Nordic Noir 101: 12 Best Books to Get to Know the Genre

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I first stumbled onto Nordic noir through Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film, “Insomnia,” which was a remake of the 1997 Norwegian thriller of the same name. That film’s complex plotting, desolate atmosphere, and morally compromised protagonist immediately hooked me. My next real foray into the subgenre would come a few years later when I picked up a copy of Stieg Larsson’s international bestseller, The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, to see what all the fuss was about and then immediately plowed my way through the remainder of the initial trilogy in the Millennium Series. Like millions of others I was hooked and Nordic noir has maintained a section on my bookshelf ever since.

For fans of crime fiction, Nordic noir represents the bleakest of the bleak, often centering on brutal crimes tinged with shocking violence. The tales invariably feature protagonists who, while possessing a generally ferocious sense of justice, are nonetheless tortured, brooding, and generally introspective. The settings, whether city streets or remote villages, are desolate and harsh. Combine these elements with densely plotted mysteries that often feature more than a few shocking turns and a spartan, direct prose style to accentuate the genre’s dark themes and it is not difficult to see why Nordic noir has been so influential and successful a piece of the crime genre.

The runaway success of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo in many ways kicked the doors open for other booms in fiction from this Northerly part of the world. Though Larsson unfortunately passed away before the publication of his bestselling novels, for fans of his mercurial and damaged heroine, Lisbeth Salander, journalist and author David Lagencrantz has fortunately and gamely stepped up to continue the Millennium Series. The latest, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, is now available. That makes this the perfect time to take look at some of the best from the classics to more recent favorites.

  • The cover of the book The Boy at the Door

    The Boy at the Door

    Cecilia Wilborg seems to have it all: a loving husband, two beautiful daughters, and a gorgeous home in the affluent Norwegian town of Sandefjord. She works hard to keep everything together because she knows that one mistake from her past that could bring it all crashing down. When someone forgets to pick up their little boy at the local pool, Cecilia agrees to take him home, only to find an abandoned, empty house. It’s the first step in the unraveling of her meticulously crafted life, as her world collides with someone who knows her deepest secrets.

  • The cover of the book The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

    The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye

    A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series

    In the fifth installment of the Millennium Series, brilliant hacker and troubled outsider Lisbeth Salander is as close as she’s ever been to unraveling the mysteries of her traumatic childhood. In order to finally do so, she turns to Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the investigative magazine Millennium. The duo soon find themselves in the midst of one of the most dangerous predicaments either has ever faced.

  • The cover of the book Smilla's Sense of Snow

    Smilla's Sense of Snow

    This acclaimed 1992 novel by Peter Hoeg was part of the vanguard of Nordic noir. It centers on Smilla Jaspersen, a scientist specializing in the study of snow, who is drawn into the investigation of the death of her six-year-old neighbor.

  • The cover of the book The Snowman

    The Snowman

    Jo Nesbo may be the current king of Nordic noir and his tortured investigator Harry Hole is one of the genre’s most intriguing protagonists. Hole is a celebrated, if unorthodox, detective and Norway’s leading investigative expert on serial killers. The very limits of his endurance and sanity are tested when he falls into a deadly game of cat and mouse when a missing woman leads him to a pattern of disturbing murders from the last decade. While The Snowman is the eighth Harry Hole novel, it also works as a standalone read and is arguably the point where Nesbo really hits his stride with Hole’s character.

  • The cover of the book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was an instant classic upon publication and stands as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory. Centering on the forty-year-old investigation of a missing person’s case, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a dense and atmospheric read and introduced the world to one of the thriller/crime genre’s most captivating heroines in Lisbeth Salander.

  • The cover of the book The Crow Girl

    The Crow Girl

    This 2016 bestseller focuses on the murder investigation that follows after the body of an abused young boy is discovered in a city park. As Detective Jeanette Kihlberg dives into the case, she is drawn into a deep and complex web of violence and corruption. Originally published as a trilogy in Sweden, The Crow Girl is an intricate and emotionally complex read.

  • The cover of the book The Ice Beneath Her

    The Ice Beneath Her

    A Novel

    The Ice Beneath Her is the American debut of acclaimed Swedish author Camilla Grebe. Taking place in Stockholm, the novel follows a group of investigators unraveling the threads of a brutal murder that is eerily similar to an unsolved killing from a decade previous. It is an ingeniously plotted and twisting thriller.

  • The cover of the book Faceless Killers

    Faceless Killers

    This first installment of the Kurt Wallander series sees the gruff and somewhat misanthropic detective investigating the grisly bludgeoning death of an elderly farmer whose wife was also left to die. It is an excellent introduction to one of Nordic noir’s most iconic characters as well as the style of Henning Mankell, an author often thought of as the dean of Nordic noir.

  • The cover of the book I'm Traveling Alone

    I'm Traveling Alone

    A Novel

    This American debut for Norwegian author Samuel Bjork is a chilling thriller centering on the hunt for a vengeful killer targeting children in disturbing fashion. The novel follows Investigators Holger Munch and Mia Kruger – a brilliant and haunted detective with her own unnerving past – as they delve into a case with increasingly personal implications.

  • The cover of the book The Keeper of Lost Causes

    The Keeper of Lost Causes

    The First Department Q Novel

    With The Keeper of Lost Causes, bestselling author Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces Carl Morck, one of Denmark’s best homicide detectives. Morck is in charge of a growing pile of cold cases, left to him following a career blunder. Though expectations are low for new developments, Morck is drawn into one particular case centering on a missing politician presumed dead but who may be, for the moment at least, anything but.

  • The cover of the book Roseanna


    A Martin Beck Police Mystery (1)

    This one is a true classic that heralded the Nordic noir genre. Originally published in 1965, Roseanna is the first of the Martin Beck Police Mysteries and inspired an entire generation of writers. It follows beleaguered detective Martin Beck as he investigates the mysterious death of a young woman who appears to have been strangled and tossed overboard during a cruise. In a lot of ways, it laid the template for what has come to be known as Nordic noir.

  • The cover of the book The Thirst

    The Thirst

    A Harry Hole Novel

    In this Jo Nesbo thriller, Inspector Harry Hole joins the force one last time to hunt down a crazed serial murderer who finds his victims on Tinder. Harry must piece together the clues to find the killer before it’s too late. Packed with riveting twists and turns, this novel will keep every reader on edge until the very last page.