Why do Scandinavians write such great crime fiction?

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July 8 2009 7:02 AM

Scandinavian Crime Wave

Why the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers.

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Stieg Larsson, like many of the other successful Scandinavian crime novelists, began in the straight world, editing an anti-racism magazine and several science fiction fanzines and writing political journalism. In 2004, shortly before dying of a heart attack, Larsson completed the first three novels of a planned decology. The second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire, will be out in the States this July and will likely confirm Larsson's position as the most successful crime novelist in the world. His novels mark the apotheosis of the genre—they are not only the best-selling, but they are also the most frenzied and exhaustive examples of the form.

To an even greater extent than Mankell, Larsson is adept at heightening the contrast between his setting, contemporary Stockholm, and the tawdriness of the crimes that drive his plots. Larsson's Stockholm manages to be both cosmopolitan and charmingly quaint. It's not unlike the Ikea approach—modish design with a side of Swedish meatballs. (Larsson, in fact, sets an entire scene at the store; when a character moves into a new apartment, she goes on a shopping spree, buying 12 items, including an "Ivar combination storage unit," a "Pax Nexus three-door wardrobe," and a "Lillehammer bed.")

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Larsson worked hard to keep his references up to date. His characters use iPods, iBooks, and BlueTooth technology; they track criminal suspects on Google; and the plots of both novels rely on the efficient machinations of a mysterious international network of nerd computer hackers. Yet Larsson's main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a hard-charging investigative journalist at that vestige from the print age, a weekly newsmagazine. His heroine, 24-year-old cyberpunk Lisbeth Salander, is horny, bisexual, and covered with tattoos and piercings but is also passionate about chess, mathematics, and women's lib.

Larsson's sentences are dead on arrival. (When Blomkvist enters the apartment of a young couple and discovers that they've been murdered, he feels "an icy shiver run down his neck. … She had been shot in the face. … The flow of blood was if possible even greater than that from her partner.") But the crimes themselves are surprising. The murder victims are young leftist do-gooders: a journalist and a doctoral student, who have teamed up to investigate an underground sex trafficking ring in Sweden. Gradually, as if pulling a scab off a wound, Larsson exposes a scummy underworld of corrupt cops, meat-fisted thugs, sleazy government operatives, and sadistic child rapists. When these goons intrude upon the world of glossy magazines and Ikea, the result is pleasantly discordant.

Much of the attraction of the Mankells and Fossums is that even when their novels are based in cities, they rarely lose the quaint, small-town feel and the reassuringly mechanical, ticktocking plots. Larsson may have provided a new direction for Scandinavian fiction. In his novels, he moved decisively away from classic whodunit, man-in-a-locked-room crime plots, favoring, instead, capacious, messy romps that buzz with the tech-savvy cosmopolitanism of the moment. Then again, maybe the genre will keep putting along as always, with catatonic detectives tramping across frozen tundra. As long as there's a dead Nord, it's hard to go wrong.

Nathaniel Rich is the author ofThe Mayor's Tongue, a novel, and San Francisco Noir, a book of film criticism.

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