Sweden has murder on the brain

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The World

GOTEBORG, Sweden — Sweden’s second city does not look like it’s in the grip of a crime wave.

Cafes are filled with well-dressed citizens chatting over coffee and cinnamon buns. Elegant 17th-century buildings line the canals, funky boutiques and cool design stores cluster along the broad boulevards.

It only takes a look in any bookstore however, to see that this is a city, and a country, with murder on its mind.

Henning Mankell, Stieg Larson and dozens of other home-grown writers of deckare (detective) novels fill the shelves. They reflect a national obsession with crime in seeming contradiction with Sweden’s happy position as one of the safest countries in Europe.

“That is a big paradox,” said Goteborg crime writer Ake Edwardson. “It’s not so much an obsession with crime, it’s using crime as a device to take a good look at the country we are living in.”

Within the 27 nations of the European Union, only Germany, Austria, Malta and Slovenia have lower murder rates than Sweden. In 2006 there were 91 murders registered in Sweden. In the same year, 84 crime novels were published in the country.

Peter Wahlqvist, a Goteborg-based lecturer in crime fiction, said the international success of Swedish thrillers results from a combination of good writing, a taste for the exotic and the contrast between the make-believe mayhem and common foreign perceptions of Sweden as a blond, healthy, welfare state utopia.

“It’s for real, psychologically about real people and about real life, real society,” said Wahlqvist.

Crime has also become a major export.

Larsson’s posthumously published “Millennium” trilogy is an international phenomenon, selling some 20 million copies in more than 40 countries since 2005. The third volume, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" is due for release in the U.S. next year.

Mankell’s novels featuring the angst-ridden detective Kurt Wallander have sold more than 30 million copies. Actor-Director Kenneth Branagh won British television’s top drama award this year for a series of three BBC features based on Mankell’s books. Mankell has a huge following in Germany, which sends flocks of tourists to follow a Wallander trail through southern Sweden complete with a visit to the cafe where the fictional sleuth lunches on herring sandwiches.

Readers around the world are lapping up Camilla Laeckberg’s tales of grisly crime in the fishing villages of the west coast; Asa Larsson’s dark dramas in the frozen north; or Edwardson’s murder mysteries in urbane Goteborg.

Sweden may not have many murders, but one in particular haunts the national psyche. In 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot at close range as he walked home from the cinema on a February night. Palme was the dominant political figure of his generation and his killing stunned the country.

The murder remains unsolved despite years of investigation and myriad conspiracy theories pointing at an array of potential assassins including Kurdish guerrillas, South African secret agents or German revolutionaries. Complex murder plots filled newspapers and TV broadcasts and Swedes became all too aware of the country’s sinister side.

The feeling of insecurity was heightened by the fatal stabbing of the country’s popular Foreign Minister Anna Lindh by the son of Serbian immigrants in 2003. “The murder of Olof Palme took away some naivety out of the Swedes. We never thought it could happen here,” said Edwardson. It “maybe brought something to the crime writing, may be that was a kind of starting point, it showed that maybe this is a genre to take seriously.”

Mankell’s first Wallander novel, “Faceless Killers,” appeared five years after Palme’s murder, but he draws on a tradition of using the detective genre to shine a spotlight on the dark side of Nordic society that dates back to the 1960s.

Husband and wife team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall produced a thriller once a year from 1965 to 1975, when Wahloo died. Their books featuring Stockholm detective Martin Beck aimed to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state,” wrote Wahloo, a committed Marxist, in an essay.

Wahloo and Sjowall became international best-sellers. Walter Matthau stared in a movie based on their 1968 novel, “The Laughing Policeman,” although Hollywood switched the action from Stockholm to San Francisco.

However, their success was nothing like the current global demand for Swedish crime.

“For the past few years, it’s been like Klondike,” said Edwardson, whose latest book to appear in English, “Death Angels,” was published in the U.S. by Penguin in September.

“Eight or nine years ago, at the book fair in Frankfurt, German publishers were crying ‘give me a Swede, give me a Swede,’” he said in a telephone interview. “Then in London a few years ago, ‘give me a Swede.’”

Edwardson’s plots can be as complicated as IKEA flatpack instructions, as he uncovers crooked cops, youth gangs, rampant alcoholism and the problems of integrating the diverse immigrant communities that Sweden has struggled to absorb in recent years.

“I’m a full-time serious writer and I take this genre seriously,” he said. “Probably the most difficult thing you can do as a writer is crime writing.”

But despite the deckare writers’ focus on Sweden’s underbelly, Edwardson admitted the country may perhaps not quite as gloomy as they portray it.

“Things have turned a little darker and a little grimmer,” he said. “Still there is this official image of Sweden which in many ways still true. I’ve traveled a lot … . I would say that Sweden is probably still the best country to live in the world.”

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