Before Lisbeth Salander: The couple that invented Nordic noir

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Peter Haber stars as Martin Beck in the Swedish TV show based on the books | Nordic Noir and Beyond

In his 1950 essay, “The Simple Act of Murder”, Raymond Chandler wrote, “The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities…where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of money-making.” The popular cosy English country mysteries, best exemplified by Agatha Christie, did not “really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction,” Chandler argued. Instead, he pitched for a depiction of crime as it occurs in the real world, “not a fragrant world, but it is the world you live in”.

12 years later, in 1962, Swedish journalists Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö would come together both in life and in art to write 10 books over 10 years that would take Chandler’s mission to heart. The Martin Beck series of books, which Swedish writer Henning Mankell has called “a modern classic”, took inspiration from hard-boiled American writing such as Ed McBain’s police procedural novels and “added a bit of journalistic approach by focussing on current issues in society, so as to highlight social problems, and that’s how it started,” Swedish crime writer Zac O’Yeah said over email. Together, these 10 books mark the beginning of what we now know as Nordic noir.

A new genre

Nordic noir, or Scandinavian crime writing, has taken the world by storm today. What had once been a locational attribute is an entire genre now: a ghastly crime contrasted by the bleakness of the landscape, a troubled investigator whose worldview borders on fatalism (and at times, nihilism) and who struggles with issues at home, and where “solving” the crime is often less important than why the crime occurs, or how. Film and TV adaptations are commonplace and most bookshops now have entire shelves dedicated to the genre, judiciously kept away from the Christies and the Conan Doyles.

To discover the beginnings of Nordic noir, however, one has to go back to Sweden of the 1960s: a time with anti-Vietnam war protests, very few immigrants, when “Sweden was still a society with closer ties to the past than to the future” and “everybody smoked all the time,” as Mankell writes in his introduction to Roseanna, the first book in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s series.

Looking back, the publication of Roseanna was a historical landmark. Sjöwall would later recall, “We wanted to describe society from our left point of view…We realised that people read crime and through the stories we could show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer of poverty, criminality and brutality. We wanted to show where Sweden was heading: towards a capitalistic, cold and inhuman society, where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer.” This was a complete turnaround from how crime fiction had been approached up until then, with the British-style detective novel as the historically dominant form.

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Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

Real human beings

Martin Beck, the primary protagonist in the 10 novels, is “the prototype of the brilliant tormented detective”. His team at the Swedish National Police has equally intriguing characters: a detective with a photographic memory, another who doesn’t take too kindly to the state of affairs in Sweden, and one who comes from wealth and is disliked by most of the team. New recruits come and go, a member of the team is killed on duty and a patrol team is regularly pulled up for their ineptitude. They smoke a lot, get colds, are rude to each other, and face difficult questions in their relationships. In short, these are real human beings, “complete men and common men and yet unusual men”, to borrow from Chandler.

Despite being police procedurals, the books are often scathing in their criticism of force (and of the Swedish state itself, which came from the fact that its authors were both Marxists), such as the drive to militarise the police: “It had all started with demands for a more militant and homogenous police force, for greater technical resources, and for more firearms in particular. To get this it had been necessary to exaggerate the hazards that policemen faced,” one of the officers ruminates in The Locked Room, the eighth book in the series that O’Yeah says “had an unusual intertextual quality which made it into something more than just a crime novel”.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö were both journalists when they met in 1962 and fell in love. Wahlöö had written novels earlier, “but they’d only sold 300 copies,” Sjöwall told The Guardian. They planned a series of 10 books, with 30 chapters each. The first book, Roseanna, sold moderately well, she recalled: “Little old ladies took the books back to the shop, complaining that they were awful, too realistic. Crime stories in those days would not describe a naked dead woman as we did. Or describe a policeman going to bed with his wife. But on the other hand, students loved them.”

Taking root

The subsequent books in the series got better (or worse, if you look at it from the little old ladies’ perspective): they began to deal with paedophilia, serial killers, suicides, international espionage, the Cold War and mass murders (see The Laughing Policeman, a personal favourite along with The Fire Engine That Disappeared). Nordic noir hadn’t yet hit the jackpot, so although the two could quit their day jobs to focus on the books, Sjöwall said she would sometimes “lie awake at night wondering how to pay the rent”.

Wahlöö, nine years older than Sjöwall, did not live to complete The Terrorists, the last book in the series and Sjöwall wrote the last few chapters by herself. Together, their partnership allowed an entire new genre to take root, but the real success of Nordic noir would come later. “It [would be] another 25 years until the Nordic noir was born as a genre in the 1990s,” O’Yeah said, “so even if they [Sjöwall and Wahlöö] invented it, it was only after Henning Mankell’s astonishing global success that people started writing crime fiction in earnest.”

Swedish crime writing (and subsequently, Nordic noir) can be broken down in three phases. “Sjöwall-Wahlöö were among the first to get translated into other languages and find an international market, then Mankell boosted that by selling in the millions and being read all over the world, and of course Larsson pushed it even further by his books becoming such an internationally big product,” O’Yeah explained.

Today, it is arguably the most influential crime genre in the world. From True Detective to The Killing (originally a Danish TV show), from Broadchurch to Shetland, most crime dramas today owe a debt to Sjöwall and Wahloo’s radical reimagining of the crime novel.

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The new normal

At the same time, Nordic noir’s success has seen the genre crossing over from literature to marketing. The official Sweden tourism website advertises the “Stieg Larsson: Millennium tour”, where fans can go on a “two hour tour” with a trip to the apartment of Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl with the dragon tattoo and the punk-hacker-heroine of Larsson’s books. There’s also a Ystad tour, for the town that gave us Kurt Wallander, Mankell’s alcoholic police detective made famous by the BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh (one of the few actors to have portrayed two separate fictional detectives).

One can argue that if the hard-hitting writing of Sjöwall and Wahlöö was born as a response to the irrealism of cozy English mysteries, Nordic noir’s commercial success has made it as commonplace as the English country house detective once was. After Larsson died, the series has been turned into a franchise — a la Ian Fleming — that is mediocre at best. Also, any serious crime reader today will notice it is no longer uncommon to find bleak landscapes and troubled protagonists today. If anything, they are the norm.

This is not unusual. Popular writing — and the creative arts — tend to coalesce around ideas and tropes once a successful mantra has been identified. Perhaps it was similar in the 1920s and 1930s, with Christie, Sayers and Chesterton and their snug mysteries, and perhaps we will see a response to Nordic noir as it exists today. Writers like Tana French are already turning away from the “detective drama”, with keen psychological insights into ordinary human beings who end up committing a crime.

Despite the ubiquity of Nordic noir today, Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s reimagining of the crime novel elevated the form and structure of the genre. There aren’t any little grey cells or complex mysteries here; there’s only human fallibility, imperfect societies, and a relentless pursuit to uncover the secrets that make the crime.

This essay was first published in Scroll.in.

Consulting Editor @ Writers' Side Literary Agency. Writes mostly on books & publishing, and Nepali history. More at amishmulmi.wordpress.com

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