Great reads: the best books set in Scandinavia

We’ve all been doing lots of reading and armchair travelling this summer, and some of our favourite books here at Routes North are those set in the spectacular snowy climes of Scandinavia.

Snowy Scandinavian landscape make a great backdrop for Nordic Noir thrillers
The snowy landscapes of Scandinavia make an atmospheric backdrop for crime thrillers
Sharon Ang (CC)

The Scandinavian countries are best known for the hugely popular Nordic Noir crime thrillers, but it’s not all gore and murder up north, we also like some of the more thoughtful classics that conjure up the atmospheric settings and lifestyle of this fascinating region.

And if you’re chomping at the bit to get away, we’ve picked our favourite guidebooks, so that you can plan your trip and be ready to book as soon as we get the green light.

So here’s our pick of the best and most inspiring books set in Scandinavia, and about Scandinavia. Happy reading!

Nordic Noir crime thrillers

The Millennium Trilogy

Probably the best known of the Nordic Noir crime thrillers is the Millennium Trilogy, a hugely popular series of books by Swedish author Stieg Larsson.

Stockholm is the location for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series
Lundagaten in Stockholm, the street where Lisbeth Salander lived / Enhamre (CC)

Its damaged heroine, genius computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (aka the girl with the dragon tattoo) wages war against right-wing extremists, corrupt politicians, sex traffickers and rapists, who respond with ever more violent and extreme methods.

The books are set mainly in the trendy Södermalm district of Stockholm, where author Stieg Larsson himself lived. You can follow in the protagonists’ footsteps on this guided walking tour of Södermalm, which points out locations from the books.

The Wallander detective series

Troubled police officer Kurt Wallander is the protagonist of a series of books by Swedish author Henning Mankell. Exploring racism, misogyny and the dark side of Swedish society, the murder mysteries are set in the pretty town of Ystad and the surrounding countryside of Skane in southern Sweden.

Ystad, a pretty town in southern Sweden, home of detective Kurt Wallander
Ystad, home town of Kurt Wallander / Mickaël Delcey (CC)

The gloomy alcoholic detective battles against his own demons as well while trying to solve a succession of often very gory and violent crimes against a backdrop of brooding landscapes.

From Ystad you can take a cycle tour to Ales Stenar, which fans of the television show will recognize as the place Wallander goes when he needs time for serious contemplation.

The Harry Hole thrillers

Set in Oslo, Jo Nesbø’s series of stories about troubled Norwegian detective Harry Hole are among the world’s best-selling crime fiction. A brilliant detective with a chaotic private life, Hole rarely toes the line but manages to solve a series of grisly crimes.

Oslo, where the Harry Hole crime thrillers were set
Oslo, home city of Harry Hole / dconvertini (CC)

Although Hole is the hero of the books, the city of Oslo plays an important supporting role with real locations featuring regularly and atmospheric descriptions of the city, including its seamier side. You can explore some of the detective’s favourite haunts with the Harry Hole guided walking tour.

There are 12 books in the series, of which the best-known, The Snowman, has been made into a popular film.

Fiction

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

This quirky tale follows the adventures of Allan Karlsson, who decides on his hundredth birthday that he’s had enough of being in a care home and wants more from life. As we follow his hapless journey, we discover that there’s more to this feisty old man’s history than first meets the eye.

Malmköping, small town Sweden where the 100-year-old man lived in care home
Malmköping, the town from where Allan Karlsson escaped on his 100th birthday / Markus Tellerup (CC)

Set in remote small-town Sweden, it mixes atmospheric descriptions of the landscape with laugh-out-loud moments and encounters with some of the twentieth-century’s less savoury leaders.

The Summer Book

This lovely book about the relationship between a prickly old lady and her six-year-old granddaughter Sophia is set on a small island in the Pellinge archipelago in the Gulf of Finland.

Finland has thousands of islands. The Summer Book by Tove Jansen, author of the Moomins, is set on one in the Gulf of Finland
Pic: CGP Grey (CC)

When her mother dies, Sophia is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother, who lives alone on the island. As the story unfolds they begin to adjust to and understand each other’s ways, and bond over their love of the island.

The book was written by Tove Jansen, better known as the author of the Moomin books, who spent her summers on a nearby island herself.

This is a moving tale about childhood and old age, in which the island, its landscapes, sounds, smells and daily rhythms play almost as big a role the two main characters.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

The heroine of this atmospheric murder mystery sets out to investigate the death of a neglected six-year-old child who fell from a snowy roof-top in Copenhagen.

Copenhagen in winter is the setting for Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Snowy street in Copenhagen / Leif Jørgensen (CC)

Having been bought up in icy Greenland, Smilla studies the boy’s footprints in the snow and is convinced that it’s murder, despite the police dismissing it an accident.

Smilla’s impoverished childhood in Greenland contrasts with the affluence of urban Copenhagen and the book explore issues of immigration, hidden social problems and the dark side of a society that seems wealthy and civilized on the surface.

Written in 1996, this thoughtful book is sometimes considered the forerunner of the Nordic Noir crime genre.

See also:
Film locations from The Snowman in Oslo
The best Swedish books ever

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