Crime, Sex and Society in Swedish detective novels

There are two types of police novels that can awaken my interest. One of them is the obscure category of “who-dun-its”. The other is the social-psychological detective novel.

The Swedish detective novels I know of, all are of the socio-psychological variety. In these, it´s not just a matter of finding out who killed who, and how. It´s also meant to dissect society and its effect on people on both sides of the law. More often than not, the murderer is shown to be a victim (“Hey, I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!“) of society whereas the juridical system is shown to be corrupt, bureaucratic and biased.

Since for most people Sweden is the symbol of a perfect social-democratic society, books like these have an inherent irony, much more so than similar novels from – for instance – the United States, which thanks to television and Hollywood we all perceive as a country full of ghetto´s, evil politicians and gun-toting psychopaths.

Of these Swedish detective novels, one example are the books of Henning Mankel which are, frankly, quite bad. Another example are the books of Stieg Larsson which are, frankly, incredibly bad. A third example are the very good books of the couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. These latter two writers are, at least nowadays, much less known, maybe because their names are so hard to pronounce. And that´s a pity.

What does a good detective novel need?

  • A good plot. A dead body only is not enough. Just a dead body is as interesting as grandpa´s funeral.
  • Good characterisation.
  • Atmosphere.
  • Style. Whether it´s cosy or gory, grandma´s tea party or grand-guignol, hard boiled private eye or clumsy nerd, it should be written in the right way. What the right way is, nobody has ever been able to describe. Some have it, and some don´t.

Let´s start with Henning Mankel. I read “The Fifth woman”. As a matter of fact, I read it in spanish (“La Quinta Mujer”). Here, we read page after page about a police officer who doesn´t have a clue (which could be interesting) and this is stated continuously (which is not so interesting). There is a rule that one should never literally state how a person feels, like: “Mr. So-and-so felt sad” but, instead, try to evoke that sensation by describing the surroundings, the dialogues, the atmosphere of the place where Mr. So-and-so lives. Mankel fails miserably here. With Mankel, if someone is in a bad mood, Mankel just says so. If two persons don´t get along, Mankel just says so. Repeatedly. Nowhere, not from dialogues, not from body language, not from indirect evidence can the reader deduce what the persons are about. Characterisation: bad. Style: bad. Atmosphere: bad.

Secondly. When one reads a story, even if it´s surreal or science-fiction or hardboiled or gothic, one wants to believe what´s going on. The world described might be an alien world, but even so, it should be a consistent world, a world that at least within the confines of the story seems real. With this book of Mankel, my suspension of belief, after great duress, finally got broken at page 170. Wallander is questioning a witness and shows him a photo with three men on it. Two of them need to be identified. “Who are these?” inspector Wallander asks, “Are they Terry O´Banion and Simon Merchand?”. That put the lid on it. No experienced police inspector would do that in an interrogation: putting the answer right in the witness´ mouth. There are several of these mistakes, and they are not there on purpose. They are there because obviously the author himself does not have a clue.

Worst of all, right from the start it´s clear for the reader who is the killer and what´s the motive. A detective novel where the supposedly surprising end is already clear right from the start is like an omelette without eggs or a guitar without strings. Pointless. I don´t need to put a Spoiler-alert here, because really: just read the book and after chapter 3 you know as much as I do. The killer is a woman who hates men, and decides to kill men who have done bad things to women. Some kind of feminist revenger.

Sounds familiar? Well, for a lot of people it will sound very familiar, thanks to the extraordinary succes of Stieg Larsson. Stieg Larsson has written an entire trilogy about the evil men do to women. One of the two main protagonists is a man without qualities (does he read? does he like music? does he dance? what clothes does he wear? does he have a sense of humour?), yet manages to sleep with any woman he finds on his way. It´s the perfect adolescent´s wet dream. For people older than 16, however, this man is just a huge incompetent bore who for no apparant reasons occupies a lot of space in these books.

The other protagonist is a girl. I imagine she´s the main reason these books are so popular. There is a certain charm to her: a rebel with a cause, treated badly by almost everyone, especially by men of course, and hitting back on the world with a vengeance. She´s also a computer hacker, able to break the secret codes of any institute, bank or company around the world. The problem is: this would all be very nice for a superman comic, but for a novel that wants to give a realistic portrayel of society, it fails in a disastrous way because it´s not believable at all.

The rest of these novels are filled with two types of persons: women who suffered terribly by men, and men who make women suffer in terrible ways. The word “terrible” is an understatement. It´s Marquis de Sade meets Stephen King meets American Psycho, but without the philosophical dare, the suspense or the over-the-top lunacy. It falls flat in its social criticism by overdoing it.

I would be the last to deny that we live in a macho world. A world that still treats women as socially, intellectually and sexually inferior. Our western society, that prides itself on its modern emancipated views, still portrays women as either scarcely clothed sex bombs or as house-wives without thoughts of their own. As far as gender-based violence is concerned, we still only know the tip of the iceberg. Most girls I have known have experienced some kind of sexual, psychological or physical violence. There is obviously still a long way to go to put an end to that. Making people aware of this is an important part of the solution. However, the books of Stieg Larsson do exactly the opposite. Any man who thinks he should earn more than his wife, that women are not supposed to sleep around whereas men can, that men are intellectually superior to women, any of these men could read the novels of Larsson without learning a thing. His conclusion most likely would be: “I don´t do any of that, so you see, I am not such a bad guy after all”.

In the books of Larsson, guys don´t stalk their ex-girlfriends; instead, they torture them, kill them and roast them on their barbecue. Guys don´t insult their wives on a continuous base, making them believe their useless; instead, they tie them to a wall in the basement and rape them in between mutilations. It´s not an accusation against sexist men, it´s an accusation against men like Marcel Dutroux.
It´s like criticing a political party by comparing them with the nazis. It´s like criticising an unreasonable schoolteacher by comparing him with Adolf Hitler. It´s pointless.

With that, clearly, any characterisation, style, atmosphere or a brilliant plot is impossible. And indeed, you will not find any of that in Stieg Larsson´s novels.

So, at last, let´s move to the books of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They were a couple, both journalists, and wrote 10 detective novels together. All of these are meticulously plotted, which is even more remarkable because they are no classic whodunits. There is no Poirot or Dr. Fell who in the last two chapters “unveils all”. Instead, it´s all about dogged policework, where mistakes are made, clues overlooked and incompetence often seems to rule the day. But – in a sharp contrast to the books of Mankell – in the case of Sjöwall and Wahlöö this doesn´t result in a boring read, but – on the contrary – in a sense of irony and sometimes even slapstick. This is mainly due to their clean, sober writing style, sometimes almost minimalist, for instance in their descriptions of interrogations.

An example of their writing style can be found here.

The characters, the victims, the witnesses, the suspects are almost all splendidly drawn out. With a few economically sparse sentences, persons are identified in a convincing way. The main detectives: the taciturn Beck, the elitist Kollberg, the wildly socially inept Gunvald Larsson (think Dr. House meets The Wire´s McNulty and then some), the mediocre Rönn, ambitious Skacke, boring Melander, stoic Månsson, they are all recognizable for anyone who has ever worked with other people in an office. A special role have the clumsy policemen Kristiannson and Kvant (and later Kvasstmo) who invariantly screw up and subsequently will get shouted at by Gunvald Larsson.

But the most amazing thing is that the social critisicm works. And that´s mainly amazing because in so many ways the writers´ points of view are hopelessly outdated and often simply wrong. For one thing, the writers, at least at the time when they wrote these books (in the 60´s) are devout marxists who really seemed to believe that the communist countries in the east of europe were heavens on earth. All capitalists are impotent, power-sick, corrupt monsters out to destroy the beautiful socialist dream. It´s an amazing feat that despite this hopelessly misguided message that every now and then seeps through the lines (more in the later novels than in the first), a lot of the social criticism does work, especially in their portrayel of the ones that don´t fit in: the petty thiefs, the single mothers, unemployed leftovers, drug addicts, girls that end up in the porn industry, hapless immigrants, …, all people that voluntary or not live their lives on the margins of society. The main reason this works is because the writers never get sentimental. Again, it´s their sober, often dry and ironic, style that saves the day. And while their occasional statements in favour of orthodox communism can cause the reader to smirk a bit at times (it´s quite funny sometimes), their portrayal of a cold, money driven capitalist society that doesn´t give a hoot about the well-being of the people in that society is still as accurate and to the point now as it probably was then. If anything, it´s more valid than ever before.

Two excellent reviews about their works can be found here and here .

As an afterthought, it´s even more ironic that although Mankell and Larsson try so hard to show that their intentions are to criticise the sexist, macho society, they are not at all aware of their own sexist attitude. Their own writing is full of sexual stereotypes. Maybe this is done on purpose, as some tongue-in-cheek self-criticism but their overall borishness in their writing style makes me doubt that. In Larsson´s work, for instance, the cool, independent, feminist Salander decides, in book two, to have a boop-job. Bigger tits for more independence, or something. Of course, when one thinks that women are free to do whatever they want, getting bigger tits might be part of that. But since it doesn´t at all match up with the rest of the girl´s attitude, one cannot help thinking that this boop-job is mainly there of Larsson´s own sexual preferences. The fact that she also buys a dildo also seems to be added just so the writer has something to fantasise about. Just as his alter-ego who can apparantly sleep with whichever woman he wants. In Mankell´s “The fifth woman”, a suitcase is found, supposedly filled by the murderer. However, apparantly the suitcase is done in a way “no man would ever do it”. In the end they let a female police officer fill another suitcase and apparantly, yes, women do suitcases in a different way than men. Hence, the conclusion is that the murderer must be a woman or – as one police officer cleverly suggests – a homosexual man. For this reason, a few possible suspects are discarded, since they have been volunteers in a mercenary army. And – says the inspector – “homosexuals wouldn´t do that”. Welcome to Mankell´s open mind.


2 thoughts on “Crime, Sex and Society in Swedish detective novels

  1. Pingback: This week, yet another three « DINZO!

  2. Fascinating stuff. I felt Larsson almost enjoyed writing the brutal sexual abuse scene and also his writing suffered from being treated as a holy text after his death. Some decent subbing might have removed, for example, the page of tech specs of Salander’s laptop (fascinating though they are for an Apple fanboi like me). Will check out Sjöwall & Wahlöö. I’d heard of them on a BBC 4 doc about Scandanavian crime fiction – and then forgotten about them. Probably the names and they’re not all over TV and cinema and Amazon!

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