I first became attracted to Scandinavian mysteries, thirty five years ago because of a husband -and-wife team of Swedish writers, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. Their novels about Inspector Martin Beck were popular in the seventies and one novel , The Laughing Policeman, was even made into a movie. Per Wahloo , unfortunately, died young and his wife stopped writing. After that , there was a hiatus until the late nineties when I started reading the Kurt Wallender mysteries by another Swedish writer, Henning Mankell. That seemed to open the flood gates as I found a host of good mystery authors from Scandinavia . Arnauldur Indridason , Hakan Nesser, Kjell Eriksson, Ake Edwardson and Peter Hoeg were among those that I read. Still, I had no idea of the extent of the popularity of Scandinavian mystery writers until I came across a recent article about them by Laura Miller in the Wall Street Journal and another piece by Julia Keller in the L.A. Times.
It seems there are upwards of twenty more Scandinavian writers who have been transalated into English and who are widely read in Europe and ,lately, in America. Some of them are Steig Larsson, Helen Tursten, Karin Altvagen, Camilla Lackberg, Lisa Marklund, Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom ( Sweden): Karin Fossum, Jo Nessbo, Jens Lapidus and K.O.Dahl, Anne Holt ( Norway), and Yrsa Sigundadottir ( Iceland) . A new entry into the genre is Snow Angels, a debut novel set in Northern Finland written by James Thompson , an American married to a Finn who lives in Finland. There’ s also Postcard Killers, a joint effort by best-selling author James Patterson and a Swedish writer Liasa Marklund.
Why are Scandinavian mysteries suddenly so popular ? Surely it cannot be the milieu or the protagonists. The Scandinavian landscapes these novels describe is grey, cold, bleak and wintry. It always seems to be either raining or snowing. The detectives are middle aged or older, live alone , are either divorced or estranged from their wives, have few friends or hobbies outside of work and seem to lead a joyless existence. Not exactly fun , yet we can’t seem to get enough of them . How can we explain their attraction ? One theory is that it is just a turn of the wheel, mere chance. British mysteries used to rule the roost ; then there were French, the Italians and now, the theory goes it’s the turn of the Swedes, the Norwegians , the Icelanders and the Finns. Maybe so, but I think it is more than that.
A good mystery novel is more than just an absorbing mystery. Yes, the storyline needs to be plausible and the detecting credible but more is needed if the novel is to transcend the limitations of its genre . To be truly memorable , it must have a sense of place and it’s characters must have depth.
Unfortunately, many American mystery novels concentrate on the blood and gore , on DNA and forensics and on keeping the story moving at a feverish pace. Less attention is paid to the delineation of characters or the descriptions of the settings.
The best American mysteries , in my opinion and that of many others , are the Harry Bosch novels of Michael Connelly. The novels are set in Los Angeles and after we have read a couple , we feel that we know L.A. We also feel that we know Harry Bosch, intimately. We know of his experiences as a tunnel rat in Viet Nam , his tragic prostitute mother, his traumatic childhood in an orphanage, his passionate pursuit of justice , his failed marriage and his disdain for his superiors. We share his contempt for IAD, his loathing of bureaucracy and his love for his daughter Maddy who lives with her mother in HongKong. We know Harry’s backstory because we are privy to his innermost thoughts, courtesy of the author, Michael Connelly. Harry and L.A are inextricably linked together ; they are of one piece. Harry would not be as authentic if he were transported elsewhere.
In the same way, the Scandinavian settings and the protagonists of these novels are of a kind. As we read these novels, we feel that we have been there , met them . The dark, the frozen grass ,the gray concrete buildings, the cheerless apartments, the loneliness, the nosy neighbors, the cold which makes the breath come out in puffs … how could these things not make the characters anything but what they are ? As we share their ruminations, we sense the authenticity of the characters and feel a sense of connection with them. It is also a truism that sad or tragic characters are more of a draw than happy ones ; tragedy is more memorable than comedy. Wisecracking detectives seem lightweight and inauthentic.
Most Scandinavian mysteries are police procedurals and the protagonist is a detective who solves the crime through dogged tenacity and hard work. This is a plus in my eyes since I feel that private detectives, in real life , are more likely to be involved in divorce work, insurance fraud, bodyguarding and the like. Solving crimes I feel is the bailiwick of the police which is why I prefer police procedurals and , by extension, Scandinavian mysteries.
I must admit , however, that they are not the best reading in the middle of winter when it is cold and dark and rainy outside. There is only so much gloom and doom that I can take. At such times give me something set in a sunny clime. Maybe a mystery by James Swain ( Florida) , Michael McGarrity ( New Mexico)James Doss( Colorado), James Lee Burke ( Louisiana) or James Burdett ( Thailand).