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 🙂

The Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

This week’s much loved crime is an homage from crime writer Quentin Bates to one of the world’s great series of novels

A pair of weird names stood out from the bookshelf. This was a long time ago, some time in the middle of the 1970s and I was a schoolboy with my nose almost permanently in a book. The two odd names were on a row of paperbacks on my Mum’s bookshelf among the Ed McBains and the collections of Dorothy L Sayers and Patricia Highsmith that still fill the old lady’s bookshelves today.

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

An early English edition of Roseanna, the first novel of the series

The odd pairing was too much to resist. With only a vague idea of idea how to pronounce the two names, I was hooked within a couple of pages. There was no internet then, no easily googled information, but the scant blurb inside the books indicated that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were a husband-and-wife pair of crime writers from Sweden. That was it. It was years before I found out any more about them and the books that opened a whole new world.

The lives and attitudes of Martin Beck, Gunvald Larsen, Einar Rönn, Fredrik Melander Lennart Kollberg and their wives, girlfriends superiors and colleagues, not least the boneheaded patrolmen Kvant and Kristiansson (plus Kvastmo, who stepped in after Kvant was killed), were a revelation to this spotty, bookish teenager.

This was proper gritty crime, like the American stuff, but it was so much better, set in Europe and somehow it was just more believable. There was something entirely credible about the lives of these flawed Swedish coppers and it was a world away from comfy drawing rooms and hard-bitten fedora-hatted gumshoes.

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.

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.

Sweden was a distant country then, a byword for blondes and skinny dipping, but Sjöwall and Wahlöö showed a seamier, more realistic side to this Scandinavian utopia, still with a level of permissiveness and freedom in spite of its flaws that was a world away from English suburbia. There was a subtle undercurrent of social commentary in the books that was missing from other crime fiction and gave the stories a hard edge. It was only years later that I discovered the authors had been committed Marxists and that the Martin Beck novels had been written as a social commentary on the ills of Swedish society.

The writing is still as fresh today as it was then. It’s spare prose with no wasted space. If you disregard the fact that there are no mobile phones and that Martin Beck and his colleagues travel by bus, then they could be set today.

Once I found that there was a series of ten, the gaps in Mum’s shelves were plugged with visits to the library and before long I had read the lot. Then… nothing. There wasn’t any more Scandinavian crime to be had in English. Apart from a few oddities that turned up that weren’t easily found in a pre-internet age, it wasn’t until Miss Smilla and her unique feeling for snow appeared on the scene that we Brits had a similarly insightful peek into Scandinavia’s nuts and bolts.

The rest is history and these days we’re spoilt for choice. But I still have a row of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books, one or two of them much-thumbed copies that never did find their way back to Mum’s bookshelves all those years ago. Almost fifty years on, the Martin Beck novels still hold their own among the flood of Nordic crime now available in English, and practically every Nordic crime writer (the small group of Nordic pretenders included) is indebted to to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö.

Book Details:

author: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote a total of ten novels in the Martin Beck series which is collectively known as The Story of a Crime. In publication date order they are

  1. Roseanna,
  2. The Man Who Went Up In Smoke
  3. The Man on the Balcony
  4. The Laughing Policeman
  5. The Fire Engine that Disappeared
  6. Murder at the Savoy
  7. The Abominable Man
  8. The Locked Room
  9. Cop Killer
  10. The Terrorists

original language: Swedish
translators: varied
publication date (UK): Roseanna was first published in 1966, The Terrorists in 1975.

Contributor Details:

Quentin Bates was born in the UK, spent a gap year decade in Iceland and is now a journalist and crime fiction writer with a series of novels featuring a widowed police sergeant serving on a rural Icelandic force. For more visit his website or follow him on twitter.