April 2012

Mysterious Sweden

Turns out LISBETH SALANDER is far from alone when
it comes to compelling plots and intriguing characters in
Nordic crime fiction



So you’ve read Stieg Larsson’s three Millennium novels and seen the movies. Maybe you’ve read Henning Mankell, whose 11 books about inspector Kurt Wallander began appearing in English in 1997. Many of Mankell’s other books—a handful of stand-alone crime stories and more than a dozen literary novels—have also been translated.

Swedish crime novels are nothing new: The first was Stockholmsdetektiven (Detective from Stockholm), pseudonymously written by Fredrik Lindholm in 1893. It’s pretty bad. In the late 1960s, Swedish crime fiction went international with partnered writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s 10-volume police procedural The Story of a Crime, starring detective Martin Beck.

The fourth book in the series, The Laughing Policeman, won the 1971 Edgar Award for Best Novel. But although Swedish crime authors remained popular in translation throughout much of Europe—after Sjöwall-Wahlöö and with the exception of Mankell—they largely disappeared from English-language bookstores. Until Larsson dragged them back on his coattails.

Where once was a famine, now is a feast: more than 100 mystery writers in Sweden and another 100 or so in Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. And many appear in English. Here are the best authors of the recent Swedish invasion...

Leif G.W. Persson: A professor of criminology at the Swedish National Police Board, Persson has penned novels since 1978, though so far, only two are available in English. Start with 2002’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, the first in his trilogy based on the murder of a Swedish prime minister. (Most of this writer’s fiction is inspired by actual Swedish murders.) It’s continued by Another Time, Another Life, due this year; the final volume, Falling Free, As in a Dream, will be out in translation next year. Fox recently announced a TV series based on Persson’s novels.

Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström: This ironic writing team—Roslund is a veteran crime reporter, Hellström an ex-criminal who now works in crime prevention—also bases its plots on current events. The five novels featuring Inspector Ewert Grens are faster paced and stronger on plot than most Swedish crime fiction. The first is The Beast, though the most highly regarded is the award-winning Three Seconds.

Lars Kepler: This is the collective pen name for husband-and-wife team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. As Kepler, they write possibly the most atypical of  Swedish crime thrillers: action-oriented, inventive, with over-the-top plots and larger-than-life heroes and criminals. The gripping first novel, The Hypnotist, centers on detective inspector Joona Limma and clinical hypnotist Eric Maria Bark. The second, The Nightmare, is even stronger and will be out here in early July.

Liza Marklund: For entertaining, breezy crime tales, get to know Marklund’s tough female tabloid reporter Annika Bengtzon: The Bomber is her first book, and the second, Studio Sex, is a prequel. In the U.S., Marklund’s books aren’t issued in order, but to get a taste, try the fifth in the series, Red Wolf, with an eponymous villain Amazon calls a cold-blooded killer with the soul of a lover.

Åsa Larsson: The action in tax lawyer Larsson’s series featuring district attorney Rebecka Martinsson and detective inspector Anna-Maria Mella takes place near Kiruna, 1,000 miles north of Stockholm. Larsson writes toned-down, harrowing novels in the bleak and psychological Swedish tradition. Her debut is Sun Storm, winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award, followed by the taut Blood Spilt.

Håkan Nesser: Also in the bleak-and-psychological category is literary writer Nesser, who, in addition to 14 crime and mainstream novels, has written 10 books chronicling retired inspector Van Veeteren in a never-named Northern European country with characteristics borrowed from Sweden, Holland, Poland and Germany. The first of them, The Mind’s Eye, received the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy prize for new authors in 1993.

Kristina Ohlsson: One of Sweden’s best younger writers, Ohlsson is a counterterrorism officer with the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Her four novels about detective Fredrika Bergman are strongly plotted, low key and well told. The first, Unwanted, about a child’s murder, was published in the States in February.

The popular response to Stieg Larsson’s novels, which feature a strong female protagonist and the issue of men’s violence against women, has helped many of the best Swedish crime writers find American publishers. But to read the two writers who most share his theme, you’ll have to learn Swedish—at least for the foreseeable future:

Katarina Wennstam: This investigative reporter is known for her strong women characters, clever plots and sense of outrage. Her first two books, Smuts (Dirt) and Dödergök (Dead cuckoo), were bestsellers; her third, Alfahannen (Alpha male), is about sexual abuse in the acting world; and Svikaren (Betrayer), her fourth—the first in a trilogy about a police inspector and a lawyer, both women—has just been published.

Karin Alfredsson: In 2006, this journalist began a series of novels featuring Swedish doctor Ellen Elg with 80 Grader från Varmvattnet (80 degrees from Varmvattnet). In each, Elg examines the sexual politics and situations women face in a different country (Zambia, Vietnam, Poland, India, Dubai and Pakistan). They may not be the strongest crime novels published in Sweden, but they’re certainly among the most important.

JOHN-HENRI HOLMBERG is a Swedish critic, a member of the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy and cowriter of the Edgar-nominated The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson & the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time.