Stieg Larsson has done for the Scandinavian crime novel what Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code did for the conspiracy/adventure novel. Fortunately for crime fiction fans, most of the precursors and followers of Larsson are very good writers, with serious social issues to discuss and a fine eye for the genre. It has been our good luck that so many more are now being translated and published in English.
There were a few popular and well-read Scandinavian crime writers around in translation before Larsson became such a phenomenon – notably the Swedish world best-seller Henning Mankell, with his morose and emotionally challenged police detective Kurt Wallender (annoyingly, these have been published out of sequence); Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the husband-and-wife team who, between 1965 and 1975, wrote ten police procedural novels also set in Sweden, featuring Martin Beck; Peter Høeg, whose Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow was translated from Danish to English in 1996, and Jo Nesbø with his Norwegian detective Harry Hole (The Devil’s Star was published in English in 2005 and others quickly followed: The Redbreast 2006, Nemesis 2008, The Redeemer, 2009, The Snowman, 2010 and The Leopard 2011; The Phantom is due later this year – the first two novels in the series have not been translated and the others are out of their original sequence). Anne Holt, ex-Norwegian politician, has also been around for a while, although her novels are slow to be translated (and are yet again published out of sequence). There have been a few others over the years, but since the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the rest of the trilogy, we’ve had a welcome and well-received deluge of Scandinavian crime novels, most with a strapline promising ‘as good as’, ‘better than’ or ‘best since’ Larsson. Not all of them are any of these things, but many are at least as good.*
I’ve become addicted to the ‘Nordics’; so have several of my discerning crime fiction-reading friends. They sell well in Australia and the rest of the world – Nesbø reaches the top ten in national best-selling lists – which indicates we’re not the only ones fascinated by these stories.
What is their fascination? A crime fiction-reading addict is always looking for the next fix, of course, so to find multiple fresh sources is wonderful, especially as they’re of such good quality. These Scandinavian novels provide the stuff the addict needs, but so do American, English, Australian and other crime writers. It’s not that the plots and story lines are so much different – police and private investigators, of one sort or another, working to restore the harmony of a fictional world disrupted by crime or a series of crimes. The crimes aren’t different either, really – murder, kidnap, people-trafficking, exploitation of refugees, child abuse and pedophilia, revenge for things that happened in the distant past, present consequences of past failures, psychopathic killers, religious nutters, sadists, political corruption, and so on. The usual stuff that feeds our dependency. So what is different about these?
For one thing, these Scandinavian novels are uniformly well-written, intelligent and unsentimental – as a reader you are almost guaranteed that you won’t be disappointed if you pick up the latest Norwegian, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish or Finnish book and that’s a big thing in their favour.
It’s partly the sense of place that carries a particular appeal – the exoticism of constant cold, snow, short days and long nights, or the reverse; or no nights at all; the brightly painted wooden houses. The settings themselves are varied, though – they range from urban Oslo or Stockholm to back-country Iceland, Finland or Norway; they include country towns, seaside resorts (yes, they have them), isolated villages, cities, the Russian border. The cultural milieu differs as well, from introverted and insular countries like Iceland to Europeanised cities and the effects of globalisation.
The real difference, I think, and what interests me most as a reader, apart from a good crime novel well-told, is the particular flavour of the social, political and philosophical debate that pervades these novels – not all of them, but enough to make the generalisation. For many people of my generation the Scandinavian countries seemed like the last bastion of workable democracy; a whole set of countries that in their various ways, some less attractive than others, seemed to take the social contract for granted, that believed in a system that protected and supported its weakest members, that believed in free education and health care for all, that acknowledged personal sexual choices, that had a liberal attitude to victimless vices and that didn’t go to war. A simplistic view, I know, and true only to a greater or lesser degree in individual countries. But it’s a view that these writers and their characters seem to share, nostalgically, to some extent.
Larsson’s trilogy contains much disillusionment and rage towards an increasingly uncaring society that allows victims like Lisbeth Salander to slip through its social safety net, but we still feel that many of the characters believe the safety net should have been in place. Larsson, Lisbeth and the reader see Sweden rotting from the inside, moving further and further towards the uncaring right and the global politics of money and power where the rights of individuals have little importance, but most of the other protagonists in the trilogy are still fighting the knowledge. In English, American and Australian crime novels, no one any longer expects the safety net to work, or even to be there to start with; the cops, the private investigators, the media, the narrator, the writer, the reader, are all basically cynical about what our society can do for its victims, or whether it wants to do anything at all. We’re inured to a selfish and politically expedient culture by now and our crime novels reflect this.
But these Scandinavian protagonists are, on the whole, not yet completely cynical or hardened – except perhaps for Lisbeth, who has been abused to the point of psychosis – rather, they are dour and stoical. These police, reporters, forensic scientists and private citizens dragged into crime investigations are baffled as well as angry. They still seem to believe there has been, or should be, a system in place with a consensual social contract of compassion and altruism, but they see it corrupted and disappearing (particularly in Sweden and Norway, apparently) and they feel betrayed. There are bad apples among the law enforcers, but they are usually minor characters and there to provide a contrast to what is clearly the proper way to think and behave. Mostly, the police are not the disillusioned and under-educated bullies we are used to, with only the heroes among them struggling to maintain integrity and honour and fight for the right. Politicians and other authorities are the same. They are thoughtful and often have a (rather bleak) philosophical bent. They respect the individuals they deal with; they try to maintain a protective role; they subscribe to notions of social justice and equality for all. The protagonists in these novels think and talk about these things in a way that is not common in Western crime writing. They do not yet assume that the system is beyond salvation, and though as readers we know they are fighting a losing battle, we’re barracking for them.
I’m interested in the nostalgic sense of watching something good, even if it never really existed, apparently disappearing from view (there may even be some schadenfreude here); I like being educated by these books so that I have some sense now of the different histories of the various countries and the differences that are still struggling to exist even as they all slide inexorably towards a homogenised global culture; I like the thoughtful characters and the way I come away from these books thinking about the process of social disintegration as much as the results, about the world-view as much as the plots. These novels add something new to the canon – a level of sensibility that is an original contribution to the conventions of the genre.
I am virtually at the stage where I will buy any crime novel by a Scandinavian author and I hope there are hundreds of translators slaving away at manuscripts at this moment and that this year will bring a whole new crop of Nordics.
*Some recent names to look for are: Kristina Ohlson (Swedish); Johan Theorin; (Swedish); Arnuldar Indridason (Icelandic); Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Icelandic); Roslund and Hellström (Swedish); Tove Jansson (Finnish); Matti Joensuu (Finnish); Camilla Läckberg (Swedish); Karin Alvtegen (Swedish); Karin Fossum (Norwegian); Ăsa Larsson (Swedish); Mari Jungstedt (Swedish); Hans Koppel (Swedish); Mikkel Birkegaard (Danish); Thomas Enger (Norwegian).