THE PROFOUND CHARACTERS
Nordic Noir isn't about parading puppet-like characters who all have one token personality quirk so you can tell them apart. That works marvelously in, say, an Agatha Christie tale, where the pleasure lies in the puzzle of the crime itself, and the actual characters are secondary. Nordic Noir is ALL about the people: their private preoccupations, their secret turmoil, their memories and regrets, all of which play out against the dark backdrop of the crime itself.
Wallander is a perfect example of this. Grisly and unforgettable as the cases are (we'll get to that in a moment), it's Kurt Wallander himself who keeps us on tenterhooks, as we watch this bedraggled, semi-broken man trying to keep his mind in one piece as he deals with awful cases. There's also his team, who are richly developed characters in their own right, and his daughter Linda, who has a journey of her own.
THE HAUNTING LANDSCAPE
Atmosphere is everything in Nordic Noir. It's one of the reasons the genre is so addictive. Once we're immersed in the haunting realm of Nordic Noir, we don't want to leave. Which is pretty paradoxical, given how ominous the terrain can be. The landscape of Scandinavia - striking and expansive - fills the screen with insidious intent. The landscape is almost a metaphor for the vast, unknowable enigmas which assail the detectives every day.
Wallander, set in the coastal town of Ystad in Sweden, gives us one of the most iconic of all Nordic Noir settings. We feel the power of it in the very first scene, when Kurt Wallander enters a golden, glowing field of rapeseed flowers: a place of ravishing beauty which suddenly becomes a place of terror when a girl sets fire to herself right there amid the flowers. Then there are the desolate beaches, stark flat fields, and grey, brooding skies, which seem to reflect everything going on in the sleuth's tortured mind.
THE VICIOUS CASES
When it comes to crime, Nordic Noir doesn't do things by halves. Forget perfectly poised crime scenes and genteel, locked room murders. The cases in Nordic Noir are messy, vicious, shocking. And they're not so much whodunits as whydunits. True to form, these stories are about the human motivations behind the horrors - the ugly psychology of violence and sadism, the way terrible intentions blossom like black flowers in a murderer's mind.
Sometimes the crimes seem almost flamboyant - like the birdwatcher in Wallander who falls into a pit of stakes. An innocent victim? Not exactly - but few people in Wallander are truly innocent. There are shades of grey at play, with the detective often having to untangle webs of corruption among the supposedly great and good of Swedish society.
THE DIRTY REALISM
It's not just the crimes themselves which are portrayed with unflinching realism. One of the other hallmarks of Nordic Noir is the unsentimental, warts-and-all take on absolutely everything. The attention to detail is so great that you almost forget you're watching actors in a scripted TV show.
One look at Kurt Wallander's bloodshot eyes, or his dusty, book-crammed apartment, and you get a connection with a real person and his lived-in reality. It's not just about aesthetics either. There are the boldly unglamorous details - the fact that Wallander is a diabetic, and that he has to deal with his father's dementia. Not the kinds of sub-plots that would turn up in conventional crime dramas, but all part of the Nordic Noir package.
THE SLOW-BURNING PACE
One fundamental aspect that really defines Nordic Noir is the pacing. These are tales that dare to take things slowly, and allow the nuances to unfold in their own good time. This is partly because the themes are often so complex that they can't be rushed, and partly because everything else - the landscape, the atmosphere, the personal issues of the characters - are just as important.
Wallander may present numerous cases, but each one is a delicious slow-burner that, thanks to the sumptuous scenery and sense of thickening dread, keeps us almost hypnotized. Kurt Wallander himself is a slow mover, making time to gaze, listen, ponder... the things we're not supposed to do much of in the 21st Century. Those rules don't apply for Nordic Noir, or Kurt Wallander.