The Bridge creator: Why we love Swedish crime fiction
Well-adjusted people working together to build a more tolerant society. Small wooden summer houses set in rolling countryside. Maypoles and midnight sun. These are just some of the things people associate with modern-day Sweden.
But there’s another Sweden. A hostile, bleak place filled with murder, mystery and intrigue. A place where world-weary detectives spend as much time fighting their inner demons as they do fighting crime. This is the Sweden you can visit on the pages of the best-selling detective novels that have become known throughout the world as Scandinavian-noir.
And it’s a genre that’s become famous around the world thanks to The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo book and film series, and the intensely gripping hit Swedish TV crime series The Bridge.
Swedish writer Hans Rosenfeldt, the creative force behind The Bridge, grew up on a steady diet of British and American crime shows, the classic stories of Stephen King, and also Swedish detective novels.
Rosenfeldt says the template for Scandinavian noir was set by Swedish couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1960s and 1970s, when they wrote a series of books that charted shifts in Sweden’s real-life social, political and economic climate through a fictional police detective called Martin Beck.
“Sjöwall and Wahlöö turned policemen into people and created criminals who were much more than simply one-dimensional monsters,” says Rosenfeldt. “They came up with characters you wanted to know more about and could return to.”
The final Beck novel was published in 1975, and since then the work has inspired a whole host of Swedish crime writers – including Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) and Camilla Läckberg, who have all taken Beck’s blueprint and used it to bring Scandinavian-noir blinking into the international spotlight.
It’s almost as if Swedish writers are inexorably drawn to the genre, and Rosenfeldt, now one of Scandinavian-noir’s most original and exciting voices, says crime fiction is simply a tradition in Sweden.
“No Swedish public holiday would be complete without detective shows filling the TV schedules,” he says. “Sweden even hosts an international crime writing festival – ‘Crimetime Gotland’ – where people come from all over the world to meet authors, attend crime-writing courses, solve mysteries and watch films.
“Detective novels are an effective way of documenting the times we live in. If you look at some of the crime novels released recently, they all deal with contemporary issues, such as terrorism and the plight of child refugees. With this genre, we are able to hold a mirror up to ourselves and our society.”
As for Rosenfeldt’s own passion for crime writing: “I love creating fictional worlds filled with characters and situations that I can control. It’s fun to play God for a while.”
For a country as small as Sweden, making such a big impact on bestseller lists and international TV audiences alike is quite an achievement. But what is it about Swedish crime fiction that people from all over the world find so fascinating?
“Swedes are good at creating interesting characters as well as interesting plots,” says Rosenfeldt. “Also, people think Sweden is quite exotic. Other countries have a tendency to see us as the perfect society, where everyone lives in harmony and takes care of one another. So, it’s fascinating for them to read stories that depict our lives in the frozen north as far from perfect.”
We are now so familiar with the characters, plots and settings featured in British and, especially, American crime stories that we have almost become desensitised to them – regardless of how gruesome or shocking the plots get.
In contrast, the bleak, minimalistic landscapes and everyday people depicted in shows like Henning Mankell’s Wallander or Rosenfeldt’s The Bridge are so alien to most people that they may as well have been beamed down from another planet.
And this is where Scandinavian-noir’s strength lies – in the unknown. With its meticulous attention to detail, simple language, sombre mood and slow, methodical pace, Scandinavian-noir is a world away from most modern crime fiction.
As a result, we are forced to engage with the stories on a different level, ask new questions and, above all, prepare to be patient. These are stories that demand emotional investment. But the rewards are well worth it.