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.

"The Girl Who Played With Fire"

Having read close to 30 Scandinavian crime novels over the last several months, I can come to only one conclusion: Scandinavia is a bleak, ungodly, extraordinarily violent place to live. The capitals are seething hot pots of murder. In Oslo, a serial killer slips red diamond pentagrams under the eyelids of his victims (Jo Nesbø's The Devil's Star), while in Stockholm a stalker terrorizes young girls in public parks (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's The Man on the Balcony). The situation is even worse at the local level. Take, for instance, Ystad, population 17,000, a quaint fishing village on Sweden's southern shore best known for its high-speed ferry terminal. It has suffered, in the novels of Henning Mankell, the following horrors: the torture and execution of an elderly farmer and his wife ( Faceless Killers); the torture and execution of two men who are found floating off the coast in a life boat ( The Dogs of Riga); the impalement of a retired bird-watcher on sharpened bamboo poles ( The Fifth Woman); and the self-immolation of a teenage girl ( Sidetracked). Each of these crimes—and many, many more—is committed by a different killer and all within just three years. In terms of per capita incidence of violent crime, Mankell's Ystad would rank behind Mosul but well ahead of Johannesburg and Mogadishu.

Fortunately, more people are murdered every year in the pages of Scandinavian crime novels than are murdered in Scandinavia itself. The homicide rates in Scandinavian countries are among the lowest on the planet. This year, the Global Peace Index ranked Denmark and Norway the second and third most peaceful countries. Sweden came in 13th. The Nordic countries also consistently rank as the happiest countries in the world. It is not surprising to observe a trend of Chinese novels about Communist oppression or Ugandan novels about child soldiers. But Scandinavian homicide fiction? Why do such peace-loving societies produce internationally best-selling authors like Mankell, Nesbø, Karin Fossum, and Håkan Nesser? How to explain Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, who was the second-best-selling author in the world last year?

There are a few reasons Scandinavian writers have taken to the genre. The crime novel, and particularly the British crime novel, has been enormously popular in Scandinavia for decades. And the famous Nordic pragmatism is well-suited to the intricate mechanics of crime investigation plots. But the best explanation is the most mundane: Crime novels sell. Most of the Scandinavian crime novelists began their careers in other genres. Mankell, for instance, wrote seven well-received but unlucrative novels, and more than a dozen plays, before turning to a life of crime; Karin Fossum was a prize-winning poet; Maj Sjöwall was an editor and translator. Before the current explosion of crime novels, the only contemporary Scandinavian novelist to enjoy major international success was Peter Høeg. Høeg may be a "literary" novelist, but his breakout Smilla's Sense of Snow is about the investigation of a suspected homicide. The lesson is clear: If you want your novel to be read abroad, particularly in the English-speaking world, you'd better include a murder. Even if you've never heard of a murder actually being committed in your country.

A better question: Why have readers taken to these writers? The novels are not formally innovative: With a few exceptions, these are straightforward whodunits, hewing closely to conventional models from the English tradition. Nor does their appeal depend on a "relentlessly bleak view of the world," as a writer for the London Times has put it. Bleak worldviews are not particularly hard to come by in crime novels, no matter what country they come from.

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell's corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

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.")

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.

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