Swedish Detectives

Åke Edwardson. Frozen Tracks. Viking Adult. August 2007. (2001.)

Kjell Eriksson. The Demon of Dakar. St. Martin’s Minotaur. February 2008. (2005.)

Helene Tursten. The Torso. Soho Crime. April 2007. (2000.)

The detective plot, like the marriage plot to which it bears so many resemblances, is a conservative structure: beginning with antisocial confusion, it moves through a process of discovery and self-knowledge to reach recognition and, finally, arrive at social re-order. So it’s not surprising that the golden ages of detective plots in whatever medium have all come during periods of turmoil, when the rule of law was a soothing fantasy: 1930s Britain, 1970s America, and, most recently, Sweden in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In this last period, an economic downturn brought into sharp relief the effects of fifty years of Europe’s most liberal immigration policy. Sweden spent the postwar years proving its “moral superpower” status (and expiating the guilt from its collusion with Germany during the war) by accepting all kinds of oppressed people, from Ugandan Asians exiled by Idi Amin to Chileans fleeing after the coup against Allende. Unlike in the rest of Europe, where migrants from poorer countries came for a bit to work, and then, generally, left, these refugees entered Sweden and stayed. Without resources or connections, frequently the traumatized victims of war and torture, rarely familiar with Swedish (unlike people from the former French or British colonies who migrated to countries that spoke their language of education), they were in a much different situation from the guest workers on the continent.

They found themselves in a country that viewed itself to an astonishing degree as a racially discrete unit. It was a country that had a functioning, government-approved eugenics program, based at the Institute for Race Biology at Uppsala University, from the 1920s until 1975. Official Swedish policy was to integrate rather than to assimilate the ethnically foreign refugees; a sensitive approach, perhaps, but one with the unfortunate side effect of creating ethnic enclaves in the affordable-housing projects that ringed Sweden’s major cities. And when that first round of unassimilated migrants started having children, and those children grew up speaking fluent Swedish and being in all respects Swedish except for their race and their poverty and cultural disenfranchisement, it created confusion for ethnic Swedes. Allan Pred’s 2000 book on Swedish racism, Even in Sweden, quotes the center-right paper Svenska Dagbladet, editorializing in 1993: “The Swedish people no longer recognize their country. Sweden’s ethnic identity has been changed, and another Sweden, consisting of a growing underclass and a cultural and economic proletariat with different skin and hair color, is in the process of developing.” Even now, it’s possible to walk around downtown Stockholm for days without spotting any people who deviate from the Scandinavian norm, although 13 percent of Swedes are foreign born.

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, first the Iran-Iraq war and then the breakup of the Soviet Union produced unprecedented numbers of refugees, and this—alongside a major recession that led to a 10 percent rise in unemployment—put unprecedented pressure on the welfare state (or Folkhemmet, “the People’s Home,” as it’s called). Violent crime rose precipitously over this period, causing many Swedes to doubt the foundations of the society they had believed in so strongly for so much of the 20th century. And this became particularly true after the assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986—a crime that remains unsolved.

Nineteen ninety-one was the crucial year, both for Swedish immigration policy and for the birth of the modern Swedish detective novel. In September, a center-right coalition led by Carl Bildt’s Moderate Party, running in part on greater restrictions for refugees, ended a Social Democrat reign that had persisted with only one interruption since 1932. In the same election, a right-wing party founded just six months before, the New Democrats, won almost 7 percent of the national vote on an anti-immigration platform. Meanwhile, over the course of six months starting that August, a neo-Nazi named John Ausonius, known as the Laser Man, shot eleven dark-skinned immigrants with a laser-sighted rifle and a revolver, killing one. The son of German and Swiss immigrants who changed his name and dyed his dark hair blond to seem more Swedish, Ausonius became a symbol of the sick racist id of Swedish society. The government’s response to the killings struck many as maladroit, exemplified by the unfortunate attempt by the culture minister, Birgit Friggebo, to force an angry, frightened group of immigrants at a press conference to sing “We Shall Overcome.”

It was in 1991 also that Henning Mankell published his first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers. An old couple is brutally slaughtered, and the wife dies with one word on her lips: “foreign.” The police detective on the case, Wallander, is a grumpy, volatile middle-aged man coping with his own demons—an estranged wife and daughter, an eccentric aging father, and soft-core fantasies of anonymous sex with black women. He tries to keep the victim’s last words a secret, afraid of fueling conflict between the Skanian natives (he lives in the southern town of Ystad, close to the ports through which most refugees enter) and a local refugee camp. But word leaks out, and nativist groups begin placing harassing calls to the police station, finally setting off a bomb in the camp and shooting a Somali refugee.

Yet it is the Swedish welfare state rather than Swedish racism that is the villain of Faceless Killers. Toward the end of the book, Wallander ruminates about the new violence of Swedish culture and how the welfare state fails to protect its own citizens: “How long would the principle of the generous refugee policy be able to hold without leading to chaos? Was there any upward limit?” The Swedish couple’s murderer does turn out to be a foreigner, though not a racial outsider: he’s a Czech who convinces immigration officials that he’s a Gypsy, a persecuted minority, to gain refugee status. Sweden’s open-door policy, then, carries the responsibility for the first two deaths—and its tendency to cluster refugees in port-city camps while they await reassignment is implicitly given some responsibility for the third.


Critiques of the welfare state have held a place of honor in Swedish literary fiction since the 1960s. Jan Myrdal’s 1968 Confessions of a Disloyal European, a meandering journey through the author’s many sexual experiences that closes with a denunciation of the modern European intelligentsia as the “whores of reason,” marks a watershed because Myrdal’s parents, Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, were also essentially the parents of the Swedish welfare state. Both Nobel Prize winners (Alva in 1982, Gunnar sharing it with his rival Friedrich Hayek in 1974), the Myrdals represented the best and worst of the welfare state at its birth. They were humane scholars, Alva of social welfare and Gunnar of social economics. (Gunnar was the author of the 1944 study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a major source for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.) At the same time, husband and wife both considered themselves Malthusians and argued for the sterilization of the “mentally deficient.”

Jan’s very public split from his parents (played out in the pages of several excoriating childhood memoirs as well as Confessions) augured the beginning of a generalized if subdued revolt against the Folkhemmet politics of the past generation. The welfare state was now figured as Kafkaesque, a mind-numbingly impersonal machine, bankrupt in its promises of humanity and justice. P. C. Jersild’s “bureaucracy” novels are typical of this period. In House of Babel, published in 1978, he satirizes the dehumanizing inefficiencies of a massive Stockholm hospital, calling it a medical “cathedral . . . meant to lull people into faith and security.”

More recently, a boom in first- and second-generation immigrant fiction has taken place in Sweden, just as in Britain and the US. But much literary writing by native Swedes has become locked in a sterile postmodernism that doesn’t concern itself very closely with politics. For the majority of Swedes—and the vast majority of non-Swedes—questions of race and immigration over the last fifteen years have largely been left up to writers of detective novels.


Of the more recent major Swedish crime novelists to have benefited from Mankell’s success by having their books translated into English, three of them—Helene Tursten, Åke Edwardson, and Kjell Eriksson—are intimately concerned with the same political problems as Mankell and, very generally, share his sense of crime as a social problem, not an individual one. Another, Håkan Nesser, sets his novels in a fictional but vaguely Dutch-sounding nation where immigrant-related crime is just something to occasionally boast about having suppressed; perhaps as a result, he is frequently compared to Georges Simenon rather than Mankell—unlike the first three, who are forced to put Mankell’s name on their every book jacket.

Still Tursten, Edwardson, and Eriksson, for all they owe to Mankell, seem different from him—more optimistic. No one ever wonders, as Wallander does at the end of 1997’s One Step Behind, “if a complete collapse of the Swedish state was a real possibility.” Instead, they probe the same issues but pull back from Wallander’s gloom; perhaps they put their faith in a bright Communist future, as Eriksson seems to, or they think, as Tursten’s heroine, Detective Inspector Irene Huss, does in her first novel, “You become jaded and cynical in this profession . . . But she didn’t want to become either jaded or cynical! You had to go on, keep moving forward. You couldn’t stop and dig yourself a hole.”

It’s true that Sweden has stabilized, in many ways, since the traumas of the mid-’90s. The main result of the recession was that the Social Democrats—voted back into power in 1994—embraced neoliberalism, backing off somewhat on social welfare and tightening the borders. But there is still plenty of material for writers of noirish policiers. Although some restrictions (not all of them entirely abided by) have been placed on the influx of immigrants, Sweden has continued to handle large numbers of refugees from former Yugoslavian countries, while the numbers of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants have also been on the rise. Like France, Sweden has struggled to uphold its much-vaunted reputation for tolerance and liberalism over the basic xenophobia that exists on an everyday level; at the same time, while Sweden hasn’t been prone to the level of violence among its Muslim youth that Britain and continental Europe have, many Swedes feel it’s just a matter of time, and radical Islamic groups have been tracked in the prisons and some mosques.

The police force has changed too. It’s not surprising that a large number of the new fictional detectives are women (including Wallander’s daughter Linda in Mankell’s most recent books), given that the Swedish police force is now one-third female and Stockholm has had a woman police commissioner since 2003. The new detectives tend to be more modern in their living arrangements, too—instead of grumpy divorced middle-aged men, they are single women, unmarried couples, parents of out-of-wedlock children, and so forth. They use DNA testing and new computer systems; they argue about September 11 and the Iraq war.

And the crimes are different. Despite the new specter of Islamic violence in European society, the events tend to be isolated, based on personal rather than antisocial rage. The scope of the novels is smaller, less interna-tional; the newer novelists often focus on a single family and its conflicts. Racial problems in these novels tend to be personalized, and peripheral to the plot: a detective struggles with his or her own prejudices or an interracial couple jokes about having a black Saint Lucia; ’90s-style political correctness is mocked or defended; suspects are automatically tagged as foreign or “as Swedish as they come.”


In Helene Tursten’s novels, Irene Huss is about as far from the grim, stolid Wallander as it gets. She is sparkly, athletic (a national champion at judo), and charming in a slightly ditzy, Nancy Drew–ish way. Unlike the perennially lonesome (and poorly fed) Wallander, Huss is happily married to a chef who works part time so he can take care of their twin daughters while Huss races about solving crimes.

In Tursten’s first novel, Detective Inspector Huss, Huss is working to catch the murderer of a wealthy financier, Richard von Knecht, pushed from a balcony just as his estranged weakling son Henrik and his manic wife Sylvia pull up to the building in their Mercedes. Soon after, von Knecht’s office buildings explode, and Irene Huss gets drawn into a nest of Swedish Hell’s Angels and the complicated dynamics of the warped von Knecht family. The Angels’ actual connection to the crime remains fairly obscure, but they do provide a fantastic scene in which Huss, beaten senseless, tied up, and urinated on by the bikers, still musters the strength—she’s a former handball goalie—to chuck a grenade back out the window of the shack where she and a colleague have been left to die.

Now if this were a Mankell murder, it would have turned out that von Knecht was selling drugs to Latvian crime lords, or funding a white supremacist movement in an African country; instead, after many arcane twists and turns, it turns out to have been Knecht’s foxy daughter-in-law—and lover—who kicked him off the balcony because he dumped her when she became pregnant with his child: in other words, it was a strictly family affair. But Huss’s own family affairs serve as a counter-arc that gives the novel its political framework. Detective Inspector Huss includes one of the only sequences in the major Swedish detective novels to explore the motivations of young neo-Nazis. Huss’s daughter Jenny comes home one day with a shaved head: she’s fallen in love with a white supremacist. Huss tells her fellow detective Tommy Persson what’s happened, and he launches into a Wallanderesque speech against a formally generous but emotionally alienating social-democratic system: “How do you think these young criminal immigrants are supposed to have any feeling of solidarity with Swedish society?” he asks. “They’re consistently locked out of everything! . . . Our kids don’t feel any sense of belonging in Swedish society either; they just cling to ready-made, cheap solutions.”

It’s another example of the Swedish degeneration argument—less focused in its accusations than Wallander’s, but with a similar denunciation of the social forces that misshape individuals. Still, it’s resolved: Tommy has a man-to-man talk with Jenny, in which he reveals that he’s the son of a Holocaust survivor; then Jenny’s neo-Nazi dumps her for another girl and she decides she’s not a skinhead anymore; and the family gathers together to watch Schindler’s List.

The whole Huss series is larded with this sort of well-meaning, politically correct, Sesame Street–level sensitivity training. In The Torso, the Swedish police discover the eponymous dismembered part washed up on a beach (quite misleadingly, the cover illustration shows an attractive, naked, fully membered female torso—caveat lecher!). At the same time, Irene is asked to help track down a former neighbor’s daughter, who may be working as a prostitute in Copenhagen—which happens, coincidentally, to be the location of a store whose sign matches a mysterious “Asian” tattoo on the torso’s skin. The store, a gay sex shop run by a Japanese former sumo wrestler, at first appalls Huss (who had, one thought, learned that gay people were Just Like Us when she befriended Richard van Knecht’s illegitimate son, a gay man dying of AIDS, in the first novel). “No!” she exclaims, when her Copenhagen host tries to calm her down, saying the sex toys are “just for fun.” “It cannot be fun to have that huge rubber dick shoved in! It must hurt terribly!” However, when she meets Tom Tanaka, the former sumo wrestler (“To Irene’s relief, he was not wearing the diaperlike pants in which sumo wrestlers compete”) and current sex shop owner, she is impressed by his kindness, and they talk about martial arts together.

The murderer in The Torso turns out to be a member of Irene’s own team, a gay autopsy technician with necrophiliac tendencies who chops up his victims while videotaping them and then paints their disembodied heads. But before Huss can apprehend him, Tom Tanaka, described by a witness as “a huge and amazingly fat Chinese man,” gets there first, killing the killer in revenge for the death of his lover. Tursten bends over backward to avoid equating necrophilia with homosexuality; nonetheless, all the dangerous characters in The Torso are gay or Asian, or both.

You may think it possible that I’m demanding too much of poor Helene Tursten, who is after all a writer of popular genre fiction and not, say, Jürgen Habermas. But the experience of reading the much more sophisticated authors coming out of Sweden at the moment renders that objection moot. The best of the bunch on a technical level is easily Åke Edwardson, who frequently betters Mankell as a writer and constructor of plots, if not in the psychological complexity of his detective, Erik Winter, who is dashing and clever but lacks the comfortingly real bulk of old Wallander. Edwardson’s crimes are often committed by characters who have been around, unsuspected, since the beginning.

In 2001’s Frozen Tracks, a series of attacks have been made on Gothenburg’s college students with a weapon that may or may not be a branding iron. While the police are still scrounging around fruitlessly for the culprit, toddlers are being abducted, but just as quickly returned, by a man with a toy parrot in his car. As the brutal student attacks taper off, the child snatcher becomes more brazen and more violent. The earlier two Edwardson novels, Sun and Shadow and Never End, revolved around crimes against the family—specifically Winter’s family (his girlfriend, Angela, gets abducted toward the end of her pregnancy in Sun and Shadow), but also families in general. And Frozen Tracks culminates this pattern. Not only are the preschool victims the age of Winter’s daughter, Elsa (and evidence is eventually found that she was a target), but the two sets of crimes are linked to an original sin, the abuse of a foster child forty years before. Family dramas proliferate at varying levels of perversion, including allegations of child abuse against Winter’s closest friend on the force, and Winter’s own anxieties about fatherhood and his relationship with Angela, whom he has not yet married.

The family in Edwardson’s novels sometimes takes on the role that the welfare state has in Mankell’s: unstable, vulnerable, capable of producing horrific offspring. Following the resolution of Never End, for example, a novel about a series of rapes that ends up being linked to a victim’s father, a policeman remarks to Winter that “There are a lot of villains in this story.” Winter replies: “And victims. . . . Most of them are victims.” The quote recalls Mankell’s notion of collective societal blame for the murders in Faceless Killers, although Winter’s problem isn’t with the “nanny” state, but with actual families. Since the Winter novels also describe happy families, particularly Winter’s own, there’s some sense (absent in Mankell) that other models are possible; that bad blood can be bred out, that a collective unit can produce good results as well as evil ones.


Conservatism in detective plots works on two levels: the structural movement from anarchy to unity, and the related, more literal movement from individual power (the criminal) to collective state power (the law). When the state and the detective are in conflict, the intellectual triumph of the latter (Sherlock Holmes running circles around Scotland Yard) supposedly represents the victory of the individual. But even then, the detective himself just becomes the emblem of a smarter kind of order: he is saving the state from itself, but he is still a tool by which the state consolidates its power.

In the Swedish novels, the old opposition shifts: instead of private investigator versus bumbling police force, it is police detectives versus bumbling state, with its unrealistic approaches to law enforcement and immigration. At the same time, the police detectives do work for the police, and their victories over the criminals they track represent a victory for the state.

Novelists like Mankell, Tursten, and Edwardson, whose politics are fairly moderate—at least on the Swedish spectrum; in the US they’d be raving in Z Magazine—can use their detectives as vehicles for critiquing the state and society and then turn around and rescue that state without much sense of contradiction. With Kjell Eriksson, however, the compunction to rescue Social Democrats from themselves becomes weaker. A member of the Swedish Communist Party, Eriksson is politically the most radical Swedish crime novelist since the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who had a detective say in The Laughing Policeman (1970) that “the police are a necessary evil.” Eriksson occasionally subtracts that “necessary.” Feeling little obligation to resolve his stories in favor of the ordered state, Eriksson lets his detective plots implode.

This is less the case in his earlier novels, which adhere more closely to the Mankell model of critique and eventual resolution. The Princess of Burundi (2002) has two killers: one a vicious racist psycho, Vincent Hahn, who seems loosely based on John Ausonius; the other a more mundane fellow who stabs to death a small-time crook nicknamed Little John over money. In both cases, either environmental or psychological factors are shown to be entirely responsible for the murders. The Uppsala-based detectives (Ann Lindell is nominally the hero, but the whole squad functions as a central character) focus mostly on Little John’s background and his failed attempts to get out of the poor neighborhood he grew up in and find a job. Berglund, the respected older cop who provides a moral center for the group, spells out this idea in one conversation: “There is a kind of culturedness that exists apart from the kind transmitted by schools and universities. . . . Once upon a time I think this kind of culture flourished in the neighborhood where Little John grew up, and it helped to stem the flow of today’s lawlessness. Of course, there were scum in the fifties and sixties, but there was also a social resistance that is lacking today.” When Riis, another cop, tries to blame this change on the influx of immigrants, Berglund takes passionate exception, blaming instead the Social Democrats: “[B]oth Little John and Vincent Hahn are products of Swedish social democratic policy, our so-called People’s Home.”

But this point of view raises an intriguing problem for detective fiction, something that even Mankell has never quite plumbed: If the state is to blame for everything, why should we be punishing individuals? Eriksson’s most recently translated novel, The Demon of Dakar, bursts the limits of the detective plot in a decisive way. The murderer in Dakar is an immigrant, Manuel, a Mexican who comes to Sweden to find his brother Patricio in jail for drug smuggling. To get the money owed to Patricio (and to avenge his brother, Angel, who died on another run), Manuel tracks down the two drug dealers who employed his brothers, kills one of them, and takes a job in the other’s Uppsala restaurant, Dakar, as a dishwasher. The kitchen at Dakar is a mini UN: other employees are from Portugal, Spain, Finland, and the US. “And we are all gathered here,” says one of them, in case we missed the point. “In Dakar’s kitchen.” The group becomes tightly bonded, and Manuel even begins a flirtation with Eva, the Swedish waitress.

Although Manuel comes plotting revenge, Dakar becomes a place where he manages to regain his humanity among other outsiders. In the end, after Patricio is sprung from jail almost by accident, the two brothers slip through Ann Lindell’s fingers to return to their village in Oaxaca.

In that sense, The Demon of Dakar is a police novel turned almost entirely upside down—the logical conclusion of the process that begins with Mankell’s doubts about society’s responsibility for crime. Though Lindell and the other detectives remain sympathetic characters, the author is clearly rooting against them. The people who aid Lindell in the manhunt for the two brothers are generally racist: one speaks of “a dark-skinned man of suspicious appearance.” A certain justice is carried out when the drug dealers (foreign but white), who are presented as the actual bad guys, are punished, one shot by Manuel and one finally imprisoned by the police for drug possession. But the murderer at the center of the novel (and the focus of the detectives’ exertions) takes no legal responsibility for his actions—and the detection plot becomes a sinister tool of white oppression. There are higher laws, The Demon of Dakar suggests, than our little bourgeois schemes of crime and punishment.

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