Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Swedish thrillers in a post-Larsson and Mankell World

Memorial to slain Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, in Stockholm. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Readers of Swedish thrillers might wonder what is currently available in the genre since the untimely death of Stieg Larsson in 2004 and the 2011 publication of A Troubled Man by Henning Mankell that completed the Inspector Kurt Wallander series. Mankell still continues to churn out standalones – his most recent is A Treacherous Paradise (2013) – but they do not appear to have garnered the favourable critical responses and wide readership that the Wallander novels achieved. However, it turns out that there is a cornucopia of literary and visual riches from Swedish authors, who like Mankell and Larsson continue to be influenced by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that produced, between 1965 and 1975, the ten-volume Martin Beck series Story of a Crime. Sjöwall and Wahlöö recognized that the crime novel could be a vehicle for social criticism, believing that beneath the vaunted welfare system, the collusion of powerful capitalists with the state produced more inequality and exploitation. Secondly, they debunked the idea of a private or public detective who solved crimes himself, and stressed the collegial nature of police work. Thirdly, they warned of right-wing extremist elements in the police force that could turn Sweden into a dictatorship. In their final 1975 novel, The Terrorists, Sjöwall and Wahlöö chronicle the then far-fetched scenario of the assassination of the unnamed Prime Minister, and his assailant, a disturbed woman, is given a compassionate rendering in court when her lawyer relates her sad story and how society failed her.

It is improbable that such a novel, more sympathetic to the perpetrator than the victim, could have been written after February 1986 without creating a sense of outrage when the Prime Minister, Olof Palme, was indeed assassinated on a Stockholm street as he and his wife left a theatre and were walking home without any security protection. To say that the assassination of a leading centre-left politician, who publicly proclaimed his hatred for South African apartheid, had a traumatic effect on Swedish society would be a major understatement. That searing event, in some ways comparable to the shock and disbelief experienced by Americans after the November 1963 murder of President John F. Kennedy, unsettled the Swedish psyche and undermined confidence that they lived in a generally harmonious society. Combined with the assassination of the Foreign Minister, Ann Lindh, seventeen years later, these calamitous killings enhanced the feeling that danger lurked both within and from outside its borders. Thriller writers tapped into these collective anxieties that their country was no longer a neutral safe haven by imbuing their narratives with an additional layer of fear. Mankell’s, The White Lioness, which presents the scenario of Sweden becoming a base for ex-KGB officers to train assassins whose goal was the death of Nelson Mandela, owes its inspiration to Palme’s politics and the fear that the country’s borders were now much more permeable. It is highly unlikely that Larsson, for example, would have written his Millennium trio of crime thrillers with its tale of conspiracies hatched by secret rogue elements within the security police exercising power beyond any transparent oversight, had it not been for the unresolved murder of Palme. According to a Guardian article over a year ago, Larsson, who was an expert on Swedish fascists and neo-fascists, helped in the flawed murder investigation. True, a local addict, Christer Pettersson, who openly boasted of killing Palme, was convicted of the murder in 1988 but then was acquitted in a retrial after his case was heard by the Court of Appeal.

Among the several fictional efforts and at least one film, The Last Contract (1988), that address the Palme assassination, the most important offering is by the criminal profiler, criminology professor, media commentator and respected author, Leif G. W. Persson. Between 2002 and 2007 Persson published his trilogy, The Story of a Crime. Since the first two novels deal only peripherally with the Palme murder, I will focus my comments on the concluding volume, Falling Freely, As if in a Dream (published in English in 2014), a baggy but salient novel. Lars Martin Johansson, who appears as a minor character in the first two novels, is now a senior inspector determined to have one final crack at this cold case. He assigns an expert team of men and women to examine all the previous material on the case before the statute of limitations ends. The first half of the novel often feels more like a police brief and can be a slog to read as the team reviews and dismisses the case against a number of the early suspects, including Pettersson, and as it highlights the internal rivalries and the errors made by the original male-only police investigators that purloined all subsequent investigations. Anyone looking for suspense and violence will be disappointed as Falling Freely offers a most realistic portrayal into how the police actually operate. Readers, who persist through this undramatic material and lengthy, unnecessary conversations about food, will be rewarded in the last two hundred pages as the team zeroes in on two plausible suspects, both of whom were in the security police. These two officers, who hated Palme, were convinced that he was a Soviet spy despite all the evidence to the contrary. One is the son of a Nazi, who became a sexual sadist; the other is an efficient psychopath who disturbed his bosses. One of his teachers, now retired, admitted to being frightened of him when he was one of his students, and this suspect liked that teacher. These pages are riveting and bear out the importance of a well-functioning team and of the warnings that dangerous men were at one time prominent in the security forces. Persson has the sometimes annoying habit of contrasting what a character says with what he really means by adding his (character’s) internal thoughts. I realize that this technique is his way of exposing the sexism and racism within the police and society, but after a while it can be an irritant. Also Free Falling would not have suffered had he cut at least one hundred pages to render it a tighter, more economical novel. In 2013 when the mini-series Death of a Pilgrim appeared on Swedish television, it had the highest rating of any show ever televised, a testament to the power that the Palme assassination still possesses among the Swedish people. As far as I know, Pilgrim is not available for viewing in North America, but I do await it with anticipation.

If Persson’s novels are deliberately paced, the contrast is exemplified by the duo of Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström the first, a former television journalist, the latter, an ex-criminal who has founded an organization dedicated to preventing crime. They write fast-paced pulsating prose through multi-voiced perspectives, and bring back political and social criticism to the crime novel. Their first novel The Beast (2004 in English) is in part about a murderous pedophile. Whenever he appears, he is verbally offensive and his treatment of young children is difficult to read. But the novel is also about the tragic consequences when the father of one of the victims decides to take the law into his own hands, making the second half of the novel well worth reading. The desire for vengeance carries a terrible price not only for the person who inflicts it, but for the officers of the court who must by law prosecute and invariably face the hostility of ugly mobs. Wannabe judges among the public who have no regard for the rule of law harbour no qualms about dispensing rough justice on an individual who may have committed a minor offence years previously.

Authors Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström

Roslund and Hellström write with red-hot passion and that trademark permeates Cell 8 (2006), which also explores the baleful consequences of vengeance coupled with the problematic punishment of the death penalty. John Schwartz, a crooner on cruise ship between Stockholm and Finland, in a moment of rage kicks a drunken passenger in the face leaving him in a coma after he sees him harassing females on the dance floor. In Stockholm, John is arrested by Ewert Grens, the chief investigating officer in all of the Roslund and Hellström novels. But the uncooperative prisoner is in fact a man called John Meyer Frey who apparently died six years earlier while awaiting execution on death row in an Ohio prison for the murder of his girlfriend. How his execution was averted the first time may entail disbelief among some readers, but I found it plausible. What is more interesting is the lust for vengeance that consumes Edward Finnigans, the father of the murdered girlfriend, whose Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye zeal to witness the execution of this young man, convicted on less than airtight circumstantial evidence, is his only reason for living. When Frey appears to deny him that spectacle by seemingly dying a natural death, Finnigans feels he is a member of the walking dead. When Frey turns out to be alive, Finnigans feels resurrected but the only emotion he can feel is hatred, an emotion that destroys not only his marriage but his own life. How Roslund and Hellström plot their ending is perhaps the most ingenious I have ever read and it is totally unforeseen. Moreover, the narrative is packed with political and social criticism. The authors are vehemently opposed to the extradition of Swedish prisoners to the Americans when the death penalty is involved; they show how capital punishment is often promoted for political gain, and they vividly demonstrate the destructive consequences of personal revenge over the rule of law. Some readers may find the writing tendentious, particularly since the man craving vengeance is an unsympathetic character, but I did not because they achieve their primary purpose, that of engaging the reader.

North Americans have been treated to the television adaptations of four authors – Helene Tursten for her Irene Huss series, Michael Hjorth and Hans Rosenfeldt for Sebastian Bergman, Anna Jansson for her Maria Wren series and Arne Dahr (aka Jan Arnald) for his Intercrime series – before most of the original novels appeared in English translation. Apart from Sebastian Bergman (which I will discuss below), with varying degrees, they underscore the importance of collegiality, especially the superior Arne Dahr adaptations and attempt to balance their police responsibilities with maintaining a stable personal life. Detective Inspector Irene Huss, a judo expert, frequently requires her martial skills as her work can take her into dark places. She recognizes that she needs her family – for the most part, an understanding husband and their two teenage daughters – as a refuge. When her investigations endanger her private sanctity, Huss is not above condoning a criminal act, considering either circumventing the law or quitting to protect her family. Both the Irene Huss and the Intercrime series marry the police procedural with an exploration of social issues that have a wider resonance beyond Sweden: the exploitation of women from Eastern Europe, the texting of young girls who are lured into danger, drug-dealing bikers, and neo-Nazi skinheads. I preferred the grittier novels by Arne Dahr – Misteriosa and Bad Blood have been translated into English – and the television adaptations  where everyone in the A-Unit, Stockholm's elite squad of police detectives, is equally valued and makes a substantial contribution to resolving cases, and each case is unrelentingly harrowing. For example, in the novel Bad Blood, set during the 1990s after the First Gulf War, the team must apprehend a particularly nasty psychopath who has slipped into Sweden from America whom we soon learn from a FBI official has the same modus operandi as a former Vietnam interrogator, dubbed the Kentucky killer. Is this killer the same person? Who has hired him to kill aid workers, and who are these refugees hiding from? In the television adaptation, the setting is pushed ahead to after the Second Gulf War, and the answers to these questions are somewhat different altering the resolution of the mystery. Without giving too much away, the FBI and the CIA seem to have different agendas, a reflection of the real world after 9/11. Bad Blood, in its original form and television adaptation, is not only a mystery but a vehicle for political commentary. In terms of atmospherics, the Intercrime series is comparable to the highly acclaimed Danish series, The Killing and The Bridge.

The seven Maria Wren television mysteries and the two additional novels, Strange Bird and Killer’s Island recently translated into English, are perhaps the most conventional or old-fashioned of the series among these series, reminiscent of Camilla Läckberg’s husband and wife investigative team of Inspector Patrick Hedström and crime writer Erica Falck. The television series and the two novels are entertaining and occasionally gripping, but because they concentrate more on the characters’ private lives, they lack the darker Nordic noir features discussed above that I think characterize the best of Swedish thrillers.

Rolf Lassgård as Sebastian Bergman in Sebastian Bergman.

Sebastian Bergman is set apart from the spate of other Swedish mysteries reviewed here in that it bears the fewest traces of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö legacy. Although Bergman is officially part of a police team, its members resent his presence and he prefers to operate on his own. The eponymous protagonist (played by an unkempt-looking Rolf Lassgård, the first Swedish Wallander) is not even a police officer; he is a brilliant psychologist, a criminal profiler but psychologically damaged since the loss of his wife and daughter to the 2004 tsunami. In some ways, he is similar to the main character in Cracker, the British series that also featured a personally flawed but ingenious psychologist. Rather than addressing social issues, the two films (I have not been able to acquire the Bergman novels) are more in the spirit of psychological character studies. Bergman is a compulsive womanizer, an arrogant and self-absorbed bloviator until he is bushwhacked by a secret from the past, one that begins to thaw and humanize him. At the same time, he is an expert on serial killers. Yet in the second program, “The Disciple,” his skills are sorely tested by one of those killers he helped to put behind bars years earlier. This film effectively deploys the concept of the doppelganger to explore the similarities between the most heinous and the rest of us. As a result, we are treated to compelling television. 

Apart from Death of a Pilgrim and the film The Last Contract, all the television series discussed in this review are readily available in DVD. 

(photo by Keith Penner)
Bob Douglas is a teacher and author. His second volume to That Line of Darkness: The Shadow of Dracula and the Great War (Encompass Editions, 2011) is titled That Line of Darkness: Vol. II The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden. His website is

1 comment:

  1. I've just started reading The Swimmer, by Joakim Zander. So far, it's a fast-stepping story that covers a lot of ground chronologically and geographically. Looks like another name to be added to the long list of good Swedish thriller-writers. There must be something in the Swedish water.