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 t 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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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).