Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Following in the footsteps of Swedish Novelists
In Swedish fiction, local color and a strong sense of place have long been an integral part of the equation. In the mystery genre, it began with Stieg Trenter, who in the 1950s and early 60s, excelled in vivid, sensuous descriptions of classic Stockholm locations. The only present my father ever wanted for Christmas was the “latest Trenter.” These mysteries became my introduction to the Swedish capital. At age twelve, long before ever setting foot in Stockholm, I was familiar with many of the streets, and knew about Gamla Stan, Slussen, Djurgården, and other Stockholm sights - all enlivened by crime and intrigue.
In the mid-60s, the husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö introduced what was to become the now famous Martin Beck series. With it, Swedish mystery writing continued with evocative portrayals not only of Stockholm, but other places as well (the first novel, Roseanna, begins with the gruesome discovery of the body of a young woman next to beautiful Lake Vättern, and, later on, in Murder at the Savoy, most of the action is in downtown Malmö). The Martin Beck series also marked the beginning of a new trend in Swedish crime fiction: political and social consciousness. The hero, a homicide detective, loves his work, but is stultified by inept bureaucracy, suffers from a nervous stomach, and is trapped in a loveless marriage. Which leads us directly to Inspector Kurt Wallander, the next sleuth of stature to emerge on the Scandinavian scene.
A disgruntled, middle-aged crime fighter with marital problems, Wallander is the creation of the late Henning Mankell, the writer who in the last several decades gained an enormous following in Europe and, increasingly, in the United States (more than 25 million books have been sold in 37 languages).
There are nine Wallander novels. In Sweden they’ve all been turned into movies, and, for the English-speaking audience, there are three films by the BBC, starring Kenneth Branagh as the crusty, oddly likable, inspector.
The home turf of this fictional lawman is the small town of Ystad on the south coast of Skåne, 35 miles east of Malmö. It is an idyllic setting, strikingly at odds with the dark happenings and the many brutal murders taking place in the novels. Reading Mankell, you feel as if you are right there with Wallander - whether he, after a troubled sleep-deprived night, walks from his home at Mariagatan to the police station, crosses Hamngatan for a pizza, or chases a shadowy figure through a cobbled alleyway dating back to the medieval days when Ystad was a Hanseatic port.
Most, if not all of the novels, have a couple of small maps: one of Ystad and one of Skåne, the latter so that even when Wallander leaves town, you can follow his every move, and in the process learn something about the Swedish countryside. Mankell excels in descriptions in which weather takes on a special significance. Thick mists keep rolling in, reflecting the mood of his ever-melancholy hero. Then it’s time to put on a cassette of arias by Jussi Björling, opera being one of Wallander’s weaknesses, along with whisky and work.
Ystad has now become somewhat of a tourist Mecca catering to Wallander fans. A vintage fire engine will take you on guided tours to key locations, and maps from the Tourist Board enable you to follow in the Inspector’s footsteps. See how some of the movies were made, sit in his chair, drop in at Fridolf’s Konditori for a cake named after him, or visit some favorite haunts, such as Hotel Continental, which, incidentally, happens to be Sweden’s oldest hotel.
The Tourist Board also supplies visitors with a comprehensive list of Wallander-related places beyond Ystad, which includes some of the best inns and restaurants in the region.
They say crime doesn’t pay. Ask anyone in Ystad.
Now back to Stockholm, and to another sensation in the field of Swedish mystery writing. I’m referring to Stieg Larsson the writer and journalist who, prior to his sudden death from a heart attack in 2004, presented the world with three page-turning thrillers, all of which have garnered rave reviews and become huge bestsellers. I’ve read the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and was highly entertained. The characters are intriguing, there are serious undertones, the plot twists and turns. There are two more: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. The protagonists are Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading liberal journalist and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman investigator who is like no other investigator you’re likely to meet – a curiously loveable diminutive, antisocial hacker with tattoos and multiple body piercings. As a fictional Swedish character she stands alone, sometimes referred to as a grownup Pippi Longstocking., Like his mystery writer namesake of long ago, Stieg gives you an inside take on the Swedish capital. His particular territory is Södermalm, a working class district in central Stockholm turned fashionable in the 1980s and 90s, and where both Mikael and Lisbeth live, he at Bellmansgatan, she at Lundagatan.
Historically less affluent than some other parts of Stockholm, Södermalm has a rich literary tradition. Carl Michael Bellman, the most popular poet and songwriter of the 18th century was born and raised here; Strindberg opened one his novels with a rapturous account of Stockholm spreading out before him as he stood on Södermalm’s Mosebacke high above the rest of the city; and later came Per Anders Fogelström with “City of My Dreams,” a Södermalm generational saga. Then there was Ewert Taube, a latter day Bellman, who made it his home, and sang about it with passion. And so now we have the Stieg Larsson phenomenon – with books selling in the tens of millions in some 40 countries.
As for current best-selling Swedish mystery writers, there’s Camilla Läckberg, whose books about a young detective named Patrik Hedström have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold some 23 million copies worldwide. “The Ice Princess,” published in 2003, marked the beginning of a series of mysteries, all set north of Gothenburg, on the west coast of Sweden, famous for it’s spectacular archipelago.
I once met her at a book-signing event at the Swedish Church in Manhattan. She is sometimes referred to as “the rock star of Nordic noir.”
Discovering, or rediscovering, Sweden through the prism of prominent fictional characters – be it a grumpy inspector in the south, a homicide detective stultified by inept bureaucracy, or an anorexic hacker - seems too good an opportunity to miss.
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