Featured Excerpt: Scandinavian Noir by Wendy Lesser

In Scandinavian Noir, Wendy Lesser takes readers on an in-depth and personal exploration of Scandinavian crime fiction as a way into Scandinavian culture at large. Read on for an excerpt.



She walks east on Grønlandsleiret and eventually ends up at number 44, which turns out to be a large, glassily modern building set back in parklike grounds. Men, women, and children are heading up the winding path that leads from the street corner to the building, and she is so struck by the number of families that she asks one woman with a child if there is a daycare center inside. “No,” the woman laughs, “they issue passports here.” (Later Sølvi will tell her, “Oh, yes, at this time of year it can get very crowded with families. Sometimes we have to go down with lollipops.”) She calls Sølvi on her cell phone to say she’s arrived, and Sølvi promises to meet her downstairs right away.

Inside, the place does not look like any police station she’s ever seen in her life. There is a glassed-in atrium that rises up to the full height of the seven-story building, and incoming civilians are dispersing in all directions from the doorway she has just entered. A tall uniformed guard stands chatting with two people next to a cubicle to her left, so she goes up to him and says, “Hi, I have a meeting with Sølvi,” to which he immediately responds, “Oh, you must be the American writer!” She asks if it’s okay to take a picture of the luminous interior, and he instantly says yes. Then another uniformed man darts out of the cubicle and hands her a stick-on badge with her name preprinted on it, just as Sølvi, a round-faced, smiling young blonde woman, ap-pears. As she leads her upstairs, Sølvi informs her that not all the citizens are there for passports; some are hunters getting their required gun permits.

They begin their tour in the sixth-floor press room, which is empty now except for the two of them, but which might hold as many as forty or fifty people when it’s a big case. “There are not many homicides in Norway,” Sølvi says, “so every homicide is a big case.”

“And would any of them be serial killings?”

“We don’t have serial killers, as far as my knowledge goes. We have serial rapists. And we have—there can be several kill-ings in a row, but not with the indicators of a serial killer as you would define it.” This leads Sølvi almost immediately onto the subject of the Anders Breivik case, which she alludes to with the shorthand “22 July,” much as an American would refer to 9/11. That July date, now firmly engraved on the Norwegian psyche, was the day in 2011 on which Breivik first set off a fatal car- bomb in Oslo and then, on a nearby island, shot and killed sixty- nine people, most of them teenagers attending a Labour Party summer camp. All the evidence suggests he was acting alone, spurred on by a combination of hatred of immigrants, hatred of the Norwegian Labour Party, and a random accumulation of other right-wing attitudes. It was the most lethal attack to occur in Norway since the Second World War; a survey conducted afterward found that one out of four Norwegians said they knew someone affected by it. Like the Olof Palme murder in Sweden, it is the atrocity that defines the before- and- after versions of modern Norway—though in this case the crime resulted in the successful apprehension and prosecution of the criminal.

As they move out into the hallway, she and Sølvi happen to run into one of the prosecutors who worked on the Breivik case, and they stop to chat with him. His name is Pål- Fredrik Hjort Kraby, and like all the other police lawyers, he works right there in the building. There are other prosecutors, at the regional and national levels, who work elsewhere and are brought in on the biggest cases, but these ground-level police lawyers are the ones who work most closely with the investigation teams, handling their warrants, going to court to extend custody, and so on.

He loves his work, he tells her, in part because, before getting this job, he worked for six months, straight out of law school, at a “super- boring” job in the Treasury. Then he was lucky enough to be hired on at police headquarters, where he has now been a lawyer for what he says is “a long time”—though this hardly seems credible, as he looks to be only in his late thirties. “I had very high expectations for this job,” Pål-Fredrik tells her, “and they were more than fulfilled.” He particularly likes going to court as often as he does (at the Treasury, the lawyers never appeared in court), and though most of his cases involve sexual offenses like attempted rapes or adults having sex with minors, he did get to work on the Breivik case as one of the three in- house lawyers assigned to it.

Since Breivik was undeniably guilty of the crimes with which he was charged, the only way he could have gotten off would have been an insanity defense. Yet the defendant him-self desperately wanted to be tried as sane, so as to broadcast in court his personal effort to “save Norway.” Two court-appointed psychiatrists initially judged him crazy, but Pål- Fredrik, after interviewing him, thought he seemed extremely logical and not irrational. Eventually a woman known as “the best forensic psychiatrist in Norway” examined him, and she declared him sane, which satisfied both sides—Breivik because he thought it would allow him to air his opinions publicly, and the prosecutors because it would enable them to lock him away for a long time. 

The maximum prison term in Norway is twenty-one years, and that’s what Breivik got, but Pål- Fredrik is convinced he will be in for life, because the preventive-detention rule permits them to review his case every ten years and add to his term if he still constitutes a danger to society. At the moment Breivik is complaining about his prison conditions, which, although not otherwise harsh, involve his being kept in solitary confinement. But that, argues Pål-Fredrik, is for his own protection from the other prisoners, since “killing him would be like a super-bonus, you would be a hero in the prison.”

Oslo is such a small city that the prosecutor and the criminal actually came from the same neighborhood. “We went to the same junior high school,” says Pål-Fredrik. “He lived one min-ute away from me.” But their paths had never crossed before the court case, and Pål- Fredrik feels their childhoods, though geographically similar, were actually quite different, in that Breivik had “a troubled single mother” and other early difficulties. Not that Pål-Fredrik is offering this as an excuse. “No one sympathized with his actions,” he says, though he acknowledges there might have been a lot of Norwegians who “sympathized with his principles: blocking immigration, the right-wing parties.”

For reasons no one understood at the time—or ever, for that matter—Breivik chose as his defense attorney a then-obscure lawyer named Geir Lippestad, a man who was known to be associated with the Labour Party. “We thought maybe he wanted to kill his lawyer,” says Pål-Fredrik, “so all sharp implements, even pencils, were banned from the interview room.” 

There was no further violence, though, and Lippestad ended up doing a superb job, working to represent Breivik to his client’s satisfaction and at the same time managing to heal some of the painful feel-ings aroused by the murders.

“He was voted the most popular man in Norway after the trial,” Pål-Fredrik says of Lippestad.

“But why?”

“Because of the way he did it,” interjects Sølvi. “Very human.”

“A very sympathetic guy,” Pål-Fredrik adds. He notes that Lippestad eventually gave up the practice of law—even though his successful defense of Breivik had brought a lot of new business to his firm—and now represents the Labour Party as a member of the Oslo City Council.

Bidding goodbye to the prosecutor, she and Sølvi move down the hall to the office of a lead detective in the homicide division, Bård Dyrdal. A smiling, solidly built, middle-aged man, dressed in a red- and- white- striped polo shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers, he greets them warmly at the door and invites them in. His office is not large (the two visitors take up the only two available seats, besides his desk chair), but it’s a pleasant workspace, with a bright window looking out on the expansive view and pale- wood surfaces throughout.

Bård tells her that he began his training at the police academy in 1989 and, starting in the early 1990s, he was an ordinary police officer patrolling the streets. Then, in around 1995 or 1996, he began to work in investigations, and now he is the oldest detective in homicides. 

“If there is a Harry Hole in the Oslo police department, it would probably be me,” he jokes, alluding to both his age and his high solve rate.

Oslo, he tells her, has only about twelve homicides per year (a number that strikes her as ludicrously low for any city, and especially for one that has generated so many fictional killings). But it has many more attempted murders, where people who have been shot or stabbed are rushed to the hospital in time to save their lives. Bård attributes the city’s low murder rate in part to the excellent trauma centers that manage to keep these victims alive. “You may be less likely to be attacked in the provinces,” he says, “but if you are attacked with a knife, you are better off here.” Both nationwide and in Oslo, the majority of homicides are domestic cases. In Oslo they also have a number of gang-related murders, in crime waves that go up and down—up when a new cannabis-selling gang arises and impinges on another’s turf, and then down when the police apprehend the latest criminals.

Bård, though, feels hesitant even to use the word “gang.” “The media calls it a gang,” he says, “but it is more complex: people who have been friends before, since their childhood. The main members might be twenty or thirty years old, but then they recruit younger people from the neighborhood, brothers, sisters.” He acknowledges that “a lot of these ‘gangs’ tend to have a foreign connection: they might be born in Norway, but their parents might be immigrants.” But that fact, he says, “has nothing to do with most of these people, nothing you can do by regulating immigration. That’s just bullshit. What we can do is just take care of people more, make sure the youth has something to do.”

He brings out a tiny tape recorder, halfway in size between a USB drive and a small cell phone, and places it on the table. “My main tool is this little thing,” he explains. “We just sit down and talk about the problems.” Then, getting up from his desk, he leads her down the hall to the actual room where he conducts the interviews (and where Anders Breivik himself sat in one of the two black armchairs that face each other at a slight angle). It is nothing like her television- inspired idea of a police interview room. The one-way mirror has long since been covered over with a homey curtain, and the interviewing officer relies instead on a steady sequence of information and questions piped in electronically from an adjoining room. The setting is at once soothingly domestic and extremely hi-tech.

The main change Bård has noticed over time, in the two decades and more since he became a homicide cop, is that the approach to conducting interviews is now much more scientific. A corollary of this is that the police leave their options open longer, instead of zeroing in right away on a suspect or a motive. “It also means being more aware of why we do things— more aware of the flaws,” he adds, noting that they frequently study their old cases to see what mistakes were made.

“Do you study the Olof Palme case, too?” she asks.

“We do—in the police academy and elsewhere, we look at the Palme case to learn what not to do. But frankly, I don’t think all those mistakes could have been done in Norway, because the policing here is not that political. I think we are way beyond them in investigations, and have a more scientific approach, and are more able to learn from mistakes in the past.”

His point of comparison may be Sweden, but the discrepancy that really strikes her is the one between Norway and America. The Oslo urban area has twelve homicides a year; San Francisco, which is comparable in size, has more than fifty, and New York has around three hundred. Could gun control account for part of the difference?

“Guns in Norway are more common than guns in America,” Bård tells her, “because in Norway we have a long tradition of hunting. But it’s rare in Norway for people to buy guns to ‘protect themselves.’ That’s more like the criminal mindset.”

“And do the police here carry guns?”

“We could, but we normally don’t. We keep them locked in the patrol car. The police in Norway are officially armed and are given permission to use their guns in what they deem exceptional circumstances. But I never use my arms. I don’t even do the shootings I need to do at the firing range to keep mine up.” But then, he acknowledges, he doesn’t apprehend suspects. His job is to run the investigation and do the interviews.

He takes her to one of the investigation rooms, where a large table contains seats and computers for the head of investigations—that is, Bård himself—as well as for two analysts, the legal advisor, the administrative organizer, and the log-writer keeping notes on the investigation. While he’s showing all this to her, another team of four, containing one man and three women, is meeting at a smaller table.

“What’s the proportion of women to men in your department?” she asks, remembering all those novels with one or at most two women on the murder squad.

“Fifty-fifty,” he estimates. “The leader of the homicide division is female. My leader is a female, her leader is a female, and her leader is a female.”

For the most part, he says, these higher-ups do not interfere with his investigations, though “of course” politics sometimes enters the picture, especially in terms of the allocation of resources. “There was one case where a young beautiful Norwegian ten-year-old blonde girl disappeared and it turns out she was murdered. That investigation got a lot of resources that would not be available for other crimes. Media attention has a lot to do with it.” Bård’s sympathies—which are not, he feels, necessarily those of his entire department—tend to lie more with east Oslo than with the whiter, wealthier west. “I would more recognize the problems from the east side” is how he puts it. Yet he himself comes from a comfortable background, growing up as the child of a banker and a teacher who lived just outside of Oslo.

She turns the conversation to alcohol consumption in Norway. Is that a big problem?

“Yes,” he says. “Alcohol is the most normal drug affecting violence overall.” And this is true even though the state heavily regulates alcohol consumption, an approach that he thinks probably cuts down on the crimes of passion. “Love and hate are the key reasons for murder—and alcohol, because it lowers self-control.”

She asks about the few beggars she has seen in the streets and, like Alix, he describes them as Romanians. “Their main reason why they’re in Norway is they have to make a living,” he says of the poorly dressed, mostly elderly people who sit begging on public street corners. “It’s a visible problem, but it’s not a big legal problem.” Apparently Norway used to have a law against begging in the streets, but it was lifted in 2005, and the result was that beggars came in from the outside. The locals complained a lot at first, but those objections peaked a few years ago.

“People need to feel that it’s someone else causing the problems,” Bård observes. “Before we had the immigration, all the problems in Norway were people coming from the north to work in the south. People like us, they are never the problem.”

Copyright © 2020 by Wendy Lesser

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