The dark, desolate, gloomy and clearly depressing provide the idyllic setting for a crime. And if the setting is a Nordic country, your dozen dead bodies have found the perfect complement for the investigation. Two stars of Nordic crime fiction visited the capital to tell us all about it, for the inaugural of India’s first ever Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival, held from 17 to 18 January at India Habitat Centre, with about a thousand people attending the festival on both days despite the fog and cold. Nordic noir, as the term has come to be known, excites everyone. Perhaps it is the voyeuristic pleasure of observing dead bodies strewn across the pages, perhaps it has to do with the beautiful countries they’re set in and how a crime committed here can be most unsettling, but most importantly, perhaps it has to do with the pace of the story.
Håkan Nesser, acclaimed author of several Swedish crime novels such as The Mind’s Eye (2009) and Woman with Birthmark (2010), believes humans are supposed to be depressed. “To learn to live is to love your depression,” he says. Commenting on the rise of crime fiction coming from his part of the world—around 2008, the wave gained momentum with Stieg Larsson’s addictive trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), and the BBC drama series Wallander (2008), starring Kenneth Branagh as Swedish detective Kurt Wallander, who investigates violent and terrifying murders in beautiful Skane, southern Sweden.
Nesser explains how the Larsson boom was a result of coincidence, something totally unpredictable. “He [Larsson] was just sitting in his office smoking and that’s why he died, apparently. His friend visited him and saw the pile of the trilogies in his office and persuaded him to get it published. These are small little things, but if Larsson’s friend hadn’t visited him on that particular day, would this have happened?” Both these ‘events’ happened almost simultaneously, taking the world by storm. It was Germany which first took to Swedish crime fiction, he says, a country that Nesser believes has the best readers in the world. And the best part about a book he believes is that it can traverse mountains and deserts and reach readers, who’d devour a good story like no one else. The towering author (he’s over six feet tall) in his deep baritone then recalled an incident concerning his book Woman with Birthmark. “I met a lady who told me “I’m so glad she [the protagonist of the book] got the fourth one too,” he says, sounding almost surprised that someone would come up to him and talk about that book, which is yet another case involving Inspector Van Veeteren and a thriller of deceit, blackmail and murder. It begins with describing the protagonist and the environment she inhabits—the lack of mourners at her mother’s death and how at 29 years of age, she still had to make sense of her own life. Nesser, through his writing, paints the gloomy settings beautifully—enough for you to imagine it to be postcard perfect. And if he were to write a crime novel set in India he says it would have to be from the perspective of a foreigner travelling to India and discovering the place. “I’ve just visited Kolkata apart from Delhi, so I can’t really say I understand how things function. But yes, if my book were set in India, it would be from how a visitor perceives the country,” he explains.
Norwegian crime writer Nils Nordberg believes a Nordic setting provides the perfect ambience for such crime stories. “The loss of innocence is a recurring theme. It runs against the order of things, in opposition. But at the same time, it shows a sense of justice,” he says. In addition, Nordberg believes these books also reflect on a society that “knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing”. He published an anthology of crime short stories, including The World’s Best Crime Stories, and is known as an authority on crime fiction.
The characters in these crime novels grow on you, slowly and steadily; quite unlike the books set in the US, which Nesser says are written to be “made on the big screen. There’s fast, quick action. The story moves with every page you turn.”
While both admitted that the English language market was the toughest to break into, when it comes to the entire ‘lost in translation’ aspect, Nesser says one just has to believe his or her translator completely. As for the nuances and sayings that are endemic to Nordic culture, Nordberg says the more subtle details get lost, as one would need to know the society more intimately to perfect that. “You need more words to explain it. On the whole however, and from what I’ve read of the translations, the pace is maintained”.
What is the future of Nordic noir? Will a time come where we see less of this genre, despite it having ‘struck oil’ with the number of crime fiction novels published each year (according to Nordberg, 2014 saw over 100 crime fiction books being published)? “It has a lot to do with how our society develops. Literature is so tied up with what’s happening around in the world and crime fiction more so. So it all depends. At least at the moment we’re insecure about what is to come. But crime novels always show that things can be done right and set right in the end. It could even be worse. So they leave you with that ‘imagine if’ thought too,” says Nordberg. Nesser believes different genres of writing will come out of the Nordic region. “I hope so. We’ve published enough crime fiction for 100 years, so hopefully something else will come from here. This phase of Swedish crime fiction will pass.”