Monday, June 8, 2015

Hot Crime Writing in a Cold Land: my large feature on Swedish Crime Writing

Hot crime writing in a cold land
Its writers dominate European fiction charts, the Germans have created a new word to describe it, and it’s being translated into English more and more. Craig Sisterson takes a closer look at the Swedish crime fiction phenomenon

Note: this large feature article was originally published in print in the August 2009 issue of Good Reading magazine, and is now made available online for the first time here on Crime Watch. 

In April the Guardian newspaper noted the results of the 2008/2009 Wischenbart survey, which analysed bestselling authors across seven major European markets. Despite the rampant success and soaring sales of the Twilight teen vampire series, author Stephanie Meyer didn’t top the list; she was beaten out by a middle-aged left-wing journalist from Sweden who’d died before his first book was ever published.

But although Stieg Larsson’s firm position atop the list would have been enough in itself to bring more attention to Swedish crime writing, he is in fact merely the tip of an ever-growing iceberg. Six other Swedish crime writers were in the Top 40, and many others were hovering. The surveyors, who conduct various analyses for the global publishing industry, even specifically noted the “predominance of Swedish (crime) fiction which has been out competing any other flavour or origin of fictional writing”. So, you’ve got to ask – what makes peaceful Sweden such a hotbed for fictional murder and mayhem?

The Originators
Stieg Larsson may be the Swede garnering much of the book world’s attention lately, thanks to his posthumous smash-hit “Millenium trilogy”, however it was actually two other politically radical journalists who first put Swedish crime fiction on the international map. Forty years ago.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö met while working for related magazines in the early 1960s. They married a year later, then embarked on a carefully-planned series of ten crime books in ten years, written in the evenings while their children were sleeping.  

While Swedish crime novels existed prior to Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s 1965 debut, Roseanna, such works consisted mainly of classic “cosy mysteries” in the Christie/Marsh/Sayers vein, or light-hearted children’s tales by Nils-Olof Franzén centred on a humorous Sherlock Holmes/Poirot-style hero (the fantastic Agaton Sax series).

Sjöwall and Wahlöö brought a new style of crime novel to Europe, and along with American Ed McBain (author of the 87th Precinct series), popularised the modern police procedural. Their acclaimed ten-book series focused on an ensemble cast of policeman, led by Superintendent Martin Beck, and cast as much light on the working and private lives of the characters, as the crimes they were investigating. 

Eschewing the hardboiled detective stereotypes inspired by Chandler and Hammett, Beck and his colleagues were instead fallibly human, and even at times quite ‘ordinary’ – their investigations realistically packed with false starts, dead ends, and touches of humour and tedium. In The Laughing Policeman, which scooped the prestigious 1971 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America, Beck and his team try to find the culprit of a machine-gun spree in a double-decker bus, but simultaneously juggle plenty of personal and everyday problems.

Author Arne Dahl has called Sjöwall and Wahlöö “the actual parents… of the Swedish crime fiction genre that is still the strongest today: the police procedural that has a perspective of social criticism”. Sjöwall herself told the Wall Street Journal in May this year (Wahlöö died in 1975) that although they were writing entertaining stories, their “intention was also to describe and criticise certain changes in our society and the politics of that decade”.

Moreover, Sjöwall admitted seeing the fictional offspring of Martin Beck and his colleagues in the modern wave of Swedish crime fiction. “We seem to have created a model for the Swedish police procedural,” she said. “Most of the authors that write them call themselves social critics as well… that, I think, is something to be proud of.”

Enter Wallander
Perhaps the most famous and widely-read of those literary offspring is Henning Mankell, the prolific author and dramatist whose success beach-headed the recent wave of English translations of Swedish crime writers. Mankell is most well-known for his award-winning series featuring troubled policeman Kurt Wallander - which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been adapted several times for the screen, including a recent BBC TV series starring Kenneth Branagh.

Like Sjöwall and Wahlöö before him, Mankell creates mysteries filled not only with crime and violence, but with flawed, recognisably human characters, and an undercurrent of social commentary. “Novels are … an unsurpassed form to understand people,” said Mankell to Middle East-based The National Newspaper earlier this year.

Another consistent feature of the Wallander novels is the unrelenting bleakness of the landscape. Set in the small medieval town of Ystad in Skåne, Sweden's southernmost county, the stories are gilded with dreary weather, ice and snow. That gloomy atmosphere, combined with Wallander’s deteriorating health, borderline alcoholism, and shambolic personal life adds to the overall sense of disarray and disconnection from evolving Swedish society. 

In the 1991 Wallander debut, Faceless Killers, the Inspector investigates a brutal farmhouse killing, complicated by growing public xenophobia towards the burgeoning refugee population. Sweden is no longer the harmonious socialist paradise of old, and modern Swedish crime writers, inspired by Sjöwall and Wahlöö and led by Mankell, weave such change into the tapestry of their novels. Swedish critic Marie Peterson has noted that the real-life 1986 assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme, murdered on the streets of Stockholm while walking home from the movies with his wife, was particularly unsettling to the national psyche. “In a way, Sweden has never recovered… it changed, brutally, on almost every level, but this change was nowhere to be found in literature. No one explored it, analyzed it or wrote stories about it. Except the crime writers, starting with Mankell.”

Booker Prize-winning literary superstar Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) has called Mankell “by far the best writer of police mysteries today - he is in the great tradition of those whose work transcends their chosen genre to become thrilling and moral literature”. The universality of Mankell’s work has certainly transcended geography/language boundaries – he’s translated into 27 languages, and it’s his sales success that paved the way for the latest Swedish crime writing stars.

“He opened the door. We're riding the waves of Henning Mankell,” admitted award-winning bestseller Håkan Nesser (Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series) when speaking to the Toronto Star in 2007.

The Girl who Grabbed the Attention
Many commentators worldwide have described those waves of Swedish crime fiction as more like an explosion. If that’s the case, then you could consider Sjöwall and Wahlöö the bomb-makers, Mankell the man who placed the charges, and Stieg Larsson as the one who flicked the switch. For it is Larsson’s tragedy-tinged success that has publishers worldwide scrambling to sign and translate his crime-writing compatriots.

Larsson was an investigative journalist and editor of anti-racism magazine Expo (founded in the mid ‘90s when neo-Nazi groups carried out a series of violent attacks against immigrants in Sweden). He received death threats for his campaigns to expose far-right extremists, and it’s been reported that writing his trilogy about disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and tattooed computer hacker Lisbeth Salander became a relaxing hobby that took his mind off work. He eventually delivered the manuscripts to a local publisher in a plastic bag, instantly securing a three-book deal, only to die of a heart attack before any were published.

It’s the character of Salander in particular (“The Girl”) that has fascinated readers worldwide. In his only ever interview about his crime writing, Larsson told bookstore industry magazine Svensk Bokhandel that Salander was inspired by strong-willed redhead Pippi Longstocking in Astrid Lindgren’s famous children’s books. “What would she have been like as an adult? What would she be called – a sociopath?” he mused. “I created her as Lisbeth Salander, 25 years old and extremely isolated. She doesn't know anyone, has no social competence.”

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Blomkvist and Salander join forces to solve a 40-year old disappearance that is soon linked to a brutal serial killer consumed by hatred towards women. The follow-up, The Girl Who Played With Fire, focuses on a sex-trafficking case and dark secrets about Salander’s past. Already topping the charts in Europe, Larsson’s international popularity is unlikely to wane anytime soon, with his debut having rampant sales in the US since its release late last year, the follow-up being released in July, and the third in the trilogy, The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, scheduled for publication in English in October.

But in many ways, the English-speaking world is merely playing catch-up to what continental Europe has known for a few years. The trilogy has hoarded awards, outsold Harry Potter in France, sold 2.7 million copies in Sweden (a country of 9 million), and in Denmark outselling every other book in history except the Bible.

Viking Queens
While a couple of middle-aged men, in Mankell and Larsson, might be leading the Swedish crime-writing charge, the army that is following is full of young Viking woman. And the world is beginning to take notice. Bestselling suspense juggernaut James Patterson, looking to hop on the Nordic crime wave, has chosen Liza Marklund (#12 on the Wischenbart 2008/09 European Top 40) as his writing partner for a thriller set in Stockholm (to be published in 2010 in Sweden). Marklund’s own award-winning series, including The Bomber, centres on mother and tabloid crime reporter Annika Bengtzon.

Åsa Larsson was another Viking queen on the European Top 40. Her Rebecka Martinsson series, set in northernmost Sweden and drawing on themes from the Old Testament, has a tax lawyer hero dealing with violent crimes and past demons. As well as every authors’ dream trifecta of growing sales, critical acclaim, and awards recognition (both Swedish and international), the female Larsson has also had her debut, The Savage Altar, made into a film in her home country.

Fellow Swede Karin Alvtegen is famous for her searing psychological standalones, rather than any beloved recurring characters. She invites readers directly into the minds of vulnerable characters dealing with extreme situations, and doesn’t focus on police investigations, but that hasn’t stopped her racking up awards.

Her breakthrough novel Saknad won the 2001 Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel, and the recently US-released English translation (Missing) has now been shortlisted for the 2009 Edgar Award. Meanwhile the UK-released English translation of her 2005 fourth novel Skam (Shame) has been shortlisted for the 2009 CWA Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.

The finalists for that award further underline the growing domination of Swedish crime writing, with four of the six being translations of Swedish authors (the others being Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire, Jo Nesbø’s The Redeemer, and Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead). In fact, Swedish crime writing has become such a phenomenon in Europe that the Germans have invented a new word for it, “Schwedenkrimi”. Down here, perhaps we could just use the phrase “highly, highly recommended”.

Side Bar:

Seven superb tastes of Sweden
Want to give Swedish crime novels a try? Or expand the Scandinavian authors you’ve read? The following acclaimed titles, ranging from classic to contemporary, are all available or upcoming in Australasia, and all are highly recommended:

Karin Alvtegen (Text Publishing)
Originally published in 2000 (translated 2003. released in Australia 2008), Alvtegen’s breakthrough second novel follows a homeless woman who becomes the most wanted person in Sweden following the deaths of two businessmen. 2009 finalist for the prestigious Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.

The Savage Altar
Åsa Larsson (Viking)
Larsson’s 2003 debut (translated 2006) introduces recurring heroine Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm tax lawyer, who finds herself back in her remote hometown investigating the horrific murder in a cult-like church of her friend’s brother. Shortlisted for 2007 CWA Duncan Lawrie International Dagger.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Stieg Larsson (Quercus)
The smash-hit first volume of the worldwide phenomenon ‘Millennium Trilogy’ introduces one of crime fiction’s most unique protagonists, disturbing punk heroine Lisbeth Salander – who along with crusading liberal journalist Mikael Blomkvist, investigates a forty-year old disappearance linked to a series of gruesome murders. Has won multiple awards.

The Preacher
Camilla Läckberg
Set in the remote fishing village of Fjallbacka, the second novel (published 2004, translated 2009) in the Detective Patrik Hedstrom series involves holidaymakers long lost, bodies found, new murder, and investigations into a feuding clan of misfits, religious fanatics and criminals.

Henning Mankell (Vintage)
The seventh Inspector Kurt Wallander mystery won Mankell the coveted CWA Gold Dagger in 2001. Wallander’s holiday plans are interrupted when he must investigate two horrific deaths; the fireball suicide of an unidentified young woman and the brutal murder of the former minister of justice.

Woman with Birthmark
Håkan Nesser (Pantheon)
The fourth and latest Inspector Van Veeteren novel to be translated (there are six more), set once again in the fictional city of Maardam. Van Veeteren and his team follow a bewildering trail, full of deception, and murder, in the hunt for a serial killer avenging a terrible crime.

The Laughing Policeman
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Harper Perennial)
Originally published in 1968 (translated 1970), this fourth instalment in the seminal Martin Beck series won the Edgar Award in 1971. Martin Beck and his team investigate the sub-machine gunning mass murder of nine people, including a colleague, on a Stockholm bus.


This article was originally published in print in the August 2009 issue of Good Reading magazine. 

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