Friday, 10 January 2014

Nordic Noir and Swooning over Sweden

"Nordic Noir" is not my term, but rather has been coined to encompass Scandinavian crime fiction and crime dramas. There is quite a following for all things Scandinavian (guilty party, right here!) and the guys over at Nordic Noir do a wonderful job bringing it closer to those of us outside Scandinavia. And who doesn't like a bit of gritty detective drama to keep you cosy on a wintery night?

I first experienced the wonder that is "Nordic Noir" after Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy was published in English. I had actually just been in Sweden visiting a good friend and she mentioned it. Had I heard of the book about "men who hate women"? Naturally I hadn't, because (typical!) the Swedish title, Män som hatar kvinnor (literally, Men who hate women) had been changed to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Can I just take a moment to interject just how much I love Sweden? I do, I really love the place. First, however, let me say the only negative things I have ever thought about it are a) asking 65 Kroner (about £6) for 568millileters of beer is really rather a cheek; b) the sun setting at 3pm, after only have risen at 9am in wintertime is just cruel; and finally c) it's bloody freezing come September until about May. 

So, I make a point only ever to go in July or August when the weather is perfect, the sun never sets, the fields are in bloom, and the men all walk about in nice trousers and boat shoes. In fact all the young men are strikingly gorgeous, looking as if they've just walked off a photoshoot for Björn Borg, and drive about in Volvos with their beautiful, blond girlfriends. Of course they are never single - that would be too easy...

I think this is why I love Sweden: it actually fits its sterotypes to a tee. And they are all delighful! Every house you walk into (likely painted red with white trimming) is like an Ikea showroom - classy, understated, and modern. The streets are clean, the buildings well maintained, the hospitals are to die for (erm...sorry...great health care is what I mean to say...), everyone under the age of 30 speaks perfect, accentless English, and the modern trains have better wifi than most homes.

The Swedes are crazy about ice cream and therefore it can found everywhere (how is this not amazing!?); actually, all their food is yummy; everyone could be models for H&M; over half the population either has a boat or a summer cabin - plumbing optional; lots of nature and water; families regularly jump into lakes naked; beer can be bought for 80pence per can in a government run liquor store (begging the question, why do bars even exist?), and public transport is so effortless. It is a beautiful country, with interesting history, fantastic people, and the style of living is enviable.

I could go on about Sweden for ever, and while this is all overgeneralising, my point is: how can a culture so full and bright produce such dark and, frankly, shocking crime fiction? And this isn't just Sweden - neighbouring countries of Norway and Denmark, with similar cultures, produce equally chilling stuff. Some may even call these stories disturbing. It is incredible to say the least. Some things that have come out of Scandinavia in the past twenty years are shocking good reads. The Millennium Trilogy, Henning Mankell's Wallander, Jo Nesbo's books - the list goes on an on. This is before we get to films and television series.

So, for me it began with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I stood reading it voraciously, elbow to elbow in a packed train at the end of summer travelling from Bristol to London. It was the beginning of the end. From there it was on to the Wallander series, then The Killing (Forbrydelsen), then Arne Dahl, Borgen, and The Bridge (Bron). I was even lucky to see Krister Henriksson, who plays Wallander in the Swedish series, in London at an event put on by Nordic Noir.

And many of these tv series have been remade in the English language. Normally this annoys me more than anything - why can't people just read subtitles, honestly? Why must Hollywood get their grubby fingers on it, or even the BBC? However, after some thought, I realised people loved the genre so much, they just had to give it a go themselves.

Wallander was remade with the lovely Kenneth Brannaugh, playing Police Inspector Kurt Wallander solving all sorts of insane crimes - filmed entirely in Ystad, Sweden. It was good... Then the Yanks played merry hell with Denmark's, The Killing (that one I boycotted, as you can't really out-do Sofie Gråbøl). This story follows a Copenhagen detective solving a complex, twenty episode, abduction and murder case. Incredible captivating and horribly gritty. And Sarah Lund's jumper is wonderful.

Hollywood also remade The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - shooting on location in Sweden did help, as did the number of Swedish actors, but it actually felt like Daniel Craig was playing his character of Bond. If Bond had given up spying and become a chain smoking journalist...The original Swedish version of the film was terrifyingly well done, so Hollywood didn't stand much chance.

Then Americans remade The Bridge, in 2013. This time, instead of Malmö/Copenhagen, it was set between the US/Mexican border.  It was filled with cowboys, and pitiful shots of Juarez, and shock, horror - subtitles for about five minutes per show. It was like they were filling a quota...Awful. I gave up.

And then, would you believe, the Brits got hold of the idea, deciding to remake it, set between France and Britain on the Eurotunnel, renaming it The Tunnel (...aren't they clever...). This one, so far, I've actually been impressed with. It feels appropriately depressing...

I've just realised I've gone on quite a bit about this. The thing is, Scandinavian crime is in a league of its own - full of dark, gritty, often horrible stories. Yet the acting is understated, the filming superb and suitably bleak, and scripts often complex. The worst things in human nature usually pop up. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo alone has all of humankind's depravity: murder, serial killers, rape, Anti-Semitism, torture, incest...yes, I know, sounds charming - but believe me, it's a bloody good read.

Why is all this gritty crime so compelling then? I'm not sure I know the answer, but what I can suggest is that you take a look as soon as you can. Get on to Netflix or down to your local bookstore immediately. You'll never look at crime drama the same again. And also go to Sweden if you haven't done so already. Even if you have been, go again. It's wonderful!