CBTB's Essential Nordic Noir
A reading list for genre fans & newcomers alike
Last week I shared my first in a series of recommended reading lists (that one on domestic thrillers), and this week I’m back with reading list #2! Today’s list details my picks for essential Nordic Noir reads — aka the authors whose works you should check out to see if this crime fiction sub-genre is for you. This is by no means an exhaustive list - there are tons of fantastic crime writers hailing from Scandinavia - but it’s a great place to start if you’ve never tried Scandinavian crime fiction before, or if you’re trying to expand your Nordic Noir collection! Bonus: If you’re already familiar with Nordic Noir (or if you’re more interested in exploring some of the rising stars of the genre than its established stars), this list also includes my picks for “lesser-known” Nordic authors to try! I say “lesser known” in quotes because though these authors may be newcomers to the US, their books are bestsellers all around the world.
Note: you can find all my Nordic Noir content in my blog’s “Nordic Noir: Expert Witness” folder.
CBTB's Essential Nordic Noir Reads
New to the genre? Wondering if it’s for you? Start here to explore the genre’s “greats” (both new and old!) and get a feel for the writing style and mood of this stellar (and totally unique) brand of crime fiction. This list is organized by country to help you, in turn, organize your Nordic Noir exploration! Within each country category, you’ll also find my pick for that country’s “lesser-known” author to try.
THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbø
No one who’s been around Crime by the Book for any period of time will be surprised to see Nesbø included on this list. He’s my personal favorite author and arguably the reigning king of Nordic Noir - and he deserves every bit of hype that his books have garnered. THE SNOWMAN has been my favorite of Nesbø’s books for ages now, and if you haven’t read it yet, now’s the time. You can find more details on this book in my Beginner’s Guide to Jo Nesbø - but suffice it to say, THE SNOWMAN delivers a superb example of the vivid character development, moody, grim atmosphere, and masterful plotting that define the Nordic Noir genre.
Plot Details: One night, after the first snowfall of the year, a boy named Jonas wakes up and discovers that his mother has disappeared. Only one trace of her remains: a pink scarf, his Christmas gift to her, now worn by the snowman that inexplicably appeared in their yard earlier that day. Inspector Harry Hole suspects a link between the missing woman and a suspicious letter he’s received. The case deepens when a pattern emerges: over the past decade, eleven women have vanished—all on the day of the first snow. But this is a killer who makes his own rules . . . and he’ll break his pattern just to keep the game interesting, as he draws Harry ever closer into his twisted web. With brilliantly realized characters and hair-raising suspense, international bestselling author Jo Nesbø presents his most chilling case yet—one that will test Harry Hole to the very limits of his sanity.
I’M TRAVELING ALONE by Samuel Bjørk
An excellent choice for fans of Stieg Larsson’s infamous character Lisbeth Salander, I’M TRAVELING ALONE pits a troubled and reclusive female detective (along with a team of police officers) against a killer with a disturbing M.O.: this killer has strung a young girl’s body up in the forest, hanging a sign around her neck that reads “I’m traveling alone.” This book is layered and complex, but it has a driving energy to it that kept me completely immersed from first page to last. Fans of Lisbeth Salander will love Bjørk’s female lead Mia, and readers who are total newcomers to Nordic Noir will ge a great feel for the genre’s pacing and grit through Bjørk’s vivid writing.
Plot Details: A six-year-old girl is found in the countryside, hanging lifeless from a tree and dressed in strange doll's clothes. Around her neck is a sign that says "I'm traveling alone."
A special homicide unit re-opens with veteran police investigator Holger Munch at the helm. Holger's first step is to persuade the brilliant but haunted investigator Mia Kruger, who has been living on an isolated island, overcome by memories of her past. When Mia views a photograph of the crime scene and spots the number "1" carved into the dead girl's fingernail, she knows this is only the beginning. Could this killer have something to do with a missing child, abducted six years ago and never found, or with the reclusive religious community hidden in the nearby woods?
Mia returns to duty to track down a revenge-driven and ruthlessly intelligent killer. But when Munch's own six-year-old granddaughter goes missing, Mia realizes that the killer's sinister game is personal, and I'm Traveling Alone races to an explosive--and shocking--conclusion.
Lesser-Known Norwegian Crime Writers to Try:
My top pick for “underdog novel” that I read in 2017, Sundstøl’s most recent release THE DEVIL’S WEDDING RING is an exceptional blend of ancient Norwegian folklore and modern-day investigation. This is a slow-burning crime novel, but one that delivers an utterly immersive and vividly atmospheric mystery. The backdrop for this story is as unique as its plot—rather than setting his thriller in a major city, Sundstøl sets it against the backdrop of Norway’s rural Telemark region. Brimming with personality (it features a mystery novel-loving librarian who wants to help solve a real-life murder mystery!) and stunning in its description of locale, THE DEVIL’S WEDDING RING is a superb addition to any crime reader’s library.
Enger's Henning Juul series has earned fans around the world, and its final series installment KILLED is finally coming to the US this spring - which makes now a great time to binge the series! What really makes this series is its endearing main character Henning. A journalist by trade, Henning is reeling from the untimely death of his son when readers first meet him in BURNED. Aptly titled, BURNED explores the fallout of the house fire which killed Henning’s young son. Now bearing the emotional and physical scars from the tragedy, Henning sets out on a heartbreaking quest to uncover the truth about his son’s death. Over the course of the 5-book series, Henning finds himself crossing paths with gangsters, government employees, murderers, and more - but no matter what adventure he gets into, the most compelling part of the series always comes back to its kind-hearted main character.
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson
Political, cinematic, dark, gritty, timeless—Larsson’s first book in his infamous Millennium trilogy became a worldwide sensation for a reason. This book really needs no introduction. If you haven’t yet explored Larsson’s work, stop everything now and read this book. Even if you prefer not to continue with the trilogy for some reason (but I’m betting you’ll want to!), reading THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is just about a rite of passage when it comes to familiarizing yourself with Nordic Noir.
Plot Details: Harriet Vanger, a scion of one of Sweden's wealthiest families disappeared over forty years ago. All these years later, her aged uncle continues to seek the truth. He hires Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist recently trapped by a libel conviction, to investigate. He is aided by the pierced and tattooed punk prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Together they tap into a vein of unfathomable iniquity and astonishing corruption.
THE ICE PRINCESS by Camilla Läckberg
Writing about (and reading!) these books always feels a bit like coming home. Läckberg’s Fjallbacka series was one of the first Nordic series I ever tried—true story: back in the day, I accidentally bought a book partway through the series and read it as my first Läckberg book without realizing what I was doing! (Don’t worry, I then went back and read the series in the proper order.) This is a fantastic “starter Nordic Noir” pick - you’ll find that this series is much lighter in tone and content than many of Läckberg’s Nordic peers. Some readers find this frustrating—I personally find it a welcome change of pace, and a perfect way to ease yourself into Scandinavian crime! Läckberg’s books will be a fantastic fit for readers who want to sample the chilling atmosphere of Scandinavian crime fiction without some of the real grit and darkness of other series; Läckberg’s books deal much more heavily in family dynamics and healthy, loving relationships then her peers’ books.
Plot Details: In this electrifying tale of suspense from an international crime-writing sensation, a grisly death exposes the dark heart of a Scandinavian seaside village. Erica Falck returns to her tiny, remote hometown of Fjällbacka, Sweden, after her parents’ deaths only to encounter another tragedy: the suicide of her childhood best friend, Alex. It’s Erica herself who finds Alex’s body—suspended in a bathtub of frozen water, her wrists slashed. Erica is bewildered: Why would a beautiful woman who had it all take her own life? Teaming up with police detective Patrik Hedström, Erica begins to uncover shocking events from Alex’s childhood. As one horrifying fact after another comes to light, Erica and Patrik’s curiosity gives way to obsession—and their flirtation grows into uncontrollable attraction. But it’s not long before one thing becomes very clear: a deadly secret is at stake, and there’s someone out there who will do anything—even commit murder—to protect it.
THE CROW GIRL by Erik Axl Sund
A perennial CBTB recommendation, THE CROW GIRL is one of my top two favorite books of all time. Originally published in Sweden as a trilogy, this relentlessly dark and complex crime novel is one of a kind. This might not be the best choice if you're brand-new to Nordic Noir - but if you're up for it, dive right in! 730+ pages long, there really isn't anything quite like this read. Erik Axl Sund (a pen name for a writing duo) plumbs the depths of humanity, exploring and condemning misogyny, political corruption, emotional and physical abuse, and more. This book is as psychologically astute as it is gripping and immersive—I just can't praise it enough.
Plot Details: In a Stockholm city park, police find the tortured body of a youth. Then, they find two more, and it becomes clear that they are facing an extraordinary case—and an extraordinarily twisted killer. Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg heads the investigation, battling an apathetic prosecutor and a bureaucratic police force. She turns to the therapist Sofia Zetterlund for her expertise in psychopathic perpetrators, and under the pressure of the investigation, their lives become inextricably intertwined. As the two women draw closer to the truth about the killings, they begin to discover a hideous evil at work, and it’s much closer to them than they think. Mesmerizing and explosive, The Crow Girl is a tale of almost unfathomably heinous deeds and of the catastrophic damage, and the profound need for revenge, left in their wake.
Lesser-Known Swedish Crime Writer to Try:
Emelie is a rising star in Nordic Noir - and an incredibly kind and inspiring woman to boot! Emelie’s path to publication was nothing if not challenging; she is a total self-made success, becoming Sweden’s bestselling self-published author with her first book, MARKED FOR LIFE. Now Emelie is published all over the world - including the US! Her series features a tough-as-nails prosecutor named Jana. In MARKED FOR LIFE, Jana comes to face to face with a dark secret from her childhood, and finds herself pursuing truths about her past that she never even knew existed. Readers who like their thrillers with a bit of action will feel right at home in Schepp’s series.
THE LEGACY by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir *on sale February 13, 2018
I almost held off from including this book in this blog piece because, at the time of this piece’s publication, THE LEGACY is not yet on sale - but it’s too good to resist! It’s worth the wait for THE LEGACY’s release on February 13th - this new series launch from Iceland’s Queen of Crime will earn her a whole new legion of fans in the US. Sigurðardóttir’s talent lies in her ability to blend a strain of horror-inspired darkness into her crime novels; readers will love her truly twisted imagination, which is on full display in THE LEGACY. (If you want something even more chilling and horror-inspired, check out her standalone THE UNDESIRED - which is on sale now!) THE LEGACY is a superb blend of police procedural and that trademark Sigurðardóttir imagination. A psychiatrist and a detective must team up to solve a brutal crime: a woman is found murdered in her home, the only witness her young daughter.
Plot Details: The only person who might have the answers to a baffling murder case is the victim’s seven-year-old daughter, found hiding in the room where her mother died. And she’s not talking.
Newly-promoted, out of his depth, detective Huldar turns to Freyja for her expertise with traumatized young people. Freyja, who distrusts the police in general and Huldar in particular, isn’t best pleased. But she’s determined to keep little Margret safe.
It may prove tricky. The killer is leaving them strange clues, but can they crack the code? And if they do, will they be next?
SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson
Fans of Agatha Christie and Golden Age detective novels will love Jonasson’s unique take on Nordic crime fiction. SNOWBLIND is Book 1 in the critically acclaimed Dark Iceland series, and takes place in Siglufjordur, a town in northern Iceland. (View an incredible photo tour of this stunning town here!) When a blizzard cuts off the single road leading into and out of the town, the residents find themselves totally isolated—and to make things worse, the discovery of a body during the snowstorm indicates to residents that one among them might be a killer. For young police officer Ari Thor, this is hardly the welcome he needed to this new town, far away from his home of Reykjavik. Jasson’s series is atmospheric and slow-burning - a natural fit for those who prefer classic crime fiction, but are interested in exploring Nordic crime as well.
Plot Details: Where: A quiet fishing village in northern Iceland, where no one locks their doors. It is accessible only via a small mountain tunnel.
Who: Ari Thor is a rookie policeman on his first posting, far from his girlfriend in Reykjavik. He has a past that he's unable to leave behind.
What: A young woman is found lying half-naked in the snow, bleeding and unconscious, and a highly esteemed elderly writer falls to his death. Ari is dragged straight into the heart of a community where he can trust no one, and secrets and lies are a way of life.
Past plays tag with the present and the claustrophobic tension mounts, while Ari is thrust ever deeper into his own darkness―blinded by snow and with a killer on the loose.
Lesser-Known Icelandic Crime Writer to Try:
Lilja’s 2017 release SNARE delivered a taut, stylish blend of Nordic crime and high-stakes action thriller. In SNARE, an ordinary woman finds herself indebted to a drug smuggling gang in Iceland, and a determined customs agent attempts to prove her involvement with their schemes. SNARE was a bit outside my comfort zone subject-wise - I don’t typically read action thrillers or thrillers focusing on the drug trade - but Lilja’s steady pacing and sharp prose made this an engaging and enjoyable read. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing more of Lilja soon.
THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS by Sara Blaedel
No Nordic Noir list would be complete without Denmark’s Queen of Crime, Sara Blaedel. Blaedel is best known for her Louise Rick series - and THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS is a fantastic place to start. This is actually not the first book in the series (it’s a bit of a long story - please feel free to email me with questions!), but it is the perfect place to jump in and meet Louise Rick, a Danish police officer. Blaedel’s books are another excellent choice for “starter Nordic Noir”; they are a bit darker in content than Camilla Läckberg’s, but they feature similarly endearing characters. I love a good damaged, trouble lead, but there’s something truly wonderful about reading crime novels featuring characters you would like to be friends with in real life - and that’s how I always feel about Blaedel’s lead, Louise Rick. THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS also features one of my favorite cases for Louise Rick to solve…
Plot Details: The body of an unidentified woman has been discovered in a remote forest. A large, unique scar on one side of her face should make the identification easy, but nobody has reported her missing. Louise Rick, the new commander of the Missing Persons Department, waits four long days before pulling off a risky move: releasing a photo of the victim to the media, jeopardizing the integrity of the investigation in hopes of finding anyone who knew her.
The gamble pays off when a woman recognizes the victim as Lisemette, a child she cared for in the state mental institution many years ago. Lisemette was a "forgotten girl", abandoned by her family and left behind in the institution. But Louise soon discovers something even more disturbing: Lisemette had a twin, and both girls were issued death certificates more than thirty years ago.
Louise's investigation takes a surprising when it brings her closer to her childhood home. And as she uncovers more crimes that were committed--and hidden--in the forest, she is forced to confront a terrible link to her own past that has been carefully concealed. Set against a moody and atmospheric landscape, THE FORGOTTEN GIRLS is twisty, suspenseful, emotionally intense novel that secures Sara Blaedel's place in the pantheon of great thriller writers.
THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES by Jussi Adler-Olsen
*Disclaimer: I currently work for Adler-Olsen’s US publisher*
As readers of Crime by the Book know, I never, ever mention authors who I’m working with on this site - but I will make one exception here, because I read Adler-Olsen’s THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES long before starting CBTB! I will keep this short and sweet, though. If you love a good curmudgeon-y character who has a dark, sharp sense of humor, and if the idea of a team of detectives working to solve cold cases appeals to you, THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES (and the whole Department Q series) will be up your alley.
Plot Details: Carl Mørck used to be one of Denmark’s best homicide detectives. Then a hail of bullets destroyed the lives of two fellow cops, and Carl—who didn’t draw his weapon—blames himself. So a promotion is the last thing he expects. But Department Q is a department of one, and Carl’s got only a stack of cold cases for company. His colleagues snicker, but Carl may have the last laugh, because one file keeps nagging at him: a liberal politician vanished five years earlier and is presumed dead. But she isn’t dead...yet.
Lesser-Known Danish Writer to Try:
Melander is the author of the Lars Winkler books; I read Book 1 in the series (THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT) a couple years ago now and thoroughly enjoyed it. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT introduces the reader to Lars Winkler—former punk, possible drug addict, and committed Danish police officer. When the body of a young woman appears in a local park, Lars is assigned to the case, but a personal dispute with his superior quickly causes Lars to be reassigned. As more bodies appear, it becomes apparent that Lars' new assignment might be connected to the murders—and that one of the perpetrators might be coming for his daughter.
One of my 2018 goals is to explore more Finnish crime fiction - so while I pursue this goal, I hope you’ll excuse my slimmer selection of Finnish! But I can promise you, Antti’s work is fantastic and well worth a read.
THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen
Nordic Noir with a jolt of dark humor and a dash of personality, THE MAN WHO DIED is a novel that the Coen Brothers would love. It follows a mushroom farmer in Finland (yes really!) who discovers that he is being systematically poisoned by someone in his life, and sets out to figure out who would do this to him. Is it his (potentially unfaithful) wife? His business competitors? All he knows is, the clock is ticking until the poison he’s been exposed to does its job. Tuomainen has written a totally unique Nordic crime novel that won’t appeal to every reader - but if its unique brand of quirk and humor is up your alley, you’ll find it such a fantastic read.
Plot Details: A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.
Thank you so much for reading this list! If you have any questions at all, please feel free to email me - firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always find all of my Nordic Noir content in my blog's Nordic Noir: Expert Witness folder. Happy reading! xx A