Mention Scandinavian crime fiction and most people will think immediately of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornets Nest.Thats probably because those books were the first by a Swedish author to hit the number one spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. To date, more than 40 million have sold worldwide. At one point last summer they were selling in the United States at a rate of one book per second.
But contrary to what Americans might think, the late Stieg Larssons Millenium trilogy (Larsson died before the books were published) didnt come out of nowhere. Its part of a tradition that goes back to at least 1965 in Scandinavia — a tradition that Andrew Nestingen, associate professor of Scandinavian Studies, has been following for years. And this year he co-edited (with Finnish scholar Paula Arvas) a book about it. Scandinavian Crime Fiction is full of essays about the genre — written by scholars but accessible to the general reader.
“I started studying this subject because it was a puzzle to me how a region so small — 25 million people or so — could have this global brand in crime fiction,” Nestingen said. “Authors like Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Liza Marklund have sold tens of millions of books. And there are blogs and discussions, reviews, TV shows. It seems to me they have a larger profile than the size of the region would predict.”
This isnt the first time hes written about it. His first book, Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film and Social Change, was published by UW Press in 2008.
“They had an enormous impact on other crime writers,” Nestingen said. “They revitalized that genre. What they did was make it both entertaining and a serious form.”
The authors started a movement in Scandinavia that made crime novels an arena of debate about social change. Nestingen said thats important because in the Scandinavian tradition, at least since World War II, theres been a belief that electoral politics can resolve most problems.
“But changes since 1989, including membership in the European Union and globalization, have created a sense that the forces are too big for these small nation states to have a political influence on their own destinies,” he said. “In that climate, popular culture may have a place for reaching large audiences to try to influence peoples attitudes.”
Of course, the writers of these books dont all have the same political bias. Sjowall and Wahloo, Nestingen said, were communists who used their books to critique the Swedish welfare state because they thought it was a capitalist compromise and they wanted to foment revolution. One of the first articles in Scandinavian Crime Fiction is called “Dirty Harry in the Swedish Welfare State,” and it discusses the Sjowall-Wahloo tradition.
Nestingen said the Sjowall-Wahloo books have inspired many TV shows, and that in the last 40 years the characters in these TV adaptations have swung far to the right. “Dirty Harry is a metaphor for the kind of cop that these films have gotten out of that Sjowall-Wahloo tradition. So its almost a 180 degree turn from the authors original idea.”
Nevertheless, what Scandinavian crime novels have in common is the inclusion of some sort of social criticism. A number of Liza Marklunds novels, for example, feature crime reporter Annika Bengtzon, and current events — often involving political scandals and/or womens issues — are introduced in the plots. Henning Mankell, creator of the detective Kurt Wallander (seen in a PBS series), has been quoted as saying, “Society and its contradictions become clear when you write about crime.”
And what about the wildly popular Stieg Larsson, creator of the Milennium trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels)? Nestingens essay in Scandinavian Crime Fiction says this:
“Over the course of the trilogy, Salander [one of the two protagonists] ambivalently works as what is best described as an independent contractor… whose work ultimately resolves a sprawling case involving paternalistic and industrial capitalism, horrible sex crimes and murder, systematic financial crime, a transnational drug and prostitution operation, and treasonous, deeply immoral state intelligence operations dating to the Cold War.”
What is notable about Salander, according to Nestingens essay, is that she is both victim and heroine, existing outside societys strictures. It is she and journalist Mikael Blomkvist — not the police — who solve the crime. These novels, he wrote, “abandon the premise of the police procedural — that the state can ensure the moral and social order.”
“Its a tempting fantasy to imagine that one person can respond to an overwhelming world with some certainty and some force,” Nestingen said. That accounts for some of the trilogys popularity.”
And of course, feeling overwhelmed and powerless isnt unique to the Scandinavian countries, so audiences in other countries can easily identify.
The Larsson books have drawn the attention of no less a body than the Swedish embassy, which is hosting a series of lectures at American universities that highlight various conditions in Sweden today as portrayed in the Millenium Trilogy. Some of those lectures will be part of classes in the UWs Scandinavian Studies Department. Daniel Alfredson, director of the Swedish film versions of the second and third novels in the trilogy, will be in Seattle May 23 to speak in the Cinema Crime Scene class. And Thomas Bodström, former Ministry of Justice attorney, will take part in the course Sexuality in Scandinavia on June 2. His subject will be Trafficking from a Swedish and European Perspective, Criminalization of Prostitution in Sweden and Sweden’s Strict Rape Laws.
Nestingen is one of the teachers of the Cinema Crime Scene class. Hes continuing his research on Scandinavian crime fiction, which he still thinks is a fascinating subject. And, theres a bonus.
“Scandinavian Studies is a very small field, so its important to look for ways to join larger conversations,” he said. “This research subject offered questions I could raise that might be interesting to scholars working in adjacent fields.”