Crime fiction has an edgy new buzzword: Norway. Norwegian star Jo Nesbø has obliterated most of his Scandinavian rivals in the bestseller stakes, with The Leopard published in paperback this week. Offering a refreshingly cool blast to counteract the summer heat are a batch of talented writers from the fjords: Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, and a writer who has created a massive pre-publication fever, Thomas Enger.
Is the literary excitement really justified? Nordic crime fiction carries a more respectable cachet – justifiably or otherwise – than similar genre fiction produced in Britain or the US. Novelty and perceived "quality" are both factors in the astonishing success in Britain of the slow-burning Danish TV series The Killing, which reinvented police-procedural clichés through an intriguing Danish prism. The actress Sofie Gråbøl, as the unsmiling copper Sarah Lund with a dysfunctional personal life (and in unvarying black-and-white Faeroe Island jumper), is now a cult figure, and has even generated leader columns.
But despite the proximity to one another of the various Scandinavian countries, their individual identities are remarkably pronounced. The patience generally shown by the inhabitants when the British and Americans lazily lump all the Scandinavian nations together is both surprising and admirable. And no nationality is more patient than the Norwegians. Talking to all the key writers of that country for Death in a Cold Climate, a forthcoming book on Scandinavian crime fiction, I found a unanimity of indulgence.
Norway remains, in most people's consciousnesses, the most imposing of the Nordic countries, with the ancient legacy of the Vikings still casting a shadow over the country (and foreign perceptions of it). Foreign travellers, of course, are inevitably counselled to visit bustling Oslo and take obligatory trips across the breathtaking fjords, but there is always a sense that the visitor has – ultimately – seen very little of the country.
Which is, largely speaking, the case. Norway's cultural treasures are truly impressive. And in terms of crime fiction, the country's forbidding landscape – and the possibility for both the good and the bad to lose themselves in the vast reaches – is reminiscent of (but different from) the sprawling America of such writers as James Lee Burke. Similarly, the appeal to British readers may be that such canvases are a million miles away from the more geographically-restricted brand of crime fiction practised in the British Isles.
Among Oslo-based authors, Thomas Enger has already gained a reputation as one of the most unusual and intense talents in the field, with a cool eye for misanthropy. His 2010 novel Burned (translated by Charlotte Barslund; Faber & Faber, £12.99) has a provocative theme of religious fundamentalism. "I am a product of my environment," Enger told me. "As is my 'burned' protagonist Henning Juul. Although he lives in one of the richest countries in the world, he is not at ease. He is an introverted man, a thinker, with a pronounced sense of responsibility and justice. Universal things, perhaps, but I think these are quintessentially Norwegian traits."
These days, however, few would argue that the uncrowned king of Norwegian crime fiction is Jo Nesbø. Books such as The Redbreast (2000) and his imposing 2007 novel The Snowman have propelled Nesbø to the heights. Apart from its narrative finesse, his work also provides a coolly objective guide to fluctuations in Norwegian society. There is also a universal feeling that his work is more strikingly individual than that of most of his Scandinavian colleagues. But that's perhaps inevitable, given the author's very varied background.
At 17, he made his debut in the football team Molde, and dreamt of a glorious future at Tottenham Hotspur. But when he tore knee ligaments, Nesbø realised that his fate lay elsewhere. He decided to try music, and succeeded – his band's second album was a Norwegian bestseller for several years. Finally, though, on a 30-hour flight to Sydney, he began to write about detective Harry Hole.
Aware that this might be seen as "another crap book by a pop star", Nesbø sent it to a publisher pseudonymously. The Bat Man (1997) was, in fact, published under his real name and won prestigious prizes – and is, finally, to appear in Great Britain. Harry is a lone wolf, a chronic alcoholic separated from his wife and child but in touch with the zeitgeist of his country. And Nesbø gives us a sharp picture of Norwegian society in flux, crammed with relevant detail - as you might expect from an ex-freelance journalist, particularly where the role of the media is described.
If Nesbø is the king of Norwegian crime, there are two women vying for the title of queen. One is Anne Holt; the other Karin Fossum. Fossum, who has worked in psychiatric wards and as a taxi driver, began her writing career in 1974. Her Inspector Sejer series, including Don't Look Back (1996) and He Who Fears the Wolf (2003), has been published in more than 30 countries. Fossum's Norway is an apposite setting for a long dark night of the soul. The latest Sejer mystery, published in Britain this week, is The Caller (trans. KE Semmel; Harvill Secker, £12.99).
Fossum's first novel, Eve's Eye, was never designed to be a crime story. "I made the decision half way through the book," she said. "And because it turned out to be a success, I continued in the genre... I use the setting of a small rural Norwegian community – the kind of place that I know so intimately. I could never write a novel set in a big city, because, frankly, I don't know what it would be like. I believe I could commit a crime. We all can. It depends on which situations we find ourselves in. In despair, I would steal food if my children were hungry."
The taboo-breaking Anne Holt, a lawyer and for a period Norway's Minister of Justice, uses the traditions of mainstream crime fiction in playful fashion (Agatha Christie is a template), but largely stays within the culturally-received parameters of the field. But there is something subversive in the lesbianism of her investigator Hanne Wilhelmsen, presented straightforwardly. Holt (who shares her character's sexuality) has kept this aspect of Hanne's character on the back burner – it is not necessarily the defining facet of her persona. This may also be the reason why novels by Holt chosen for screen adaptation focus on heterosexual central characters. However, the popularity of Holt's novels seems to suggest a ready acceptance of different sexual orientation within a once-hidebound genre.
Holt is aware of a particular Nordic literary legacy - the socially realistic and socially critical crime novel. "Today," she said, "the diversity within this genre is greater than ever. Yet I would argue that most of us in the field have a Scandinavian foundation – something that is difficult to define. My novels are set in a rather rarefied stratum of society: a wealthy, highly educated, social democratic welfare state."
Yet there is a reluctance to foreground Norway – and Scandinavia more generally - in Holt's books. "I write about people," she said, "not about Scandinavia. I am less concerned about 'who did it?' and far more with 'why the hell did this happen?' It is never the principal goal for me to describe my own region - it is purely the means to a narrative end." Holt's Fear Not also appears this week (trans. Marlaine Delargy; Corvus, £12.99).
If there is one Norwegian novelist who deserves a significant breakthrough, it is Gunnar Staalesen, one of the finest Nordic novelists in the tradition of such masters as Henning Mankell. The Writing on the Wall (2002) is a radical re-working of Mankell-style material, but Staalesen's most striking novel was to appear seven years later: The Consorts of Death (trans. Don Bartlett; Arcadia, £8.99), the 13th novel in the series about Bergen detective (and ex-social worker) Varg Veum.
Staalesen tries to avoid the parochial in his writing. "As a Norwegian writer of detective novels," he said to me, "I am conscious of writing within an international genre, and the inspiration for my writing comes from both American and British writers. But I have learnt much from classic Norwegian writers, too, even if they did not write crime novels, such as Henrik Ibsen and Amalie Skram. The small Nordic languages, in which we Scandinavians can talk together and read each other's books, create one big family."
Staalesen has definite ideas about the individual character of Norwegian crime fiction. "I think the presence of nature is particularly strong – and pervasive – in most Norwegian novels, detective or mainstream fiction. It's a presence which is more pronounced than in literature from other regions of the world. Regarding this sense of place, it is important for me to draw a precise picture of my region, the west coast of Norway, the second largest city in Norway, Bergen, and its environs.
"I also need to register... the immutability of the ocean, the fjords, the mountains – but these aspects are not central to my books. Bergen, which is known as a rainy city, makes the perfect background for my type of noir, private-eye stories. Rainswept streets are a satisfying element of this kind of fiction." He adds that "There is no question that Norway is by no means as safe as 40 or 50 years ago, and the influence of organised crime is stronger."
Staalesen hankers after a dream of the past: the perfectible Norwegian society. "I think that my generation (I was born in 1947) still dreams of an ideal society, a functioning democracy based on welfare and solidarity. It seems to me that many of the politicians in Norway, even those from the right... believe in the same ideals, because the differences between the most influential political parties in Norway actually do not go very deep. We still live in a tenuous version of social democracy. I'm aware that the British still look upon Norway as a sort of model country. Are they right to sustain this belief? Frankly, at present, I'm not so sure".