“Who will see us? Who can search out our crimes?”–Psalm 64: 6-7
Why so much crime fiction? Detective fiction and police procedurals have emerged as the most characteristic genre writing in Northern countries, enough to have acquired the name, “Nordic Noir.” Crime fiction reflects the presence of crime in a society and critiques the conditions that engender it. It minutely examines human motivations and, most of all, provides a laboratory for putting human values to the test. As philosopher Walter Kaufmann has written, “life at the extremes” tests our moral reasoning, forcing us to discover what we truly value and whether our picture of the world is true or not.
Ever since Dupin and Holmes, solving crimes in the fictional world has affirmed human and societal values in the real one, and provided an arena where rationality could contend with the wild and irrational. Whether rationality wins (in traditional detection) or loses (in some postmodern alternatives), something profound is learned about what we hold dearest. Even disappointments and failures can teach us that. Injustice can only be felt within an implicit ideal framework of a just world.
The persistent emphasis on the personal flaws of the detectives themselves, their quirks or aberrations, affirms the value creation even more. The effort to gather evidence, to pursue truth and justice, transcends the detective and his or her weaknesses. While those weaknesses may impede the restoration of essential order and values, they also elevate the tragic sense in their pursuit.
In Nordic literature, the preoccupation with crime and justice is nothing new. The Icelandic sagas, in particular, contained the most brutal of crimes and countercrimes, done in the name of justice and retribution. These stories were born in the microlaboratory of a “new” society, with its government by chieftains and the Thing, for hearing and resolving grievances, and then meting out suitable punishments. Therefore, Nordic Noir–modern as it is in its details–represents continuity with a longstanding literary tradition concerned with reestablishing justice in the face of some appalling human behavior, all played out in stark settings more or less isolated by climate and geography.
My reading list for the Northern Lights Reading Project includes detective fiction by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Kerstin Ekman, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Helene Tursten, and, of course, Stieg Larsson.