Joan Smith: Peculiar case of Inspector Norse

Our writer hunts for clues for the popularity of Nordic writers

Towards the end of 2007, I settled down for a train journey with a proof copy of an unpublished crime novel.

I hadn't heard of the author, who was Swedish and had died before the book's publication in his home country, but I quickly realised that his unsettling juxtaposition of computer hackers, Nazi sympathisers, and misogyny would be a huge success. I wrote an enthusiastic review but didn't expect that in no time at all Stieg Larsson would be one of the world's bestselling crime writers.

These days, Larsson's name is as familiar as Ruth Rendell or Ian Rankin. The Larsson effect is having a dramatic impact on other Scandinavian (or Nordic, if you include Finland and Iceland) novelists, with a Danish crime writer of whom most people in this country have never heard being interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme two days ago.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is a terrific novelist, but his name doesn't exactly trip off English tongues; and the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo topped the hardback bestseller list earlier this year with The Leopard, but he has lost the final "slashed o" of his surname in the process.

All this is pretty astonishing in a country that is notoriously resistant to translated fiction. Despite the success of his fellow Swede, Henning Mankell, Larsson was turned down by a dozen mainstream British publishers – who must all be kicking themselves – before The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo found a home. Now Scandinavian publishers are rushing out English translations of crime novels that wouldn't have stood a chance here five years ago and British viewers have been persuaded to embrace The Killing, the Danish TV series covering 20 days of a murder investigation.

Last week, Sissel-Jo Gazan was in London to talk about her novelDinosaur Feather, which has been named Danish crime novel of the decade, while Sofi Oksanen (Finnish-Estonian, published in more than 40 countries) also paid a flying visit. Posters publicising Oksanen's gut-wrenching novel, Purge, about a young woman on the run from Russian sex traffickers, have just gone up on the Tube.

How these writers have managed to breach the insularity of British readers is a fascinating question. One of the most striking things about the Nordic crime wave is that it is so contemporary, reflecting a version of city life familiar to anyone who knows London, Manchester or Glasgow.

Although the characters have foreign names, they visit the same kind of cafés and bars that we do and they use modern technology without a second thought; Larsson's Lisbeth Salander, with her extraordinary ability as a hacker, could have stepped out of a computer game.

Flawed, sophisticated and highly literate, they have revealed the unexpected fact that we identify with them more readily than with the endless parade of indistinguishable hard-talking American cops chasing serial killers.

The other beguiling aspect of these Nordic bestsellers is that they are intensely political, though not in the shallow sense of exposing corrupt senators or presidential candidates. Larsson's other life as a radical journalist is well known and a conspiracy within the deep state is the unifying theme of his Millennium Trilogy. Mankell has made it his mission to expose the seamy underside of Sweden's model social democracy, while Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason addresses the plight of ethnic minorities in his acclaimed Reykjavik crime novels.

The world that these Nordic bestsellers describe isn't pleasant, but it is recognisable, realistic – and a reminder of our common humanity in these troubled times.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde: