Author uncloaks the Swedish murder mystery

Mention Scandinavian crime fiction and most may think of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. That’s likely because those books were the first by a Swedish author to hit the No. 1 spot on The New York Times Best Sellers list. To date, more than 40 million copies of the trilogy have sold worldwide.

Those books, however, didn’t appear out of thin air: They’re part of a crime novel tradition dating back to at least 1965 in Scandinavia—a tradition Andrew Nestingen, associate professor of Scandinavian Studies, has followed for years. His first book, Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film and Social Change, was published by UW Press in 2008. And this year he co-edited Scandinavian Crime Fiction, a collection of essays about the genre.

“I started studying this subject because it was a puzzle to me how a region so small—25 million people or so—could have this global brand in crime fiction,” Nestingen said, noting that Larsson isn’t the only successful author. In fact, modern authors like Henning Mankell and Liza Marklund have also sold tens of millions of books.

His answer is that in 1965, Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo began writing crime fiction that told a good story, but also provoked debate about social issues.

“They had an enormous impact on other crime writers,” Nestingen said. “They revitalized that genre. What they did was make it both entertaining and a serious form.” They also started a movement in Scandinavia that made crime novels an arena of debate about social change.

The books, Nestingen said, became a means to get ordinary citizens talking about social issues. Their rise coincided with a time when people’s belief in the government’s ability to solve problems began waning, leading ultimately to Larsson’s heroine Lisbeth Salander, lone operator extraordinaire.