Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium series has sold tens of millions of copies around the world, exposing international audiences to Nordic crime fiction. Two of his three Millennium books (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) won the Glass Key Award, which annually honors the top crime novel written by a Nordic author. And the series is so beloved by fans and critics alike that author David Lagercrantz has continued the adventures of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist in two more Millennium novels.
If you love Larsson’s series, you should explore the genre further. Known for authors who brilliantly pair bleak landscapes with chilling crimes, Nordic noir typically explores the impact of violence on otherwise peaceful communities. So dive into the following titles for compelling, shocking novels that are sure to entertain.
The inaugural Glass Key winner introduced the world to Inspector Kurt Wallander, a middle-aged detective who’s since become the standard-bearer of Scandinavian crime protagonists. (Kenneth Branagh portrayed Wallander in the eponymous BBC series, while the detective has been brought to TV twice in Sweden.) The scene of the crime in Faceless Killers is an isolated farmhouse, where an elderly couple are savagely beaten, the wife able to speak a single word before dying: “foreign.” With his trademark gloomy persistence, Wallander traces the case through the country’s uneasy mix of immigration, racism and xenophobia. Perhaps too flawed to be labeled an “everyman,” Wallander makes for an immediately gripping character and anchors one of the most acclaimed series in Scandinavian noir.
Before Michael Fassbender stars as Harry Hole in a film adaptation in October, dig into the wildly successful series from Norwegian crime fiction master Jo Nesbø. The Snowman is the seventh novel to feature Nesbø’s alcoholic, insubordinate and brilliant detective, but it makes for a perfect introduction to the shocking criminal world the author has created. A serial killer—Norway’s first—haunts Oslo, the victims vanishing after the first snowfall of the year, with a snowman left in their place. More a psychological thriller than a procedural, The Snowman quickens to a heart-pounding pace as the compulsive detective races to solve the case before another victim dies.
With a complex narrative built on Denmark and Greenland’s intertwined cultural history, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow falls more in the realm of international thriller than hardboiled mystery. This 1993 Glass Key Award winner rests heavily on the shoulders of its unconventional protagonist, Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, who possesses her own complicated heritage from a Greenlandic Inuit mother and Danish father. The death of a little neighbor boy pushes the 37-year-old Smilla to look past her tendencies as a loner and begin unraveling a decades-old conspiracy. It’s Smilla’s preternatural knowledge of ice and snow that holds the key to both the boy’s death and the shadowy mystery that lies behind it.
Erica Falck is back in her hometown, the small fishing village of Fjällbacka, where her childhood friend’s body has been discovered frozen in a bathtub. It’s an alleged suicide, but Falck has her doubts. Detective Patrik Hedström has his own suspicions about the death, and amidst a blooming romance, both strike out in search for answers. Revelations turn what had been an idyllic past upside-down as Falck and Hedström move ever closer to the answer, which lies tangled with the town’s own secrets. Läckberg deftly handles the suspenseful plot with a keen eye on how personal relationships—both familial and romantic—shape people’s motivations and actions.
A Brit writing about the Canadian Arctic, McGrath fits with the vibe of Nordic crime authors by employing the frozen tundra as both a living character and a conveniently desolate setting for a visiting tourist’s death. She pairs the dangerous landscape with an unforgettable protagonist, Edie Kiglatuk, a half Inuit, half white hunter and guide. Kiglatuk is determined to see the crime solved, while the Inuit elders (who already view her with suspicion) would rather classify it an accident. Resourceful and keenly attuned to the land, Kiglatuk makes for an intuitive—and entertaining—investigator.
The first volume in this Norwegian author’s Minnesota Trilogy explores the culture of Nordic immigrants and their descendants in the United States. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen works Lake Superior’s north shore, remote and wild country familiar to immigrants from similarly cold territories. Hansen discovers a young Norwegian tourist murdered, next to another covered in blood. The mystery deepens when Hansen learns that an Ojibwe man was murdered on the same site more than 100 years earlier. It’s an opening act of a story about cultures in conflict, exploring the more complex dimensions of “home.”
Copenhagen Detective Carl Mørck leads Department Q, digging through cold case files of unsolved crimes. In the Glass Key Award-winning third entry, Mørck begins not with a discarded manila file folder, but with a 13-year-old message discovered in a bottle, a call for help written in blood. The curmudgeonly detective typically faces the dark crimes with a humor that comes from distance, but as the case unfolds, it becomes clear that this killer is still active. Thrilling, clever and driven by a rough-hewn protagonist, Adler-Olsen’s work generally excels, but A Conspiracy of Faith buzzes with an additional urgency that places the novel on top of the series.
Lars Martin Johansson, retired chief of the Swedish National Criminal Police, comes across one final case he just can’t let go. But after suffering a stroke, the investigator lauded for being able to “see around corners” must begin his work from a hospital bed. It’s a 25-year-old cold case, the rape and murder of a teen girl, just outside the statute of limitations. Part procedural and part character study, the novel (winner of the 2011 Glass Key Award) portrays Johansson as a stubborn idealist, as committed in retirement as he ever was on the force, sentimental yet duty-bound to find the killer.
Trailblazers of Nordic noir, Swedish couple Sjöwall and Wahlöö produced 10 novels featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck from 1965 to 1975. The series’ fourth, The Laughing Policeman, earned the duo a 1971 Best Novel Edgar Award in the United States. On a rainy November night, while most of the city’s police force is busy with a Vietnam war protest, eight people are brutally gunned down on a double-decker city bus. Among the dead is another detective, and as Beck digs into the grisly crime, he’s able to start pulling on the threads of prior crimes. Alternately vivid, harsh and matter-of-fact, Sjöwall and Wahlöö write with a compelling style that keeps pages turning a half-century later.
A Glass Key winner and three-time recipient of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, Nesser is unique in giving his books a purely fictional setting. The mid-sized Northern European city of Maardam holds characteristics of Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, but it’s never pinned down to any country in particular. The dreary realm of Chief Inspector Van Veeteren (and in this case, Inspector Münster), Maardam is shocked by the murder of an elderly man, who coincidentally just won a modest lottery prize. When the victim’s friend and a neighbor disappear, Münster has a complex case practically devoid of clues—with much, much more below the surface.