The Importance of Writing Danishly

Blåvand beach on Denmark’s west coast.

The British have gone mad. They have succumbed to the Danish concept of “hygge”. According to the Guardian, hygge placed third in the word of the year list for 2016. With Nordic Noir books competing with Scandinavian thrillers dominating the television to the point of encouraging my parents’ generation to gorge on DVD box sets of Forbrydelsen and Borgen, it’s little wonder that I have been thinking and writing Danishly these past few months.

On a recent trip to Glasgow, I enjoyed visiting old haunts such as the Waterstones bookshop on Sauchiehall Street. After picking up several sparkly new books – and resisting the urge to open them , press my nose to the crease and take a sniff of new print and fresh prose – I stumbled upon a small table with a selection of books about Denmark. Meik Wiking’s The Little Book of Hygge was displayed prominently, front and centre. I called my Danish wife over to confirm what I had already begun to suspect: the Brits were definitely going mad.

Hygge was one of the first words I learned in Danish – but failed to pronounce correctly for at least another year. There are a lot of words in Danish that defy pronunciation, but few that pop up in everyday conversation quite as much as hygge. I got to know it well. The Danes try their best to convince me that it can’t be translated to English. I reliably inform them that it means cosy or creating a cosy time, and relish in their apparent distress at the demystification of the core of the Danish identity. When I am feeling less bombastic, I might share one of my own examples of Danish hygge which involves watching a national Håndbold match on television on a wet and windy December evening, with my wife, my mother in law, candles and very strong black coffee. It usually appeases the most embittered defendant of hygge. If that leaves you wondering, just check out Wiking’s book.

But since I moved to Denmark in 2001, something has been niggling me for a long time. How can the so-called happiest people on the planet (2013) be obsessed with the darkest and, at times, most sadistic criminal thrillers to hit the literary world and the big and small screens respectively? I blame the Danish author Peter Høeg.

Actually, I blame Høeg for many things in my life, most of them associated with incredibly low temperatures and dog bites. Yes, I firmly believe it was when I read Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (American title) for the first time in 1994 that I became mad for the Arctic, Denmark and, ultimately, Greenland. Like Mel Gibson’s character in the film Conspiracy Theory, I am compelled to buy or acquire copies of one particular book – in my case Smilla – at every opportunity. But there is little to be happy about or consider hyggeligt in Høeg’s rather cold Copenhagen and even colder Arctic. It pushed me to try and join the Sirius Sledge Patrol (I still have the letter). It might even be partly responsible for me marrying Jane, and it is definitely to blame for us moving to Greenland for seven years and messing about with sledge dogs. But Smilla is just one book of many Scandinavian crime thrillers that have dark brooding elements, terse language and bleak landscapes. The happiest people on the planet are obsessed with ruthless killers.

Perhaps that might explain why many of my Danish friends and acquaintances adore cosy English crime mysteries, especially the likes of Midsomer Murders. They can get their fix of murder and mayhem with tongue firmly in cheek, a battery of candles on the coffee table and a strong cup of coffee – Danes normally only drink tea when they are ill.

Prior to visiting Glasgow, my parents subjected Jane and me to an episode of Borgen – we had never seen it. Let’s recap for a moment; my English parents introduced my Danish wife to a hit Danish television series. They even watched it in Danish with English subtitles. It was surreal, but I was moved, inspired and encouraged to think about this small Danish revolution taking over Britain. If something was rotten in the state of Denmark, apparently it had infected the North Sea neighbours.

Jussi Adler-Olsen, Sara Blædel, Leif Davidsen to name but a few Danish crime writers, join the likes of Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall, Stieg Larsson, and Camilla Läckberg from Sweden, with Jo Nesbø, Jørn Lier Horst and Anne Holt from Norway. That’s a lot of misery and murder from Scandinavia. Perhaps there is room for more? And there are plenty more, both established and emerging. Finland – the is it or isn’t it Scandinavian county – also has a tidy number of crime and thriller writers.

Writing books in English for an English market while living in Denmark is a challenge. So much so I have been wondering just how to make it work. With all the subliminal and downright blatant signs and signals being sent my way, I realised that there might just be a way to turn a challenge into an opportunity. I must became Danish and embrace the concept of hygge in its entirety and write for the English market, as a Dane. It’s one of those it’s so simple, it might just work ideas. Time will tell, but I have discovered the importance of writing Danishly, and I am doing so with the name: Christoffer Petersen.

If you are as curious as I am to see how this works out, feel free to comment here or on Christoffer’s Facebook page as he – that would be me – makes a debut with The Ice Star, a crime thriller set in Greenland with a strong, Danish female lead – thanks for that, Mr Høeg.

The Ice Star is available for pre-order, and is scheduled for release on January 26.


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