fiction is not new. Most — although by no means all — point
to Sir Edgar Alan Poe, with “ The Murders in the Rue Morgue”,
as the father of the genre in 18411;
even Fridolf Hammar, the first Swedish fictional appeared
over one hundred years ago2.
Yet the origins of the detective story are as old as you please.
Some would say that the Bible abounds in detective stories,
from Cain and Abel to the story of Daniel. Other early models
are medieval tales of chivalry, knights rescuing beautiful
maidens in distress, fighting battles against evil in the
name of justice and honour. There are the Gothic novels of
the late 18th and early 19th centuries, often including a
mystery element. Or indeed as Henning Mankell points out in
his interview later in this Supplement, many a Shakespearean
play has crime, or detective, features.
fiction is a promiscuous genre. It has spread from nation
to nation, language to language, from the 19th century onwards,
influences, parodies, translations, allusions to other — often
foreign — texts abounding. Before Sweden’s home-grown detective-fiction
industry got underway translations of the classics from Poe,
Collins, Garboriau and of Conan Doyle reached 19th-century
Swedish readers, whilst foreign pot-boilers were also in good
supply. Even when Swedish writers emerged in the years before
and after World War One, many writers chose either a foreign
pseudonym or a foreign detective; many played safe with foreign
criminals: this was, after all, light entertainment, and crime
was not to be perceived as something too close to home; the
East End of London was found to be particularly exotic! These
writers of the ’10s and ’20s were also often influenced by
the Scot Conan Doyle, witnessed in the proliferation of eccentric,
arrogant amateur detectives, chivalrous to hysterical damsels,
a fallible professional police force and increasingly bizarre
cases investigated. Detective writing of the period was not
for realists, whether you account for it by the desire for
escapism during times of war and depression, or by the influences
of the mainstream literature of neo-Romanticism with its delight
in exoticisms and the power of the supernatural, and of the
decadence of the fin-de-siecle period.
fiction is a faithful genre, faithful to a set of tacitly
agreed rules. The inter-war years were the heyday in the Anglo-Saxon
world of the new cosy puzzle-writers like Agatha Christie
and Dorothy L Sayers. As Doyle had done in the 19th century,
so too did these quintessentially English novels find a readership
in Sweden during the 1930s. And, once again, the influence
gratefully accepted, Swedish writers set about finding their
own St Mary’s Meads from the 1940s. Although writers like
Stieg Trenter — with his famous descriptions of Sweden’s capital
city — and Maria Lang — with her daring to explore sexual
taboos — detective writing became an intellectual game, based
around an established set of rules. Readers were above all
to be afforded clues and the opportunity — at least in theory
— to be able to work out “whodunit”. Thus the ladies of rural
England introduced the cosy village scenario, the closed group
of suspects, the drawing-room denouement where the gifted
— by now usually professional — detective could stun the assembled
cast with the results of his ratiocination, and most importantly,
could re-establish a sense of order, peace restored.
police officers in Sweden were often elevated to chief crime-solvers
in the novels of the post-war murder mystery, they were often
eccentric, markedly talented, well-to-do men who hobnobbed
with the suspects and their circle of usually bourgeois friends.
Americans Hillary Waugh and Ed McBain, however, took the police
story further. Their police procedurals from the ’50s were
just that: police stories, stories centring on the police.
Whilst the procedural pure and simple has its limitations
(nothing but the rather dull, painstaking minutiae of police
work), the focus on the routine day-to-day work of the investigating
officers, the emphasis on the whole team of police officers
and the introduction of realism are elements which appealed
to husband-and-wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö when they
embarked in the mid ’60s on their series of ten crime novels,
novels which serve to air their views on the ills of bourgeois
Swedish society. Their influence has been clear on subsequent
generations of writers, from K Arne Blom through to the new
stars of contemporary Swedish crime fiction. What we see post-Sjöwall/Wahlöö
is the continued emphasis on professional crime solvers; contemporary
crime novels are no longer traditional whodunits, although
puzzle elements will often be there; contemporary crime novels
are just as likely to afford access to the murderer’s thoughts
as to those of the victim and the police officers involved;
they describe whole teams of crime-solvers, men and women,
as Bo Lundin writes, “with colds sex and lives”3,
often fallible, often drawing blanks, as the title of one
of the Wallander novels (Sidetracked) indicates. And
the best of them will try to do more than write to a formula:
like all good literature, they will also explore fundamental
questions about society and the human condition.
of the variety of crime writing is, I hope, reflected in the
following pages. Maria Lang — perhaps unjustly sneered at
by some crime-fiction aficionados — introduces a heroine who
throws light on the mysteries she encounters by probing human
relationships, and touches upon weighty issues such as homosexuality
and the “deviant”’s marred relationship with society. This
stands in contrast to the witty satire of Sjöwall/Wahlöö’s
“The big fish always get away”. Key Sjöwall/Wahlöö characteristics
are to the fore here: portrayal of the victim and criminal
blurred or ironically reversed4,
corrupt or incompetent uniformed officers, disillusionment
with the corruption of the judicial system. We have Helene
Tursten whose novels to date have shown versatility: in my
chosen extract she reveals in some detail a particularly alarming
type of killer. We have a gentle, overworked, bewildered protagonist
in Åsa Nilsonne’s Monika Pedersen. Liza Marklund moves away
from the police scenario as we follow her female journalist.
Inger Frimansson, in the tradition of some of Kerstin Ekman’s
detective writing, offers a psychological crime story: although
there will be a crime of some sort planned, suspected or committed,
there may not be a detective and we may not be afforded a
tidy solution at the end; the real focus is what is going
on inside the characters’ minds, the writer aiming to understand
the causes or effects of crime.
along with the variety, common themes emerge. Juggling home
and career, facing hostility from male colleagues is seen
in Marklund, Nilsonne and Tursten. Bleak visions of society
are revealed not least in the crime writing of three of Sweden’s
contemporary greats: Edwardson, Mankell and Nesser. Questions
of good and evil, of justice and injustice, spiritual questions
often unanswered are touched upon in, for example, extracts
by Nilsonne and Edwardson.
term “realism” may at times be stretching the point (just
how many serial killers can there be loose in southern Sweden?),
but a number of today’s Swedish crime writers have moved away
from raising the simple question “whodunit” and raise questions
about our society and about our psyche.
E.g. Julian Symons, Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story
to the Crime Novel, Pan, London, 1972 (1992), p.41.
2. Bo Lundin, Århundradets svenska deckare,
Jury, Sundbyberg, 1993, p.10.
3. Bo Lundin, The Swedish Crime Story,
Jury, Sundbyberg, 1981, p.43.
4. E.g. Bertil Widerberg in Brottslig blandning,
Svenska Deckarakademien, PLUS, Stockholm, 1978, p.28.