Sociologists, cultural critics and, no doubt, even theologians have tried to explain why Nordic crime thrillers have become so popular in the English-speaking world and elsewhere.
Crime rates are not normally associated with Scandinavia’s welfare states, which are also widely admired by politicians in New Zealand.
Yet the late Stieg Larssen in Sweden and Jo Nesbo in Norway have become as popular among thriller writers as Elmore Leonard, Patricia Highsmith and PD James.
The Nordic phenomenon first became popular as a TV series — Larssen’s Millennium trilogy was originally made for Swedish TV; Kenneth Branagh’s British-made Wallander, based on the detective created by Henning Mankell, proved a hit and Denmark’s The Killing is being remade in the United States.
Hollywood is now looking to the Nordic writers as a source for feature films, most notably with Larssen’s trilogy, starting with David Fincher’s superb adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Authenticity and identifiable situations seem to be the key. Too many Hollywood thrillers are stacked with stunts and special effects that defy belief. The Nordic thrillers, by contrast, are more grounded in reality without being too ordinary. The stories are recounted in simple and precise terms without the clutter of metaphor and obscure motives.
Experts have pointed to the “soft” features of the welfare state in which social hypocrisy has created new tensions between different levels of society.
Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters (Rialto) is a case in point. It is set among Stockholm’s upper middle class, with classy architecture, designer interiors and characters who are used to globetrotting around Europe.
The “headhunter” of the title refers to the recruitment of top business executives for highly paid positions.
But in the case of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), the job doesn’t bring in as much as the enviable positions he is paid to fill and to which he aspires. So he has a sideline of art theft, a task made easier because his wife (Synnove Macody Lund) runs a gallery.
Brown targets his latest recruiting assignment (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a former elite soldier turned electronics high-flier. He also happens to own an extremely valuable painting.
Naturally, the carefully planned heist goes awry with a speed that leaves you gasping for a break in the action. The title takes on a new meaning as the headhunter becomes the prey.
This is not demanding stuff compared with the other films reviewed this week, and comes with some wry humour, another feature that has made Nordic thrillers so popular.
Restricted audiences over 16; 101 minutes.