The Scandinavian Detective and the Dissolution of a World

by John E. Phelan, Jr.

In his introduction of the re-publication of the Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö classic Rosanna, author Henning Mankell describes the effect of these pioneering Swedish writers: “They broke with all the previous trends in crime fiction. In Sweden, Stieg Trenter dominated the market in the late 1950s along with Maria Lang and H. K. Rönnblom. They wrote detective stories in which solving the mystery was the main concern.” Sjöwall and Wahlöö “wanted to use crime and criminal investigation as a mirror of Swedish society—and later the rest of the world.” Their characters were not stock figures out of Agatha Christie, but “people evolving right before the readers’ eyes.” Without their detective, Martin Beck, it is hard to imagine Mankell’s own character Kurt Wallander, or the Norwegian author, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole, or the Icelander, Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur.

These detectives reflect the ills of Scandinavian society in their own persons. Like Beck, their marriages and other relationships with members of the opposite sex are a mess. Wallander and Erlendur are divorced and have troubled relationships with their former wives and their children. They are perennially depressed and frequently truculent. Their work habits, their eating habits, and, especially, their drinking habits render the sustaining of relationships difficult if not impossible. Harry Hole’s drinking puts not only his key relationships in question, but his job and his very survival at risk. They are alone, even when surrounded by others. Their peers may respect them, but seldom understand them. Beck has a persistently queasy stomach. Wallandar is an insomniac. Hole is a binge drinker. Erlendur is a misanthrope. They have all received and inflicted psychic wounds.

Recently Stieg Larsson has introduced perhaps the most wounded character of all: Lisbeth Salander. She represents the outcome of an uncaring and abusive political system and fraying social service network. Because of her father’s importance to the powers that be, his abuse of her mother is ignored. When Lisbeth retaliates, she is subjected to her own horrendous abuse and becomes a person incapable of forming attachments and sustaining relationships. She is not a “detective” like Wallander or Hole, but she is just as alone and just as damaged. She does not work within the “system” and has no compunction about using violence to accomplish her ends. Her deceptive vulnerability makes her appear to be the perfect victim—but she is anything but.

Wallander and Salander are Swedes. Hole is Norwegian. Erlendur is from Iceland. But there is a common thread binding these detectives and their stories. In each country the cultural and economic ties that gave each society its coherence are frayed. The welfare state is collapsing under its own weight. Immigration is raising troubling issues. Racism and violence against women are persistent. The Swedish title of Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo was “Men Who Hate Women” (Män som hatar kvinnor). The books are as much about the systemic sexual abuse of young women imported from poorer parts of Europe as about the struggles of Mikael Blomkvist to get justice for Lisbeth Salander. Indridason’s Arctic Chill describes the murder of a young immigrant Thai and the seething racism under the placid surface of liberal, democratic Iceland.

Skinheads and Neo-Nazis turn up with surprising consistency in these books. In Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Blomkvist and Salander, in the process of searching for a lost girl, uncover a prominent family’s fascist past. Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast has Harry Hole monitoring Oslo’s neo-Nazis and exposing Nazi collaborators from World War II. When I asked a Swedish friend about this, she suggested that for the Swedes this reflects some guilt at their neutrality during the war and their fear that increased immigration and growing economic difficulties could revive fascism. Even in Scandinavia there are economic losers as well as winners and, as always, it is easy for immigrants to become the scapegoat for the failures of a society. Thought the actual number skinheads and neo-Nazis in Scandinavia is still quite small, their very presence raises anxieties about the future of liberal democracy.

Religion turns up regularly, as well. One senses that neither the authors nor their detectives know what to make of it. Erlendur makes it clear he is an atheist and that all notions of life after death are simply nonsense. And yet in his latest book Hypothermia Indridason has him exploring the question of human survival after death and conversing with a priest about the question. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has clues drawn from the Bible to help Blomkvist and Salander solve the case. Harry Hole’s book The Redeemer focuses on the work of the Salvation Army in Norway and has him visiting a Norwegian Free Church. Kjell Eriksson, another Swedish writer, in his book The Cruel Stars of the Night even has a policeman who is a member of the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden! In Before the Frost Mankell’s killers are religious fanatics.

Pastors and religious people seldom come off well in these books. They are often depicted either as naïve, well-meaning innocents or canny, duplicitous, fanatics. And yet at times a wistful longing for a lost innocence pervades the text. Religious coherence, like cultural coherence, seems a thing of the past. Neither the writers nor their characters are believers, but they seem to know something has been lost. Belief in God once gave coherence and conviction to Scandinavian societies. It once formed a moral bulwark against the violence, abuse, and indifference of society. The battered and solitary women and men who populate these novels are fearfully alone, but unwilling to end their loneliness. Like Lisbeth, they seem incapable of forming and sustaining enduring relationships with individuals, like spouses, children, or colleagues, or a group, like the church. Their pursuit of individual autonomy has seemingly brought them a kind of terrible freedom. But it also leaves them longing for something they are too damaged to grasp.

Erlendur is obsessed with lost people. In each book, whatever else he is doing, he is looking for someone who disappeared without a trace—a young mother, a child, an elderly parent. His obsession goes back to his youth when he and his younger brother were caught in a blizzard. Erlendur was separated from his brother and eventually found alive, buried in a snow drift. His brother’s body was never found. Neither Erlendur nor his parents ever got over the loss. He spends his time in the evenings in his bleak apartment reading tales of survival and loss. Every year he makes a pilgrimage to the Icelandic countryside where he grew up to look for the remains of his lost brother. Perhaps loss is the theme of all of these novels. Not only have these countries lost a coherent past, they are losing – their author’s seem to think – a coherent future. The books are more sad than cynical, but they certainly do not strike one as hopeful.

What accounts for their popularity in the United States? For one thing, these are great stories and compelling characters. However depressed, alcoholic, and obsessive they draw the reader into their world. With all their flaws they are sympathetic and engaging. I also think that Americans can identify with their fears. The old civic virtues that once bound us together are being frayed by an increasingly rapacious and Darwinian private sector and a seemingly ineffective and less caring government. We fear our own fascism, touted up as patriotism, will reduce us to violence and incoherence as well. We fear that the most vulnerable of the world, our Lisbeth Salanders, will also be damaged beyond repair and wreck a terrible vengeance on us.

John E. Phelan, Jr. is Senior Professor of Theological Studies at North Park Theological Seminary where he previously served as President and Dean for 14 years.

See all articles by John E. Phelan, Jr.