Skip to main content


January 9, 2020

Nordic Noir? Huh?


Michael Stanley is a pseudonym for the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Their latest novel, FACETS OF DEATH, is a prequel to their award-winning Detective Kubu series set in Botswana. Nordic noir (aka Scandinavian noir) has become an enormously popular genre of crime fiction over the last couple of decades. But in this enlightening essay, Stanley maintains that the homicide rate in these stories, many of which take place in cold climates, requires an unreasonable suspension of belief --- and they have statistics to back this up.


For the past couple of decades, readers have enjoyed a veritable tsunami of mysteries from writers in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. These are often lumped under the genres Nordic Noir or Scandi Noir.

It was cold outside and barely light enough to see. The wind was howling, and dry snow blew across the bleak, white landscape, piling us against the wall of the house. Soon, the windows would be covered and probably the side door.

Nils, on the other hand, was hot, not because he’d been feeding the wood stove incessantly, which he had, but because his anger was boiling over. For the past four hours, he had listened to windows and doors rattling as he demolished a bottle of homemade walnut schnapps. And the more he drank, the hotter he became.

He just knew that his wife, Astrid, wasn’t visiting her close friend, Freja. Oh no, she was in the clutching arms of Erik, the plumber, who had recently taken an inordinate amount of time to fix the leak under the kitchen sink. Three visits for something that should have taken an hour.

He staggered to the door and kept losing his balance as he tried to pull on his snow boots. He even had difficulty putting on his huge parka, plunging his arm into the wrong sleeve. Eventually he was ready to brave the elements. He wrapped a scarf around his head, pulled on his ushanka, and grabbed a carving knife. He hesitated as he tried to work out how to pull on his mittens without dropping the knife. Eventually he was ready. He took a deep breath and stepped outside. The village was going to need a new plumber.”

To be frank, Nordic Noir poses a bit of a mystery to those of us from warm climates. It is easy for us to see why the long, cold winters would get under people’s skin, making them irritable and grumpy. But the logistics of dealing with the weather while maintaining the heat of anger seems to be beyond a reasonable suspension of belief.

“Twenty minutes later, a frozen Nils banged on the plumber’s door. A few moments later, it opened. The man was in his pyjamas.

‘Nils? Come on in. Is there something wrong?’

Nils stepped inside, kicking the snow off his boots out of habit. ‘You bastard!’ He waved the knife.

The plumber stepped back. ‘What’s going on, Nils?’

‘Where’s Astrid?’ Nils took a step forward, knife pulling at his mittens.

‘Astrid? I’ve no idea.’ He took another step back.

‘I know she’s in your bedroom,’ Nils slurred. He stumbled forward and dropped one mitten and the knife.

‘Take a look for yourself. She’s not here.’

‘Bastard! I know you’re sleeping with her.’ Nils bent over trying to retrieve his weapon, but the bulk of his parka prevented him from reaching it. The plumber stepped forward and gave him a push.....”

If one looks at the homicide statistics in the Scandinavian countries, the average is about one homicide per 100,000 people per year. Sometimes, there are no homicides at all. This makes sense --- by the time someone intent on murder has dressed for the cold and braved the elements, the anger has likely dissipated. However, if these statistics were based on the number of murders in Nordic Noir mysteries, foreigners would be scared to visit and tourism would plummet.

On the other hand, the number of homicides in murder mysteries set in hot places falls far short of reality. In our Detective Kubu series set in Botswana, we feel we leave the landscape littered with corpses. Yet that number falls an order of magnitude short of the reality of about 10 homicides per 100,000 of the population. In South Africa, adding together all the homicides committed by the fictitious baddies created by its excellent mystery writers, the total comes nowhere close to its 35 homicides per 100,000 of the population. And even this is low compared to the 108 per 100,000 of the ironically named El Salvador.

In fact, not one of the top 25 countries ranked by homicide rate is a cold country. And only two of the top 50 countries could be called cold. One is Greenland, where one additional murder vaults it in the rankings because of a population of a mere 56,000. The other is Russia, with its oligarchs.

So, what does this say about Nordic Noir?

The excessive fictitious homicide rate in Nordic Noir stories has led us to believe that they are misclassified by publishers and bookstores. They shouldn’t be labelled as Mysteries, but rather as Fantasy!

So, if you are interested in really dark fiction, walk past the Fantasy section to the Mystery section, and select books set in hot climates, where the sun beats down and tempers fray, where it is quick and easy to avenge a wrong, where bodies decay in the jungle or desiccate in the desert.

When you reach the Mystery section, select books in the genre Sunshine Noir, because, in reality, the darkest shadows are where the sun is hottest.