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What Is Nordic Noir? We Can’t Get Enough of the Genre

By now you’ve probably heard of Nordic Noir, or perhaps you’re already wholly obsessed with it. Originating in the ‘90s with author Henning Mankell, known for his Kurt Wallander series and whom many consider to be the father of Nordic Noir, the genre shot into the international mainstream consciousness with the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (aka the “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy). Since then, Nordic Noir has jumped from the page to the screen and become a mainstay subgenre for crime lovers. But what is Nordic Noir exactly? We’re giving a crash course on the genre with our own Topic viewing guide.

According to The Verge, Nordic Noir is defined by its “emotional chilliness and overarching sense of despair, expressed via brutal murder-mystery plots, often set in cold, dark countries like Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland.” But these aren’t just any murder mysteries. The website Life in Norway emphasizes that Nordic Noir plots have “multiple complex threads and a few twists.” Meanwhile, Penguin Random House’s description notes that “the tales invariably feature protagonists who, while possessing a generally ferocious sense of justice, are nonetheless tortured, brooding, and generally introspective.”

Let’s break this down.

So why Nordic countries? Think about it. The weather is perpetually cold, the setting is bleak, there are long stretches of wilderness with not much to do, and Nordic society is known for being peaceful and harmonious, which, for some, translates to uneventful. If that’s not the perfect storm of factors to drive people mad à la “The Shining” and breed serial killers, I don’t know what is. In terms of storytelling, the austere, snow-covered, gray-tinged backdrop creates an undeniably intriguing juxtaposition for shockingly deranged villains with a penchant for grotesque murders. It awakens a part of our psyche that says, “Oof, that’s creepy. I want to know more.”

There is perhaps no better example of the chilling Nordic Noir setting than “Arctic Circle.” Set in Finnish Lapland, where the temperature regularly drops well below 0 and snow falls roughly 200 days out of the year, the series follows police officer Nina Kautsalo and virologist Thomas Lorenz as they track both a serial killer and a deadly virus in an increasingly complex and gruesome investigation. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Blondes make the best victims. They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.” Now scrap the sexist trope and keep the endless miles of virgin snow, and you have “Arctic Circle.”

Then there’s the detectives with “a generally ferocious sense of justice” who are “nonetheless tortured, brooding, and generally introspective.” Look no further than Sarah Lund of “The Killing” and Saga Norén of “The Bridge,” two refreshingly unique female protagonists who defy all norms and tropes, taking on the role of the stoically complex and introspective detective long dominated by male characters. While Lund is so consumed by her work that she becomes almost sociopathic in her personal life, Norén is believed to have Asperger syndrome, which incidentally makes her fit the same psychological profile as the sadistic serial killer she’s hunting. Charlie’s Angels they are not, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of them, for entirely different reasons.

Having said that, we still appreciate a good old-fashioned surly male detective. Take Detective Gedeon Winter in “Pagan Peak” (a German remake of “The Bridge”). Troubled past? Check. Inner moral conflict? Check. Mysterious substance dependency? Check. Plays well with others? Nope. Ferocious sense of justice? He’s got that in spades. But as he descends deeper into the twisted investigation with his partner, Ellie Stocker, his steely exterior softens and, as is inevitable with these Nordic Noir protagonists, he reveals his own vulnerabilities and we end up wanting to protect the protector.

If you’re just starting your Nordic Noir journey and want to get acquainted with the genre, Topic is a great place to start. We’ve curated our Topic Nordic Noir playlist just for you, along with a few titles to look out for over our Summer of Suspense.

Topic’s Nordic Noir Playlist

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Arctic Circle: When a dying sex worker is found in a cabin with a deadly virus in her body, a Finnish officer must team up with a German virologist to track a serial killer and contain the virus before it becomes a full-blown pandemic. Look out for season two coming soon to Topic.

Conspiracy of Silence: After being taken for dead for 30 years, former arms dealer Robert Kastell emerges from exile and he’s out for blood. He’s on a mission to find the man that lured him into the Swedish weapons trade and tried to have him killed, but the sudden appearance of his long-lost daughter will force him to change his approach.

Dark Woods: Based on the real-life disappearance of the sister of a high-ranking police officer, the series follows officer Thomas Bethge and rookie Anne Bach as they search for Thomas’s sister and investigate a suspected serial killer.

Honour: In this gripping series, which has been called “Nordic Noir 2.0,” four female lawyers gain fame by helping sex-crime victims. But as they investigate a circle of powerful men, they become targets themselves. How far will they go to protect their clients...and their own dark secrets? Fun fact: series lead and co-creator Sofia Helin was also the lead detective in “The Bridge.

Pagan Peak: When a gruesomely staged body is found at the German-Austrian border, two detectives investigate. As the ritual-like murders continue, they enter the killer’s sinister world, set in the Alpine wilderness. Originally aired in Germany as Der Pass. Look out for season two coming soon to Topic.

Valkyrien: A doomsday prepper obsessed with the apocalypse. A doctor trying to save his dying wife. They’re partners in crime operating an underground clinic for very different reasons, but they could be humanity’s best hope. This gritty series, set in Oslo, Norway, is like Nordic Noir meets anti-hero story meets dystopian sci-fi.

Follow the Money: Corrupt CEOs, unscrupulous bankers, determined detectives. Welcome to a world where in order to follow the connection between big bankers, crime syndicates, and cartels, all you have to do is follow the money.

Coming Soon:

The Bridge (July): Considered one of the series that started the Nordic Noir TV genre, “The Bridge” opens with a body found on the Sweden-Denmark border in the middle of Øresund Bridge. What follows is a joint investigation between two mismatched detectives, one from each side, in search of a twisted killer.

The Killing (August): Also essential Nordic Noir viewing, this Danish series, which inspired the popular American version starring Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos, follows Inspector Sarah Lund whose retirement plans are put on hold when a teenage girl’s body is found in a car with ties to a mayoral candidate.

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