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Find more Hard-Boiled Gazetteer
In the pages of Booklist over the last 10 years, there have been numerous mentions of the “Scandinavian invasion”—a bit melodramatic, perhaps, but the term does capture the sudden arrival in the U.S. of a wave of outstanding Scandinavian crime novels, most of which have met with immediate success and critical acclaim. Those who don’t follow the genre closely usually react with incredulity when informed of this phenomenon. Scandinavia? How can there be crime novels in such a pristine region, full of nice people, liberal to a fault, the very antithesis of American mean streets?
No region is all that pristine, of course, and you will always find some meanness wherever there are streets, but behind the stereotypes, it is still a legitimate question. Every country has its own crime fiction these days, but why did the Scandinavians suddenly make such an impression in the U.S.? There are two reasons, really, one societal, one literary. It all started, in the broadest possible terms, with the fall of the iron curtain. The breaking down of the Soviet Union, combined with liberal immigration policies in Scandinavia, especially Sweden, sent immigrants pouring into a region that had been defined by its insularity and lack of diversity. The resulting culture clash turned the tables on a lot of societal assumptions, prompting the same kind of racist hate crimes that have plagued the U.S. and other parts of Europe. Here was a hard-boiled melting pot waiting to be cracked.
Henning Mankell cracked it. The appearance in the U.S. of Mankell’s Faceless Killers in 1997 announced the arrival not only of a major author but also of a new landscape. The emergence of the Italian crime novel in this country, which began a bit earlier (see last year’s “Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to Italy”), also had a lot to do with this theme of post–iron curtain crime, but in Italy, the opening of borders simply created a new opportunity for corruption. In Scandinavia, the response was different: shock that it could happen here, and no one has felt that shock more than Mankell’s beleaguered police inspector Kurt Wallander. Wallander struck home with American readers so forcibly because he was so very different from what we had come to expect from the hero of a crime novel.
Much of the attraction of the American hard-boiled hero has been his (or her) unfailing ability to do what we could only dream of doing: stand up to danger with competence, courage, and a smart mouth. Wallander, on the other hand, responds to danger with stooped shoulders and an overwhelming sense that it is more than he can handle: “He saw himself as a pathetic figure, a police officer in a thin sweater, battling the wind in a desolate Swedish town.” Despite being underdressed, Wallander usually does solve the crimes on his plate, but it’s always with a sense that solutions don’t really solve much in an unfathomably chaotic world, one in which—as happens in Mankell’s novel One Step Behind—a psychotic misanthrope kills people because they’re happy.
Not every detective in a Swedish crime novel shares Wallander’s attitude and personality, but his influence is unmistakable. In the numerous series and stand-alones—not only from Sweden but also from Norway, Denmark, and even Iceland—that have been translated into English in the last 10 years, it’s hard to escape a sense that the center is not holding, that crime and criminals have somehow morphed into more than just temporary aberrations from normal life. The majority of the Scandinavian series arriving here, following Wallander’s lead, have been police procedurals, but we are starting to see a wider variety as well, especially psychological thrillers, many of which use the extremes of Scandinavian weather to mirror the disturbed inner lives of their characters. The following list gathers the post-Mankell crowd but also pays homage to Maj Sjöwahl and Per Wahlöö’s classic Martin Beck series, clearly the godfather of modern Scandinavian crime fiction. Original U.S. publication dates appear in all imprints.
Erlendur Sveinnson series, by Arnaldur Indridason.
Representative title: Jar City. Tr. by Bernard Scudder. 2005. St. Martin’s/Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, $21.95 (0-312-34070-2).
If insularity and forbidding climates are central to the landscape of all Scandinavian crime fiction, they are even more prominent when the setting is Iceland, where insularity is often indistinguishable from claustrophobia. That is especially true in Jar City, which finds Reykjavik police inspector Erlendur Sveinnson tracking back the murder of a lonely pensioner and uncovering a genealogical trail whose tentacles appear to stretch throughout the whole country. There is a Ross Macdonald element to all this rummaging in familial closets, but the emotional pain Erlendur feels as he gets closer to the truth recalls Madeleine Nabb and Donna Leon.
A Smilla Jasperson novel, by Peter Høeg.
Representative title: Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Tr. by Tiina Nunnally. 1993. Dell/Delta, $15 (0-385-31514-7).
Høeg’s smash best-seller became The Name of the Rose for the 1990s: a demanding, philosophical novel, rich with theme and character, riding the narrative wave of a crime story—in this case, about a troubled, intensely intelligent Copenhagen woman, the daughter of a Greenland Eskimo, trying to understand the death of a young boy. Never has climate and landscape—a nightmarish, claustrophobic vision of snowbound Copenhagen—been more central to the meaning of a novel than it is here. Where some of Høeg’s other novels have come close to losing their narrative moorings altogether, overcome by the force of the author’s intelligence, in Smilla the demands of the crime story keep the book grounded just enough to give readers something to hold onto.
Ig Heitmann series, by Pernille Rygg.
Representative title: The Butterfly Effect. Tr. by Joan Tate. 1998. Harvill, $26 (1-860-46311-8).
Attempting to determine whether her father was murdered or was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, Oslo research psychologist Ig Heitmann finds herself investigating the apparent suicide of a young girl found dead in a snowdrift. Rygg’s nightmarish vision of present-day Oslo will remind readers of Copenhagen in Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and Ig herself is much like the troubled Smilla: a new sort of European woman—hard-boiled and independent but less optimistic and more vulnerable than her American peers, as if set adrift in a hard-boiled world without the underpinnings of naive idealism that traditionally support the genre’s heroes.
Johanne Vik and Adam Stubo series, by Anne Holt.
Representative title: What Is Mine. Tr. by Kari Dickson. 2006. Warner, $24.95 (0-446-57802-9).
Holt, a former Norwegian Minister of Justice and one of Scandinavia’s most successful crime writers, made her American debut with this first in a trilogy starring Oslo University psychology professor (and former FBI profiler) Johanne Vik and police inspector Adam Stubo. The premise—a partnership between a sensitive male gumshoe and a psychologist—suggests Ridley Pearson’s Lou Boldt and Daphne Matthews series, and indeed Holt’s novel displays the same psychological acuity and pulse-pounding suspense that have made Pearson a best-seller.
Konrad Sejer series, by Karin Fossum.
Representative title: Don’t Look Back. Tr. by Felicity David. 2004. Harcourt, $23 (0-15-101032-3).
Oslo police inspector Sejer is very much in the world-weary, browbeaten Kurt Wallander mold. In this episode, he is called to a small Norwegian village whose residents are torn asunder by the murder of a much-loved 15-year-old girl. Reluctantly forced to disturb the tranquil surface of the seemingly idyllic community, Sejer delicately but decisively cajoles secrets from the tight-lipped townspeople. A disturbing ending, fraught with ambiguity, leaves the reader as unsettled as the shell-shocked visitors.
Vrag Veum series, by Gunnar Staalesen.
Representative title: The Writing on the Wall. Tr. by Hal Sutcliffe. 2004. Arcadia, $17 (1-900850-58-2).
Staalesen’s Oslo-set series, still not widely available in the U.S., is the Scandinavian equivalent to Andrew Vachss’ Burke novels: bleak, distinctly noirish tales about a detective hero who specializes in searching for and avenging lost and abused children. In the police procedural–dominated world of Scandinavian crime fiction (at least that portion available in the U.S.), the Veum novels stand out as the best example from the region of classic hard-boiled detective fiction.
Anders Knutas series, by Mari Jungstedt.
Representative title: Unseen. Tr. by Tiina Nunnally. 2006. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $23.95 (0-312-35157-7).
The summer tourist season on the island of Gotland, off the coast of Sweden, is in jeopardy when a serial killer begins to murder young women. Inspector Anders Knutas, out of the intuitive-provincial school of investigation, is left to bumble his way to solving the crime, with the help of a Stockholm journalist. Knutas, thoroughly engaging in that latter-day Maigret way, is reminiscent of Inspector Van Veeteren in Hakan Nesser’s series (see below). A nice mix of pacing, suspense, and character study.
Ann Lindell series, by Kjell Eriksson.
Representative title: The Princess of Burundi. Tr. by Ebba Segerberg. 2006. St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $23.95 (0-312-32767-6).
Lindell is only the nominal lead in this series, which, like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, stars the entire investigative team in Uppsala, a Swedish town finding itself more and more in the grip of urban crime. The action revolves around the murder of an unemployed welder, a man universally admired for his avoidance of the criminal underworld that has snared his brother. With Christmas approaching, an unshakable melancholy descends on cops and criminals alike, as Eriksson evokes “the gap between people’s dreams and the potential to get off track.” Solid procedural plotting overlaid with a sensitive rendering of inner lives and emotions held in check beyond the breaking point.
An Annie Raft novel, by Kerstin Ekman.
. Tr. by Joan Tate. 1993. Picador, paper, $15 (0-312-15247-7).
This chilling psychological thriller combines the cerebral terror of the best Ruth Rendell with that sense, so strong in the Scandinavian crime novel, of how violent crime can decimate a small, tightly knit community. When Annie Raft and her six-year-old daughter, Mia, come to Blackwater, in the far north of Sweden, to celebrate Midsummer Eve, 1974, they find the bodies of two murder victims. Eighteen years later, with the murders still unsolved, Annie sees the face of the man she saw fleeing the murder scene; unfortunately, he is now dating Mia. Superb use of landscape, with Sweden’s ravaged, clear-cut forests echoing the emptiness in the lives of the townspeople.
Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series, by Hakan Nesser.
Representative title: Borkmann’s Point. Tr. by Laurie Thompson. 2006. Pantheon, $22.95 (0-375-42196-3).
Nesser adds a significant wrinkle to the idea of the world-weary Scandinavian cop: Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is certainly beleaguered in the classic Kurt Wallander style, but like Anders Knutas, in Mari Jungstedt’s series, there is also more than a little Maigret in the Stockholm sleuth. Here he is called to distant Kaalbringen, where an ax-wielding serial killer is on the loose. Relying on intuition and charm, Van Veeteren slowly ingratiates himself into the community and meanders his way toward a solution. The toll that the ever-more-horrific world takes on the easygoing Van Veeteren is more apparent in The Return (2007).
A Constable Thorsson novel, by Kerstin Ekman.
Under the Snow
. Tr. by Joan Tate. 1998. Doubleday, $22.95 (0-385-48866-1).
Ekman is better known for Blackwater (see above), but this much earlier work, published in Sweden in 1961, while lacking the noirish sensibility that Mankell would be bring to Scandinavian crime, is a perfect example of using landscape to evoke mood. Set in a remote village in the far north, the tale concerns the death of an art teacher. Constable Thorsson, an outsider called in to investigate, must pry secrets from the villagers much as Inspector Sejer does in Fossum’s Don’t Look Back. But the real hero is the Arctic setting, as the endlessly dark winters and oppressively sunlit summers take their toll on fragile human emotions.
Eric Winter series, by Ake Edwardson.
Representative title: Sun and Shadow. Tr. by Laurie Thompson. 2005. Viking, $23.95 (0-670-03415-0).
Eric Winter is Sweden’s youngest chief inspector, but his brow is already starting to furrow. A double murder in the coastal city of Gothenburg (a fictionalized version of Göteborg) has Winter and his investigative team baffled, while doubts about his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend and concern for his father, who is dying in Spain, complicate matters. The action, beginning in fall 1999, effectively uses the Y2K panic to heighten the sense of troubled waters approaching. Beyond a similarity to Mankell, this series harkens further back, to Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s early Martin Beck novels (see below), in which another youngish Swedish inspector was beginning to realize that sometimes a crime’s solution solves nothing.
Irene Huss series, by Helene Tursten.
Representative title: Detective Inspector Huss. Tr. by Steven T. Murray. 2003. Soho, $25 (1-56947-303-X).
As in Edwardson’s Eric Winter novels above, Göteborg is the setting for this series starring Detective Inspector Irene Huss. When the apparent suicide of a businessman turns out to be murder, Huss and her colleagues follow a tangled trail that takes them from the haunts of the ostentatiously wealthy to the underworld of drug-dealing biker gangs. Drawing on the same tensions that inform the Kurt Wallander series, Tursten offers a compelling overview of Swedish society, its liberal foundation cracked by racism, drugs, and a new wave of vicious crime. Huss is too young to be truly world weary, but the feminist investigator brings her own set of complexities to the table, as she feels her family endangered by the same forces that threaten society.
Kurt Wallander series, by Henning Mankell.
Representative title: Faceless Killers. Tr. by Steven T. Murray. 1997. Vintage, paper, $13 (1-4000-3157-5).
This first Kurt Wallander novel to arrive in the U.S. remains one of the best examples of the way Mankell, much in the manner of British masters John Harvey and Ian Rankin, mixes compelling procedural details with strong social consciousness. The premise here is at the heart of the new Scandinavian crime novel: when the brutal, seemingly unprovoked murder of an elderly farm couple in a remote area near Ystad seems linked to foreigners, an ugly wave of racist hate crimes grips the region. Wallander, a middle-aged detective (at least at this early point in the series) with no shortage of personal problems, recognizes that this murder may signal a new era of crime in his country and is determined to solve it.
Linda Wallander series, by Henning Mankell.
Representative title: Before the Frost. Tr. by Ebba Segerberg. 2005. New Press, $24.95 (1-56584-835-7).
Every crime novelist faces the problem of a series becoming repetitive. With his Kurt Wallander novels still at the top of the genre, Mankell took preemptive action by turning over star billing, at least temporarily, to Wallander’s daughter, Linda, a rookie patrolman beginning work at her father’s cop shop in Ystad. The result is a fine procedural on its own, but Mankell’s real triumph here is to stay focused on Linda, whose expertise and worldview are entirely different from her father’s but still reveal new and fascinating aspects of Kurt’s character.
Martin Beck series, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.
Representative title: The Laughing Policeman. Tr. by Alan Blair. 1970. Random/Vintage, $11 (0-679-74223-9).
In the minds of many mystery readers, crime fiction will never again attain the level of excellence achieved in the 10 Martin Beck novels by the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Wahlöö and Sjöwall. As precisely detailed procedurals, as indictments of the callousness of Swedish society, as wonderfully nuanced character studies—especially of the dyspeptic Beck, an obvious antecedent of today’s European cops—the Beck series remains as vital today as when the novels were published in the 1960s and 1970s. Even the authors’ Communist sympathies fail to date the books; read today, their social criticism seems as much antigovernment in general, and especially antibureaucratic, as it does pro-Communist. Clearly, the modern European crime novel starts with this series.
Rebecca Martinsson series, by Asa Larsson.
Representative title: The Blood Spilt. Tr. by Marlaine Delargy. 2007. Bantam, $22 (9780385339827).
In two novels starring Stockholm lawyer Rebecca Martinsson, whose roots are in the small northern town of Kiruna, Larsson has used Sweden’s climate superbly. In Sun Storm, in which Martinsson investigates the murder of a fundamentalist minister from a church to which she once belonged, the frozen landscape evokes the church members’ icy inner leaves. In The Blood Spilt, the season is midsummer, and Martinsson is back in Kiruna, where another church member has died. This time the endless daylight suggests another kind of claustrophobia, but one that breeds the same need to release pent-up rage.
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