Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, By Barry Forshaw


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The Independent Culture

It seems implausible. For his guide to crime fiction, Barry Forshaw set himself the task of cataloguing and analysing some 200 books by over 70 authors while at the same time delivering helpful insights into the national character of five countries: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. To make things harder still, he interviewed a selection of authors, translators, commissioning editors and academics, and included lengthy extracts.

The result is a convincing survey of a very crowded field. If it is not complete, completeness is impossible when just about every Nordic citizen able to do joined-up writing has found a publisher for at least one crime novel. If anyone could deliver an overview, it is Forshaw, the very widely read editor of the successful CrimeTime website and author of relevant books, including a life of Stieg Larsson.

The only serious flaw is the amount of space given over to his interviewees, a decision which must have had the effect of making him compress his own judgements. Each novel picked for comment is described in a thumbnail summary and its speculative content examined and usually praised, for he is generous to a fault. Major writers are asked about their books and often allotted a set of contributor's comments. Some are illuminating (the academics are thoughtful), others contain nuggets of interest, but too many are general. The final chapter on film and TV adaptations has perhaps suffered most from the space problem.

Forshaw's thesis is that Nordic Noir springs from a folk soul shaped by a combination of grandly austere landscapes, an inherent tendency to moroseness and, hence, to insecurity about the future for the region's social stability in an era of globalisation. There is no loveable Midsomer in this dark world, where the most idyllic village can, it would seem, be a setting for politically driven injustice or worse. It is a neat argument, but – as he is aware – not sufficient. For one thing, the Danes are outside this framework: they produce exciting, sophisticated, highly politicised crime stories despite living in a country in many ways different from the Nordic norm.

As well as the Scandinavian ascendency, there are other aspects of the rise of crime fiction worth scrutiny – UK library lending figures hammer home its almost disquieting popularity. Death in a Cold Climate is important in that context: the kind of book that sticks its neck out and invites argument by expressing opinions in such exuberant language that you are carried along, interested and involved.