"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.
Despite cosmopolitan Stockholm, readers still may associate Sweden with remote landscapes, and there are plenty of series set far off the beaten—and frozen—path. Mankell's Wallander series is set in Ystad, in southern Sweden, and Knopf will publish the final installment, The Troubled Man, in March 2011. Åsa Larsson's series features tax lawyer Rebecca Martinsson, who returns to her (and Larsson's) hometown of Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, and ends up staying. Delta published the third installment, The Black Path, in 2008. Camilla Läckberg, a bestselling Swedish crime writer who published her first and very successful novel before she was 30, also sets her series in her hometown, Fjällbacka, a small fishing village. Pegasus published her English debut, Ice Princess, featuring writer Ericka Falck and cop Patrik Hedstrom, in summer 2010 and will bring out the second installment, The Preacher, in May 2011.
Åke Edwardson's Insp. Erik Winter of Göteborg has much in common with Martin Beck—a fairly young man heading the police department—or Kurt Wallander—a fondness for music and a tendency toward shouldering enormous burdens. Similarly, Edwardson and Läckberg both have long-running, successful series in Sweden that are only slowly becoming available to English-speaking audiences, though Edwardson's first Winter installment was published in his native country in 1997, while Ice Princess came out in 2002. Also set in Göteborg is Helene Tursten's series featuring Det. Insp. Irene Huss of the Violent Crimes Division, a woman trying to juggle her work and family life. Soho Crime plans to publish a new Tursten installment in early 2012, following 2007's The Glass Devil.
On the other side of Sweden, Kjell Eriksson's series features homicide detective Ann Lindell in Uppsala's Violent Crimes Division. Evoking the ensemble nature of the homicide team under Beck's command, Eriksson balances the toll of the job with Lindell's responsibilities as a mother. Minotaur has published the fourth, sixth, and seventh installments in Eriksson's series, most recently 2008's The Demon of Dakar. While Eriksson's series and those of many other Scandinavian writers seem open-ended, Johan Theorin wrote Echoes from the Dead as the first in his planned Öland Quartet, with one book representing each season on the island of Öland. Delta published Echoes in 2009 and the second installment, The Darkest Room, in September 2010.
Norway has its share of bloody murders and brooding cops, thanks to a crop of top-notch contributors to the genre, including Karin Fossum, K.O. Dahl, and Jo Nesbø. Fossum, whose brand of haunting psychological suspense is often compared to Ruth Rendell's, writes a series featuring Insp. Konrad Sejer and his eager young assistant, Jacob Skarre, living in a small Norwegian mountain town. But just because it isn't Oslo doesn't mean the crimes aren't horrific. Fossum doesn't often read her own peers: "It's a bit strange to say, but I don't read crime stories. Not because I'm not interested, but because I write about crime every single day." That even applies to the omnipresent Stieg Larsson, whose novels she admits she hasn't read. "But," Fossum adds, "I know a lot about him as a journalist. He was a great journalist and a reporter. He worked against the Nazis in Sweden [and] did a lot of good work." Harcourt will publish Bad Intentions, the seventh Inspector Sejer novel to be translated, in August 2011.
Set in Norway's capital, K.O. Dahl's series features Chief Inspector Gunnarstranda and Det. Insp. Frank Frølich. Though there are currently six books in the Norwegian series, American readers were introduced to the characters in almost reverse order: The Fourth Man (book five) came out in 2007, followed by The Man in the Window (book three) and, most recently, The Last Fix (book two) in 2009. Dahl is very pleased, though, that Minotaur will publish his first novel, Lethal Investments, in 2012, 18 years after he wrote it. In 1994, Dahl's debut was one of only two first novels in Norway that were crime fiction. "Now the situation is quite the opposite," says Dahl. "Publishers, in Norway and abroad, [are] constantly searching for the next Millennium book. This may be why my books have reached more countries after the Larsson success." A phenomenon like the Millennium trilogy "proves that the international book market is getting more globalized every year," says Dahl. "The same titles tend to top bestseller lists in different countries."
Jo Nesbø—whose series featuring Det. Harry Hole is also set in Oslo—like Dahl, credits Larsson with perhaps whetting the appetite for Scandinavian crime fiction. In terms of his sales abroad, explains Nesbø, "my first novels sell more after eight or nine years than they did in the previous eight years combined. So it's hard to tell to what extent Stieg Larsson has been a factor for me. But there is no doubt that he opened the doors for me and other Scandinavian writers to markets where Scandinavian crime wasn't already that established, meaning those readers are willing to give you a chance. But only one chance, so you'd better be good." Laconic Harry Hole fits the original Beck mold of the flawed detective, with a touch of Wallander's tendency to drink (hardly particular to Mankell's creation) and absorb all manner of work-related issues into an already rickety personal life. Knopf will publish the latest installment, The Snowman, in May 2011.
Finland and Iceland may not have the crime fiction output of their Nordic cousins, but they're both joining the growing tide of authors breaking into the English-speaking market. U.S. readers may be most familiar with criminal life in Finland through the work of American-born James Thompson, who has lived there for more than 12 years and sets his Insp. Kari Vaara series in the Lapland town of Kittilä. Thompson says that language is one reason that very few Finnish writers have been translated into English. "Scandinavian languages are related to English. Finnish isn't. In practical terms, although the problem is now being rectified, there simply haven't been enough adequate Finnish translators in the past." Putnam will publish the second installment of the Inspector Vaara series, Lucifer's Tears, in March 2011.
U.K. native and debut novelist Quentin Bates also set his series in an adopted country, Iceland. Soho Crime will publish Frozen Assets in January 2011, the first installment in a series that introduces Officer Gunnhildur "Gunna" Gísladóttir, a cop in the fictional fishing village of Hvalík near Reykjavik. Bates, who lived in Iceland for 10 years and now returns frequently, says that he enjoys the "detachment being a semi-outsider gives me and finds that it gives me insights that maybe I wouldn't otherwise have as a local." As far as the timing of his fiction debut, Bates is thrilled: "It's been a fortunate coincidence that Frozen Assets and the general interest in Scandinavian fiction came to a head at the same time—although if I'd have known this was coming, I'd have started a few years earlier."
Bates joins the ranks of noted Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason, whose series features Reykjavik's Det. Erlendur Sveinsson and his homicide team, though the brooding Erlendur prefers to work alone. While Indridason began the series in 1997, the first English translation didn't reach America until 2004, with Jar City. Minotaur published the sixth English installment, Hypothermia, in September 2010. Another prominent name in Icelandic crime fiction is Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, whose heroine is Reykjavik lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. She defends a drug addict arrested for a murder with undertones of demonic worship in Last Rituals (2007) and investigates a shady land deal complete with a corpse in My Soul to Take (2009). While Sigurdardóttir's first two novels were published in the U.S. by William Morrow, her latest English translation, Ashes to Dust—which Hodder & Stoughton published in the U.K. in July 2010—does not currently have an American publisher.
From Stockholm to Oslo, Ystad to Reykjavik, fictional crimes are being committed that will test the wits of this newly discovered army of Nordic crime-fighters. They've always been there, across the Atlantic, fighting their battles, shouldering burdens as heavy as any American copper has hefted. Some—Wallander, Erlendur, even the long dormant Beck—have crossed over for years and amassed loyal fans who eagerly await the next English installment, even if the delay stretches to years and the chronology is shot. But now, in the wake of a tattooed girl who played with fire and kicked a hornet's nest worth of political secrets, the trickle of Scandinavian crime fiction flowing westward has turned into a wave. And as much as the Larsson phenomenon can be credited for reinvigorating interest in crime fiction from the Nordic countries, there's no denying that, as fellow Swede Camilla Läckberg puts it, while "Larsson's books have helped my sales, I also believe that I wouldn't have had the success I've had if people didn't genuinely love my books."n
Jordan Foster is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.