Scandinavian Mysteries: The Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander, VanVeeteren, Erlendur Sveinsson, Ann Lindell, Rebecka Martinsson, and Lisbeth Salander Series
While spending last January in New England, I came across two Swedish mysteries by Åsa Larsson: Sun Spot and The Blood Spilt. Accidental sleuth, Rebecka Martinsson, is anxious, brooding and introverted. She spoke directly to my Swedish-Russian-Polish-British melancholic temperament, which was already primed by the fantastic bleakness of winter along the North Atlantic coast. Needless to say, I was in a mood to wallow a bit.
Since then, I’ve read as much as I can by Scandinavian mystery writers. Thanks to the efforts of hardworking translators, Swedish authors such as Larsson, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson, Håkan Nesser, and Kjell Eriksson, along with Icelandic author, Arnaldur Idridason, have been translated into English. The characters they create, along with deft story structuring, makes for reading that is engaging but not simplistic.
The Swedes made a terrific impact on the crime novel starting in the late 1960’s with the Martin Beck series. Husband and wife writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö set the standard early on, crafting characters who are variously flawed and struggling to survive a brutal world with at least some of their dignity intact. Stockholm’s Martin Beck is so consumed with his work that he ignores his wife and two young children — or maybe work, despite the repugnant crimes — is a way to escape them.
Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is an insomniac, driven beyond all reason to pursue his cases. His motivation is probably his almost complete self-doubt and maybe just a bit of self-loathing. His only solaces are a tentative relationship with his daughter, Linda, and his beloved operas. Working out of Ystad, a small city with increasingly big city crimes, Wallander and his colleagues bemoan the incursion of the sorts of crimes that herald a breakdown of society before its members realize what’s happening.
Nesser’s VanVeeteren is irascible with people who don’t merit his attention, but interested in good company — and drink. Like the other Scandinavians, VanVeeteren is both relentless and resigned. Even when a major illness threatens his life, VanVeeteren finds himself more interested in the truth of the matter than his own well-being.
Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason has created in Inspector Erlendur as robust a character as any that have emerged from the best British and American writers. Erlendur sits at home alone at night in his favorite chair reading true-life stories of people gone missing — his own little brother disappeared in a snow storm when they were children, and he cannot forget how it felt to lose his grip on his brother’s hand. Despite his deep sense of futility, he also continues to try salvaging the irreparably damaged relationships with his now grown son and daughter, both of whom are pretty screwed up. Nevertheless, or maybe because of the depths of sadness that permeate Erlendur’s world, there is a strain of humor that is just as palpable. Here’s an exchange between Erlendur and Marion Briem, the sardonic mentor he cannot escape:
"…if he’s dead then it stops there."
"That’s generally the rule."
"If you’re dead, it stops."
It’s fairly typical of the cynical humor with which Indridason imbues his characters. They often speak at cross-purposes, and despite the fact that someone comes out looking foolish, that character just doesn’t have enough enthusiasm for his ego to much care.
The two Larssons, Åsa and Steig, along with Kjell Eriksson, have drawn compelling women, each of whom have just as many emotional stumbling blocks as the men. Of the three, only Eriksson’s Ann Lindell is a police detective. Both Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson, and Steig Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, find themselves caught up in murder. Though journalist Mikael Blomqvist is the ostensible detective of the Steig Larsson novel, it is the remarkably complex Salander who so effectively draws us in that we cannot believe in the end she is not real. Sadly, just as U.S. readers can get hold of Steig’s work, they learn that he is dead — and a young man, at that. Our one consolation, however, is that the trilogy was already finished when he died. So, at least we will have more of the difficult but mesmerizing Salander.
Each of these authors brings his or her own style to the genre. Be it a police procedural that has the deceptive simplicity of a Hemingway novel, or a meditation on the unending recesses of human motivation, these Scandinavians have something to tell us about their history, culture, politics, and future, and they most certainly have something to tell us about ourselves.
These aren’t the only terrific Scandinavian crime writers, but you can’t go wrong by starting with this group of authors, each of whose titles are listed in chronological order of publication. Enjoy!
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö:
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke
The Man on the Balcony
The Laughing Policeman
The Fire Engine That Disappeared
Murder at the Savoy
The Abominable Man
The Locked Room
The Dogs of Riga
The White Lioness
The Man Who Smiled
The Fifth Woman
One Step Behind
Before the Frost
The Blood Spilt
The Black Path
The Princess of Burundi
The Cruel Stars of the Night
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played with Fire
One more novel in the series is due in 2010.
The Silence of the Grave
The Draining Lake