Winter In The Soul, A Cool Appraisal of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

Charles River
looking towards towards Cambridge, winter on the Charles River

“It is a world of bleak twilights and tortured souls. A world of cold dawns and dour sleuths. A world of frozen lakes and repressed detectives.”        Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune.

So writes Julia Keller in a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, as she shares some thoughts  on the rise of the popular genre, most obvious by the rapid success of  Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and subsequent movie deals both in Europe and America.

There is an interesting blog located right here on wordpress that is solely devoted to the subject of Scandinavian Crime Fiction. This would include any writer from the nations of Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. There are as many as a dozen names, few of which would ring a bell with American readers or the American public. You can go to this blog and find out who is publishing what and where. Also you will find some interesting  comments and insights on why this part of the world has become the hotbed of the genre, because the perceived image of Scandinavia is that this is a place where a crime fiction writer would fine little inspiration because the murder rate s so low. But just like crossing a frozen lake on a cold winter’s day, there may be more trouble ahead than one realizes for there may be a current underneath the ice or a spring creating a thin spot; and if you fall through the ice in the middle of February in Northern Sweden you chances of survival are grim.

winter light
snow and shadows

But just as northern Minnesota was a great setting for a murder mystery in the film Fargo, so has Scandinavia merged to provide the setting for quite a few murder mysteries.  Although not really known as a crime fiction writer, Peter Hoeg may have set the scene for the emergence of this popular genre with his murder mystery Smyla’s Sense of Snow. He may have also opened the door to the reality the life in Scandinavia may be overrated a bit, for there are real conflicts between industrialization and the search for a comfortable life, a point that is very well underscored at least in the film.

So on these long January nights, while your curled up on the sofa next to the warm glow of a wood fire in the fireplace, you might want to pick on of the many offerings that are now being translated into English. But don’t forget that this part of the world has a summer time also and one with very long days and short nights; so short that in some places the sun only sets for a few hours each night during late June, when the summer solstice occurs.

As a subtle reminder of the summer warmth here is a picture of a fence that borders a park in Copenhagen, Denmark. The fence has been painting with all kinds of colorful and joyous animals. Of particular note is that the park is located just across the street from Christiana, an unique part of the city that was taken over and homesteaded by hippies in the 1970’s.

So long forom the snow-covered rocky coat of Maine,


Everett Autumn

forest graffitti
animal graffitti in Copenhagen, Denmark

Coen Brothers Have A New Movie

scene from A Serious Man
scene from A Serious Man

Here is a still picture from the newest release by Joe and Ethan Coen, entitled A Serious Man. It is an image of the main character standing on the roof of his own home, which is located in a very mundane and grassy suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The setting works very well for this mastery-told story that follows the trials and tribulations of a Jewish Physics Professor, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg).

This image is everywhere, as a promotion for the film. Only after seeing the movie did I realize that this particular still, both satirizes and also confirms the archetype of “The Fiddler On the Roof”. I think it is safe to say that this scene, where Larry Gopnik has to climb up on the roof to adjust the family TV antennae, so that his teenage son can watch F-Troop, is designed as a late sixties version of the classic Jewish tale. In fact throughout this thoroughly engaging film, there is the constant presence of Jewish religious thought, often portrayed by a series of rabbis both young and green and old and learned. But don’t let the presence of a large number of religious leaders deter anyone from viewing this comic gem of a movie. For in this witty piece of cinematic storytelling, the religious message is relayed through a series of humorous, entertaining and sometimes tragic events. The movie makes the forever valid assertion that good storytelling involves tragedy and misfortune as often as it does triumph and success.

Coen Brothers
Coen Brothers on the set of O Brother

This movie is really two fables. The first one occurs in the past, somewhere in Poland, where the three characters where clothing and inhabit a setting straight out of Fiddler on the Roof. This excellent piece is very short and at first appears to have no relationship to the main tale. The bulk of the movie follows Professor Gropnik through an extraordinary series of mid-life crises that seemed to have come his way by divine providence,  just to rattle his soul and test his faith.

All in all, A Serious Man is a very good perhaps even a great movie, which was written from scratch by the two talented brothers. This cinematic episode is another fine effort from these two, as the pair continues to leave their artistic stamp on the Hollywood movies of the late 20th and early 21st century.

Hope all is well, as we quickly approach the Holiday season and New Year. Best wishes Everett Autumn.