Last year and early this year I took a deep dive into Scandinavian murder mysteries (translated into English, of course), sometimes called “Nordic noir.” I read the Stieg Larrson trilogy (“The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” etc.), all but the latest Henning Mankell novels, and Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren books.
All of them share a bleak climate–not one was set on the beach in Denmark in the summertime, for example. It is always winter, or spitting freezing rain in what passes for spring or autumn. They are deeply cynical about politics and the motivations of the police. Most of them are extremely well-plotted. Sex varies from plenty and violent/kinky (Larrson) to nonexistent (Nesser). The characters and stories are compelling. But I started feeling the winter inside me.
I took a slight detour to Edinburgh, Scotland, with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries. Again, it’s never a sunny day, it’s almost always cold, everyone is corrupt. Rebus is a barely-under-control alcoholic. I finally burned out and began re-reading Robert B. Parker and Donna Leon. It rains in Boston and Venice, quite a lot in fact, but somehow those stories do not depress me like the ones set further north do.
Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote about Nordic noir, “The ground beneath your feet dramatically affects your worldview.” Does a cold climate lead to cold temperaments? That’s the stereotypical view. Hot-blooded Latins and cold-blooded Swedes–but love, hate, families, money, envy and intrigue exist everywhere, probably even in the last remaining tribe that has never seen TV.
I’ve decided it’s not the weather that makes these novels so depressing, even though they are beautifully written. In most cases, the detective (or main character, as in the case of Lisbeth Salander) is estranged from his or her family or has none, has no real friends, is alienated from any sense of community. The only driving force in his life is sticking with the code of the law (the various inspectors), seeking justice, or revenge (Salander).
Nordic noir is a great place to visit, but I don’t want to live there. Donna Leon’s Brunetti is deeply cynical about Italian politics and the police force. It often rains (or floods) in her books. But Brunetti comes home to his professor wife, a quirky, warm family and a delicious home-cooked meal every night. That’s a world I’d rather inhabit.