Nordic Noir – a criminological critique

Professors Keith Hayward and Steve Hall. Photos: Private.

In this short blogpost, Professors Keith Hayward (Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and Steve Hall (formerly of the University of Northumbria and the University of Teesside, UK)contextualise and reflect on their 2020 article ‘Through Scandinavia, darkly: a criminological critique of Nordic Noir’, which appeared in Volume 61 of the British Journal of Criminology.

In the four years since the publication of Kajsa Norman’s “Sweden’s Dark Soul” (2018), the nation has undergone a political shift in keeping with her analysis. In November 2021, Swedish finance minister Magdalena Andersson delivered her maiden speech. The Prime Minister elect accused the country’s two million-plus immigrants of refusing to integrate properly and hiking up the crime rate, especially violent and sexual crimes. Her speech, a rhetorical attack more typical of the nativist Sweden Democrats, shocked the Social Democratic Party faithful. Andersson took office on 30th November this year. We await her policies, which will possibly align with most Swedish politicians’ acceptance of the fact that the interventions of Sweden’s undoubtedly benevolent state have failed to solve the cultural and socio-economic problems that followed in the wake of mass immigration from the East. All major parties are now calling for restrictions on immigration.

Norman’s book and Andersson’s speech were not empty rhetoric. A report published by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, 2021, saw Sweden – which at the turn of the millennium boasted one of the lowest rates of murder and gun violence in Europe – vying with Croatia and Latvia for pole position. Criminal gangs operating in socially disadvantaged locales were responsible for eighty percent of murder and high-harm violence. Young male Afghani immigrants’ involvement in sexual molestation caused a public outcry, spearheaded by Swedish feminists. Norman’s book reminded us that the benevolence of the Folkhemmet that sustains such pride in Sweden demands integration and conformity in return, a crucial trade-off now reflected in recent political reaction.

However, benevolence ain’t wot it used to be. In the immediate post-war era, Sweden, under the intellectual leadership of Ernst Wigforss and others, implemented Keynesian policies of capital controls and demand stimulus to sustain full employment. The political elite of the time seemed to be aware that the redoubtable welfare state can be a supporting measure but not a substitute for a functioning socio-economic system. In the neoliberal era that followed the abandonment of the Bretton-Woods agreement and the oil shock of the early 1970s, it is no longer possible to strike the social contract down in the engine-room of the economy. Immigrants are offered the same as longer-settled citizens – believe, conform and behave to guarantee your welcome, but find your own feet in an increasingly unstable and competitive economy reliant mainly on low-paid insecure jobs in the service sector. For a long time we have argued that it’s far easier to strike integrative socio-cultural bargains in a stable economy that provides opportunities for decent livelihoods (e.g., Winlow and Hall, 2013), but we have been accused of economic determinism by a social scientific establishment now reduced to a subservient branch of cultural and media studies.

Our work on the recent representational shifts in the celebrated ‘Nordic Noir’ crime genre (see e.g. Hansen and Waade, 2017; Forshaw, 2013) gives us a detailed insight into how Sweden’s politico-economic failure is being perceived by the Nordic region’s politico-cultural elite, if not necessarily by the population at large. In the immediate post-war era, the messages in these crime dramas maintained an unshakeable faith in the continuation of post-war policies. In the latter decades of the 20th century, Nordic Noir drifted through a phase of stark descriptive realism as neoliberalism’s destructive effects became ever more difficult to deny. However, the genre retained its faith in the welfare state, even though by then it had been disempowered and detached from neoliberalism’s unforgiving global economy, increasingly hostile geopolitical relations, and looming climate disaster. The lurch into descriptive realism was reactive and cultural rather than thoughtful and political. Our Lacanian-inspired analysis shows that from the turn of the millennium the genre underwent a decline from symbolic efficiency into the murky realm of symbolic inefficiency. During the social democratic era when politics guided the economy, Sweden’s real social problems could be represented culturally and addressed politically with at least some degree of clarity and precision. When democratic sovereign control was lost as Sweden sacrificed itself along with so many other nations to the accountant’s logic that governs neoliberalism’s global market, social problems began to increase in both volume and severity, while the democratic political means to deal with them had been forfeited. Subsequently, the causes of social disruption and crime represented by the Nordic Noir genre were syphoned up into the transcendental realm of culture, moving through layers of misogyny, racism, corruption and far-right misrepresentation and reaction, gradually losing their symbolic efficiency and becoming less convincing along the way. More recently, some of the genre’s writers began to draw upon fantasies such as the regeneration of Nazi cults in remote hotels or the anger of ancient woodland Gods, more suited to Marvel comic-books than politically informed (“realist”) commentary.

This degenerative movement in art away from reality to the realm of the pure imaginary is, of course, the cultural signification of willful political failure and ensuing economic decline met with denial and inevitable atavistic reaction. The Social Democrats’ worrying shift into such reaction is the product of its failure to resist neoliberalism’s wholesale destruction of political sovereignty and the practical means of economic management. Perhaps Nordic Noir will move into yet another phase as it attempts to represent a future in which headless authoritarianism grown monstrous in its peripheral cage, not because of some timeless tribalist urge but because democratic governance, cowering in the shadow of global investors, currency speculators and credit rating agencies, dares not address fundamental issues.


FORSHAW, B. (2013). Nordic Noir, Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

HANSEN, K.T. and WAADE, A.M. (2017). Locating Nordic Noir, Palgrave.

NORMAN, K. (2018). Sweden’s Dark Soul, London: Hurst.

WINLOW, S. and HALL, S. (2013). Rethinking Social Exclusion, London: Sage.