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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Scandinavian Noir

In Pursuit of a Mystery

Wendy Lesser

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Sometime in the early 1980s, I began reading a series of mysteries that featured a Swedish homicide detective named Martin Beck. I was living in Berkeley at the time, studying for a PhD in English literature as I worked at a variety of part-time jobs, and I knew a lot of people both inside and outside the academy. Being a talkative sort, I started telling everyone around me about this incredible Scandinavian cop series. Soon we were all reading it.

What I knew at the time was that it was written by a couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who had from the very beginning envisioned it as a sequence of ten books that would portray Swedish society from a distinctly Marxist perspective. Published between 1965 and 1975, the Martin Beck series grew noticeably darker as it moved toward its end—though whether this was because Sweden itself (not to speak of the world beyond it) had worsened during that decade, or because Per Wahlöö had learned in the early 1970s that he was dying of cancer, was something no one could answer. Wahlöö died, I later learned, on the exact day in June of 1975 when the tenth volume was published in Sweden, having worked like a maniac to finish it on time. (Sjöwall, who was his equal partner in many ways—they would write their alternating chapters at night, so as not to be interrupted by their small children, and would then exchange chapters for editing—has said that at the very end Wahlöö was pretty much writing everything himself.) At any rate, he left behind exactly what he had intended to produce: ten books containing thirty chapters each, which, taken together, constitute a single continuous social narrative comparable in some ways to a Balzac, Zola, or Dickens project, though clothed in the garments of a police procedural.

It would be a melodramatic exaggeration to say that the Martin Beck series changed my life, but like all such exaggerations, this one would be built on a nugget of truth. Both my idea of Scandinavia and my sense of what a mystery could do were shaped by those books. If I later became a veritable addict of the form, gobbling up hundreds if not thousands of dollars a year in Kindle purchases of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian mysteries, that habit could no doubt be attributed to many things besides the Martin Becks: the invention of digital books, for instance, which allowed for impulse buying and virtually infinite storage; the massive and surprising success of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander series, which encouraged American publishers to bring out any and every available Scandinavian thriller; the introduction of the long-cycle police procedural on American television, including such gems as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and ultimately The Wire, all of which cemented my fascination with the form; not to mention dozens if not hundreds of similar behavior-shaping factors that remain, for me, at an unconscious level. We never know for sure why we read what we read. I cannot, at the moment, even call to mind who first recommended the Martin Becks to me (though I know it was a person and not, say, a bookstore display or a newspaper review). Whoever it was, in any case, deserves my eternal gratitude.

What is so special about these ten books? Or—a slightly different question—what was it that so appealed to me back in 1981 or 1982, when I was about to turn thirty and America was on the verge of becoming what it is today?

Ronald Reagan, remember, had just been elected president. Many of us who voted against him (particularly among the Californians who had suffered through his governorship) had sworn that we would leave the country if he won. We didn’t actually carry out these threats—one never does, as I have learned repeatedly in the years since—but in my imagination I must have pictured Sweden, that haven for dissident Americans since the time of the Vietnam War, as one of the ideal refuges to which one could flee in such circumstances. That the society in which the Martin Beck novels took place represented a form of humane, non-Soviet socialism was certainly a great part of their appeal for me. What I failed to notice at the time was how severely Sjöwall and Wahlöö were in fact criticizing the inadequate socialism practiced in their country. Instead, what I saw was the difference between gun-crazy, corporate-run, murder-riddled America and this small, sensible nation where even policemen hated guns, where crime was seen as a social problem rather than an individual pathology, and where the rare appearance of a serial or mass killer instantly provoked comparisons to the well-chronicled history of such crimes in the United States.

And then there was the specific affection I felt for Martin Beck’s team of homicide detectives. The idea of a team was itself appealing, especially in contrast to the usual American detective, a hardboiled rogue who typically despised collective procedures and chose to work alone and unregulated. But beyond that, I loved the individual characters in the team, who over the course of ten volumes began to seem as familiar to me as most of my real-life acquaintances.

To begin with, there is Martin Beck himself, who exhibits rectitude, fairness, a decent sense of empathy even for murderers, a useful skepticism about the criminal justice system, a healthy dislike of stupidity, careerism, and greed, and a willingness to let those around him do their best work. His home life, perhaps, leaves something to be desired—alienated from his nagging wife and distant from his two small children, he spends as many hours as possible on the job—but this changes over the course of the ten volumes, as he and his wife divorce and as he grows closer to his growing daughter. And though Martin Beck is something of a loner, with few strong emotional ties, he does have a best friend, in the form of Lennart Kollberg, his second-in-command on the National Homicide squad.

Kollberg is one of the great characters of detective fiction. (He is almost always called simply “Kollberg” by the omniscient narrator of these books, just as Martin Beck is always called by his full name; it is only the other characters who address them as “Martin” or “Lennart.”) His fame, in the years since he came into being, has so transcended his original circumstances that a recent Norwegian mystery writer, Karin Fossum, can name her chief detective’s dog Kollberg and expect everyone to pick up the allusion.

It’s not easy to convey what is so lovable about Kollberg. His charm and wit, though notable, don’t lend themselves to brief quotation; they are cumulative, like everything else in the series. Nor is he particularly magnetic, at least in terms of looks. For one thing, he’s distinctly overweight, though that doesn’t prevent him from being very attractive to certain women (in particular his much appreciated and significantly younger wife, Gunnar). He doesn’t have any of the special talents some of his teammates possess—the phenomenal memory of Fredrik Melander, say, or the immense physical bravery of Gunvald Larsson, or even the sheer dogged persistence of the unimaginative Einar Rönn—but his all-round intelligence and sharp, ironic sense of humor make him an invaluable collaborator and sounding board for Martin Beck. As is often remarked in this series, the two of them can understand each other without explaining themselves, which is perhaps the essential definition of a close friendship. It is also, as Sjöwall and Wahlöö must have known, the defining element of any intimate collaboration on an important and prolonged piece of work.

* * *

If Sweden, as a place and an idea, was able to colonize a permanent spot in my imagination through these books, it may have been because a certain amount of groundwork had already been laid. I was not, in other words, a complete tabula rasa in regard to all things Scandinavian. Some of my prior associations were personal; others were things I shared with my culture at large.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, and especially in the middle-class Northern California suburb where I grew up, Scandinavian design was considered the height of good taste. Moreover, it was affordable good taste, particularly in its knock-off versions, which meant that we could have it in our somewhat-reduced-circumstances, single-parent-run, money-cannot-be-wasted household. The clean lines and absence of decorative frou-frou were a good match, too, with the modern simplicity of our Eichler tract house. In fact, both the redwood-frame dwelling my parents had bought new in 1955 and the spare wooden furniture we later acquired at the local Copenhagen outlet embodied the same theory: that mass-produced designs aimed at the pocketbooks of the general population could be as beautiful and as fashionable as anything the aristocracy might have inherited. We didn’t know from aristocracy in my neighborhood, but the class rebellion that the Scandinavians had consciously initiated in their furnishings happened to suit our obliviously deracinated California style just fine. So the desk on which I did my schoolwork when I was eight, like all the desks I have had since then (including the one on which I am now writing), looked like something that had come straight off the boat from Denmark or Sweden.

And then there was Ingmar Bergman. Perhaps his movies did not penetrate as deeply into the general culture as the furniture had, but in my mother’s intellectual milieu, he represented the pinnacle of artistic intelligence. (My father was another matter: he found Bergman’s films downright depressing and, as he often said, he didn’t go to the movies to be depressed. This pronounced difference in taste may have been one among the many reasons they got divorced when I was six.) I myself was exposed to Bergman at what now seems to me a shockingly young age. I know I was taken to both Persona and Shame while I was still in high school, because when I got to college and first saw Smiles of a Summer Night, I was amazed to find that he could be so cheerful. Imbued with the maternal aesthetic, I continued to keep up with Ingmar Bergman’s films throughout my twenties and early thirties, and I can still vividly recall passages from Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander even though I have not seen them again since they first came out.

This amount of Scandinavian culture (along with a few other items, like Marimekko fabrics and Dansk crockery) was made available during my youth to all of America, or at least all of middle-class America. But I had a couple of private introductions as well. When my sister and I were children, a family that included an American father, a Swedish mother, and three kids moved in down the street from us. Our two families were never especially close, but my sister, who was (and still is) two years younger than I, became good friends with the oldest girl, Eva, who was exactly her age. In the summer of 1968, when I took off for three months on an Israeli kibbutz, my fourteen-year-old sister accompanied Eva, her siblings, and their mother on a family trip to Sweden. I remember being intrigued by the reports my sister brought back when we regrouped in California in the fall. Eva’s grandmother, she told me, was called Mormor, because she was the mother of her mother, and the grandfather was called Morfar. When they gave you something to eat (which was often, by my sister’s account), you said “Tack för maten” in response. And so on, through a list of distinctly appealing cultural eccentricities. I did not feel envious at the time—I had had my own adventures in Israel, some good, some bad—but as the years went by and I failed to get to Sweden myself, it came to seem a place that belonged to my sister in a way it never would to me.

This despite the fact that my first Berkeley boyfriend, with whom I lived for a year during graduate school, was a Swede. Christened Ulf (a common Swedish name, apparently), he had come to America to study mathematics and logic after completing his undergraduate degree in his native Sweden. He had traveled widely before getting to the States—he was particularly fond of Latin America, I remember—and he disdained the Swedes for being a provincial, closed, old-fashioned society, even as he shared a number of their socialist and communitarian beliefs. As a very young man he had legally changed his last name from Jansson (a surname he shared with an excessive number of Swedes) to an entirely new, made-up name, as the government was encouraging people to do in an effort to reduce the nearly unmanageable level of duplication. The new name, which sounded fine in Swedish, struck him as slightly ridiculous when pronounced in the American manner, but Ulf preferred even that to the relative anonymity of Jansson.

Grateful as he was to escape his origins, he nonetheless cherished fond memories of a few Swedish traditions. One, I remember, was the festival of Lucia, which somehow involved candles and took place shortly before Christmas; another was the habit of eating open-faced sandwiches. The only other thing I recall his telling me about Sweden was that all social arrangements were extremely formal and planned. When our next-door neighbors in Berkeley once invited us over for drinks on the spur of the moment, Ulf grew strangely excited, and when I asked him what the big deal was, he said, “In Sweden you never come at the last minute; you have to be invited days beforehand.” Like all such generalizations that we make about the world, this may have had more to do with the family or village he grew up in than with his whole culture. But I, knowing nothing, took it as the truth.

* * *

Only about five years passed between my breakup with Ulf and my first reading of the Martin Becks, but a year is a long time when you are in your twenties, and—at least on a conscious level—I in no way associated the series with him. Or, for that matter, with Ingmar Bergman or Scandinavian design. It was its own new world, this Sweden that I was encountering through Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

As it happens, it was something new for Scandinavia, too. In the early 1960s, when the Swedish couple were formulating their idea for a ten-volume police procedural that would mirror the whole society, nothing of the kind had ever appeared in Scandinavian literature. America may have produced Dashiell Hammett and Ed McBain by then, not to mention numerous noir detective films and even some early urban TV shows, like Dragnet, that edged toward this territory. But the Scandinavian tradition was different. There were mysteries, true, but they utterly lacked the broad social perspective, the insistence on some kind of realism, that Sjöwall and Wahlöö were about to introduce.

One of the existing strands, for example, descended from the book Jo Nesbø has described as the original Nordic thriller: a 1909 mystery called The Iron Chariot, written by Norway’s Sven Elvestad under the pen name Stein Riverton. It’s a readable enough work, though a bit slow and (especially compared to latter-day practitioners like Nesbø himself) grotesquely unsuspenseful. The Iron Chariot is basically a country-house murder mystery, set in an idyllic landscape somewhere on the southern Norwegian coast at the height of summer—a location and a season that together allow for a great deal of crepuscular light shimmering on the ocean at midnight and other effects of that sort. The mysteriously clanking and reputedly ghostly “chariot” of the title turns out to be a newfangled flying machine invented by a local professor, one of the murder victims. In the end, the murderer is revealed to be the story’s narrator, a weirdly impalpable creature whose crimes and methods are exposed by the Holmes-like detective called in from the nearest city—though not before we have pretty much figured them out by ourselves. The whole novel is like a combination of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, a narrative that is at once logical and insane, but in any case very particular and very enclosed, with an extremely limited pool of suspects and no perspective whatsoever on the society at large.

Another precedent—perhaps even farther from the Martin Becks in style and intent, though closer temporally and geographically—consisted of the various Swedish mysteries written for children in the mid-twentieth century. These included Åke Holmberg’s novels about the private eye Ture Sventon, issued between 1948 and 1973, and Nils-Olof Franzén’s illustrated books about the detective Agaton Sax, which came out around the same time. Those detective characters, too, were clearly modeled on Holmes, though with certain features—such as a jolly round figure and an animal associate, in the case of Sax—that would make them especially appealing to children. The most famous series in this genre, perhaps because it actually employed a child as the detective, was Astrid Lindgren’s trio of mysteries featuring a schoolboy named Kalle Blomqvist (a central character who, when the books proved popular enough to export, was later renamed Bill Bergson). These three tales, which appeared in Sweden between 1946 and 1953, are somewhat reminiscent of America’s Nancy Drew series, with a youthful amateur detective who, together with the necessary age-appropriate sidekicks, always succeeds in outwitting the bad guys. Even now, the books remain sufficiently well known in Sweden so that present-day readers of the Stieg Larsson books are expected to get the joke when Lisbeth’s ally, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is nicknamed “Kalle” by his friends. (This would seem to be a joke that never stales among Swedish mystery writers, for Leif G. W. Persson brings it up again in his recent novel The Dying Detective.)

But here I am getting ahead of myself, for the Larsson and Persson books—not to mention the dozens of other Nordic crime novels I’ll be mentioning in the forthcoming pages—did not exist until decades after the Martin Becks were first published. It took a particular pair of authors working together at a specific moment in history to create that now-dominant form, the modern-day Scandinavian mystery. And despite the fact that they were naive beginners, or perhaps in some ways because of that, their achievement in the form has never been topped.

Copyright © 2020 by Wendy Lesser