When I woke up in my room at SleepIn in Fængslet–a former hospital converted into a hostel–light filtered through the bars in the window, casting stripes on the gray linoleum floor. The thick walls, designed to stifle noise from other patients, make it incredibly quiet. I try not to think of the stories this dungeon could tell – even 16 years ago, sick, wounded, and mentally ill people lived in the block.
This is the start of Krimimessen, a fantasy crime festival in Horsens, Denmark, which attracts Nordic fans from all over Europe.
Three hours east in Copenhagen, stroll the cobbled streets of the blockbuster series Burgundy – who will return next month after a nine-year hiatus – and killing And bridge On the roads of Nordic Noir. The Danish capital is only 35 minutes by train from Malmö, the road that crosses the “bridge” to the country of Wallander in Sweden.
The impressive 19th century Horsens Prison couldn’t be more appropriate for the region’s largest crime fiction festival. It rises above the city from a hilltop like a medieval castle and housed some of Denmark’s most dangerous prisoners until its closure in 2006. Six years later, it reopens as an unlikely cultural space. This year, the festival, which began at the local library, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
This is quite a rehabilitation. In addition to annual crime-related events such as the Prison Inc tattoo festival and Prison Break, a mountain bike race, it is also a world-class music venue. The former Twenty-two Dungeons is the youth hostel I live in, the café in the former guard gate, and the largest prison museum in the world.
Fans of criminal fiction flock through what was once a very secure door, ready to hear the letters of criminal fiction writers and forensic experts. Searchlights fall from walls covered with barbed wire, and each window has bars. I wander the large courtyard under the tall brick walls and watch the actors in the kettles orchestrate their little escape from prison.
The director of criminal events, Klaus Hagström, runs local public libraries and writes novels about crime in his spare time. He knows the history of this place well: his grandfather was a prisoner. I ask why Denmark – third in the world for peace last year on the Global Peace Index, after Iceland and New Zealand, with much lower crime rates than the UK – is the backdrop for so many dark dramas.
Hagstrom explains that this is one reason why the crime novel has such a deep resonance.
“There is an idea that this is a perfect society, but what if there is a snake in heaven?” He says then stop. “There is always a snake.”
Nordic noir may have a different side as well, as Kara Hunter, author of Adam Foley’s DI detective series, puts forward a hypothesis: it’s dark six months out of the year, and with such a sparsely populated space, it’s easy to hide the bodies.
Character is everything in Scandinavian drama – from the misanthropic detectives like Mr. Wallander to the perpetrators themselves. In the thought-provoking Horsens Prison Museum, black and white photos of ex-prisoners emerge from the walls and invite you to take a closer look at the criminal psyche. Some are quite modest, others may be hipsters of a different era.
This is a difficult place to visit. Shadow projections and films hanging on the wall tell the stories of these prisoners. One of the most terrifying stories tells of the last prisoner executed in Denmark in 1950. The prison historian whistles to himself when he is alone at night.
Less terrifying is the story of a prisoner who dug a tunnel in 1949 using a daring needle to break the cement between the bricks in his cell. The former thief spent 11 months unknowingly burying himself in the jailer’s potato cellar. One night, he slipped from her and ran away, leaving a message that read, “Where is the will, there is a way.”
Horsens’ experience is a layer of insight into Nordic Noir storytelling, and it makes me wonder what I would have done if I had been there. I’d like to think I’d also find a will and a way, but for now I’m happy to leave it to my imagination.
Borgen: Strength and Glory Coming to Netflix on June 2
essential for travel
How to get there
Billund is a 40-minute drive from Horsens, or a 1.5-hour train ride.
How to book
The Dungeon at SleepIn in Fængslet, two people on bunk beds cost from DKK 575 (£70), faengslet.dk
what should be done
Nordic Noir Walking Tours in Copenhagen cost DKK 250 per person (£30).
The next Krimimessen is March 6-25, 2023.
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