When I woke up in my room at SleepIn in Fængslet, a former hospital turned inn, light filters through window bars, casting streaks on the gray linoleum floor. The thick walls, built to eliminate the noise of other patients, make it eerily quiet. I try not to think of the stories this cell could tell: the building housed sick, wounded, and mentally ill until only 16 years ago.
It’s the start of Krimimessen, a crime fiction festival in Horsens, Denmark, that attracts fans of Nordic Films from all over Europe.
Three hours east of Copenhagen, you can walk the cobbled streets of the series of songs Burgundy – who returns next month after a nine-year hiatus – as well the killer s the bridge In Nordic Noir Tours. Denmark’s capital is only 35 minutes by train from Malmö, a route that takes you across the “bridge” to the country of Wallander in Sweden.
The majestic 19th century Prison of Horsens couldn’t be more appropriate for the region’s largest crime fiction festival. Looming over the city from a hilltop like a medieval castle, it held some of Denmark’s most dangerous prisoners until its closure in 2006. Six years later, it reopened as an unlikely cultural space. This year’s festival, which began at the local library, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
It’s quite a rehabilitation. In addition to hosting annual crime-related events such as the Prison Ink Tattoo Festival and Prison Break, a mountain bike race, it is also a world-class music venue. Twenty-two former cells comprised my hostel and there is a café in the old guard gate, as well as the largest prison museum in the world.
Fans of crime fiction flock through doors that were very secure, ready to hear the talk of crime writers and forensic experts. Headlights shine from the barbed wire walls and all windows are clogged. I wander the large courtyard, under the towering brick walls, watching the actors in their suits organize their little prison breaks.
Crime Gallery events director, Klaus Hagström, runs public libraries in the area and writes crime novels in his spare time. He knows the backstory of this place well: his grandfather was a recluse. I ask why Denmark, which ranked third among the most peaceful countries in the Global Peace Index last year, after Iceland and New Zealand and with much lower crime rates than the United Kingdom, is the scene of so many dark dramas.
Hagstrom explains that this is one reason why it resonates so deeply.
“There is an idea that this is the ideal society, but what if there is a snake in heaven?” He says, then stops. “There is always a snake.”
There may also be another side to the Nordic film phenomenon, as Kara Hunter, author of the DI detective series Adam Foley, postulated that six months out of the year it’s dark and, with so many sparsely populated spaces, it’s easy to hide the bodies.
The character is everything in the Scandinavian drama, from the human-hating detectives like Mr. Wallander to the perpetrators themselves. At the thought-provoking Horsens Prison Museum, black and white photos of former inmates snap from the walls, inviting you to consider the criminal psyche. Some are dead simple, others could be hipsters from another era.
It is a tough place to visit. Shadow projections and video clips on the wall tell the stories of these prisoners. One of the most chilling tales describes the last prisoner executed in Denmark, in 1950. Downstairs, in the punishment rooms downstairs, the air is full of history; The prison historian whistles to himself when he’s alone here at night.
Less terrifying is the story of a prisoner who dug a tunnel in 1949 using a daring needle to pierce the cement between the bricks of his cell. The former safes owner spent 11 months unknowingly digging in the jailer’s potato cellar. One night he slipped through and escaped, leaving a message that said, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
Horsens’ experience is a layer of insight into storytelling in Nordic films, and it leaves me wondering what I would do if I found myself there. I’d like to think I’d find a will and a way too, but for now I’m happy to leave it to my imagination.
Borgen: Strength and Glory Premieres on Netflix June 2
Billund is a 40-minute drive or 1.5-hour train ride from Horsens.
How to book
Hive in SleepIn in Fængslet, where two people sleep in bunk beds, costs DKK 575 (£70), faengslet.dk
what to do
Nordic Noir Walking Tours in Copenhagen cost DKK 250 (£30).
Krimimessen next from 25 to 6 March 2023.