The Stockholm City Lights Were Slowly Starting to Rise*

This week’s post is devoted to a location rather than a specific book or author. Writer and crime fiction blogger Margot Kinberg highlights a city that has become as familiar to those fans of the genre who like to read translated crime fiction as New York or LA are to fans of the American form of the genre. Even those who’ve never visited.

I haven’t (yet) visited Stockholm, although I’m told (and have seen in ‘photos) that it’s a beautiful city. It’s the largest city on the Scandinavian Peninsula and it’s connected in many ways with the rest of Europe and beyond. What’s more, Stockholm is one of Sweden’s major cultural and economic hubs, not to mention its capital. So it’s not surprising that a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction takes place there. Maxine Clarke was an expert on Scandinavian crime fiction and taught me much about it, so in her memory, let’s take a look at some of the novels and series that take place in Stockholm.

The Harper Perennial editions of the series released from 2006 make a great looking set and each has an introduction from a leading contemporary crime writer.

One of the classic police procedural series (and one which I think should be on the reading list of any crime fiction fan, to be honest) is Maj Sjøwall and Per Wahløø’s Martin Beck series, which takes place largely in Stockholm. The ten novels that comprise this series follow Martin Beck and his fellow investigators through several changes in their own lives. They also examine critically Swedish social, economic and cultural life. In Murder at the Savoy for instance, there’s a hard look at the Swedish class system of the day and at the business and political elites who perpetuated it. In THE ABOMINABLE MAN, Martin Beck and his team investigate the murder of a fellow cop, and we get a look at the Swedish police system and the abuses within it. And in THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN and THE TERRORISTS, we get a look at Stockholm’s relationship with other nations, among other things. Since this is a police procedural series, we also see a lot of the city of Stockholm as Martin Beck and his team interview people, follow up leads and the like. What’s interesting about this series too (at least in my opinion) is its timelessness. Yes, fashions have changed, the Vietnam War protests are over and the like. But the larger questions addressed in this series are still important questions today.

TheBomberMarklundLiza Marklund’s series featuring journalist Annika Bengtzon also takes place mostly in Stockholm. Through Bengtzon’s eyes, we get to see several facets of life in that city. For instance, the main action in THE BOMBER begins when an at-first-unidentified woman is killed during a bomb blast at the newly-constructed Olympic Village. While the story doesn’t focus on the Olympic Games themselves, it does reflect the fact that Stockholm has twice been the host city for the Olympics. And in STUDIO SEX (aka STUDIO 69), Marklund explores the ‘backroom’ deals that go on among powerful politicians and businesspeople. In this case, the discovery of Hanna Josefin Liljeberg’s body in Kronoberg Park leads Bengtzon to Stockholm’s sex clubs and underworld meeting places. It also leads her to some possible government cover-ups and ‘dirty deals.’ As Bengtzon goes about gathering information for her stories, we also get to see what living in Stockholm is like.

Stefan Tegenfalk’s Walter Gröhn/Joanna de Brugge trilogy (ANGER MODE, PROJECT NIRVANA, THE MISSING LINK) is also based in Stockholm. Stockholm County CID Inspector Walter Gröhn and CID trainee Jonna de Brugge are drawn into a series of bizarre murders and later, a hostage situation. The complicated case leads both of them into a web of international intrigue, computer crime and larger questions about the limits of science. A lot of people see this trilogy more as a set of thrillers than more typical crime fiction, and some even call them ‘techno-thrillers.’ Either way, they show among other things how international a city Stockholm has become.

TheSavageAltarLarssonSeveral of Åsa Larsson’s novels featuring attorney Rebecca Martinsson take place in northern Sweden. However, the series starts in Stockholm, where Martinsson works for a large law firm. In THE SAVAGE ALTAR (aka SUN STORM) she returns to her home in Kiruna to help a friend who’s been accused of murder. Although she more or less remains in that area, she still has strong ties to Stockholm. For instance, her on again/off again lover Måns Wenngren lives there and wants her to move back. She also stays in contact with her good friend Maria Taube, who works for the same Stockholm law firm. One of the interesting things that we see in this series is the way Stockholm is perceived in other parts of Sweden. For example, at the beginning of the series, Martinsson dresses in a very particular, professional kind of way, with stylish clothes, coat and boots. That’s how she fits in to the environment. But that way of dressing is perceived as too ‘slick’ – too ‘Stockholm’ – in Norrland, where she’s from and to which she returns. So little by little, Martinsson adapts her ‘Stockholm’ ways and wardrobe to local expectations. It’s an interesting reflection of the way the other parts of Sweden and Stockholm view each other.

SomeKindOfPeaceGrebeAnd then there’s Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s series featuring Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. In her first outing, SOME KIND OF PEACE, Bergman becomes the target of what seems like a stalker determined to ruin her reputation and her practice – and worse. When the body of one of her clients is found on her property, she also gets drawn into a murder investigation. In MORE BITTER THAN DEATH, Bergman and her friend and business partner Aina Davidson agree to host a weekly group session for women who’ve survived domestic abuse. This leads Bergman into a high-profile case of murder when Susanne Olsson is murdered, and the boyfriend of one of the group’s members becomes the prime suspect. This series also gives the reader a strong sense of daily life in Stockholm, and both novels address some larger issues such as the domestic abuse and the state of mental health care.

Stockholm is a fascinating city and it’s been the source of inspiration to several writers. Little wonder there is terrific crime fiction that takes place there. I’ve only had space to mention a few examples. What’s your favourite Stockholm-based novel or series?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scandinavian Skies.

Contributor Details:

Margot Kinberg is an Associate Professor working in the fields of linguistics and literacy, a published crime writer and prolific blogger. At Confessions of a Mystery Novelist her daily posts on the themes and ideas explored in crime fiction are always thought-provoking and the back catalogue is a fabulous resource for anyone even vaguely interested in the genre. Margot’s occasional quizzes are fiendish fun for the aficionados. Those familiar with Margot’s blog will not be surprised to see she has found a Billy Joel connection to Scandinavia 🙂


This week’s contribution comes from a university librarian with varied interests across the reading and writing world, including Scandinavian crime fiction. Barbara Fister’s essay describes the journey she sees in the author’s writing.

One of my favorite writers is the Swedish author Åsa Larsson, whose series set in the far north of Sweden combines lovely writing, complex characters, and an evocative setting.

When I read the first in the series, SUN STORM (aka THE SAVAGE ALTAR), I described it as “a stunning book, beautifully written and engaging, that takes us from Stockholm, where Rebecka Martinsson works long hours in a soulless law office on tax cases, to Kiruna in the arctic north, where a man Rebecka knew has been murdered ritualistically in a church – and his sister, Rebecka’s childhood friend, is the prime suspect. The massive church built to house a revivalist, fundamentalist sect called The Source of All Our Strength, has pastors who aren’t cooperating with the investigation, led by a very pregnant police detective. The book has wonderful characters, a twisty plot, and a tremendous sense of place. Though the ending was a bit over the top, I found the book quite amazing.”

I put off reading the second book in the series for some time, but finally got around to reading THE BLOOD SPILT. As in SUN STORM, religion plays a major role. A woman pastor, who has rubbed the religious establishment the wrong way, has roused the local women with her feminist principles and encouragement to throw off their oppression and enjoy life. The part of the book I liked the most was the way Rebecka, who had returned to Stockholm and to her soulless work as a tax lawyer, suppressing the emotional upheaval of what happened in SUN STORM but too traumatized to pick up her career again, rediscovers the natural world and her long-suppressed love of her northern roots. I was reminded, reading this book, that Larsson is probably the strongest of the Scandinavian crime fiction writers in terms of style. Her language is evocative and lovely.

The third book, THE BLACK PATH, was aggravating – not because it wasn’t a good novel, but because it did some things so brilliantly and others – not as brilliantly. It’s a complex story involving a Swedish mining corporation’s investments in African mines, the inner lives of three partners in the mining operation, the sister of one of the threesome who has been raised by a Sami family and has become an artist with a clairvoyant streak, plus further development of the characters of Rebecka Martinsson and Anna-Maria Mella, the more practical and family-oriented police investigator. It seemed to me there was simply too much going on in this book, particularly in the cinematic ending; yet there was also so much that was so very good that I was more cross than I would have been if I didn’t admire it so much.

UntilThyWrathBePastLars1503_fEverything I find admirable bout Asa Larsson’s work came together for me in her fourth book, UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST. Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, but added to her stylish writing is a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. It’s one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has written so beautifully about it, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens. As UNTIL THY WRATH BE PAST opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.
She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know otherwise: they were murdered. While they were diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice, which we learn from the point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, the maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, her curiosity roused by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in THE BLACK PATH, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. Yet Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre.

Book Details:

author: Asa Larsson (learn more at wikipedia)
original language: Swedish
translator: Laurie Thompson
publication date (UK): August 2011 (Maclehouse Press (original publication date 2008)

Contributor Details:

Barbara Fister is a university librarian, writer of mysteries and observer of reading and writing in our culture. Her web home is here, her blog is here and her Scandinavian crime fiction interests are highlighted here.