The thrillers who came in from the cold
With no end in sight to the surge in Scandinavian crime writers, Declan Burke went in search of the cause
With the second movie of the Millennium Trilogy coming at the end of August, a Hollywood remake of the first movie already in the works, and the discovery of a fourth Blomkvist-Salander novel on his computer, it's fair to say that the publishing phenomenon that is Stieg Larsson has some way yet to run.
Aficionados of the genre, however, are aware that Scandinavian crime writing has much more to offer than Stieg Larsson. The Sweden-set Martin Beck novels written by husband-and-wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are considered a milestone in the evolution of the realist crime novel, while Henning Mankell is a household name, particularly for his Kurt Wallander novels.
A whole new generation of Scandinavian crime writers have emerged in the past decade, however. While the sub-genre has its roots in Sweden, the crime novel is now indigenous to Norway and Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Writers such as Karin Fossum, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Jo Nesbo, Jan Costin Wagner, Karin Alvtegen, Hakan Nesser, KO Dahl, Camilla Lackberg, Leif Davidsen, Arnaldur Indridason and Gunnar Staalesen are hugely popular not only at home, but increasingly so abroad too.
The conventional theory has it that the assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 had a seismic impact on the Swedish psyche, one consequence of which was an explosion in crime writing. Given the seriousness of the catalytic event, the crime novels were taken seriously by the Swedish literati, resulting in an ever-increasing quality of writing and criticism.
Swedish author Hakan Nesser, on the other hand, takes an irreverent approach to the question of why there has been such a boom in Scandinavian crime writing.
"When I'm in my most optimistic mood I tend to answer, 'It's due to the fact that we are such damned good writers,'" he says. "Right now we probably have the world's largest number of good crime writers per capita, but please be aware that we also have the world's largest number of bad crime writers!
"There is no such thing as a 'Swedish way' of writing a crime story," he continues. "We are all different. The only thing we have in common is that we write in Swedish. Any reader who reads a book by Stieg Larsson, a book by Karin Alvtegen and a book by myself will realise this immediately. We all have different styles, different plots, different aims and agendas."
Finnish author Jan Costin Wagner agrees. "Basically I think that every author has to find their own language," he says, "their own key topics, characters and ways of approaching a story. And, of course, not each Scandinavian crime novel is a good one.
"But apart from that, I think that many Scandinavian crime writers understand how important it is to be serious and committed to their story and their characters."
Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir believes that Iceland offers a unique setting for the crime novel.
"Iceland, with its 300,000 inhabitants, is a whole lot smaller population-wise than most countries," she says.
"As a result, the atmosphere here is still quite similar to that of a small town, despite our attempts at becoming cosmopolitan. This allows for complex interactions and ties between characters that differ greatly from those one expects in stories that take place in a big city. Another ingredient of the social fabric that differentiates us from other western countries is an unusually high belief in the occult and the supernatural, which adds an element that would probably strike a false note in crime stories based elsewhere.
"Also," she continues, "old secrets, vendettas and misdeeds might lie dormant here but they are never fully forgotten -- or forgiven. When the social aspects just described are coupled with the smorgasbord of eerie scenery my geologically active country has to offer, Iceland thankfully has the makings of a wonderful backdrop for good, fun and creepy murders."
While Sigurdardottir highlights the physical and social aspects of her settings, Wagner identifies a more psychological appeal.
"I don't feel committed to a 'school of writing'," he says, "because I want to stay committed to my own inner movement: that is most important for everything I write. I feel close to the Scandinavian crime writing because Scandinavians quite often stay focussed on the inner, maybe hidden, life of a story and a character. I like novels which surprise the reader by finding their way beyond cliche. I like the silent moments, the words that are hidden behind the lines; I also like the silent showdown and not so much the bombastic one, which is based on a kind of formal, expected resolution."
The idea that the modern Scandinavian crime novel offers a blend of social realism and a more introspective take on the traditional crime narrative is echoed by Hakan Nesser.
"Ingmar Bergman is a cineastic icon around the world," he says, "and for most people a Bergman character is the true essence of a Swede: gloomy, depressive, suicidal, tragic, silent and deeply, fundamentally unhappy. But interesting, somehow.
"I like to think that the above is not an accurate description of our national character," he says, "but in all cliches there is an element of truth. And actually -- though I find it a little hard to acknowledge -- such stereotypes might be good material for characters in a crime story: morose men and women who can store grudges inside themselves for half of a lifetime, and then one day take desperate but calculated action like a bolt out of the blue."
Hakan Nesser's 'The Inspector and Silence', Mantle.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir's 'Ashes to Dust', Hodder & Stoughton.
Jan Costin Wagner's 'Silence', Harvill Secker