Last minute summer reading recommendations

Picking our favorite nordic noir thrillers

WASHINGTON, D.C. - If the world is aligned properly, you still have some summer vacation left. That might mean you’re looking for some books for an escape. Nothing slows down time like a page-turner.

For longer than I can recall, one my favorite escape routes has been Nordic Noir – hardboiled detective stories from Scandinavia and Iceland.  Capers set in fjords and ice flows are especially soothing in muggy August.

Nordic Noir has become quite popular in the U.S.  Steig Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is big reason why. But the escapades of the Asperger’s crime-solver, Lisbeth Salander, are not at all typical of Scandinavian crime fiction and, for my money, aren’t as rich.  Larsson’s “Millennium Series” is more unrealistic and pyrotechnical, more modern Hollywood, than the best Nordic Noir.

Classic Scandinavian crime fiction is much more in the tradition of the Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  There is most always a dark knight, a Sir Lancelot/ Phillip Marlowe hero: the lonely misanthrope, often an alcoholic or depressive, with a ferocious personal code and a knack for self-destruction in pursuit of doing the right thing.

The grandmaster is indisputably Henning Mankell from Sweden. And his great series features police inspector Kurt Wallander of the small city of Ystad.  Wallander tangles with the social problems of contemporary Sweden – immigration, xenophobia, racism, anonymity and technophobia -- but Mankell doesn’t use a sledgehammer and a pulpit. 

Crime and violence in the Wallander books always has hard, personal reverberations for individuals and their places. The action isn’t on the grand scale of body count or grotesqueness of so much American crime fiction and film. 

Start with the first Wallander novel, “Faceless Killers” and move right on to “The Dogs of Riga.” If you’re not hooked, try another author.  But know that an added bonus is that there are two terrific television version of the series, one in Swedish and one in English with Kenneth Branagh.

Second place in my pantheon goes to the Detective Erlendur series by Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason.   These novels are as noir as Nordic Noir gets and Erlendur makes Kurt Wallander look like Pee Wee Herman.

Indridason’s moody settings in Reykjavik and rural bergs make for a kind of a frozen, treeless, more homogenous miniature of the American hot mess.  Erlendur trudges through the mysteries and crimes propelled mostly by his own demons and bile. He always makes the arrests but it never does him any good.

“Jar City” was the first Erlendur novel translated into English and it is a great way to begin.  The other option is to start with “Reykjavik Nights” which comes first chronologically. “Jar City” is a better read, though.  Indridason also has two novels that have been translated featuring two of Erlendur’s underlings on the police force. To my mind, both lack the Sisyphean futility of the Erlender books.

Mankell and Indridason both write with a texture that is more akin to Dennis Lehane’s Boston crime novels than to the other top flight Americans such as Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais or John Burdett.  And if you were a fan of the late, great James Crumley, you’re in for a treat.

Karin Fossum from Norway and Hakan Nesser from Sweden are both skilled writers in the Mankell tradition of mostly small settings framing complex psychology.  Fossum is especially compelling when writing about the broken inner coils of the criminals.  Their heroes, Inspectors Sejer (Fossum) and Van Veeteren (Nesser), are a bit better adjusted than the others, more Jimmy Stewart-Peter Falk than Humphrey Bogart.

If you prefer more action and brighter colors, the current Scandicrime “it” man is Jo Nesbo from Norway.  His Lancelot is Harry Hole, a name that is a precise existential fit.  “The Snowman” is riveting and the ending will fry your nerves.  I have found some of the others to be somewhat formulaic but all his translated novels have been popular in the U.S.

Other contemporary writers I have sampled with pleasure include: Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark), K.O. Dahl (Norway), Camilla Lackberg (Sweden) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland).

If you’re interested in going back a ways, the parents of Scandicrime are the husband and wife team of Maj Stowal and Per Wahloo from Sweden. In the 1960s their series featuring Martin Beck were very popular in the U.S., though, I confess, I am not a huge fan.

Another early hit was “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” by Peter Hoeg that came out here in 1993.  The heroine, Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, is part Inuit from Greenlander and a worthy ancestor of Larsson’s more famous Lisbeth Salander.

As for why these snowy neighbors to the north produce such fabulous crime fiction, well, it is a mystery -- a very entertaining and addictive mystery.

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