It’s Grim Up North
I finally got round to watching The Killing (or Fobrydelsen, to use the original title), which most English viewers will by now know actually translates to “the crime”. And for somebody so fond of Scandinavian crime as me, it was positively - cliché alert - criminal that I had yet to be acquainted with Sarah Lund’s splendid collection of knitwear. When it was originally screened back in Denmark I was living in London, blissfully ignorant of the jumper fever that had gripped the nation. It certainly didn’t grip my family. When the BBC decided to finally broadcast it, I was based in Berlin. True, the Germans acquired the rights too and then dubbed it. But I didn’t want to see Das Verbrechen, I wanted to see Forbrydelsen. It was already quite amusing watching the subtitled version with my English boyfriend and noticing that many of the colourful expressions with which Copenhageners regularly pepper their speech had not made it into English. “Tager du pis?” became the prim “are you being serious?”. Even taking into account differing cultural expectations, it was always my impression that a great number of Brits swear like perpetually pissed sailors. Which is one of the reasons why I feel so at home here.
Anyway, my Berlin bubble kept being burst by news of this paradigm shifting Danish export that held BBC4 viewers - my people - enthralled every week. The Guardian was crushing so hard on Sarah Lund’s Faroese wool - henceforth referred as THE JUMPER - that it even made the smooth grey Mad Men suits turn green with jealousy. The Killing was even threatening to usurp The Wire’s crown and to steal its status as THE MOST NUANCED PORTRAYAL OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY EVER. People would ask me if it was always this dark in Denmark (it’s called winter) and how you pronounced “Theis Birk Larsen” or “Vagn Skærbæk” without dislocating your vocal chords (you can’t). And did Danes really wear THE JUMPER? It soon became clear that I was contractually obliged to see it, lest I risk expulsion from the Guardian guild, particularly before the broadcast of the second series this autumn when I would be back on the island. So I dutifully bought the entire series on iTunes and prepared to go on a Scandinavian noir bender, because if it was anything like The Wire the default mode is always “boxed set binge”.
I liked it. I really did. It was a bittersweet treat to have so much screen time dedicated to the family of the murdered girl. It was a reminder that every crime has its victim, a rather obvious point but rarely one developed in the standard formula followed by crime fiction, where the focus is on the investigator. And the acting was solidly lead by the very talented Sophie Grabøl and the eminently watchable and charismatic Lars Mikkelsen (he and his brother Mads Mikkelsen take up far too much prime estate in my head. The scene where Lars takes off his shirt - to show his vulnerability of course - made my ovaries stand up and give a loud standing ovation). Perennially rainy Copenhagen was bathed in lush non-light that made perpetual winter look positively attractive. Hell, it even made me homesick, a feeling I normally only experience in summer.
Now I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, as if anybody at this point would notice, but groundbreaking it wasn’t. Maybe BBC 4 viewers haven’t read and watched as much crime fiction as I (probably a good thing), but to me it was blindingly obvious who it was from around episode 3. The meta-narrative was just too predictable. It was meant to be dark and gritty, which normally translates into the expected shattering of domestic bliss and the crumble of institutions that are dear to us, like democracy. And it was it was 20 episodes long, so you could watch the first three episodes and the last two and not miss too much background, apart from more red herrings than a Christmas Day smorgasbord. You _know_ that the suspect in episode 4 was not going to be the killer. But then maybe he was, because I had repeatedly been told that The Killing challenged more conventions than an Iranian art house film at Sundance. In fact, since I’ve heard it had such a shocking ending, I spent considerable time building increasingly byzantine theories to dissuade myself from the textbook ending I had already sensed earlier in the series. I was desperately seeking subversion, I _wanted_ to see semiotic subversion everywhere, like a poststructuralist third-wave feminist analysing Almodóvar cinematography. This never came. As much as I enjoyed watching it, it would have been a less neurotic experience, and therefore slightly anticlimactic, if viewers had filled in my Scandinavian bingo card beforehand. I could thus have more accurately assessed its revolutionary credentials.
I would like people to complete it _before_ the start of season 2 due this autumn:
1) Does it assume GRITTY means REALISTIC?
2) Does everybody end up depressed and miserable? And by everybody I mean everybody. Scandinavians are very literal people. We’re not only talking about the victim/s family/partner/friends but also the police, and neighbours, and distant relatives and acquaintances. And their Facebook friends. The police’s Facebook friends. The Facebook friends of Facebook friends. That random guy in episode 2 who was asking for directions. His Facebook friends. In fact everybody involved should just join Google+ and add each other to the all-engulfing circle of misery.
3) Does there seem to be a shortage of lightbulbs / sunlight in general?
4) If the investigator is male, is he an alcoholic? Does he have - at least one - a failed marriage? If she is female, does she get branded mentally unstable at some point? Does her long-suffering partner leave her at some point? (I presume that Sarah Lund is also familiar with this convention and has already prepared for this inevitability by dating a psychologist.)
5) Does anybody have time to finish eating their already harried kebab, pizza or burger grabbed from the local take away run by the token friendly “totally integrated” immigrant to remind the viewer that Scandinavian capitals are like SO MULTIETHNIC (read “gritty”, see point 1)
6) Corruption: is something rotten in the state of Denmark (read: EVERYTHING, see point 2)
7) Is the happy Scandinavian welfare model just a mirage? Are you being shown the dark underbelly of this seemingly perfect society where everybody is actually miserable, or will be soon (see point 2) and from which not even their stylish knitwear or flair for interior decoration can protect them?
8) Do bad things happen in woods? Do people go into woods despite knowing that bad things happen in woods? Are they familiar with Hansel and Gretel?
9) The weather heightens the misery:
Choose between these options:
a) It’s raining, ideally a constant drizzle that makes everybody soggy and miserable. A corpse appears. Everybody’s day, especially the corpse’s, just got more soggy and miserable.
b) It has been heavily snowing, and a frozen corpse of woman appears the day after. It’s always a woman and she is always described as a macabre ice figure or a morbidly beautiful snow queen. I think there’s some metaphor or deep cultural commentary here. So far I’ve only managed “don’t be a woman when it snows in Scandinavia”.
c) There’s a heat wave, i.e. More than 20 degrees celsius and a less than fragrant corpse appears in the woods (see point 8). The investigator/s spend the entire book sweating like an overripe stilton. Apparently nobody has heard of air conditioning in Scandinavia. This mystery is never resolved.
10) It stars one of the Mikkelsen brothers, preferably shirtless. If it contains both, just drop everything and alert me immediately.This point might not be necessarily related with any of the ones above. Or the article at all.
I will add more points as they occur to me but that should do for the moment.
Feminism and the Welfare State in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Gothic
The Economist recently featured an article on Scandinavian crime fiction, and true to its penchant for punning, entitled it “Inspector Norse”. Yet Nordic writers have - with the exception of Ian Rankin - far surpassed their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in recent years - and Inspector Rebus is not even English. Murder, it seems, thrives in cold climates. Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and Henning Mankell’s laconic Wallander are its best known archetypes, yet northern writers have been toiling for years with a characteristic Lutheran work ethic to create a veritable smorgarsbord of sublime landscape, murder and decay. Gothic might have had a renaissance with Stephanie Meyer’s vapid and toothless Twilight series, yet Nordic writers show us that Gothic can still be a subversive force - that it, to follow the pun, still has a bite.
Now, most people will automatically associate the Gothic with vampires, abandoned castles and other legendary monsters. True, these are some of its most widely-recognised tropes, yet Gothic literature has always concerned itself with the the human condition and interior terrors, about the exploration of the monstrous self. Edgar Allan Poe, his macabre tales a staple of Halloween, more or less creates the detective story with his The Murders in the Rue Morgue (although others give the honour to E.T.A Hoffman’s exquisitely Gothic Das Fraülein von Scuderi, published 22 years earlier in 1819). The murder history is thus firmly cemented in the Gothic tradition and has never looked back, constantly reinventing itself, from Sherlock Holmes’ London to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And now Scandinavia. Sweden and Norway, with their epic yet desolate nature, their short days and long nights and their people “brought up to hide their feelings”, according the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, provide the perfect ingredients for a whodunnit.
Scandinavian crime fiction is no Cluedo - it contains a veritable fjord of social criticism and discontent. True once again to their Gothic roots, these boreal narratives are too drawn to decadence, to the destructive undercurrents lurking underneath civilisation. If fin-de-siècle Victorians were fretting about social unrest and the fissures showing in their vast empire, Nordic writers show us the misfits, the ones the Welfare State left out. Their stories are populated with ostracised characters, sometimes in self-imposed exile, living at the margins of these seemingly harmonious societies. They hold up a mirror and show the cracks in the social experiment. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, protagonist of the Millenium trilogy, with her borderline autism and fiercely individual - and often questionable - ethics, sticks out like a sore thumb in a society that values integration above all. She is the Elephant Man of the Welfare Society. A ferociously intelligent sociopath, Larsson’s heroine is like an updated and twisted version of Sherlock Holmes, more faithful to modern times, and omnisexual rather asexual.
Lisbeth Salander is (technically) a woman, and she is not the only female protagonist in Nordic thrillers. In fact, women abound in these tales, and its seems that female writers are drawn to this genre too. Gothic, in its original inception, attracted both female and male authorship. One of its pioneers was the professional writer Ann Radcliffe, and the genre was known to have a strong female following as parodied in Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen’s satire shows that these tales of gloomth were not placed on the literary pedestal, particularly when produced by women. Often at the margins of the canon, many of these works have since been reevaluated, and I am also pleased that many of their female contemporaries have had their literary efforts recognized. Just as Gothic was in its time, crime fiction remains a second-rate genre to many members of the cultural intelligentsia, the Booker Prize mafia.
In the past, female writers used Gothic motives in their narratives to bypass patriarchal censure and thus express the unexpressable. Not content with with the limited representations offered to them as women, they attempt to go beyond the madonna/harlot dichotomy by subverting the femme-fatale stereotype, narrating events from a seemingly neutral male viewpoint, by reversing roles, making the male protagonist the hysterical figure, or by resorting to Gothic archetype of the Doppelganger to highlight their own fragmented subjectivity. Through vampires and other monsters, they attempted to explore their sexuality and other taboo subjects. In her short story, La mujer fría (The Cold Woman), the 19th century Spanish writer Carmen de Burgos gives us a covert critical response to the passive vestal blonde inevitably falling prey to a satanic lover, a common male trope that resurged in popularity during the Belle Époque. It attacks the seemingly morbid male fascination with beautiful anaemic, almost ghostly, women, when it is revealed that the pearly alluring blonde is actually a living corpse. Camilla Läckberg’s 2003 novel Isprinsessan (The Ice Princess) opens with a blonde woman dead and covered in ice, the narrator clearly fascinated with her arctic beauty and blue-tinged lips.
Although contemporary female writers suffer less censure than their predecessors, and thus have less need to conceal their message, they remind us that inequality and prejudice have not completely vanished - not even in seemingly enlightened Scandinavian societies. Not only must they solve a mystery, these female investigators must also confront chauvinistic colleagues and console partners unable to understand their career choice. Crime fiction is not only a perfect platform for social criticism, but also shows that feminism is very much alive and thriving despite the tiresome buzz surrounding so-called postfeminism. Anyone who declares themselves a postfeminist should be bitch-slapped. Long live Scandinavian crime fiction.