. The article goes on to profile worthy Norwegian writers, Anne Holt and Jørn Lier Horst, as well as a selection of Swedish and Danish recommendations.

The Newtown Review of Books, from Sydney, Australia, has a detailed review of Antti Tuomainen’s dystopian futuristic thriller set in Helsinki, The Healer.  Jean Bedford concludes, ” it is the juxtaposition of the rather gallant existentialism of the protagonists with the self-preservation and venality of most of the other characters that adds depth and texture to raise this dystopian crime novel well out of the ordinary.”

I have a copy on its way to me, and I am looking forward to it. In an email to me, critic Paula The HealerArvas wrote “it’s one piece of quality crime writing!” She also recommends Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage which will be out in June. For more from Finland, see the website of the FELT Cooperative.

At Reviewing the Evidence, there are several Scandinavian crime novels reviewed this week. John Cleal finds Mons Kallentoft’s Autumn Killing complex, dark, splendidly written, and a bit of work for the reader – but well worth it.

Yvonne Klein finds some of the plot devices in Silenced, Kristina Ohlsson’s second novel, awfully shopworn, and isn’t taken with the characters, though the book does provide a picture of Swedish approaches to justice.

Anne Corey is enthusiastic about Helsinki Blood, the latest brutal and dark entry in James Thompson’s Kari Vaara series. (Thompson is an American living in Finland, where his books were first published.) Though it focuses on Vaara’s attempts to salvage a what’s left of his life after the violence of the previous book in the series, it ends on a hopeful note and a possible new direction for the series.

In an earlier issue of RTE, I reviewed Tursten’s Golden Calf, which I felt was a strong entry in the series that has interesting things to say about the way wealth distorts people’s values.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Arne Dahl’s Misterioso (apa The Blinded Man) finding it well-written, intelligent, a tad slow in places, and very much in the social critique tradition of SJowall and Wahloo.  The BBC is airing a television series based on Dahl’s Intercrime novels starting in April. (Hat tip to Euro Crime.)

He previously reviewed Last Will by Liza Marklund, which he gives top marks, saying it’s an engrossing story that does a good job of weaving together the investigation and Annika Bengtzon’s personal life.

Margot Kinberg puts Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs in the spotlight – part of her series in which she examines how a particular mystery works in depth. This episode is dedicated to Maxine Clarke, who was one of the first to review this book.

Andalucian Friend - USAt Crimepieces, Sarah Ward reviews Alexander Söderberg’s Andalucian Friend, which she enjoyed – with reservations. The story’s strength is in its well-drawn characters, but the non-stop action and attendant hype left her wondering what all the fuss is about.

More reviews of Söderberg’s novel can be found at The Book Reporter (which finds it an epic powerhouse of a novel), Metro (which is less enamored, finding the female lead lacking and the violence over the top), and Kirkus (which deems it promising but with issues).

What We’ve Been Reading

In the Washington Post, Richard Lipez reviews Kaaberbol and Friis’s The Boy in the Suitcase, and finds the interwoven tales of two mothers, both intent on a boy who is drugged and shipped to Denmark in a suitcase, “another winning entry in the emotionally lacerating Scandinavian mystery sweepstakes.”

At Petrona, Maxine reviews the book, finding many of the characters well-drawn, but herself not particularly drawn to Nina Borg. Despite a disappointing denouement, Maxine found the book “exciting and involving” as it sheds light on issues of social injustice.

Ms. Wordopolis thought it was the best of the Scandinavian crime she has read lately, with complex characters and a riveting story that never becomes manipulative.

At Eurocrime, Lynn Harvey reviews the new translation of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber,  which she found a fast-paced thriller with an appealingly strong heroine.

The Daily Beast interviews the authors about the choices they made in the book, including the portrayal of men who carry out violent acts. They find crime fiction that dwells on violence is too often about how crime is committed, not who committed it or why.

At International Crime Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Johan Theorin’s The Quarry, writing that Theorin continues to combine an interesting plot structure, lots of the flavor of daily life for the characters, including the recurring figure of Gerlof, an elderly resident of the island of Oland, and a folkloric supernatural element – continuing the arc of a series that he feels is about as far from the style of Stieg Larsson as it is possible to get.

He also reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds and compares it to the previously-filmed Swedish television version of the story. He praises Tursten for telling an interesting story with just the right amount of domestic backstory – and Soho Press for restarting their publishing of this seires, which was one of the earliest Swedish translations into English among crime fiction titles.

Jose Egnacio reviews Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, and recommends the Norwegian police procedural highly.  While still in Norway (at least in a literary sense) he offers his comments on K. O. Dahl’s Lethal Investments, which he found enjoyable. Crossing the border into Sweden, he reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Cop Killer, a late entry into the Martin Beck series which he finds thought-provoking, with “a fine sense of humour.”

At Eurocrime, Laura Root also reviews Lethal Investments, concluding that plot is less the author’s strength than character and being able to poke society with a sharp, satirical stick.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Jan Costin Wagner’s The Winter of the Lions, another entry in a series she admires, writing “the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.” (As an aside – are there many reviewers in the media who write mystery reviews as good as this?)

Sarah at Crimepieces also reviews it, noting that it has a slightly bizarre but not implausible plot, praising the author’s writing and ability to create intriguing characters.

At Petrona, Maxine has mixed feelings about Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted. She found it a quick, entertaining read, but short on emotional depth and rather predictable, though the writing was good enough that she hasn’t written off the author yet.

For the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge, Maxine (who has completed two levels of the challenge and is well on her way to completing the expert level) profiles Inger Frimansson and includes Camilla Ceder and Karin Alvtegen among her “writers a bit like Frimansson” list.

Michelle Peckham enjoyed Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, finding it a slow-burning story with an intriguing lead character.

Beth sums up her thoughts about the Millennium Trilogy as David Fincher’s new film version hits theatres. She writes, “the real genius of the Millennium Trilogy is that Lisbeth Salander is no less an unforgettable character on the page as she is on the screen.”She also reviews Anne Holt’s 1222 which she found atmospheric and evocative. This novel recently made new in the US as it was just nominated for an Edgar “best novel of 2011” award

Keishon raises some excellent questions about “the commercialization of Scandinavian crime fiction” – in particular wondering if the trajectory of the Harry Hole series has been influenced by the demands of the American market for more violence done by armies of serial killers. The comment thread resulting is also well worth a read. She also reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which she found an uneven entry in a strong series – making up for it in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which she found “unputdownable,” full of strong scenes and unforgettable characters. 

Norm also gives Until Thy Wrath Be Past high marks – “refreshingly different and thought-provoking.”

Shadepoint names Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End the best book of 2011, which was challenging in its scope but in the end memorable and significant.

Kerrie in Paradise finds Jo Nesbo’s standalone Headhunters quite clever and advises readers to stick with it through its slow start.

If you’d like to browse a list of excellent reviews, you’ll find it at Reactions to Reading, where Bernadette lists the books she read for the Nordic Book Challenge of 2011. (She nearly reached Valhalla – as do I, reading her insightful comments on books.)

Some interesting feature articles to add to the review round-up:

Publishing Perspectives profiles Victoria Cribb, who translates Icelandic works into English and scrambles to keep up with Icelandic neologisms that are based on Icelandic roots rather than being merely imported from other languages. (Go, Iceland!) This small country, which publishes more books per capita than any other, was highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Dennis O’Donnell, book geek, reviews Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold ClimateForshaw himself blogs at Shots about covering the Scandinavian crime beat – and offers aspiring novelists a checklist of how to write a Nordic bestseller, among the tips changing your name to something like Børge Forshawsen.

Dorte contributes a wonderful survey of Danish crime fiction to Martin Edwards’ blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? including writers who are just becoming familiar to English-speaking readers as well as some we haven’t met (yet).

On the “in other news” front, Nick Cohen challenges Stieg Larsson’s claim to feminism, criticizing his (not translated) co-authored book on honor killings which Cohen says suffers from a left-wing abandonment of feminism when race enters the picture, using the issue to accuse leftists in general of waffling on women’s rights when it comes to immigrants.  The smoke is still rising from the comments.