Mysteries go global, part two: Scandinavia

October 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

From our consideration of Alexander McCall Smith (Part One), we moved on to the Scandinavians. The Nordic genius in this genre first became apparent with the ten Martin Beck procedurals written between 1965 and 1975 by the Swedish journalists (and husband and wife team) Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. (If you’re going to read just one title by this gifted pair of writers, I recommend The Laughing Policeman.)

Led by Henning Mankell, whose works began appearing in translation in Western Europe in the late 1990’s,  Sweden has recently staged a crime fiction Renaissance. I particularly like Kjell Eriksson, whose Demon of Dakar made my Best of 2008 short list. (And I’m also a fan of Mankell’s Wallander novels. The first one I tried was One Step Behind; I still consider it one of the most gripping police procedurals I’ve ever read.)

Recently Stieg Larsson created a sensation first in Europe and then in this country. Larsson is the author of the Millennium Trilogy, which consists of these three novels:  dragon fire hornet(This final title is due out here in May of next year.)

Here’s a list of the awards that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was either nominated for or won:

2009 Anthony Award for Best First Novel
2009 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel
2009 Macavity Award for Best First Novel
Finalist 2008 International Dagger Award
Finalist 2009 Anthony Award for Best Mystery

When I started this book a couple of weeks ago, I had some misgivings. To begin with, I didn’t realize that Dragon Tattoo is not a police procedural. This somewhat dampened my initial enthusiasm. Secondly, the novel’s opening gambit was quickly followed by a convoluted tale of financial chicanery. This made my eyes glaze over. But then the protagonist, an investigative journalist names Mikael Blomkvist, receives an intriguing offer from Henrik Vanger, a wealthy, reclusive tycoon. Vanger’s much-loved niece Harriet had disappeared some forty years previous. He wants someone to find out what happened to her, and he believes Blomkvist has a chance to succeed where all others, including the police, have failed. Blomqvist, meanwhile, is due to serve a brief prison term for the crime of slander. He needs a diversion, and he needs a new source of income. Taking on this task would provide both, and so he accepts Vanger’s offer.

And from the moment that Blomqvist begins his investigation, I was hooked. Although initially daunted by this  novel’s length – the paperback is just under 600 pages – I found myself reading at speed. Larsson is a great storyteller; his narrative flows smoothly and is delightfully peppered with witty asides and observations. References to modern technology are up to date but not intrusive. I found myself like Blomkvist very much and rooting for him. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander the eponymous tattooed girl. Lisbeth is a unique and in some ways perverse character. I’m not sure how I feel about her, but I am pretty sure she wouldn’t care one way or the other!

Stieg Larsson’s own life story reads like a novel. A journalist like his protagonist, he died of a massive heart attack in 2004. He was fifty years old and had lived just long enough to complete his trilogy. Click here to read Val McDermid’s appreciation of this writer.

Like Sweden, Norway is currently the home of several fine writers of crime fiction.

water I am currently reading The Water’s Edge, Karin Fossum’s latest Inspector Sejer novel, and enjoying it as much as I have the other entries in this fine series. Fossum’s writing is marked by an economy of expression and shrewd insight into the vagaries of the human heart – the same qualities that make Ruth Rendell’s books so irresistible. Sejer and the other characters engage in conversations that are profound and provocative; one is glad to have had the chance to overhear them. Fossum’s novels tend to be rather bleak; nonetheless, I find them extraordinarily compelling.

(I am reminded of a comment made by Jake Kerridge in an article in the The Telegraph, “Efficient Mystery with Light Emotional Wallowing,” Kerridge observes: ” The closest most fictional Scandinavian detectives get to making a joke is to point out that man is born only to die.”)

The website of the library at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota features an excellent resource page on Scandinavian crime fiction. In addition, here’s a fine blog on the subject.

The next new author Scandinavian author whose work I’m eager to sample is that of Karin Fossum’s fellow Norwegian, Jo Nesbo. I’m intrigued by the laudatory reviews I’ve read of Redbreast and Nemesis.


Stieg Larsson

Kjell Eriksson

Kjell Eriksson


Karin Fossum


Jo Nesbo

Mankell, Henning

Henning Mankell

Here is what the Salomonsson Agency says on its website about Sjowall and Wahloo:

“If any crime novels deserve to be called modern classics, it must be the ten police procedure novels about Martin Beck and his colleagues: with them, the Swedish writer’s duo Maj Sjöwall (1935-) and Per Wahlöö (1926-1975) virtually created the modern police procedure novel, their imitators count by thousands. The Decalogue of Sjöwall-Wahlöö, written in the sixties and seventies, is nothing less than the Holy Grail of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, a chronicle of the painful creation of modern society.


Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

1 Comment

  1. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Places – Elly Griffiths The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson The Laughing Policeman – Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo Hit Parade and Hit and Run – Lawrence Block Thunder Bay – William Kent Krueger The […]

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