The Mystery in Sweden

The focus of this column is Sweden and the long and distinguished historical evolution of the mystery in that northern clime. The first genuine, indigenous mystery author was Frederik Lindholm who published Stockholmsdetekiven (The Stockholm Detective) in 1893. In the early part of the 20th Century the English influence was clear in the work of S.A. Duse and J. Regis who wrote 14 novels featuring a Holmes clone. Sture Stig (aka Oscar Wagman) wrote a number of very clever parodies on Holmes. Even a Raffles-like character was created by Frank

Heller (aka Martin Gunnar Serner) whose many shady exploits often took him to the continent. From the early 1940's on, the mystery in Sweden became enormously popular and can be characterized by two very distinctive traits. The first is the strong sense of place exhibited by many authors and, second, the use of the mystery as a very important mirror of the political, social, and economic policies and processes in a welfare oriented state.

The first tendency is most strongly represented by Stig Trenter who wrote Stockholm based novels from 1944 to the late 1960's. His photographer was the hero who helped a less talented police inspector solve crimes in which the districts of Stockholm are the main features of the stories. These works were so strongly reflective of the City's geography, the term "Trenter Syndrome" was coined to characterize this tendency. Maria Lang (aka Dagmar Lange) in the late 1940's created a sexy female narrator who explored a number of rare themes, including lesbianism, and focused her stories in the little town of Skoga. Another writer of the 40's, Vic Suneson (aka Sune Lundquist) set his stories in the seedier sections and working class districts of Stockholm. By the 1950's R.K. Ronblom wrote stories set in small towns. His hero was a historian and the writing was of a very high literary quality. Swedish pharmacist and writer Nils Hovenmark (1922-1995) wrote a very popular mystery series in the 1970s featuring Sheriff Vilhelm Lundberg. He used his professional expertise to employ poisons in crimes and was very conscious of ideology and politics in his small town mysteries.

The social mirror trend in Swedish mysteries is clearly and superbly reflected in the work of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. This remarkable couple wrote a set often mystery novels that were planned to trace the societal changes in the country via the changing attitudes and perspectives of their hero, homicide policeman Martin Beck. Beginning in 1965 with Roseanna and ending in 1975 with The Terrorists, they document the evolution of Swedish society via the behavior of the police. They document a reversal of roles for the police, beginning with an orderly, right-minded organization to one in which the unrest and malaise in the society is clearly reflected and the police become corrupt and brutal. The couple had strong communist leanings and were distressed at what they perceived to be the evolution of a welfare state gone awry. All ten of these novels have been translated into English and published in the U.S. The 1970 volume The Laughing Policeman - won an Edgar in America. (The other seven titles include, The Man Who Went Up In Smoke, 1966: The Man on the Balcony, 1967: The Fire Engine That Disappeared, 1969: Murder at the Savoy, 1970: The Abominable Man, 1971: The Locked Room, 1972: Cop Killer, 1974).

From the 1960's on, the American influence was strongly felt in Swedish mysteries. Anders Jonason attempted with some success to emulate the Chandler/ Hammett hard-boiled style in a Stockholm setting. The current president of the International Crime Writer's Association, K. Arne Blom, has contributed a number of semi-tough, politically oriented mysteries set in the university city of Lund (The Moment of Truth, 1977 and The Limits of Pain, 1979, both translated into English). More recently Henning Mankell has brought his considerable writing skill to the public. His Faceless Killers (1991) traces the exploits of a set of murderers of a Swedish farm family but also uncovers a rather violent xenophobic sentiment among the usually tolerant Swedes. This effort won Sweden's Best Mystery Award. He has published eight mysteries in the Kurt Wallander series and one in his new Linda Wallender series. Mankell has become a truly international star in the genre.

Another recent example of Swedish writers is Kerstin Ekman. Her novel Blackwater is a wonderfully taut story set in northern Sweden on the Norwegian border. The sometimes bleak, often awesome region is a wondrous setting that underlines the tension and racial stress between Lapps (Sami) and the local Swedes. She has won the Nordic Council Prize and Swedish Academy prize for her work. She has published seven mysteries to date, the latest being City of Light.

Recently a gaggle of new Swedish mystery writers have produced a swarm of exciting novels. Hakan Nesser features Chief Inspector Van Veeteren (or "VV") in a series of excellent mysteries. He has won a number of prizes for his work in Europe. Borkman's Point was published in 2006 and The Return in 2007. Ake Edwardson, a professor at Gothenburg University, has created Chief Inspector Erik Winter who solves crimes in his twelve novels- the latest is Frozen Tracks. He has won the Swedish Crime Writer's prize three times!

Kjell Eriksson recently won the crime Writer's award for the Princess of Burundi. His Inspector Ann Lindell is an interesting crime solver in Uppsala. His most recent contribution is The Cruel Stars of the Night. Helene Tursten is another bright star on the Swedish scene with her Inspector Irene Huss, a wife and mother, and a tireless crime solver in Goteburg. A very new writer is Asa Larsson. She features a Stockholm lawyer as her heroine who solves crimes in her hometown of Kiruna in the north of Sweden. Her first novel, Sun Storm, is truly outstanding and captures the town and countryside brilliantly. Inger Frimansson is another talented and celebrated writer who has won the Crime Writer's Prize twice - most recently (2005) for Shadow on the Water. Finally, there is one of the stars of Swedish crime fiction today Karin Alvtegen, a creator of very well written psychological mysteries. Of her five novels, Shadow, Shame, Betrayal, Missing and Guilt, all but the latter have been translated and published in English.

Mysteries have been enormously popular in Sweden since the 1940's and continue to attract a national and international reading audience. For an excellent review especially of early Swedish mysteries one might try to find the succinct and very useful volume by Bo Lundin, The Swedish Crime Story (Bodonitryck, Sundyberg, Sweden, 1981).

Sweden is a truly special source of outstanding mystery writers. Just as in the U.S. women writers are claiming a large share of the public readership. These Swedes are very talented and they know their place and their social systems and allow their readers to share the Nordic experience vicariously.


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