Crime Scene – Scandinavian Crime

In the last of his articles on crime fiction, Ian Fryer takes a look the contribution that Scandinavian writers have made to the genre.

The first Scandinavian crime fiction to be read in significant numbers worldwide were Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels.  Designed from the outset as a decalogue (a series of ten stories ultimately to be read as one long novel), the characters change and grow older during their ten year span. Besides their value as detective stories, the Beck novels are also fascinating reading for those interested in Swedish social history. The series reflected the socialist viewpoints of Sjöwall and Wahlöö and often had as their backdrop major political events of the day.

The next Swedish crime novelist to be read widely abroad was Henning Mankell, whose Kurt Wallander series achieved massive popularity.  These have a similar focus on the problems of Swedish society (Mankell has for many years been a political activist) and, like the Beck series, sees the characters develop over the course of the novels. 

The popularity of the Wallander books has resulted in a new wave of crime fiction from the whole ofScandinavia.  Crucially, much Scandinavian crime fiction uses crime not merely as an exercise in problem solving but presents it in a wider social context. 

That this wave of crime fiction should originate in Scandinavia has been seen as stemming from two major sources: firstly the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, which remains unsolved and forced the  region to face up to the violence within its society.

Crime fiction proved an ideal forum to discuss these issues and others such as the social tensions caused by a second event, the onset of mass immigration from the former Iron Curtain countries. This made the Wallander novels highly accessible to readers in other countries who were facing similar social problems and alerted grateful publishers to a huge export market.

Stieg Larsson only achieved worldwide fame after his death, shortly before the first book of his ‘Millennium Trilogy’ was published.  Larsson had for many years written for pleasure, with little thought of publication, as a sideline from his day job as editor of the anti-fascist magazine Expo.  He had specific targets in his fiction, especially violence against women (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was originally published in Sweden as Men Who Hate Women), the activities of big business and the extreme right.  Larsson died suddenly with three Millennium novels completed put unpublished and a fourth three-quarters finished.

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