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A Smorgasbord of Scandinavian Mysteries

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11.12.14

The soon-to-be-released movie, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", the first in Columbia Pictures film adaptations of Stieg Larsson's literary Millennium trilogy, is focusing attention on the raft of mysteries flowing from the Scandinavian countries.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an un-put-downable page turner. Escaping the fallout of a libel conviction, investigative journalist Mikael Blomqvist retreats to a remote island in Sweden's far north where the unsolved murder of a young girl still haunts her industrialist uncle forty years later. From a cottage on the island where the killer may still roam, Blomqvist's investigation draws him into the secrets and lies of the rich and powerful, going back to the days of World War II, and throws him together with a most unlikely ally—tattooed punk hacker, Lisbeth Salander. The action is non-stop and the character of Lisbeth is inscrutable, yet strangely sympathetic and compelling. Lisbeth and Blomqvist continue their partnership in The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. If readers are lucky, a fourth volume may follow.

Larsson's popular thriller series focuses on a social ill of Sweden, quite surprising considering the liberal attitudes we attribute to that country--that of the all too common abuse of women. The series arose from Larsson's work as a journalist investigating extremist, neo-Nazi groups in Sweden and across Europe and the very real threat they pose to social order. A fascinating book about the book and its origins in the life and life-risking work of its author is "'There Are Things I Want You to Know' about Stieg Larsson and Me" by his common law wife, Eva Gabrielsson. It is a poignant story of love and loss, and of a lifelong commitment to fighting for the protection of human rights.

The Millennium trilogy may also be viewed as the natural progression of the literary exploration of this theme, which notably began fifty years ago with the Martin Beck mysteries written by a pair of Swedish journalists, Maj Sjowall and her common law husband Per Wahloo. Together, they conceived of a series of ten novels which would illustrate the ills of contemporary Swedish society, and the dogged work of the police to solve the resulting crimes, despite the reflection of society's failures in law enforcement. Their series, featuring Martin Beck and his colleagues, is considered a classic in mystery writing, with its timeless theme, its precise description of police procedure, and affecting portrait of civil servants, their persistence in the face of bureaucracy and weariness, their successes and foibles in both their work and their personal lives. These make for interesting and entertaining reading, and the audio versions are especially well narrated.

The Sjowall-Wahloo series was issued in the U.S. by Victor Gollancz in the 1960s, but only in the last decade or so have other Scandinavian crime writers appeared here. This "invasion" is the result of the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the opening of an insular, homogenous culture to new immigrants, creating a clash of ideas and behavior, and a world ripe for literary interpretation.

Henning Mankell introduced beleaguered police inspector Kurt Wallender in 1997. Stoop shouldered Wallender struck a nerve with American readers because he was so unlike our imagined (super)heroes. While he manages to solve the crimes, he does so with an awareness of impossible chaos surrounding him.

Erlendur Sveinnson is surrounded by insularity, claustrophia, and a forbidding climate as he solves crimes in Reykjavik, Iceland in a series created by Arnaldur Indridason.

Climate and landscape are especially central to Peter Hoeg's story, Smilla's Sense of Snow, set in Denmark.

Anne Holt, former Norwegian Minister of Justice, writes the Johanne Vik and Adam Stubo series, pairing a sensitive male detective and a psychologist, reminiscent of Ridley Pearson's mysteries. Also from Norway is Karin Fossum, who writes the Konrad Sejer series.

Stieg Larsson fans will enjoy the Harry Hole series by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo. Begin with "Redbreast". And try James Thompson's Inspector Kari Vaara series, beginning with "Snow Angels", in which Vaara investigates the racially-charged murder of a Somali immigrant during a  cold and dark Christmas season in Finland, a case that takes its toll on his marriage to his pregnant American wife.

Sweden is the locus of much outstanding crime fiction today. Kjell Eriksson' Ann Lindell series featuries the entire police department of Uppsala. Hakan Nesser's Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is reminiscent of beleaguered Kurt Wallander, but also of Maigret, in this series set in Stockholm. Stockholm is also the setting of Asa Larsson's series starring attorney Rebecca Martinsson.

Additional Swedish crime writers include Karin Alvtegen, Lars Kepler, Camilla Lackberg, Anders Roslund, and Johan Theorin.

In this season of cold, experience the chills and thrills of Scandinavian crime fiction with us at www.tcplweb.org or 988-2541.

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