As Norway prepares to celebrate Påskekrim – the tradition of settling down to a good crime novel over the Easter break – several new titles look set to chill readers. Top of the most wanted list are Kjell Ola Dahl’s The Assistant, a murderous tale spanning the precarious inter-war years in Oslo, and Smoke Screen, the latest collaboration by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger. Investigating the intriguing and incongruous Påskekrim ritual, Barry Forshaw talks to some of Norway’s leading crime writers – and suggests five classic titles to take to your hytte.
While writing books on Scandinavian crime fiction – including Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate – I’ve occasionally found myself talking to Norwegian writers about the notion of Easter Crime – or påskekrim as it is known in Norway. I first heard about it from Anne Holt, a forthright and popular crime author and an ex-Minister of Justice for her country. “In Norway, certainly, there is a long tradition of crime reading and writing,” she says. “There is even the concept of Easter Crime, which involves people buying a good crime book to take to the mountains with them at Easter.”
Holt believes that Norwegians are progressive in their reading. “I think that crime writing was accepted as a viable, ‘respectable’ and serious literary genre in its own right in Scandinavia before it was in Britain and America. I also think there is an exoticism attached to Scandinavia which we ourselves are proud of – the bleak landscapes, the dark, the snow, all the elements that are prevalent. Having said all that, let’s be frank: I also think that the hype is a major contributing factor. We buy into what we are told is good – such as the attractive notion of Easter Crime.”
A frequent visitor to Britain’s crime fiction book festivals is Nordic Noir’s premier practitioner of the private eye novel (with his exemplary Varg Veum series), Bergen’s Gunnar Staalesen. The personable writer gave me his views on the phenomenon. “Easter crime, yes… Norway is the only country in the whole world that has this tradition,” he says. “And it started in the 1920s when some smart publishers saw that a lot of Norwegians went up to their cabins in the mountains during the Easter vacation. And what should they bring with them to read in the candlelight in the evening? Paperback crime novels, of course. Lightweight publications, not clothbound, and therefore easy to carry in their rucksacks. They were, let’s face it, seen as ‘second-class literature’ that nobody wanted to have on their bookshelves at home, but up in the mountains, where nobody could see what you were reading, perfect!”
This Easter things are somewhat different. “Because of the coronavirus situation,” Staalesen explains, “people are not allowed to go to their cabins at Easter, but the tradition has survived on television, radio, in audiobooks and e-books, and there are still some readers who prefer a good old-fashioned physical book to read. So there will be a lot of Easter crime in Norway this year of the plague, I’m sure!”
Two writers I asked for their thoughts on ‘Easter Crime’ are Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger (who have recently collaborated on Smoke Screen, in which police officer Alexander Blix and celebrity blogger Emma Ramm team up to investigate a cold case involving a missing girl). There’s no confusing these two authors: ex-police detective Horst is physically imposing and cuts quite a figure (particularly when he turns up in Norwegian national dress, as he has been known to do in England), while Enger is a quiet but authoritative presence.
“There are Easter crime mysteries on television, on radio, in magazines and books in Norway,” Horst says. “Even – believe it or not – there are short crime stories on the milk cartons at Easter. The tradition may be related to the fact that Easter, in its origin, was something of a venerable historical crime drama: namely, the trial of the religious agitator Jesus of Nazareth!”
“There are several explanations for the custom,” Horst continues: “Among other things, we in Norway have the world’s most extended Easter holidays: ten days in total. And crime is popular reading material during the holiday season. Many Norwegians spend their holidays at their cabin (hytta), often in the mountains. Norwegian cottages are full of old crime books that have never been taken home again, but are read again and again.’
Horst (who lives in the south of Norway, by the coast) recounts how the tradition started: “Almost a hundred years ago, in 1923, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie published a book about a train robbery under the pseudonym ‘Jonatan Jerv’. The story took place at Easter and was launched just before the Easter holiday. The publishing house placed a large ad on the front page of Norway’s biggest-selling newspaper [Aftenposten] with the book’s title, ‘The Train to Bergen Plundered Last Night’, in capital letters.”
“It would have taken an attentive reader to see that it was actually an advertisement, not a newspaper headline,” he notes. “Readers thought that a real train had been robbed. That campaign was so successful that the book was a massive seller, and a new season for publishing books had accidentally emerged.”
The Anglophile Thomas Enger has a strong connection to the phenomenon. “I have distinct memories of my childhood when we gathered round the television, eagerly awaiting the next episode of a Miss Marple or a Poirot, not to mention the excellent PD James Inspector Dalgliesh series, which became sort of an adopted tradition in itself in Norway. My appetite for crime fiction definitely has its roots in the Norwegian Easter Crime tradition.”
In recent years, Enger observes, the tradition appears to have lost its tight grip. “The main reason for that? We can download or stream whatever we want at any given time now, all year round. So it’s not a special season-related thing any more. People read crime fiction all the time now, but readers still tend to read more during Easter, because at the end of the day we are suckers for traditions up here in the cold north. And as a supplier of content in the crime fiction genre, I can only say I’m grateful.”
The last word on the tradition comes from the queen of Norwegian crime fiction, Karin Fossum, a Scandinavian writer held in particularly high esteem in Britain. “I have several theories when it comes to this very Norwegian tradition,” she states. Like Staalesen, she emphasises the portability of paperbacks. “When Norwegians travelled to their remote cabins and huts, they frequently had no cars of their own. They had to travel by train, and they had to carry their books in their backpack.” And in Norway during the 1940s and 1950s the only books in paperback format were crime novels.
“And so readers sat in the dark hinterlands and read disturbing books,” Fossum continues, “and they were even more unsettled by the solitary setting, far from other people. Nowadays, of course, all genres of books come in pocket editions. But, traditionally, in the woods and up in the mountains, we Norwegians like to be scared.”
Easter Crime Treats: Five Norwegian Noir Classics
THE REDBREAST BY JO NESBO (2000)
Nesbo is the breakthrough Nordic crime writer post-Larsson, more quirky and individual than most of his Scandinavian colleagues – not least thanks to Nesbø’s wonderfully dyspeptic detective Harry Hole. The Redbreast bristles with a terrifying vision of Nordic fascism. (The Redbreast is published by Penguin/Vintage)
1222 BY ANNE HOLT(2010)
Anne Holt usually paints an unsparing picture of Norway’s urban areas and outer reaches, but 1222 has a classic, isolated setting for its mayhem: the frigid climes of Finse, a mountain village in northern Norway. (1222 is published by Corvus)
HE WHO FEARS THE WOLF BY KARIN FOSSUM (2003)
Norway’s Ruth Rendell, Karin Fossum, has more acute psychological insight than is to be found in the work of many respectable ‘literary’ novelists. The third in her Inspector Sejer series delves into the woodland murder of a woman. (He Who Fears the Wolf is published by Penguin/Vintage).
THE CONSORTS OF DEATH BY GUNNAR STAALESEN (2009)
Grandmaster of the Scandinavian private eye novel, Gunnar Staalesen (and Norwegian heir apparent of Ross Macdonald), is here on cracking form as his detective, Varg Veum, finds his past catching up with him. (The Consorts of Death is published by Arcadia Books).
THE LAST FIX BY KO DAHL (2000)
Veteran Norwegian writer KO Dahl’s novel, The Last Fix is a calling card book. Oslo detectives Frank Frølich and Inspector Gunnarstranda are notable Scandi-coppers in a bustling arena, and in this thriller the pair are thrown into the murky – and murderous – world of the city’s drug addicts. (The Last Fix is published by Faber).
Top photo: detail from the cover of He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum (Penguin/Vintage)
The Assistant by Kjell Ola Dahl and Smoke Screen by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger are both published by Orenda Books