Alexander McCall Smith: How I developed full-blown 'Scandi Noir Syndrome'

Like many who have been obliged by circumstances to spend more time at home, I have become a devotee of Scandinavian television series.
Actors Morten Suurballe and Sofie Graaboel of Scandi Noir hit The Killing  (Picture: Jens Noergaard Larsen/AFP via Getty Images)Actors Morten Suurballe and Sofie Graaboel of Scandi Noir hit The Killing  (Picture: Jens Noergaard Larsen/AFP via Getty Images)
Actors Morten Suurballe and Sofie Graaboel of Scandi Noir hit The Killing (Picture: Jens Noergaard Larsen/AFP via Getty Images)

This enthusiasm is now so pronounced and extensive that it has every chance of being recognised as a syndrome, enshrined in the famous psychiatric diagnostic manual, the DSM, along with all the other sundry disorders to which the human mind is prey.

Scandi Noir Syndrome (SNS) is simply-enough identified, the defining symptom being an addictive attachment to crime dramas emanating principally from Denmark or Sweden, but also from Norway, Finland, and, to a lesser extent, Iceland.

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The syndrome was first observed following the screening of a series called, with great subtlety, The Killing. In essence, this series was no different from any of the numerous other dramas that television producers have churned out for year.

The plot is always the same: somebody comes to a sticky end, slightly drawn-looking detectives arrive in Volvos, and the perpetrator is eventually caught. Of course, that simple sequence of events lies at the heart of all crime drama, although there may be occasions on which the third part of the formula is missing and the person who commits the crime gets away with it.

Patricia Highsmith’s character, Tom Ripley, is never caught, and her readers appear to accept this. Ripley is an unusual exception to the rule, though: normally, appropriate resolution is every bit as necessary in a crime story as it is in a piece of music. We can all spot an unfinished symphony when we hear it.

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If there is one thing that has attracted people to Scandinavian Noir and started the process of addiction, it has been the atmosphere. Nordic countries, in the non-Nordic imagination, enjoy a degree of exceptionalism. These societies are rational, measured, and well-behaved.

Sweden, for example, has always been for many people the shining example of the social-democratic state, committed to civilised behaviour, to generous social welfare arrangements, and to egalitarianism. It has not been the sort of place in which we expect people to behave passionately or dangerously. Swedes obey speed limits, do not shout, and are given to introspection and long reflective monologues. Ingmar Bergman, we feel, must have the society right when he made those long films about wild strawberries and games of tennis with Death.

In such societies, people do not commit crimes – and in particular, gory crimes. Yet in The Killing a senseless murder threw a stone into the placid waters of this well-ordered society. And then, after several more series involving the same cult detectives, along came a series called The Bridge, in which the goriness of the murders was increased considerably, and where the home lives of the detectives became even more complicated. That was how it all started.

As a genre, Scandi Noir has been just as reliant as any other tradition of crime drama on certain stock themes. There is always a post-mortem scene, and this normally occurs at a fairly early stage of proceedings. In Scandi Noir films, the body is usually shown covered with a sheet, which is then drawn back with the same theatricality as a stage curtain.

Playing a body is the first step on the career ladder for actors in Scandi Noir. It is not well-paid, and you have to be able to hold your breath and remain quite still. But it can be a start on a career ladder that leads to the portrayal of deranged serial killers or moody forensic pathologists.

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The revealing of the corpse in this scene is usually followed by an exchange of glances between the pathologist and the detective, who has been invited into the post-mortem room to be given an explanation of certain facts that might help the investigation.

The pathologist is invariably very matter-of-fact and is simply doing his or her job. In Unit One, a highly-addictive, four-series story of the specialist homicide squad of the Danish Police, the pathologist is promoted to a being a central character of the drama, and indeed is in love with the head detective.

In her turn, this detective may or may not be the daughter of her immediate boss, who is, as it happens, having an affair with the wife of one of the other members of the squad. This woman is, in fact, an alcoholic actress, although she is very polite and is always saying ‘tak’, even when she is lying to her husband about trysts with her lover.

And so it goes on, and we, the audience, sink deeper into this imagined Nordic world of atmospheric background music, melancholy, rather lonely agents of justice, and ruthless, cold criminals. And the producers of all this, realising that they have us hooked, skilfully cast their net a bit wider.

Borgen, to which we all became rapidly addicted, was about Danish politics, and about the alliances that have to be brokered in a non-first-past-the-post political system. Devotees of Scandinavian crime could not resist the bait, and became hopelessly immersed in the affairs of calculating politicians, with all their polite machinations. And the Swedes then made The Restaurant, which had all the addicts becoming party to the affairs of a family of Stockholm restaurateurs.

Scandi Noir has its merits, but it is open to the obvious criticism that can be levied against all crime fiction or television crime: it has nothing to do with the real world.

These series, and their literary equivalent, all seem obsessed with murder. Yet homicide is a rather unusual crime – making up only a very small proportion of all crimes committed.

If the makers of television crime or the writers of crime fiction really wanted to be social realists – as they claim to be – they should look at the offences that form most real day-to-day offending. And prominent and most numerous among these are parking offences. If crime writers and film makers wanted to show the real face of crime, they should start looking at illegal parking.

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But would we be interested? Possibly, if the milieu were right. Dramatised illegal parking could take place in a suitably atmospheric setting. We could become immersed in the lives of those who park illegally – in their affairs, their failed hopes, their sense of alienation.

We could dwell on the point of view of those who police parking – the parking attendants. We could see them looking after one another, we could see their rivalries, their struggles for promotion, their bravery.

A whole new genre is just round the corner, perhaps. ‘Parking noir’. This will have great potential for sensitive exploration. People park illegally for a reason. Understanding that reason will be the challenge.

Of course, this new genre will need some equivalent of the post-mortem scene. Perhaps that could be the MoT failure scene. We go into a spotless white garage. The failed vehicle is laid out before us. The mechanic is the pathologist. He sighs. The sadness of it – the pointlessness – that it should all end like this. Bergman would have captured it perfectly.

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