Our tour of the Nordic nations has taken us to Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Finland, and that leaves just one last destination – Sweden. It’s the largest of the Scandinavian countries by both land area and population. Even so, fewer than than 10 million people live there. In terms of crime fiction, Sweden definitely punches above its weight internationally, and there are a great many excellent books to choose from.
Where it all began
Arguably, the Nordic noir tradition began with the Martin Beck series penned by the writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. They also created a new style of police procedural that was unflinching in its delivery of accurate detail, focusing on how evidence is really used in an investigation and not afraid if the story took a little more time to tell. Around this, they generated tension not necessarily through the action but via a quiet and creeping atmosphere. This is easily seen in the work of other Nordic authors they have influenced such as the Hammers in Denmark, Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, and Jorn Lier Horst in Norway.
Rosanna, published in 1965, introduced the detective Martin Beck and his murder squad. The husband-and-wife socialist writing team of Sjöwall and Wahlöö delivered nine further books in the series before the latter’s untimely death in 1975. With this series, it really is worth starting at the beginning with Rosanna and savouring each new episode as Beck develops. The novels highlight the challenging things that can fall between the cracks in the social democratic societies the Scandinavian countries have been building since World War II.
Their brilliance has extended to television, and to the big screen. The Beck crime drama series has been a big hit in the UK with Peter Haber in the main role. Using Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s characters, its makers have modernised things with mobile phones and the internet, but the complex cases still deal with social issues from xenophobia to the stifling nature of bureaucracy. Intelligent crime fiction you won’t be able to put down.
There are three dragons in Norse mythology, but they play a relatively minor role. The creature is far more prominent in Nordic noir thanks to Stieg Larsson, whose first novel was going to be called Men Who Hate Women. That title was changed to something more intriguing – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and thus began the legend. If the Martin Beck series initiated the Nordic noir tradition, it was the Millennium series, featuring the anti-social hacker Lisbeth Salander, which made it a global phenomenon during the mid-noughties.
Its influence on publishing globally cannot be underestimated. At the cosmetic level, just think how many books today have the words ‘the girl’ in their titles. Larsson produced a crime series that dealt with misogyny in a meaningful way, with a complicated female protagonist who defied the usual stereotypes. It was also one of the first where mobile phones and the internet were used realistically within the plot. Larsson’s invention of Salander led to a whole generation of unusual female protagonists in the US and the UK, and you’ll still read the phrase ‘The next Lisbeth Salander’ in press releases today.
Then there’s the fascinating story of the author himself – a left-wing, campaigning journalist who was physically threatened by far right thugs, and who was inspired to write the books after witnessing a gang rape. He died before his novels were published, so like Vincent Van Gogh was unable to enjoy the worldwide acclaim his work received. According to The Bookseller, Millennium is the second biggest selling crime series of all time in the UK.
As much as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is recommended reading, along with The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, you should definitely check out the Swedish films that capture the storyline for the big screen. David Fincher’s Hollywood adaptation of the first book, with Daniel Craig as the journalist Blomqvist and Rooney Mara as Salander, is also compelling viewing. The unlikely pair try to find out what happened to Harriet Vanger, a young woman who disappeared in the 1960s. There are even Dragon Tattoo graphic novels – adapted by none other than Denise Mina.
The book series continues with Swedish author David Lagercrantz on keyboards. The Girl in the Spider’s Web came out last year, and saw Salander fighting to save an autistic child and coming up against her kin once again. The as yet untitled Millennium V comes out in September 2017.
Peace and quiet
Tonally, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series has more in common with the Martin Beck books than the more action-oriented Millennium series, but is must-read material. The detective became hugely popular in the UK thanks to the Swedish TV series starring Krister Henriksson as the unassuming Wallander. The books are surprisingly nuanced and explore not just complex investigations but the more existential issues the detective faces. Loneliness, a stressful job, the fear of death…
The character first appeared in Faceless Killers, and the series ran up until 2009 when The Troubled Man was published. Henning Mankell was married to the daughter of the film director Ingmar Bergman, and passed away in 2015 after battling cancer. Like Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Stieg Larsson, he was left-leaning and brought issues like immigration, racism, religious zeal and alienation into his stories, but in an even-handed way. They never seem didactic.
As well as Krister Henricksson, Kenneth Branagh has played the role of Wallander in an English version of the programme, notable for Branagh’s understated style as well as the beautiful way in which it was filmed. For atmosphere, try the early Swedish made-for-TV adaptation of The Dogs of Riga, the second novel in the series, with Rolf Lassgard as Wallander. It looks dated today but somehow it does capture the melancholy of the books quite nicely – not to mention the Swedish climate, which always features strongly.
The Swedish journalist Jan Arnald has had great success in Sweden writing crime novels as Arne Dahl. His Intercrime series has been turned into a television series, and four of the ten novels so far have been translated into English. A fifth, Watching You, is due out in 2017. Intercrime is a special investigation unit based in Stockholm and devoted to crimes with national or international dimensions to them – serial killers, terrorism, organized crime… that sort of thing. There’s a grittiness to these stories. Bad Blood, second in the series, does in fact feature quite a bit of the stuff. The writer has developed an extensive team of characters, each with unique skills, and the interplay between them – including their affairs and so forth – might just be what hooks you as much as the crime stories. It’s just wonderful that former World’s Strongest Man, Magnus Samuelsson, plays one of the detectives in the TV series. No messing with him.
With all the great crime shows and films Sweden has produced, it’s little wonder a number of scriptwriters have become crime novelists in their own right. Husband and wife Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, for instance, worked with Sjöwall and Wahlöö characters for the TV series Beck. Now they’re channeling the founders of Nordic noir even further with their own books, including Spring Tide and Third Voice. Featuring the detectives Olivia Ronning and Tom Stilton, they are the first two books in the series to be translated into English, with two more to come.
Things have come neatly full circle, with Spring Tide turned into a 10-part TV drama. The book’s first three pages are utterly gripping and in themselves will make you read to the end. A pregnant woman has been buried up to her neck on the beach, and the tide is coming in… Terrifying.
The seasons feature heavily in Johan Theorin’s Oland series as well. The Baltic resort island of Oland is the setting, and each mystery takes place at a different time of year, beginning with autumn and Echoes from the Dead. The author is a wonderful storyteller and once you start reading the first novel you’ll just have to add the winter, spring and summer books to your list. The final in the series, The Voices Beyond, begins with a vessel at sea carrying a dead crew, plus one living man who happens to be wielding an axe. Young Jonas Kloss catches a glimpse of the carnage while out paddling on the sea and flees to safety, but passes the story on to a pensioner who starts looking into matters.
More Swedish gold
Other Swedish crime authors you should try include Camilla Lackberg and Leif G W Persson. The former has had huge international success with her series featuring Erica Falck and Patrik Hedstrom, set in the western town of Fjallbacka. Falck is a writer, Hedstrom a detective, they live together, and they solve crimes that often have links back into the past. The Hidden Child, shot for Swedish cinema in 2013, is the fifth in the series and revolves around an old Nazi medal Erica finds in the attic. She shows it to an elderly history teacher, who two days later is beaten to death.
Where Lackberg’s work brings thriller elements to the fore, criminologist and author Leif G W Persson puts the emphasis onto investigative procedure. He’s had six novels translated into English, and his character Evert Backstrom became the basis of the American crime/comedy television series, Backstrom. Portland, Oregon takes the place of Stockholm as the setting.
Perhaps Persson’s best work is The Dying Detective. With it, he joined fellow Swedes Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Johan Theorin as a Glass Key Award winner – the highest prize in Scandinavian crime fiction. It was certainly the best Swedish book translated into English in 2016, and revolves around a retired detective who picks up an old rape and murder case as it reaches the statute of limitations, making for an interesting moral dilemma once the killer is cornered.
If you enjoy tasting new blood, Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl is the book to grab. Originally published as three novels in Sweden, Harvill Secker combined them into one 700-page whopper of a crime epic for the British market. The story is about a detective and a psychologist, who both become involved in the hunt for a serial child murderer. Dark and psychological, it’s set in Stockholm and seriously scary. Hopefully there’s more to come from this writing duo, which is made up of Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist. They are also musicians and poets.
Finally, how about something a little bit more left field? Hard Cheese is certainly an unusual title for a crime novel, and it is Swedish author Ulf Durling’s take on the classic locked-room mystery format. A group of old men – members of a mystery club – take on the task of solving the case of Axel Nilsson. The police are calling it a suicide but the old fellows find inconsistencies in that conclusion. The book was originally written in 1971 and makes for a wonderful, and different, Golden Age style puzzler.
Have we missed any stars of Swedish crime fiction? Let us know in the comments below!