In This Review

Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery
Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery
By Wendy Lesser
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, 288 pp

One of Europe’s oddest cultural exports in recent decades has been “Scandinavian noir” crime fiction. Lesser, a bicoastal American writer and critic who has followed these novels, TV shows, and movies since the 1980s, uses them (and a trip to Scandinavia) as a bridge to understanding contemporary Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Readers undeterred by self-consciously ironic narrators who describe themselves in the third person may find this frothy mix of travelogue, literary criticism, and autobiography engaging. Spoiler alert: in the end, the book’s premise explodes. Fictional Scandinavian detectives closely resemble their counterparts anywhere else. Overwhelmingly male, they resist dull middle-class lives, chafe under stifling bureaucracies, feel alienated in cities full of strangers, express ambivalence about strong women, drink too much, and fail to vanquish the evil rot at the core of society. Their real-world counterparts are nothing like this. Instead, the author encounters enlightened and fair-minded professionals—many of them women—working closely with social workers to employ international best practices in societies where the rate of violent crime is a fraction of that in an average American city.