This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

The Crime Wave in Sweden

            I read a Swedish mystery novel (is there any other kind these days?) this past weekend, in this case The Glass Devil by Helene Tursten. It tells the everyday story of a country pastor and his son, who are gunned down in their homes, apparently by Satanists, though if you’re a mystery fan, you have probably figured out already that there is more to it than that.
            The plucky female detective, Irene Huss, follows the trail to the bitter end, doggedly pursuing a path that puts her into contact with Mad Cow Disease, child pornography, African relief efforts, and the decline of the church in Sweden, not to mention her own issues with her husband and teenage daughters.
            Over the past year I’ve been reading a number of Swedish detective novels, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the continuing on to the works of Henning Mankell, Hakan Nesser and Sjowall and Wahloo. Swedish crime lit is definitely a hot item these days.

Stockholm Was No Mayberry

            Why Sweden? Why, for that matter, England between the wars, where the classic detective novel came of age? There seems to be something about a civilized, well-ordered society (especially one where appearances count for a lot) that generates a burst of crime fiction.
            Looking at England when Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others were writing their best work, you would have seen an exceptionally law-abiding and non-violent nation. Probably more murders were committed in fiction there in any one year than took place in the entire first half of the Twentieth Century.
            Similarly, Americans who go to Sweden often remark about how clean, orderly and safe the country seems to us. There is far less gun violence and random violence than here, yet to read most of the authors previously mentioned would be to gain an impression that it’s a nation of psychopaths, and particularly sadistic ones at that.
            Reading one of the Sjowall-Wahloo books, I got a bit of a jolt at a passage in which their detective, Kurt Wallander, reflects about how prevalent crime and drug use have become and how it wasn’t always that way. The passage was written during a time when, in New York, you couldn’t go into Central Park at night, and a female district attorney had her purse snatched at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Stockholm was surely better than that, yet a variation of the Mayberry syndrome, in which the past, and the people in it, were believed to be better than they really were, apparently infects Sweden as well.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

            My Swedish being nonexistent, I have of course been reading these books in translation, but they all sound like variations of a teleplay Jack Webb would have written for Dragnet. Very spare, very direct, not much humor, and keep the story moving forward with lots of terse dialogue.
            And while there’s not much in the way of description or digression, one thing common to all the authors is an awareness of the weather. It’s so seldom good in Sweden that people always notice it and appreciate the good spells. Jonathan Franzen, in an introduction to The Laughing Policeman, pointed out how relentlessly dreadful the weather was and with how much care and loving detail it was described. (The story takes place from mid-November to March.) The wintry souls of the killers in these books are mirrored in the bleak climate and landscapes they describe so well.
            Which got me to thinking that since February is the month when winter doesn’t let go (even in California), I’m going to make a point of reading an Italian mystery this month.