"Alas," this very magazine lamented back in 2002, "Scandinavian dreariness just doesn't seem to have broad appeal to American readers." The review referred not to Stieg Larsson's tattooed hacker, Lisbeth Salander—who wouldn't explode onto the scene for another six years—but to the work of another Swede, Henning Mankell, and his series featuring Det. Insp. Kurt Wallander.
Mankell is an international bestseller whose books have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, yet his haunting, bleak Wallander series published in the U.S. by Knopf failed to capture America's attention in the same way the same imprint's 2007 acquisition of Larsson's Millennium trilogy would. Larsson's personal story is a familiar one by now, that of a left-wing journalist who wrote a series featuring a tough-as-nails heroine and a crusading journalist not unlike himself, and died of a heart attack in 2004, shortly after handing in the trilogy to his Swedish publisher.
American readers in 2008 gravitated to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Salander, with all her razor-sharp edges, tattoos, antisocial tendencies, and lethal abilities to take out opponents with her fists or a few keystrokes. Wallander, on the other hand, is a middle-aged copper, on the road to diabetes when we first meet him. He's rumpled, irritable, and introspective to the point of brooding. Reviews continually praise Mankell's intricate plotting and his tackling of complex social and global issues, but point to the "pervasive Scandinavian gloom," describing his work as the "darkest of Swedish noir." Larsson's trilogy, on the other hand, is rife with violence, both physical and psychological (hint: the European title for the first book is Men Who Hate Women).
But where did this wave of Scandinavian crime fiction originate? And where should readers who may have discovered Stockholm for the first time through the eyes of Salander go to get their next fix of Nordic noir? Unquestionably, the first grandmasters of Swedish detective fiction were Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, without whom there might be no Mankell or Larsson, certainly no Wallander or Salander. Beginning in 1965 with Roseanna (translated into English in 1967), the writing duo introduced the world to Stockholm police inspector Martin Beck. Over the next 10 years, the couple wrote one book a year—winning an Edgar for Best Mystery in 1971 for The Laughing Policeman—concluding the series with The Terrorists in 1975, published a few months after Wahlöö died of cancer.
Committed Marxists, Sjöwall and Wahlöö used the Beck books as a way to address problems they saw in Swedish society. "Swedish society itself is the true spark of its crime writers' success," says bestseller Liza Marklund, who made her official American debut in August 2010 with The Postcard Killers, coauthored with James Patterson. "Nowhere else can you live your life in complete safety, knowing that the state will care for you from cradle to grave. Where else can you find a better backdrop for a crime novel than here, in the most secure society on earth? Nowhere else are the contrasts sharper, the betrayals of authority bigger, the violence more unexpected than in Sweden." Beck also became a model for the flawed hero, a detective who's credible precisely because he's not superhuman in his ability to shrug off the horrors he sees on the job. Sjöwall and Wahlöö also explored themes that weren't always appealing to readers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including pedophilia and mass murder.
Stockholm is by no means the only locale, but it's a popular setting for murder and mayhem. The Swedish capital is also home to series from Marklund, Leif G.W. Persson, and duo Anders Roslund and Borge Hellström. Though Marklund made her American debut with Patterson, she's one of Sweden's bestselling authors, and her series featuring journalist Annika Bengtzon has sold millions of copies worldwide. Atria will publish Red Wolf in February 2011, the U.S. debut of the Bengtzon series. Pantheon debuted the first book in Persson's planned trilogy in September, Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, a complex thriller based on the still unsolved 1986 assassination of Sweden's Prime Minister Olaf Palme. Roslund and Hellström—a television journalist and an ex-con, respectively—set their series featuring veteran detective Ewert Grens in the seedy underbelly of Stockholm. Silver Oak will publish the second installment, Three Seconds, in January.