This is part of an article on Scandinavian crime fiction which I wrote during my seemingly endless offline period – actually, only about 2 1/2 weeks since I moved, but had no means of posting online. Yes, I did not waste endless days on social forums and idle chat – but it will probably take me a few days just to wade through all th emails and interactions, to make sure that I don’t miss anything important. And no, I did not finish my novel, although I did make some progress with it. Having to live in boxes and using a box as a desk did not quite work for my fussy, pernickety creative muse!
What is it with the current obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction (loosely defined as crime fiction from those countries suffering bleak winters and darkness for half of the year)? It’s not a new phenomenon: they are rooted in good ancient stock of storytelling in fur-lined caves around a campfire, when there is little to tempt you to go outside. The Gothic imagination of the North – the ghost stories of Scotland, Ireland and England, bloodthirsty Viking tales, the equally gory Nibelungensaga… Yet the latest batch of crime fiction emerges from societies that are well-ordered, neat and contained, where people consistenly report high levels of wellbeing (and fairness and equality) and where serious crime is fairly uncommon. Murders are the exception here rather than the norm. But it’s almost as though there is a fear that under the veneer of civilisation, that dark ancestral spirit is waiting to come out – as it sometimes does (I cannot tell you how devastated and puzzled Norwegian friends were about the shootings last summer).
It is nearly impossible (and not very productive) to lump together all Scandinavian crime fiction as a vast, amorphous mass: there are huge differences between Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both Swedish), not to mention between Iceland, Denmark and Norway. And I am not sure why Finland is habitually ignored and untranslated, as last time I looked, they too were part of Scandinavia, or at least as much as Iceland. Yet if there is one thread that they all have in common, it is that they all use crime as a social commentary and in this sociological perspective they have all been influenced by the godparents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ. Not as well-known as they deserve to be (perhaps because they are not easily available: thank you to Harper for their reissue of the whole series under the Perennial imprint in 2007, translated with great verve by Alan Blair, Joan Tate and Lois Roth).
Written in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reflecting that period of tremendous social change in Sweden and throughout the world, the so-called Martin Beck novels were planned as a series of ten novels by this husband and wife team (and Per Wahlӧӧ managed to live just long enough to complete the final novel in the series). Much has been made of the authors’ Marxist sympathies and their criticism of the perceived failings of the Swedish social democratic welfare state. But you will find no blatant propaganda beating you around the head here: merely razor-sharp observations, small details that can almost be overlooked, comments made by one or the other of the policemen or the people whom they interview. All of which help to place the novels in their time frame, yet not enough to make them feel dated. And there is lots of humour, some gentle, some satirical.
Fifty years on, when the dysfunctional police team led by a middle-aged, sour-faced male detective with a troubled marriage have become clichés, it is hard to appreciate just how fresh and exciting these novels were when they first appeared. Yet some of that freshness and novelty still comes through, even to (comparatively) younger readers like me, who were born after the novels were published, and who have been brought up on a steady diet of gloomy cities where even gloomier detectives investigate crimes that expose the underbelly of a society in decay. The writing is sparse and powerful, no word is carelessly flung on the page. Without fuss, extreme posturing or excessive interior monologues, we are privy to the complexities of characters in this ensemble piece (for, although Martin Beck is the main character, his colleagues Kollberg, Larsson, Melander and Rӧnn are well-rounded figures in themselves, rather than just convenient sidekicks).
It is hard to pick a favourite among all the books, but perhaps ‘The Man on the Balcony’ (third in the series) and ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (fourth) lingered most in my mind, although the series gets more ambitious,complex and darker as it progresses.
So, if you like crime fiction, if you like the Nordic countries, if you admire and devour Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum and all the other Scandinavian crime writers increasingly available in translation, then I do recommend going back to the source: Maj and Per. Their names almost say it all, don’t they? The Ma and Pa of all the writers that came after them…