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Scandinavian Murder Mysteries

Ville Vartanen as Detective Kari Sorjonen in "Bordertown."
Is Finland in Scandinavia? Is it a Nordic country? And what is the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic? Like most Americans, my geographical knowledge is pitiful-- I must take a class sometime soon—and I always have to Google countries. I’ve traveled to Norway and Denmark, but never to Sweden or Finland. Finland has a border with Russia and is just miles from St. Petersburg. Russian, Swedish, Finnish, English—these four languages are almost interchangeable in Finland. Who knew? I didn’t.

We can learn a lot from murder mysteries. Right now my husband, Jim, and I are hooked—and bingeing on—“Bordertown”—four episodes to go. And before that we watched “Trapped,” from Iceland, which is not Scandinavia exactly, but feels as though it was chopped off from Scandinavia in an earthquake millennia ago.

And both of these series are wonderful. Why? The production values are high, the scripts are gorgeous—both character and plot driven with little or no gunfire. And we get a taste of a landscape and culture, albeit fictionalized and idealized , that is uniquely strange, yet familiar in its Western mores. It’s pure escapism, which is what we—Americans—seem to need these days. Texts fly from friends and family with suggestions of series newly discovered on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Stream me, baby, I’m ready for more fairy tales to vent my fears and discontents. But are these stories fairy tales? Or are they real? And what is real? And how close to real are these scripts? The murders are often grotesque, portrayed so graphically I often have to turn my head away. But the detectives are so imperfect, quirky and humane, I want to invite them over for dinner.

I had a Norwegian student when I was teaching at the University of London who invited us to her home four hours north of Oslo. High summer, lots of swimming in a fiord just minutes from her home. Her father was a Lennsmannkontor—the town’s mayor, notary republic and sheriff. He had a very impressive sign on his car with lights on top. But there was little danger; everything about the life in this small town seemed safe, stable. The population in Norway at the time was still homogeneous—no refugees. And there were no Scandinavian murder mysteries hitting the international bestseller lists then, either. So, perhaps, the success of these books and streamed series has something to do with the influx of desperate, migrating populations into the EU, and the transformation of once homogeneous societies into something else, or more, or different. All the Nordic/Scandinavian countries have been generous in welcoming refugee families. And they have suffered attacks. The most recent has been in Finland when an 18-year old Moroccan citizen, denied asylum, and known to authorities, went on a stabbing rampage. Two people were killed.

Undoubtedly, this tragic episode will stir the imaginations of Finnish writers as 9/11 has stirred the imaginations of American writers. After that world-changing event, I got a phone call from a reporter at the LA Times. She wanted to know if I thought the destruction of The Towers would show up in literature any time soon. All that we were writing in the wake of the attack was raw and insistent; it had not yet been transformed into literature. Beyond that, I really didn’t know. Who can predict these things? Years later, after 9/11 had mulched and settled, I wrote a murder mystery myself, “Say Nothing,” which, to my surprise, tapped into the trauma of 9/11 big time. The female detective is an Iraq vet. And she's very quirky and humane.  Read More 
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