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How to write a Nordic bestseller like ‘The Killing’

Posted at 10:00 am, January 8, 2012 in Arts & Entertainment

The Killing 2Author of ‘Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction’, Barry Forshaw, has put together his top 10 tips on how to write a Nordic noir. Put these pointers to good use and you could make your millions in 2012.

1. Pick your Scandinavian country
Readers of those massively selling Scandinavian crime thrillers know their Norwegian fjords from their Stockholm suburbs; so make sure you evoke your locale with maximum atmosphere, be it the endless forests and big skies of Sweden, Finland’s lakes, Iceland’s volcanic ash, Denmark’s agricultural landscapes or Norway’s dramatic mountains.

2. Depict a damaged detective
Whether you go for a sociopathic heroine who cannot relate to people (as with Stieg Larsson’s facially pierced computer hacker/avenger Lisbeth Salander) or an alienated, alcoholic detective (like Jo Nesbø’s dyspeptic Harry Hole), make sure they have all the requisite characteristics: bloodyminded attitude to authority; maverick recklessness (Sarah Lund in ‘The
Killing’); difficulties in sustaining relationships with their parents and children (all present and correct in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander).

3. Cast a cold eye on society
Make sure your cynical protagonist is always up against massive levels of corruption that extend into the upper echelons of society. Politicians and the security services are never to be trusted in Scandinavian crime fiction, and while leather jacketed thugs with number one haircuts usually do the dirty work, the serious villains are those wearing suits in boardrooms, with the police in their pockets.

4. Focus on serious issues
The social democratic ideal of the Scandinavian countries that Brits once fondly envied? In serious trouble – as we learn from the crime fiction. Painless assimilation of immigrants? No, pain aplenty – an incendiary area. Sexual freedom? Sorry– no more liberal than Britain, according to Swedish author Håkan Nesser. And after the emergence of murderous neo-Nazis, Scandi authors (who wrote about such things years ago) are now the go-to commentators – both Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø (the former with the keenest of social consciences) were repeatedly asked to comment on 2011’s Norwegian massacre. Mankell was a captive of the Israeli forces when he took part in the attempt break through the Gaza blockade.

5. Polish your literary gloss
Make sure your model is a literary writer like Henning Mankell whose prose is highly regarded, rather than a popular writer like Dan Brown – whose prose isn’t. It’s the more ‘serious’, upmarket publishers who found they had a goldmine on their hands with this sophisticated, well-written mayhem: ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ was published in the UK by Christopher MacLehose, a literary heavyweight.

6. Get all your references right
Scandi crime fiction fans are ruthless: get your cultural/food/music references right, or you’re rollmop on toast. Bone up on the cutting Sweden v Denmark jokes in ‘The Killing’ (also useful for what may be The Next Big Thing, the hit Swedish/Danish TV crime series ‘The Bridge’). And don’t turn your nose up at unusual food peculiarities, such  as the succulent sheep’s head snack the detective gnaws on in Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason novel, ‘Jar City’.

7. If you’re English, pretend to be Scandinavian
Some canny British writers (Michael Ridpath and Quentin Bates) have seen the way the icy wind is blowing, and are writing their own Scandinavian-set crime series. If your name is Chris Moss, be Christian Madsen; I’m Børge Forshawsen when I need to be.

8. Keep your violence industrial strength
Nobody’s gone broke overestimating readers’ taste for the gruesome in Nordic Noir: note the eye gougings and strangulation in Yrsa Sigurdarðóttir’s ‘Last Rituals’, the mass mutilation of a village in Mankell’s ‘The Man from Beijing’, and an awful lot of things involving Lisbeth Salander.

9. Make sure the film rights go to the right people
Get Swedish company Yellow Bird onside, and have your Kurt Wallander type played by both Krister Henriksson and Kenneth Branagh (so aficionados can argue over who’s better). Or bag a major American director (David Fincher has remade ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ and Martin Scorsese will be filming Nesbø’s ‘The Snowman’).

10. Read and reread all the key writers
Immerse yourself in Nordic Noir until a chill has entered your bloodstream: your reading list should contain all the above-named writers, plus criminaland- criminologist duo Roslund and Hellström, Camilla Läckberg and Anne Holt (both tipping their hats to Agatha Christie), master of the Scandi private eye novel Gunnar Staalesen, the disturbing Johan Theorin, the terrifying Jussi Adler-Olsen, and Karin Fossum, Norway’s Patricia Highsmith.

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