Stieg Larsson, Sven Svensson and the future of Scandinavian mystery literature
The success of Scandinavian crime novels by the likes of Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell has prompted a flood of books in the same mold.
Now, as a symposium on the genre gets underway at UCLA, we ask: how can the Scandinavian crime novel stay fresh?
Perhaps we need a new detective.
A sleuth who is not driven by data, or tired out by a crushing bureaucracy or weighed down by some kind of pervasive Scandinavian melancholy.
Claus Andersen, who teaches Scandinavian literature at UCLA, suggests a happy sleuth, a well-adjusted family man.
I asked him to help me to come up with an idea for a new novel, and a new blockbuster detective character. We were joined by Andrew Nestingen, a Scandinavian specialist at the University of Washington.
We begin with the name: Sven Svensson. He's Swedish, we decide, and has three kids, a symbol of his family's affluence and comfort.
Svensson always puts his family ahead of his detective work, getting home on time at 6.30 p.m., or earlier.
"Yes, 4 p.m., I was going to say", laughs Nestingen.
Sven Svensson is married to Anna Svensson, and she earns significantly more money than him. Perhaps she works as a financial exec in Stockholm?
"Or it could be set in Gothenburg or Malmo and she could be some kind of important municipal official," suggests Nestingen.
Anna, we imagine, is privy to secrets that Sven Svensson has to uncover later on; she knows the people he'll encounter in his investigations.
Gothenburg also gives Nestingen an idea for the social backdrop to our new novel, something any self-respecting Scandinavian crime thriller has to have.
"One of the things about that city is its industry: Volvo, Saab. There are huge factories there," he says.
Sven Svensson — our fictional detective — grew up in that decaying industrial world but left it behind when he got married.
"Or perhaps his wife could have made money off the decline of this industry," offers Claus Andersen.
Next step: the murder victim.
We go for an elderly man, a former factory worker now living in a retirement home.
"Yeah, secrets of the past that this person held and needed to be taken care of as a consequence," imagines Nestingen.
Our victim is called Bengt Kuosmanen — a Finnish last name — in a nod to the many Finns who worked in those Swedish factories in the 1950s and 60s, a time when Finland's economy was in trouble.
Doom and Gloom
Finally, before we give our book a name, we consider the atmospherics.
Most Scandinavian crime fiction seems to be set either in the summertime of never-ending light or in the unrelenting gloom of a dark, dark winter according to Linda Haverty Rugg, who chairs the Scandinavian department at UC Berkeley.
"The wind is blowing and the rain is falling and there's sleet and there's snow", says Rugg.
So we go for something different and set our novel in the springtime, a potent moment for people starved of sunshine.
"Things actually explode into bloom or explode into green. And that is a really exciting time for the Swedes: they start to take off their clothes and go outside," Rugg says.
"Setting a crime novel in the springtime might also have to do with the rush of excitement and blood pumping that comes with the advent of spring in Scandinavia."
As the snows melt, things forgotten are uncovered.
"And," Rugg continues, "if we're dealing with an elderly person being killed, something about that person's past which had been buried and is now coming to light would be an interesting parallel to the spring idea."
All we need now for our new Scandinavian crime novel, set in the spring against a backdrop of industrial decay, is a title.
Spring … spring …
Nestingen has the answer:
"You could call industry to mind with 'The Volvo Spring'. That has a dissonance between the car and the blossoming that's a part of the novel."
With all that taken care of, let's start the story.
"The Volvo Spring" begins with our victim, old Mister Kuosmanen, reminiscing in his retirement home about his days on the industrial production line.
And then he is murdered …
Just in case Hollywood is reading: the panel suggests Sven Svensson and his wife ought to be played by Matthew Broderick and Charlize Theron in any movie adaptation.
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