It’s been over a year since the last book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, was published in the US. The trilogy’s blockbuster success promises to continue with three English-language film adaptations yet to be released (one advantage Lisbeth Salander has on Harry Potter at this point), but Publishing Trends elected to take a step back to examine expectations Larsson’s legacy has created for Scandinavian literature, and more specifically, for the newly minted genre of “Nordic Noir.”
In both the US and UK, the rise of Nordic Noir as a genre began in 2007. Of Scandinavian crime fiction’s growing success in America, Booklist claimed in 2007 that “Henning Mankell cracked it.” Despite the seminal success of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wallöö’s Martin Berg novels in the 60’s and 70’s, and the 1993 sensation of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Mankell was the first Scandinavian crime author to be consistently tied to the Millennium Trilogy phenomena. He’d first been published by The New Press in 1997, predating Larsson’s presence in the US by over a decade.
In May of 2008, The LA Times announced that the “Scandinavian Whodunnit Boom” had arrived. In the UK, nationally-syndicated crime-fiction reviewer Barry Forshaw was drowning under “Scandicrime” review copies and was approached by Palgrave Macmillan to write a “Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction.” (It will be published in January 2012 as Death in a Cold Climate). Vintage, which had been licensing the paperback rights to Mankell’s novels since 2003, brought out new editions of the Martin Berg novels, which had been out of print for years. And, of course, 2008 also happens to be the year that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published in both the US and UK.
“Perhaps the most interesting thing about ‘Nordic Noir’ as a discrete genre” says Forshaw “is that it exists at all.” According to some brief research undertaken by Barbara Fister, Director of the Scandinavian Crime Fiction Project at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota (also conceived of in 2008), the term “Nordic Noir” seems to first appear in reference to Mankell’s detective Wallander, circa 2006. Both she and Forshaw note that there have always been Italian mystery aficionados or French Noir connoisseurs, etc. What’s different here, says Fister, is that these “pseudo-genres” never broke out to have much significance for the general reading public. The Martin Berg mysteries, Smilla, Wallander, had all made strong showings before “The Girl” broke onto the scene and left every previous Scandinavian crime novel in the dust. Simultaneously, “If you liked Stieg Larsson” reading lists started sprouting up in Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, all over review blogs, and on Amazon’s customer forums, publicizing previously obscure or niche Scandinavian writers. An idea of how well the Millennium success wore off? Between year-end 2008 and year-end 2010, sales of Faceless Killers, Mankell’s first Wallander book, jumped from around 7,500 to over 35,000.
How does all this look from up North? All parties agree that it wouldn’t be completely outlandish to declare Stieg Larsson patron saint of Nordic-language translators. Sarah Death, Editor-in-Chief of the periodical Swedish Book Review and freelance translator had only ever worked on literary fiction until 2010. Since then she’s translated three mysteries, lined up another for early 2012, and has turned down several more. Of herself and her colleagues, she quips “We’ve virtually all turned our hands to crime while the work is there.”
Barry Forshaw speaks of the prestige now afforded by many translators, with Scandinavian authors and publishers now willing to wait six months to a year for a well-respected translator. (Some have speculated that bad translations may have caused the delayed success of certain Scandinavian crime novels, while good translations and editing have only helped others). Readers even queue for hours to have their Millennium Trilogy books signed by Steven Murray, the books’ English-language translator. “It’s as close as they can get to the author,” Forshaw says.
Reports from Scandinavian publishers and agents are mixed. Kari Marstein, Publisher of Fiction at Gylendahl in Norway, says that it’s not just that Anglophone publishers have discovered Scandinavian writing “could be as successful” as any domestic author, but rather, “that Scandinavian writing…can be successful in English-language markets at all.” Norwegian agent Eirin Hagen notes the effect of international hopes on crime fiction domestically. The number of crime titles published in Norway has grown swiftly every year and, of course, she says, “when the numbers increase, it’s the opposite with the quality.” Amongst international publishers trolling for “the Next Stieg Larsson,” she notes that US publishers especially are paying “very high” advances for crime novels that are not even yet domestic successes.
So what’s next for Nordic Noir? When pressed to answer who might be the NSL (as the “Next Stieg Larsson” is referred to in some circles–we kid you not), most point to Jo Nesbø, the Norwegian author whom Knopf took over from HarperCollins in 2009. Just to get the point across, the cover of The Redeemer, (Nesbø’s first book to be published in the States) boasts a bright orange medallion screaming “The Next Stieg Larsson!” Camilla Läckberg’s books (published in the US by Pegasus) get the same treatment, though both Nesbø and Läckberg were published—and selling well—in their own countries for years before Larsson was.
No matter what, expect to see increasing emphasis on the “nordicness” of Nordic Noir. In the UK, Camilla Läckberg got her umlaut back; “Lekberg” became “Läckberg” when “blatantly Scandinavian” began to spell “Sales.” On the cinematic front, one need look no further than the poster for the new English adaptation of The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo to find fetishization of all things arctic. We asked Barry Forshaw what other trends he’s been seeing in review copies coming in right now. What should readers be on the lookout for? Without a second’s pause he answered, “Psychotically antisocial young female heroines.” In response to the interviewer’s amused laughter, he continued-with a long-suffering sigh: “I’m terribly serious. Expect to see lots more of that.”