Law and Order in Peril?

Stray signals are important to people who want to keep track of contemporary culture.

Here’s one from today’s Wall Street Journal.

Nordic noir, the chilling, realistic Scandinavian crime fiction that has taken movies and books by storm, is coming to American television.  The Killing, premiering April 3 on AMC, comes from the hit Danish drama “Forbrydenlsen.”

It is not intuitively obvious why there should now be so much Nordic noir in our world.  But to be sure there’s lots.  And I think we can see it moving swiftly, from page to big screen to little screen, signs of its ability to command larger audiences.

The question for the Chief Culture Officer and the rest of us: why?  What is it about Nordic noir that makes it appealing.  Why should this cultural form now threaten the standard police procedurals (Law and Order, CSI, etc) that have dominated TV for so long?  What does the rise of Nordic noir tells us about the state of American culture now?

I am not making this an official Minerva competition, but if someone comes up with a dazzlingly good answer, there’s a good chance they will get a statue!  


Chozick, Amy.  2011.  Something’s rotten in Seattle.  Wall Street Journal.  March 25. (subscription required)

18 thoughts on “Law and Order in Peril?

  1. Dennis Nordstrom

    Hi Grant,

    My take on this is that with the current debates going on regarding Obama slowly turning America towards “Socialism”, people have become interested in the “darker side” of states that primarily follow the Socialist welfare model.

    With Scandinavian countries often being used as an example of Socialist states and as examples of welfare models to learn from, I believe that Americans are increasingly interested in digging deeper into what some of the flip-sides of these welfare models are.

    The Economist featured this article today:

    My favorite quote from the article:
    “The countries that the Nordic writers call home are prosperous and organized, a “soft society” according to [Jo] Nesbo [a Norwegian crime novelist]. But the protection offered by a cradle-to-grave welfare system hides a dark underside.”

    As the debate in American Politics has turned towards welfare , Americans have slowly become more interested in the social-realistic stories that Scandinavians have been interested in for decades.

    Scandinavian countries are a “Soft Society”, but that is only one side of the coin. I would argue that the urge to explore that other side of the coin with heavy drinking and random violence is where the main interest for Nordic Noir is coming from.

    1. Grant Post author

      Dennis, beauty, thanks, this approach would also help explain the blood curdling sensibility that comes from female British writers like P.D. James who write from the bosom of a welfare state to give us total human depravity. And yes, they are seem little, likable, white haired, and village dwelling. I sometimes wonder whether they are using ghost writers who really are ghosts. Thanks, Grant

  2. Dennis Nordstrom

    Thanks Grant,

    On a slightly different note, being from Denmark I always thought that “A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks” by Aksel Sandemose was a great example of that dichotomy between Socialist welfare and the suppression of the individual.

    The book also introduces “The Law of Jante”, which is relevant even in today’s Danish society.

    This would be a different exploration of the other side of a welfare society-coin.

    Thanks again,

  3. Indy

    First it’s necessary to note of course that many tropes of Nordic Noir have been in US culture for a long time. In particular it’s hard to ignore the connections with Hannibal Lecter.

    For me, the resonance of Noir (Nordic) at this moment parallels the resonance of Noir (Crime Fiction) in the 1930s.
    Along with that I’d argue it has made the leap to film and now TV more quickly because our culture circulates more quickly than ever.

    The cultural backdrop is a seizure in the economy, old certainties are blown away.
    Where the police procedural does show us (as CSI often does) all the freaky, scary bits of society and the sometimes random violence it generates, it exists to put these elements into a cage, the iron cage of procedure, the triumph of rational society. Industrial/scientific policing finds the killer and puts them away, helping us feel safe and made safe by collective society.

    Noir, both in the 1930s-1950s crime fiction wave and the new appearance of Nordic fiction speaks to a different sensibility, which you point to in the title – Law, but more crucially, Order, in peril. Heroes work outside the system, not within it and parts of the system itself are the enemy. Indeed, at the darkest moments, we are all the enemy.

    I think Dennis catches part of why some of US society has a renewed interest in narratives that speak to the failure and corruption of the system. But I think you can’t ignore the Financial Crisis as a generator of cultural insecurity. Human societies almost all have memes about the monsters that stalk the margins (and the Nordic myths are full of them) – the insecurity says, we here in Middletown may be closer to the margins than we thought.

    All of this is incorporated into the tone, too. CSI started in Las Vegas and that’s no accident. Las Vegas is a liminal space in all sorts of ways. This allows the chaos that the CSI team cage to be distant from most of the viewers. (We don’t live in a gambling capital, we don’t live where the chaos does.) But crucially, it allows the sex and violence to be glossy, neon-lit – a product of excess. CSI mayhem is the excess of a thriving, perhaps too growth and hedonism obsessed society.

    Nordic Noir – transposed to Seattle. Rain and dark green forests. Cold, wet, dank and above all… grey. Grey people, with grey souls (no innocents here). Ordinary lives, no limousines or high rollers. This is society and people going nowhere. Claustrophobic – trapped – and trapped in a precarious position in a society that seems to be ever more static.

    1. Grant Post author

      Indy, and we have a winner! Very nicely done. Please set me your best mailing address to my email account. Thanks! Grant

    1. Grant Post author

      Tom, I never know what to think about these happiness studies. Canadians claim to be happy, but you’ve never met a more miserable lot. I never have. It’s as if people know what they are supposed to say when the clipboard shows up. I guess they allow for posturing. But still I wonder. signed grumpy in CT!

  4. Karen schousboe

    Dearest Amaricain friends
    How sweet that you believe that your interest stems from your need to discover the flip sides of long time socialist countries.
    Just for the record: we have had a rightwinged government for nearly ten years now… Both in sweeden and denmark.

    may not the reason just be that they present you all with a novel formula different from the usual NYPD one? Where evil stalks the countryside and not the dark cities,

    By the way: you guys invented the genre. Remember twin peaks?

    Best rega rds from denmark/ karen

  5. Rick Liebling

    For the purposes of this conversation it may be worthwhile to take a look at this post from the Nordic Noir blog, entitled: The Origins of Nordic Noir, Part I:

    In it the author calls out the assassination of the Swedish prime minister in 1986 (just five years after the assassination attempt on President Reagan) as a major influence on Nordic Noir. So, as the police procedural developed here in response (and was giving additional life by the O.J. trial), the Nordic nations developed noir.

    From that he highlights several key elements:

    1. The Shattered Ideal of Peace and Safety
    2. A New Distrust of Authorities
    3. Endless Coverage of the Murder Investigation

    That sounds a lot like American society right now. Perhaps it’s not that Nordic Noir is all of a sudden appealing to us, but rather that Nordic Noir is holding up a mirror to American society.

    1. Grant Post author

      Rick, excellent, thanks! I wonder if Noir isn’t also a way of saying good bye to American optimism. It’s always been there, but it was so robust in the post war period. It might have failed us some time ago were it not for the digital revolution. Thoughts only. Best, Grant

  6. Megan, blogger

    Hmm, I can think of another example of dark movies/literature from that area: the girl with the dragon tattoo series. Upon first reading it, I was struck by how willing the author was to explore the darker side of humanity, through crime and torture. The movies share this point of view.

    I believe that as entertained as we are by the CSI’s, NYPD’s, and Law and Order’s, we are hungry for something different. At least in this book series, it is intelligent journalists and computer hackers that uncover the corruption found in the governmental systems surrounding them. I think Americans share those feelings of disdain. We are just barely starting a recovery from a recession, and more and more evidence comes out that the government has more interal problems than one would hope for.

  7. Dennis Schleicher

    I like Indy’s insights – especially about grey people, with grey souls.

    I see in “The Killings” which is about 1 murder for the series rather than 3 murders an episode as a trend toward obsessing about individuals. Facebook and other online collections of information about a single person enable greater depth and history about a single person to be excavated to an extent only possible before to CSI resourced professionals.

    Now ordinary “grey” people have access to that information about other ordinary “grey” people.
    The accretion of online tracings of an individual’s behaviors is weighing down the degrees of freedom that people have to reinvent themselves. All the little secrets are now able to be collected, collated, and built into concordances that are checked for authenticity.

    Products and services that do that kind of authenticity check (more

    Organizations must expect their different channels of information to some day come together and be compared/cross-checked. Perhaps organizations before they put new material out might want to see how is “matches” other information that they are putting out so as to be better prepared to answer to those inconsistencies. (An organization puts out 30 second ads from one part and blogs out another part, but to the customer with their aggregators they see it as one, they are starting to see these parts contrasted next to one another – juxtapostioned – and thus the organization finds itself in the heart of a new narrative that they are not planning for nor managing. (See “Interesting” is the new like at

    1. Arvind

      which is, to say, how do we determine whether it’s the rich, culturally descriptive, interpretationally nuanced answer (of the sort we love) or the simpler mimetic/networked communication patterns type of answer (sigh, yes, ‘trends’) that is the right one?

      1. Indy

        I guess in short I’d invoke Mark Earls’ book “Herd” which says that, yes, trends exist, you can take a “phenomenon” and map the spread across the network. BUT the analyses show that almost every “trend” spreads in a different way. And if you want to understand what will spread, or how something may spread, you need to look at the mechanism.

        The mechanism is about how something fits into the culture. And that brings us back to description, interpretation and nuance.

    1. Grant Post author

      Michelle, great post, thanks, I hadn’t thought about this, it’s an excellent point. Grant

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