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Bloody Easter: the origins of Norwegian holiday crime fiction

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Bloody Easter: the origins of Norwegian holiday crime fiction
Composite: Supplied image of book cover; File photo/Halvard Alvik/SCANPIX
11:04 CEST+02:00
Whodunit? Guest columnist Glenn Folkvord explains Norwegians’ obsession with crime fiction – and why the genre is an Easter favourite.

They extend winter, invented modern crime fiction, and celebrate Easter by reading about murder. Who? The Norwegians, of course.

One would think that after a long, dark and bitter winter, Norwegians would welcome spring, sun and the promise of summer.

That is probably true for the cold-challenged, but many Norwegians choose to extend the winter by spending the Easter holiday in their mountain log cabins, armed with mutton, eggs and chocolate wafers.

However, one more ingredient is needed to really get into the spirit. To some it is the highlight of the holiday. Murder. Preferably many of them, safely experienced between two book covers. Between shovelling snow or skiing on it, Easter for Norwegians means wallowing in crime fiction. In Norway, you can't avoid it that one week of the year.

TV bursts with high profile British mystery shows. On the radio, NRK has produced radio plays. Your newspaper's weekend supplement has probably commissioned a crime short story and interviewed an expert on why Norwegians read Easter crime fiction, or "påskekrim". Want milk? Not without spotting the crime cartoon on the cartons.

And then there was the bakery that asked its Facebook followers to find out who had stolen their cupcakes. A fictional cupcake kidnapping case, because what is Easter without crime everywhere the word can be typed?

READ ALSO: Norway for bookworms: A short travel guide for literature lovers

The classic media for Easter crime is soft cover paperbacks, a practical format with their small size and weight, suitable for backpacks and suitcases. You can buy them at gas stations and local convenience stores on your way to your holiday destination. More than half the population travel somewhere during the Easter week.

All subgenres of crime and thrillers are read, but classic whodunits and slow paced "cosy crime" are the traditional choices. You don't even have to cave in to the publishers' suggestions, as nobody flinches if you bring a stack of old dog-eared flea market finds.

The reading of crime fiction during Easter is believed to be a tradition unique to Norway. The seed of the Easter crime phenomenon can be attributed to a specific day in history, because it was a book publisher's marketing ploy that started it all.

On March 24th, 1923 (the day before Palm Sunday), Oslo newspaper Aftenposten printed the headline "The train to Bergen was robbed last night" across the front page. The news spread like a free money rumour. In reality, there was no headline.

What Aftenposten had printed was in fact an ad for a novel of the same name, but few picked up on the small disclaimer printed next to it. "Bergenstoget plyndret i nat" was written by Jonathan Jerv, or Jonathan Wolverine, an alias for two students, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie. Both born in Bergen on Norway's west coast. Grieg went on to be one of Norway's most prominent authors in the 1920s and 30s, while Lie would become a major figure in publishing.


The Aftenposten front page that is thought to have sparked Norway's love for Easter crime fiction.

However, it is widely regarded that it was the publisher Gyldendal's director Harald Grieg, Nordahl's brother, who was responsible for making the book a best seller. 15 years before Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio drama caused panic because of its simulated news, Harald Grieg achieved the same effect by employing the method known today as clickbait. When word got out that the robbery only took place in a book, readers rushed to the book stores.

Harald Grieg did probably not intend to create a specific and lasting tradition. Granted, he wanted to sell books, but even though he realised that selling light literature in March and April was a way to branch out for an industry that usually released their books in the fall, reading detective fiction instead of going to church is thought to have fastened its roots because of the specifics of the Norwegian Easter.

L: Harald Grieg. R: Nordahl Grieg. Composite: Wikimedia Commons

The most far-fetched theories, according to Norway's crime fiction expert Nils Nordberg, stretch back to pre-Christian times. Blood sacrifice was made by Viking ancestors roughly around the time when Easter would fall centuries later. The plan was to secure crops and keep the gods happy. Maybe traces of this remain in Norwegian genes in the form of fascination for stories about violence? The metaphorical sacrificial lamb and the scapegoat are, after all, no small part of crime fiction.

Easter itself has a dark back story. When God sent the angel of death to kill the first-born sons of the ancient Egyptians, blood smeared on houses saved Israelite families. Later, the criminal case, punishment and death of a religious rebel, Jesus of Nazareth, gave Easter additional meaning.

But had these theories held water, Easter crime should have been a thing in many countries, which it is not.

The most probable explanation is much less complex, but still about a form of death: killing time.

Nordberg says this makes the most sense because Norway's Easter holiday is the longest in the world. Norwegians leave their jobs for up to 10 days, with 5 of them being compulsory days off. One in four Norwegians spend their Easter in a mountain or coast cabin, where daily life is associated with simple pleasures and unwinding. After skiing, murder mysteries are perfect brain fodder next to the log fire.

Paperbacks wear down but as they are cheap, they can be left in the library for the next guest, or for that winter when you are snowed in and can't get out. Even for those who stay at home, murder, a wool blanket and a cup of hot cocoa is all it takes for a carefree day. Combine that with how Scandinavian crime literature tends to comment on social issues and topics readers can identify with, and the recipe for easy to process, relevant Easter escapism is set.

Reading crime fiction has been a pastime for Norwegians since long before the current Nord Noir trend. In a country so safe - or boring? - that people seek danger in the form of words, Jo Nesbø, Jørn Lier Horst and Anne Holt are just the latest generation of thrill providers.

READ ALSO: Record amount of Norwegian literature sold abroad

Sven Elvestad (1884-1934), also known as Stein Riverton, was the first Norwegian crime author celebrity, having created the Christiania (now Oslo) detective Knut Gribb in a series of murder-free stories in 1908.

Further back, Maurits Hansen (1794-1842) published the novel "The Murder of Machine Builder Roolfsen" in 1839, predating the book that is thought to have created the modern murder mystery, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", with two years.

The habit of reading about invented illegalities is thus older than Easter crime, but thanks to Harald Grieg's clever marketing 95 years ago, Easter opened up as the high season. Norwegian crime authors do not face unemployment.

Last year, in the two weeks before Easter, crime novels made up 55 percent of all fiction sold in bookstores, three times more than crime's portion of Christmas book sales. British, French and German authors can't get their heads around this when they talk to their Norwegian colleagues. The Norwegian Easter seems set to remain crimson red for the foreseeable future.

READ ALSO: Quiz: Easter in Norway

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