Dark Scandinavians – True or False?

Thomas Enger is the critically acclaimed author of the Henning Juul series (published by Atria Books, Simon & Schuster). Check out his website (www.thomasenger.net) for more information.

Says Thomas, “For me a story often begins with the question what if. What if the situation I just witnessed in the park or whatever – what if something completely different happened instead? That can set me off. There are stories to be found everywhere around us. We just have to be receptive to them.”

Every now and then I get this question: “What is it with you Scandinavian crime writers? Do you all live under a dark cloud or something?”

There seems to be a consensus, at least outside the Scandinavian parts of the world, that people from the north are somewhat dark, that our mind sets are somehow haunted with the troubles of living, that we are this group of people that rarely smile, that somewhere behind the misty curtains of our fjords and mountains evil is lurking.

I guess it’s a just notion if you have read Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbo during the last 15 years. They paint a rather grusome picture, don’t they, of Scandinavia (and I mean that in a positive way)? Especially the two Swedes (and many others as well) have written novels that are laced with social commentary. They deal with issues like poverty, drug trafficking, health care problems – things that, in an ideal world, shouldn’t exist. At least not in a part of the world where there’s both large scale wealth and beautiful nature. There shouldn’t be any reasons for us to commit crime, should there?

A little over a month ago the screams from a 16 year old girl were heard in the middle of the night just a few miles outside Oslo’s city centre. The police found her cell phone in the neighbourhood. They even found one of her socks. 30 days later the young girl’s body was discovered in the woods. Although the police have arrested two men for her murder, they still haven’t found a motive. And while this was going on, a man on the other side of Oslo killed his ex-wife with a knife and tried to murder his seven year old son as well.

This is reality in Norway in 2012. Both incidents could easily have played a part in a Scandinavian crime novel, because they are both horrible and real. But what I find to be true both in Scandinavia and everywhere else in the world is that fiction can never overdo reality. Reality is far, far worse. I mean, who would ever believe that on a bright, sunny day last summer a man would first detonate a bomb directed at our nation’s politicians and later kill 69 people on a small, idyllic island?

A crime writer could never have written that. No one would ever believe him. So when Jo Nesbo kills a man by gluing him down to the floor of a bath tub and then turns on the water, I immediately think “oh my God, how awful,” but at the same time I think that it probably could have happened. People’s imagination when it comes to being cruel to other people, sadly, knows no limits. And we will never ever be able to eradicate evil, no matter how well off we are.

But does that mean that we, the Scandi crime writers, are somewhat darkened by our fate, beautiful and tragic as it may be at the same time?

Well, we come from a part of the world where the light itself goes away for most of the day (really far up north they don’t see the sun for months during the winter time), and I guess that doesn’t exactly make for the best of environments when it comes to happy, joyful living. It is a well known fact that people get more depressed when it’s cold and dark outside, and I know I certainly am affected by the light and the drop in temperature.

But I don’t think there are a people that enjoy the spring and the summer more than we do (when it actually is summer and not raining all the time). When the snow has melted and it’s possible to sit outside and drink the first beer without having to wrap yourself in seventeen blankets, there is such a light spirit everywhere. People are smiling. People are out enjoying the parks, the sea. In Grünerlokka, the part of Oslo where I live, there’s this vibe going on. You can feel the energy of people being happy.

So why do we write these dark stories, then?

Well, the key to any good story is tension. A character needs adversaries, whether it comes from other characters or things in society. It isn’t interesting to read about a perfect world. We don’t want the characters to remind us of the things we don’t have. We need to sympathize with the protagonists, not hate them. That’s why we do bad things to them. And in the end we want some form of order to be restored. We want our hero to right the wrongs so we can go about our business thinking that the world, albeit a fictional one, has become a better place. If only for a little while.

I also think we have a tendency to seek out the things that scare us a little bit. It offers an escape from our everyday life. It feels good to dive into an other world, get an emotional attachment to a character and feel the rush of excitement and horror as events unfold. Especially because we have the luxury of closing the curtains at night thinking, “Thank God, that didn’t happen to me.” That’s what I seek out when I’m reading crime fiction. That’s what I try to provide for my readers. I would really love for you to think, after you’re done with one of my novels, “hey, I am actually quite privileged to live the life I’m living.”

You want my take on why the Scandinavian crime novels are so popular these days? It isn’t just one thing, that’s for sure. The contrast between the image of Scandinavia as a beautiful, wealthy place and the fact that evil occurs even there, is something that people are drawn to. There is also the exotic factor. It is interesting to read about a part of the world where nature seems to play such an important role in people’s lives. But the main reason for the Scandi crime popularity, in my opinion, is a really simple one. It is because the stories are good. The characters are interesting, and you want to invest in them as a reader. You want good things to happen for them, especially if they live under a dark cloud.

But that doesn’t mean we, the writers, reside there as well.