Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: BBC Four, Sundance Now/Viaplay/Everett Collection, Netflix
This article was originally published February 28, 2022. It has been updated to include additional series.
If you’re a fan of mysteries and are looking for something to sink your teeth into that provides not only twists and turns but also allows you to travel to atmospheric locales, you might want to escape into the world of Nordic noir.
The genre is known for cerebral, complex murder-mystery plots that are often entwined with political corruption, understated performances, and subtle, efficient writing, which packs an emotional punch. There aren’t a lot of car chases, explosions, or fight scenes. The violence is often more psychological in nature, which makes it even more haunting.
The scenery is just as captivating as the storytelling: Think snowcapped mountains, sweeping aerial shots of frozen fjords, pristine snowy forests, and ice shards floating in dark rivers. The sort of places where you’ll find a frozen body, a blizzard complicating an investigation, or snow covering up footprints.
This style has heavily influenced mystery fans globally, as several series have been adapted in both the U.K. and the U.S. Recently, Brit Marling’s Gen Z–meets–Agatha Christie mystery series A Murder at the End of the World, set in Iceland, provided thrilling shots of the Fljot Valley. And in True Detective: Night Country, the latest season of the HBO anthology thriller, a fictional remote town in Alaska stands in for Iceland.
Now might be the perfect time to jump right into the genre. Come on in, the water’s frozen solid.
While The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher’s movie based on the best-selling books by Swedish author Stieg Larsson, catapulted Nordic noir into the Zeitgeist, the series that set the blueprint for television was Denmark’s The Killing. Veteran detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) is getting ready to retire and relocate to a quieter life in Sweden when she’s snarled into a case involving a missing teenager, later found murdered. The investigation reveals a connection to a powerful politician’s inner circle, with the influence to cover things up. Set in dreary Copenhagen with a cast of characters who all could be suspects, there are red herrings galore. The tight pacing and cliff-hangers will keep you guessing to the very last moment. (An American remake, centered in the moody, rainy Pacific Northwest, starred Mireille Enos.) The Danish version was never available to stream until last summer, when Topic got exclusive rights.
Another Nordic hit that was remade in the U.S., The Bridge is shot between Malmo, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark. When a body is found on the bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen, Swedish detective Saga Norén (Sofia Helin) — who is socially awkward and emotionally distant — is paired with a Danish detective to solve the case. Saga’s lack of emotion allows her to focus solely on details in a logical, no-frills manner. That style has its disadvantages — she often seems dismissive and unsympathetic to people experiencing sadness or grief. In the first two seasons, her partner Martin (Kim Bodnia) served as a buffer and became one of the few people who actually understood her. (He was replaced by new partner Henrik Sabroe in seasons three and four, who helps Saga discover she truly does have feelings.) The scenes of the Malmo bridge enshrouded by fog and the performances by the cast, especially Helin, are the standouts here.
The longest-running series in Sweden isn’t a true noir — it’s more of a police procedural — but it’s such a classic thriller we had to include it. Peter Haber plays Martin Beck, a middle-aged, world-weary cop who suffered a great tragedy early in his career. He’s paired with the dashing but volatile Gunvald Larsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt, who is also Jakob in Netflix’s Sex Education) and a host of ambitious cops, corrupt bureaucrats, and criminals. There are snowy scenes galore as well as a great glimpse of multiple neighborhoods in Stockholm and its surrounds. A highlight is Beck’s relationship with his quirky, neck-brace-wearing next-door neighbor, Grannen, with whom he often shares a drink at the end of the day and regales with tales that may or may not be true.
In season one, detective Sofia Karppi (Pihla Viitala) returns to chilly Helsinki from Hamburg, Germany, two months after the unexpected death of her husband. She is faced with a new, inexperienced (but not at all unattractive) partner named Nurmi (played with anguished restraint by Lauri Tilkanen) and the murder of a woman linked to a high-profile development company. As she gets deeper into the case, she forms an unlikely bond with Nurmi, who has demons of his own, and finds a web of adultery and political corruption. Set against the muted palette of harsh winter months, Viitala plays the part of a newly widowed single parent who chooses to throw herself into work as a way to cope with her loss. But the star of the show is the complicated relationship between Karppi and Nurmi, which starts with animosity and develops into something achingly deep — perhaps even love — over time. Season three premiered in Finland this past fall, so it should hit U.S. screens any day now.
Deadwind is streaming on Netflix.
The weather is a character in Trapped. Season one features blizzard conditions resulting in an avalanche, keeping the townspeople trapped (hence the title) and forcing the small police squad to fend for itself when reinforcements from Reykjavik aren’t able to reach town. The brutal Arctic tundra, rare glimpses of sunlight, and eccentric small-town characters are the draw here. Olafur Darri Olafsson plays the rumpled, newly divorced detective Andri, while Ilmumur Kristjansdottir plays his sour-faced and sardonic partner Hinrika. Entrapped, a “series sequel” with the same cast, is less snowy but has sweeping shots of Iceland’s desolate volcanic cliffs that will still give you a chill.
Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, who also has a small but important role in Trapped, stars as Detective Katrin “Kata” Gunnarsdottir, a tough, no-shit-taking star on the Reykjavik police force. Snubbed for a deserved promotion, she seethes through an investigation of a series of ritual murders that are connected to a school for troubled boys on the outskirts of the city and struggles to connect with her new, Oslo-based colleague. Filippusdóttir’s woman-on-the-edge portrayal of Kata is gripping, but the scene-stealer is her partner, Arnar (Björn Thors), a man racked with secrets and shame. The outdoor shots are amazing, too, from Kata’s routine of swimming laps outside in a pool surrounded by snow to aerial scenes of lonely country highways that cut through snowbanks like gray snakes.
This very topical political thriller with an ensemble cast is set in the “near future” where the U.S. is no longer dependent on foreign oil and the E.U. is in an energy crisis. Russia “softly” invades Norway by taking over its oil production and begins to install a shadow government that controls the country. The show is set in numerous locations throughout Norway (and Lithuania, subbing in for Russia), from the brutalist architecture of Oslo to quaint villages in the Norwegian countryside. The writing and character development on this show is stellar, especially as the characters wrestle with the conflict of “choosing” to resist the Russians or embrace them out of necessity. The most sinister part about this well-crafted series is how eerily plausible it all feels.
Forever stomping through snow, William Wisting (Sven Nordin) is the epitome of a stoic, weatherworn Scandinavian. Still grappling with his new life as a widower and trying to connect with his grown children, he becomes embroiled in a case involving an American serial killer hiding in Norway. Wisting teams up with FBI agents (including one played by The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss) sent from the U.S. to track the killer down. The case complicates his life on many levels, especially as his daughter is covering the case for a newspaper and finds herself in danger. This show is a bit faster paced and more action packed than others on this list — it’s known as the most expensive show ever made in Norway – but still feels more Nordic than Hollywood.
Set in the remote, windswept islands of Scotland, where the elements are so harsh there are no trees, the first seven seasons revolve around Detective Jimmy Perez, a lonely and oft-exasperated widower played by Douglas Henshall. With the help of a scrappy team and his beloved second-in-command, Alison “Tosh” McIntosh (Alison O’Donnell), Perez solves crime on Shetland from his home base in Lerwick while struggling with life in an isolated small town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Henshall departed after season seven, but the show restructured without missing a beat with a female lead in Ashley Jensen as DI Ruth Calder. The recent eighth season stayed true to the show’s knack for red herrings and smart humor. Shetland is based on the mystery series by Anne Cleeves and is a sister show to the U.K.’s long-running series Vera.
Another oldie but goodie, This award-winning French-Canadian series was recently acquired by Netflix. It features two beat cops who are assigned to be partners but can barely tolerate each other. Nick Beroff is mourning his former partner, who was shot on duty and might have some underworld ties, while his partner, Ben Chartier, is known as a by-the-book “Boy Scout.” Yet over time, they develop a deep loyalty — not to be mistaken for a friendship. This series spans beyond winter, but there is still a lot of parka-wearing, boot stomping, and visible-breath scenes of Montreal in the snow. The humor and camaraderie of this fictional precinct is also a real treat.
An all-star international cast (including Stanley Tucci, Sofie Gråbøl, and Sir Michael Gambon) brings this gripping show to life. Fortitude is a small, isolated Arctic town, known as the “safest place on earth,” where you can watch the northern lights and the wonders of the wild. (And it’s never not snowing.) But when a research scientist is found murdered, it suddenly isn’t so safe after all. While this is a Nordic-style slow burn and touches on many real issues — crime, climate change, class structure, corporate greed — it also incorporates supernatural elements that provide a number of jump-out-of-your-seat moments.
This Quebec-based thriller stars Isabel Richer as the keen DS Céline Trudeau who acts on intuition and often independently — to the chagrin of her colleagues — but is given leeway by top brass for delivering results. Her character is refreshingly uninhibited, easily seducing a fellow cop 20 years her junior early in the series. The first season finds Trudeau working the complicated murder of a stripper in a mining town buried in snow and secrets. The second season is based in and around the famous Château Frontenac hotel in Quebec City, while the third is a solid mystery, but a warmer one, set in the countryside in spring.
Brand new to Netflix, this detective series is set in the Tatras Mountains of Poland (and the show reminds you by noting the sea level in each scene) and features a free-wheeling investigator who isn’t, shall we say, a team player and might also be a drug addict. Borys Szyc’s plays Detective Forst, who is fired from a high-profile ritualistic-murder case and seeks to solve it offline with the help of an intrepid journalist. The scenes of the Alps-like region are gorgeous, featuring tall pine trees and snowcapped slopes. The story is rife with twists and turns and Austin Powers–like villains, including an eyepatch-wearing former Nazi who lives in a lair at the top of a mountain. Forst’s rugged-man good looks and romantic entanglements provide some heat in the chilly atmosphere. The series is based on the popular Detective Forst novels in Poland, so it’s very possible future seasons are on the horizon.