Scandinavian Crime Fiction

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by Patricia Miller, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

“The King is dead. Long live the King.” Or, in Lisbeth Salander’s case, long live the girl. Since “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (Knopf, 2008), “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (Knopf, 2009) and recent must-read book of the summer “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” hit these shores, Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s gritty heroine has ruled the best-seller lists. Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy has also won critical acclaim, prompting novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to describe Salander as one of the “great just avengers” in popular fiction. There is added poignancy in that Larsson’s early death will likely end a series that combines mystery, cyber-crime, political corruption, action and suspense.

Few female characters in crime fiction drive the narrative with such force. Kathy Mallory, the damaged child turned avenging adult verging on sociopath who was introduced in “Mallory’s Oracle” (Random House audio, 1995) by Carol O’Connell, comes close but lacks the emotional vulnerability of Larsson’s heroine. After the intensity of “Stone Angel” (Putnam, 1997), Mallory’s old hard veneer returns in later works. In “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1993), Danish author Peter Høeg’s heroine, Smilla Jasperson, is a more worthy precursor to Salander, as she battles powerful corporations and cover-ups to find the truth behind a child’s death in wintry Copenhagen.

Recently, several other Scandinavian authors have produced works with an emphasis on strong women that deal with emotional pain or the aftermath of violence. Johan Theorin’s “Echoes From the Dead” (Bantam, 2008) is a powerful study of a grieving mother’s search for answers to the disappearance of her child in the foggy stretches of coastal plain on the isolated island of Oland, Sweden. His follow-up, “The Darkest Room” (Delta, 2009), also set in Oland, delves further into family traumas in the past. As in Stieg Larsson’s police procedurals, set in northern Sweden, Åsa Larsson’s “The Black Path” (Delta, 2008), begins with prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson’s recovery from a mental breakdown after brutal encounters in the previous work, “The Blood Spilt” (Delacorte, 2007). Both authors are suggestive of the works by Minette Walters and Ruth Rendall.

The Man from Beijing

Scandinavian crime fiction also has its share of brooding introspective male detectives. The most well known is Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, recently played by Kenneth Branagh on Masterpiece Theater. Mankell’s latest, “The Man From Beijing” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), opens with his distinctive mix of stark setting and savage carnage as a wolf nervously approaches a body at the edge of a remote village where 18 people lie hacked to death. What ties the victims together is the crux of a complex story that incorporates many themes in modern Swedish history. Themes from Norwegian history also figure in Jo Nesbø’s “The Redbreast” (Harper, 2006), which switches back and forth between survivors at the end of World War II and present-day efforts by his alcoholic anti-hero, detective Harry Hole, to cope with neo-Nazi youth movements in Oslo. Nesbø’s latest mystery, “Devil’s Star” (Harper, 2010), was nominated for an Edgar Award. Espionage during the Cold War era is the setting for Arnaldur Inridiöason’s “The Draining Lake” (St. Martin’s, 2007), whose cast includes the morose Inspector Erlendur haunted by the long-ago disappearance of his brother in a blizzard and beset by problems with his estranged son and drug-addicted daughter. Inridiöason’s work often alludes to current social problems in his native Iceland. Åke Edwardson’s young vibrant Swedish police inspector, Erik Winter, is already beginning to turn cynical and weary in “Sun and Shadow” (Viking, 2005).

There are innumerable police procedurals with deft characterization set against the Scandinavian extremes of endless summer days or harsh winter darkness. These include works by Håkan Nesser, Helene Tursten, Karin Fossum and Kjell Eriksson. The summer solstice is pivotal to the plot of Mari Jungstedt’s “The Inner Circle” (2008), which combines Gotland’s rich Viking history with Scandinavian mythology in her series featuring Anders Knutas.

The Ice Princess

In a lighter vein, Yrsa Siguröardóttir’s “Last Rituals” (William Morrow, 2007) and “My Soul to Take” (Morrow, 2009) feature Thora Guommunddottir, an attorney and divorced mom who finds herself defending clients in cases involving medieval witchcraft and family inheritance secrets. This series has a touch of romance, and Thora’s own family presents her with unwelcome surprises.

The current popularity of international crime fiction and the success of Larsson and Mankell has prompted American publishers to issue more titles from authors previously unknown to us. Camilla Läckberg, one of Sweden’s leading crime writers, just made her American debut with “The Ice Princess” (W.W. Norton, 2010), and James Patterson combines with Swedish author Liza Marklund in “The Postcard Killers” due out this month.

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