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scandinavian crime fiction

19 july 2017

Millions of foreign readers have been delighted by Scandinavian mystery stories over the past two decades, but few of them, perhaps, have given much thought to the political and social aspects of their Krimis. In Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen signs onto the critical consensus that finds "Nordic Noir" chock-a-block with political significance. Joining a chorus of voices that includes Michael Tapper (Swedish Cops, 2014) and the authors in Scandinavian Crime Fiction (eds. Nestingen & Arvas, 2011), Stougaard-Nielsen brings new works under study and challenges some received opinions. Both solidly academic and highly accessible, Stougaard-Nielsen's book should prove a standard reference point for critics of contemporary crime fiction, and a way into the complexities of its contexts for the general reader.

For Stougaard-Nielsen, as for most observers, the popular phenomenon of Scandinavian crime fiction has its roots in dissatisfaction with the success of the post-WW2 welfare state in Norway, Denmark, and especially Sweden. Americans who look to Scandinavia as a model of social welfare may be puzzled by the idea that you could criticize Sweden and Denmark from the left. But for writers like Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the cradle-to-grave care and social engineering of postwar Sweden bore little relation to real socialism. The authors of the Martin Beck mysteries saw the welfare state as something designed to sate people with consumer goods, arrange them in placid, dehumanizing communities susceptible to easy surveillance, and cut them off from family traditions and from any real say in their destinies.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö's political critique can be easier to discern in more rhetorical novels like Wahlöö's Steel Spring, however. Stougaard-Nielsen notes that Sjöwall and Wahlöö intended to get readers hooked on the first few offerings in their Martin Beck series before letting "the mask fall" (40) in later volumes. And it is true that their topics turn to corruption, terrorism, and assassination as the series goes on. But their criticism of Swedish society can be as oblique as it is topical. Sjöwall and Wahlöö are ironists, and as Stougaard-Nielsen argues, surprisingly sentimental ones at times. The idea of Sweden as a "people's home," betrayed by the bureaucratic welfare state (and later by neoliberalism), strikes deep chords in their work. Martin Beck, after all, ends up joining a sort of commune, where he is redeemed by the affection of a nurturing woman. Perhaps you don't need democratic socialism; perhaps all you need is love.

Henning Mankell can be similarly difficult to "read." His hero Wallander is impassive and taciturn, relegating his thoughts to internal monologues that Mankell's narrator conveys to us. But those monologues can be mirror-like, emitting ideas that Wallander absorbs from the nationalist, sometimes racist and xenophobic political context that surrounds him. Michael Tapper reads these reflections as indicating that novels like Faceless Killers (with its search for "foreign" murderers) actively retransmit racist paranoia (92). Stougaard-Nielsen disagrees, noting that Wallander doesn't equal Mankell: that in fact, by creating a flawed protagonist who embodies the contradictions of his society and helps readers to focus a critique of them (96-97). Faceless Killers is the first Wallander novel, so it may well be, too, that Mankell's hero evolves a progressive consciousness as his series goes on (as Shane McCorristine argues in "The Place of Pessimism," an essay in Nestingen and Arvas's volume). In any case, Stougaard-Nielsen helps define an open, troubling question about one of the most popular Scandinavian fictional detectives.

It will be the rare reader, even among completist Krimi fans, who comes away from Scandinavian Crime Fiction without a list of newly-discovered titles to consider. Especially intriguing are Stougaard-Nielsen's readings of Anders Bodelsen's Think of a Number, a homme-traqué suspense novel from 1968, Gunnar Staalesen's somewhat anti-realistic hard-boiled private-eye novels featuring social-worker-turned-detective Varg Veum, and Kerstin Ekman's eco-thriller Blackwater.

If you thought that Scandinavian mysteries were just escapist jolts of puzzle and peril – well, of course, you're partly right. Stougaard-Nielsen points out that these fictions, originating in complex webs of political critique, are now brand-name consumer goods the world over. The Scandinavian Krimi paradoxically uses a strong dose of local color to produce a globalized, frequently imitated commodity. Stougaard-Nielsen discusses Stieg Larsson's Salander novels at length, pointing up their various contradictions. They are hyper-realist yet fanciful; they critique consumerism while glamorizing it; they are contrived, artificial entertainments with openly rhetorical purposes; they are highly topical commentaries on Swedish culture that at the same time channel sentimental visions of the past, modeling themselves unironically on the children's fiction of Astrid Lindgren. You may read The Girl who did this-or-that to shut out the world at large, but ultimately there is no escape.

Stougaard-Nielsen, Jakob. Scandinavian Crime Fiction. London: Bloomsbury, 2017. [21st Century Genre Fiction]