Intro: All is not as it seems
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.
Chapter one: A chance encounter
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö met in 1961, while working as journalists for the same publisher. They became a couple and had two children together. Every evening, after the children had gone to sleep, Maj and Per would sit down and write. Inspired by the masters of American hard-boiled detective fiction, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, they began carefully crafting their own crime stories – but with a uniquely Swedish twist. The result of these nocturnal writing sessions was a series of books that changed the way people approached crime fiction and paved the way for a new wave of Swedish crime writers who would go on to thrill the world.
Between 1965–1975, Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote ten books together, all focused around the exploits of Swedish police detective, Martin Beck. Collectively, the Beck series became known as ’The Story of a Crime’ – but the series was more complex than that. This wasn’t simply the story of one man’s fight against crime, this was the story of an entire country.
Over the course of a decade, Sjöwall and Wahlöö used Beck as a way of holding a mirror up to Swedish life. Each book charted the changes they saw in Swedish society and described the shifts in the social, political and economic climate. Authentic, meticulously researched and with an obsessive attention to detail, this was a new type of crime fiction. This was Scandinavian-noir.
Chapter two: The new wave
Sadly, Per Wahlöö passed away in 1975. The final Beck novel was published in the same year. Since then, a whole host of Swedish crime writers have been inspired by the work of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Writers such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Camilla Läckberg have all taken Beck’s blueprint and used it to bring Scandinavian-noir blinking into the international spotlight. Another Swedish writer inspired by Sjöwall and Wahlöö is Hans Rosenfeldt, the creative force behind international TV crime series sensation, The Bridge. “Sjöwall and Wahlöö were pioneers,” says Hans.
“They turned policemen into people and created criminals who were much more than simply one-dimensional monsters. They came up with characters you wanted to know more about and could return to.” Born in Borås, just outside Gothenburg, Hans grew up on a steady diet of British and American crime shows, Swedish detective novels and the classic stories of Stephen King. “I grew up watching British and American detective shows. I also read a lot of Swedish detective fiction – everything from crime stories for kids to the books of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. My parents didn’t really mind what I watched or read, so I was free to take everything in.”
"I think it’s fascinating for people to read stories that depict our lives in the frozen north as far from perfect.”
Chapter three: A twist of fate
When he left school, Hans dreamt of becoming an actor. But, deep down, he knew he lacked the necessary talent. So, he turned to writing instead. He began writing scripts for Swedish radio and TV. Pretty soon, everything began falling into place. “I knew then that this is what I wanted to do. I love creating fictional worlds filled with characters and situations that I can control. It’s fun to play God for a while.
”After a while, Hans decided he would try writing a detective novel together with his friend, the Swedish author and director, Michael Hjorth. “We had created a TV show around a character called Sebastian Bergman, who was a criminal psychologist. Unfortunately, the show was turned down.” Hans and Michael, however, had invested too much time in Sebastian to let him languish in a desk drawer. So, they chose another path. “It was the middle of the detective boom of the 2000s and everyone around us was writing detective novels. So, we thought, ’How hard can it be?’” And with that, the story of Sebastian Bergman began to unfold in books instead of on television screens.
Chapter four: A criminal tradition
Even though writing detective fiction was never part of his plan, Hans is now one of Scandinavian-noir’s most original and exciting voices. It’s almost as if Swedish writers are inexorably drawn to the genre. So, why do so many of these writers commit to a life of crime?
“In Sweden, crime fiction is a tradition,” says Hans. And it’s true. No Swedish public holiday would be complete without detective shows filling the TV schedules. 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.”
Chapter five: Sweden as the star
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,” explains Hans. “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.”
“People have a tendency to see Sweden as the perfect society. 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 own The Bridge are so alien to most people that they may as well have been beamed down from another planet.
Chapter six: The appeal of the unknown
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.
With more talented writers appearing all the time, and more people eager to explore the darker side of the land of the midnight sun, the genre of Scandinavian-noir looks like it will be keeping readers in suspense for a long time yet.
Six of the best
Hans selects some of his favourite books from Sweden and beyond.
- Snabba cash (Easy Money) by Jens Lapidus
- Roseanna by Sjöwall/Wahlöö
- Lilla stjärna (Little Star) by John Ajvide Lindqvist
- The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari