Nordic Noir

In a short essay, Karina van Dalen-Oskam describes some aspects of naming in fiction. She lists some of the questions that the Namescape project may help to answer. The Dutch version of the essay was published on entitled Nordic Noir: waar komt commissaris Van Veeteren vandaan?

Nordic Noir: a background check on Inspector Van Veeteren

I do not read crime novels, generally. I happen to read and enjoy novels of all kinds, including science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, and gothic novels. But not detective stories, whodunnits, crime novels, or whatever they are called. So how did I end up with Inspector Van Veeteren, the protagonist of a series of crime novels written by the Swedish author Håkan Nesser?

In a paper in the recently published volume Understanding digital humanities, N. Katherine Hayles refers to a calculation done by Gregory Crane, who states that the maximum amount of books someone could possibly read during his or her whole lifetime is 25,000 –  provided they would read one book every day from the age of fifteen  up to the age of eighty-five (Hayles 2012: 45). Should this highly-driven reader only read ‘literary’ works, he or she will never get a proper idea of what makes these books different from ‘normal’ works (Hayles 2012: 46). However, it was not this statement that made me turn to two novels featuring Inspector Van Veeteren – Kommissarien och tystnaden, in Laurie Thompson’s English translation The Inspector and Silence, and Det grovmaskiga nätet,in Clementine Luijten’s Dutch translation Het grofmazige net.  It happened like this.

In October 2011, I was a guest of The Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences of Uppsala in Sweden, together with seven other European name scholars. We all delivered a paper on the topic of personal names in a European context. My own presentation dealt with personal names in novels and was the only one with a literary (instead of a linguistic or historic) approach. While saying our goodbyes, a Swedish name scholar told me almost as an aside that an author of crime novels living in Uppsala had published several novels featuring an inspector with a very Dutch-sounding name: Van Veeteren. His books also contained some (fictional) geographical names with a Dutch appearance. The author, Håkan Nesser, had a certain international reputation (which later proved to be a big understatement), so his work was available in English translation and perhaps also in Dutch. If I was interested, I should look for a copy at the airport later on.

This spiked my curiosity and, consequently, at Arlanda Airport I bought Nesser’s The Inspector and Silence. Back in The Netherlands, I also purchased the Dutch translation of the same book, De commissaris en het zwijgen, and another Dutch title, Het grofmazige net. And here he was: the highly opinionated Inspector Van Veeteren, with his sharp intuition for all things criminal. Respected as a police officer, though not sought after as a friend. His colleagues bear names such as Reinhart, Mahler, Münster, Klempje, Kluuge. Other characters have names such as Kathrine, Marieke, Yellinek, Fingher, Andrej Przebuda, Vera Saarpe, Eva Ringmar, Lotte Kretschmer, Puttemans, Suurna and Rüger. So yes, we do see the occasional Dutch-looking name, but they are more the exception than the rule. Then the geographical locations: Maardam, where Van Veeteren is located, Sorbinowo, Aarlach, Chadow, Leuwen. Fictional placenames, which, like the personal names, sound alternatively Dutch, German, Polish and Scandinavian.

Van Veeteren’s area of action is large – a  300-kilometre drive to question someone is no exception, without any national borders being crossed. Where this area with woods, seashore, polders and channels is to be located, can only be established indirectly. It clearly is in Europe (Nesser 2010: 251), not in the United Kingdom (236), nor in France (252), and probably also not in Denmark (105-106). Still, Van Veeteren does live in the ‘real’ world. Phone calls are being made with Australia, people return to Europe from Canada or New York, and holidays on the Maldives are being planned.

These names lead to all kinds of questions. Is my Swedish informer the only reader who links the name Van Veeteren to a Dutch background? Is it an existing Dutch family name? Are the connotations of a particular name the same for Swedish, German, English and Dutch readers, or do they differ? (For instance, do Swedes call a certain name Dutch which Englishmen would call German and Germans in their turn would assume to be Swedish?) What is the function of the fictional place names? Do they distract the reader’s attention away from the story, or do they make it easier to focus on the case at hand? Is it exceptional that a crime novel is situated in a non-existing city or area?

Barry Forshaw’s recently published book Death in a Cold Climate. A Guide To Scandinavian Crime Fiction (Forshaw 2012) provided me with some of the answers. It presents an overview of the books currently produced in crime fiction in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark, and describes how the popularity of the genre helps to diminish the British fear of publishing translated novels. Nordic Noir, as Forshaw sometimes calls it, is a hype in the English-speaking areas of the world. And Håkan Nesser has a big role in it. Forshaw, and the translators quoted by him, repeatedly praise Nesser, for his exceptionally subtle literary style, which happens to make his work more difficult to translate. Nesser is also said to have created, in Inspector Van Veeteren, a character who plays a significant role in the history of famous European fictional detectives.

More than once, the fictionality of the landscape in Nesser’s Van Veeteren series is emphasized (Forshaw 2012: 29, 69). This means that translators of Nesser’s work do not need to visit the area before being able to describe it correctly in their translation – a type of research most of the quoted translators would normally regard as essential. Another advantage is that the names of ranks in the police force need no special research in order to be translated into English (Forshaw 2012: 30). Forshaw’s book does not, however, pay attention to the role of the geographical vagueness in Nesser’s novels, nor to what its effects are on the reader.

In my opinion, it would be useful to examine this further, and to set up empirical research in which readers are asked to react to different kinds of geographical descriptions in an experimental setting, to find out how they deal with this kind of vagueness. The repeated reference to Nesser’s geographical vagueness in Forshaw’s book does give me the impression that it is relatively uncommon. To quote translator Charlotte Barslund: ‘Not all novels are set in real locations. Karin Fossum, for example, sets her books in a fictitious town half an hour’s drive from Oslo’ (Forshaw 2012: 100). In the future, this impression may become verifiable when we are able to search a large corpus of novels, including a lot of crime novels (both Nordic and non-Nordic), in order to establish the role of real and fictional place names.

Whether the name Van Veeteren is Dutch or not was easy to check in the online database of Dutch family names (transferred from the Meertens Institute to the Central Bureau for Genealogy as of 1 January 2012). It contains no entries that come close to the form ‘Van Veeteren’. Closest is a family name from Belgium and the North of France as found in Debrabandere (2003: 1318): Van Vetteren, a spelling variant of Van Wetteren, referring to the place name Wetteren in the Belgian province of East Flanders. Forshaw’s book is of help in this area as well. Translator Laurie Thompson illustrates the literary demands of Nesser’s style as follows:

A typical Nesser linguistic joke is the very name of his main detective, Van Veeteren: there is a Swedish curse: ‘Fan vet!’ or ‘Det vete Fan!’, roughly ‘the devil only knows’, although ‘fan’ is a stronger curse in Swedish than in English. And although ‘vetare’ is not really a Swedish word in itself, it is tagged on to the end of words like ‘kultur’ to form ‘kulturvetare/n’, i.e. one who knows about culture, usually somebody with a degree in a cultural subject: and so ‘Fanvetaren’ (…) could be interpreted as meaning ‘somebody who knows about the devil’! Unfortunately it’s not something that can be translated into English − without changing the name, which would not be a good idea. But using the ‘compensation’ trick one can invent similar plays on words occasionally. (Forshaw 2012: 32)

My Swedish informer, whom I asked to have a look at this quote, confirms that ‘fan vet’ or ‘det vete fan’ must have been the basis for the name Van Veeteren. He emphasizes, however, that this association will not be obvious to the Swedish general reader if it is not explicitly pointed out. ‘For a Swedish reader the name just sounds Dutch in general.’ My conclusion would have to be that for the happy few the name Van Veeteren may perhaps highlight the sharp intuition of the inspector for everything criminal, but that for the general audience the ‘Dutchness’ of the name is prevalent. Only very few readers will think that Van Veeteren isn’t from the Low Countries, but from Hell.


Karina van Dalen-Oskam

Many thanks to Staffan Fridell, Professor in Scandinavian languages at Uppsala University.

Also thanks to Boukje Verheij, for her help with the English version of the text.



Berry 2012 − David M. Berry (Ed.): Understanding digital humanities. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Debrabandere 2003 − Dr. Frans Debrabandere, Woordenboek van de familienamen in België en Noord-Frankrijk. Grondig herziene en vermeerderde uitgave met medewerking van dr. Peter De Baets. Amsterdam/Antwerpen: L.J. Veen, 2003

Forshaw 2012 − Barry Forshaw: Death in a cold climate. A guide to Scandinavian crime fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012

Hayles 2012 − N. Katherine Hayles: ‘How we think: transforming power and digital technologies’. In: Berry 2012, p. 42-66

De Nederlandse Familienamenbank, Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie, (accessed 9 April 2012)

Nesser 2009 − Håkan Nesser: De commissaris en het zwijgen. Vertaald uit het Zweeds door Edith Sybesma. Breda: De Geus, 3e druk, 2009 (Vertaling: 2004 Zweedse origineel: 1997)

Nesser 2010 − Håkan Nesser: Het grofmazige net. Uit het Zweeds vertaald door Clementine Luijten. Breda: De Geus, 6e druk, 2010. (Vertaling: 2001; Zweedse origineel: 1993)

Nesser 2011 − Håkan Nesser: The inspector and silence. Translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson. London: Pan Books, 2011 (Translation: 2010; Swedish original: 1997)

2 thoughts on “Nordic Noir

  1. Very interesting, Karina.

    Just a couple of comments.

    First, the hype about Nesser has penetrated to the Brooklyn Public Library, my home library. They have Mind’s Eye and The Inspector and Silence as e-books, and as audio books, and also Woman with Birthmark and Borkmann’s Point as audio books, but all have waiting lists.

    Second, my own first response to your question about the vague setting is that it is indeed unusual for crime fiction. I read quite a few mysteries, and most of them, especially the series, seem to be set in real places (though often local places are fictionalized), and some of the best and most successful mystery authors include their settings almost as characters. Dick Francis writes about the English racing scene, and you visit the Jockey Club and the various race tracks in many of his books. Sara Paretsky’s novels are set importantly in Chicago. Raymond Chandler’s books would change radically if moved out of California, as would those by Tony Hillerman, to whom Native Americans and New Mexico are crucial. Dona Leone’s Italian setting, along with the often corrupt local police is crucial to her success. Robert B. Parker’s hugely successful Spenser series usually concentrates in important ways on the Boston area.

    My wife, Danise, a librarian and avid mystery novel reader agrees with this basic view, suggesting that mysteries usually require a kind of realism, and often need to interact with local law enforcement in ways that require realism, so Nesser’s avoidance must be unusual. She also points out that there are lists of mysteries classified by setting: San Fransisco mysteries, Seattle, New Jersey, etc. Finally, she notes that even in mysteries that are somewhat fantastic, such as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, the locale, while not the real world of the 1980′s bears some resemblance to it, and has its own well-specified, if fantastic, reality, with the well of lost plots, the Goliath corporation, the literature detective squad, etc.

    As you say, more research is needed. My own will begin when I get the Nesser novel I’ve placed on hold.

  2. I note also that the blurb for The Inspector and Silence claims Sweden as the setting:


    It’s a sweltering summer in Sweden and Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is long overdue for a holiday when a secretive and dubious religious sect comes under investigation. One of its members, a girl on the cusp of adolescence, is found dead in the forest near their holiday camp, brutally raped and strangled; the discovery of her body has been phoned in by an anonymous caller.