Unless you’ve spent the last few years stuck in a troll cave, you will have noticed that Scandinavian crime thrillers have exploded onto the international stage. With the sudden popularity of The Killing, Wallander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo –three thrillers that have seen adaptations in their native countries as well as remakes in the English language- we can no longer dismiss Scandinavia as merely the home of flat-pack furniture, Moomintrolls and cranky, pig-hating birds. Author Jo Nesbø is Norway’s best-selling author of snow-covered crime tales, his novels have been translated into over 40 languages and have shifted over 11 million copies.
With the release of Headhunters and rumours of Martin Scorsese producing an adaptation of his 2007 book The Snowman, it would be a gross understatement to say that Nesbø is the next big thing to come out of the great blonde North: he’s already arrived. In Headhunters, we follow the double-life of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a recruitment executive and part-time art thief who has managed to keep his crimes under wraps despite his suspiciously fake-sounding Anglo-Saxon name. He’s a meticulous worker whose crimes are self-justified by his self doubt, small stature and urgent need to keep his supermodel-grade trophy wife in fine furs. His complicated existence takes a sudden turn for the more complicated when he is introduced to Claes Greve (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a handsome and overqualified recruitment candidate who reveals to Roger that he has a long-lost Rubens painting stashed away in his flat. Unable to turn down such a lucrative target, Brown soon realises what a terrible idea it is to steal from a wealthy ex-special forces soldier who’s kitted up with state-of-the-art tracking technology.
Once the game is afoot, the thrills come quick as Roger evades both Greve and the police. But even as the screws tighten on our tentative ‘hero’, the script remains dry and darkly funny. A tremendous amount of fun is had in creating a lead whose defining characteristic is his need to remain in control and then sending him on an adventure that goes spiraling out of control in the most undignified ways. In some way, Headhunters gets to have its cake and eat it as well: it’s tense and propulsive while remaining consistently playful.
But what is it about the Nordic countries that makes them such a compelling setting for these sorts of dark mysteries and thrillers? Is it the open expanses of land and their long forbidding winters? In Britain these days, you can’t really drive more than an hour in any direction before you bump into a high street that has its own Topshop, and even if you hike into the middle of nowhere, you’re still likely to find a decent signal for your mobile. In most other first world countries, the idea of being physically lost and alone anywhere seems truly foreign. On the strength of Headhunters alone, the idea that we’re going to see much more of the Scandi-Noir genre looks to be quite an exciting prospect.