Arts and Entertainment

The Mysterious Affair of the Consulting Detective

The genre of Nordic Noir is told from the perspective of a consulting detective.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Cover Image
By Ka Seng Soo

It happens each winter. It’s almost like a ritual: the air turning colder; the water on the roads beginning to freeze; the children scampering past half-made snowmen back into their homes before dusk.

At the station, the police begin to tire. A snowstorm is fast approaching, and the temperature drops to the point when breath turns to ice. There will be no more cases, they think. We can retire to our homes and spend the wintry days uninterrupted.

Yet as they venture back into their homes, all warm and comfortable, two storms rage outside. One of them is nature, in all its grand and vile capacity. The other rages quietly, its movements almost invisible under the howling wind.

A few dots of crimson mar the searing white, and footprints tread the snow. Their tracks form in a military-esque rhythm, boots digging sharply into snow. The red spots trickle deep into the earth and stain it with a metallic bitterness.

The storm continues to rage. It covers up the tracks, the spots, the evidence.

It’s only after the storm that the police find it.


The police are perplexed.

After the storm, they find the footprints and red spots outside. The tracks stop abruptly, however, and the rest of the snow is pristine clean.

The police call a consulting detective to help them with the case. Or, to be more precise, they call a detective who insists on being addressed as the “consulting detective.”

This particular consulting detective prefers to investigate alone. Subsequently, the police are also left alone.

Well, not exactly. They’re left with some assignments.

“Enjoy,” the consulting detective says. “These are some crime novels you should read—it’s Nordic Noir, to be precise. They’re all written in simple prose. Short, blunt sentences. None of that flimsy poetic stuff.”

The police nod. Half-heartedly, of course.

“And something else you should know,” the consulting detective adds. “The authors like to jump from scene to scene quickly. They like short, crisp chapters. Military-style, if you will.”

The consulting detective pauses and looks outside. The storm is starting to pick up again.

“And the settings are bleak,” the consulting detective continues. “The mood’s melancholy; the atmosphere’s gritty. These cases are often vicious. They shine light on some of the darkest parts of humanity. Violent crime, or political corruption, to name a few. And the characters often wrestle with their own inner demons. They themselves are morally questionable.”

Some of the police nod again. Others have already dozed off.

“I hope you find them interesting,” the consulting detective says. “Do occupy yourselves with something productive while I solve this case, and I encourage you to take a look at the reviews I’ve written inside them.”


“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

This is the type of novel that everyone had at some point, like “Harry Potter.” Soccer moms had a copy. Your teachers had a copy. Even the shoddiest of the shoddy novel stores had a copy.

After Larsson died of a sudden heart attack, the novel was posthumously published in 2005. It follows Mikael Blomkvist, the disgraced financial journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, the punk-haired, tattooed hacker, as they investigate the 40-year-old murder of Harriet Vanger, the niece of the wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger. Vanger’s family is old, filthy rich, and rife with secrets.

The prose is a bit questionable—most likely due to the hurried translation—but nonetheless enticing. Interestingly enough, Larsson himself was a journalist; his research covered socialist politics and right-wing extremism. These themes are reflected through the novel, from Nazism to global financial fraud.

The overarching theme, however, is quite literally “Män som hatar kvinnor” (Men Who Hate Women), which was the novel’s original Swedish title. Larsson’s intentions with the novel, however, are up to interpretation. Many of the crimes in the novel are unspeakable, including scenes of often overly gratuitous rape, assault, and abuse. You could argue that this is the point for a professed activist like Larsson: to bring it out into the open, to prevent it from happening again. Yet Larsson seems to want it both ways. He condemns such savagery, yet simultaneously exploits it in such graphic detail for storytelling purposes.

Despite Larsson’s intentions, his novel introduces the Nordic Noir genre to Western audiences in a memorable way. Give it a skim; give it a read; it’s worth your time.

“Roseanna” by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Widely considered a classic in the Nordic Noir genre, “Roseanna” laid the ground for many of its successors. First published in 1965, the novel’s set in an era when there are no DNA samples, the Internet, or mobile phones.

A young woman is found dead in the Göta Canal. With little evidence, the protagonist detective Martin Beck begins an investigation to not only catch the killer, but also crack the enigma of the victim, “Roseanna.”

There’s something charming about the meticulous detail in which Beck and his team investigate. While the novel is at times dense and overly thorough, its deliberate approach enriches the readers’ belief in the authenticity of an investigation. The entire novel follows the process it takes to solve a crime, then builds with a slow burn that adds to the realism and believability of the story.

The novel is also noteworthy for its existential edge. There’s a melancholy questioning that spans every page: what is the limit to the terrible things a human can do? Where is the line, really, between the detective who thinks like a murderer to crack the case, and the murderer who thinks like a detective to avoid being caught?

“Roseanna” has a timeless air to it. If that’s something you’re interested in, dive in straight away.

“The Sandman” by Lars Kepler

This novel is an experience that can’t be matched by many others. The plot takes on a tight, staccato pace, and the majority of its chapters are under two pages. The phrasing is almost rudely blunt, but it works. Kepler delivers a perpetual, paralyzing fright that dares you to put it down, but you can’t, leaving the events from the story running through your mind without end.

The novel follows the story of Mikael Kohler-Frost, who has been missing and presumed dead for 13 years. He staggers out from the Swedish countryside, babbling that he’s escaped from a person he calls the Sandman and that his sister Felicia is there, captive but still alive. The detective Jonna Linna, who interrogates Mikael, is stumped. Jurek Walter, the criminal who is convicted of the presumed deaths of Mikael and Felicia, has been locked up in a psychiatric ward under heavy security.

So who is the Sandman? Linna—along with his colleague Saga Bauer, who questions Walter—seek out this figure and Felicia before it’s too late.

“The Sandman” delivers a terrifying spin on the Nordic Noir genre. If you want to clutch a book between white knuckles and feel the hairs on the back of your neck rise, this is the one to go for.


The consulting detective has cracked the case.

“It was really quite simple,” the consulting detective explained. “The tracks were from an animal—probably a fox—and the blood was most likely from a bunny. Poor bunny. And the snow spread out unevenly, which is why the tracks stopped.”

The police buy it. They want to go back home. Back to safety, to shelter, and to comfort.

The consulting detective smiles. They walk out of the station, back into the darkened snow.