GUESTWORDS: Noir in a Northern Land

By Jennifer Hartig

    Who knew that so many homicidal maniacs were running around loose in the Swedish countryside? Before Stieg Larsson’s revelations of murderous Nazi enclaves, before Henning Mankell’s dramatic decapitations, I had viewed Sweden as a liberal template for humanistic advancement. Now, though, it has to be acknowledged that Larsson’s heroine, Lisbeth Salander, is a touch unconventional, and that Mankell’s police inspector, Kurt Wallander, is serially depressed. Can this be chalked up to the effect of Swedish winters on the human psyche?
    The fascination with Scandinavian mystery novels was kick-started by the phenomenal success of Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the first of his Millennium trilogy, originally planned as a 10-book series. The author’s tragic death of a heart attack before he knew of the unprecedented worldwide acclaim for that book and the two sequels — they would have made him a multimillionaire — is a real-life drama beyond even his capabilities to imagine.
    Now Scandinavian writers with names like Jo Nesbo and Lars Kepler are being hailed by the critics. Nesbo is a Norwegian musician and writer of mysteries featuring the burned-out hero Harry Hole, and Lars Kepler is the pen name of a husband-and-wife team, Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, two impossibly gorgeous Swedes.
    My introduction to Swedish novels was through another his-and-hers team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Their excellent Martin Beck police procedurals from the 1960s and ’70s are, I’m pleased to see, being reprinted with admiring jacket blurbs from writers like Michael Connelly. They usually open with a bloody murder and concern themselves with painstaking investigative work by a cast of individualistic policemen who become more appealingly familiar as one reads each successive novel. This provides a compelling reason to pick up each book as it becomes available. Larsson was planning the same strategy.
    What makes a successful mystery, beyond, naturally, a plot with suspense and unexpected revelations, is a believable central investigator with a regular cast of supporting characters and an intriguing setting (country or town). I’m a fan of the writers Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri because they amply supply all of these elements in their very different mysteries set in Italy. A passion for Italian cuisine is their one connecting tissue, but Leon’s mysteries are always set in Venice, where the delightful Commissario Guido Brunetti gives the reader a tour of the ancient streets, monuments, and gardens with their fabled history. Camilleri’s amusing, iconoclastic Inspector Montalbano pursues his criminals in Sicily, where the sun and the sea play a large and sometimes lethal part in the crimes he investigates.
    Some of the interest in Swedish mysteries surely has to do with how little we know about the country. Is it a socialist paradise or is it home to a rabid cadre of political operatives and murderous industrialists? Could it be both? Why are most domestic relationships depicted as so tortured? Isn’t anyone happy in paradise?
    And poor Kurt Wallander — is he ever going to get a vacation? Despite the violence that is an essential part of the action, there is pleasure in accompanying him to places like Skane, Malmo, and Ystad, but how on earth does one pronounce Gryt, Fyrudden, or Saltsjobaden? I don’t know, but the dreary weather and unfamiliar territory lend color and authenticity to the novels.
    “Lars Kepler” has had one book published, “The Hypnotist.” It has an original, well-paced story and enough mayhem to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader. Bodies literally litter Stockholm. More lie scattered, staining the snow, in the upper reaches of the country, and the hero, the hypnotist, while likable, has some truly terrible ideas. Early in his career he decides to gather a group of psychotics and put them and himself under deep hypnosis to release their various original traumas. It is an effort at group bonding that goes seriously wrong, generating a plot the twists and turns of which keep one glued to the page.
    The authors of that book, the Ahndorils, have a second one, “The Paganini Contract,” translated and waiting in the wings, and a third planned, so we can look forward to weeks of gruesome reading when they are finally released to us Swedish crime addicts.

    Jennifer Hartig is a regular contributor of book reviews to The Star. She lives in Noyac.