Stiegmatized: Scandinavian Crime Fiction after the deluge
Sweden, says Håkan Nesser, can be any number of things depending on where you're viewing it from. If you're American it's all Ingmar Bergman, depressed people with failing marriages playing chess with Death. For the British it's a fable about the model welfare state and its supposed fall from grace. And if you're German, it's Astrid Lindgren; whatever horrors you put inside your books, says Nesser, the Germans will stick a pretty timbered house on the cover. Nesser, ironically, is exactly how you'd like to imagine a Scnadinavian crime writer: tall, austere and lugubriously ironic, he makes the audience dissolve into fits of giggles without ever cracking the ghost of a smile himself. They adore him.
We're in the Stevenson lecture theatre in the British Museum, where the London Review Bookshop's World Literature Weekend is kicking off its third day with a panel on Scandinavian crime fiction. In attendance are two multi-award-winning Swedish authors: Nesser, author of the popular Van Veeteren and Barbotti series of detective novels, and Karin Alvtegen, author of the the psychological thrillers Guilt, Missing, Betrayal, Shadow and Shame. Under the suave guidance of UCL's Scandinavian literature don Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, we're here to discuss why Scandinavian crime has suddenly become so wildly popular, why and how one writes, what crime fiction even is, and whether Astrid Lindgren – yes, the Astrid Lindgren of Pippi Longstocking fame – was in some mysterious way a crime writer herself (the answer: possibly).
Stougaard-Nielsen starts us off by outlining a genealogy of crime fiction that goes all the way back to the Nordic Sagas – stories with a body-count, he wryly notes, that few serial killers could ever match. He concludes with the question we'll be coming back to again and again this afternoon: just why is Scandinavian crime fiction so popular these days? His answer is simple: the crime writing coming out of Northern Europe is simply 'damn good writing'. More sophisticatedly, he says that what distinguishes it is the combination between cultural specificity and universal themes (especially, one assumes, if the universal themes you're talking about are mostly to do with violent death). Invoking Goethe's weltliteratur, Stougaard-Nielsen says that Europe's Northern fringe is producing books that celebrate the local but speak to a globalised world.
Violence isn't the only thing on the menu today, however: as Karin Alvtegen points out, none of her more recent books really involve a murder. The dark psychological thrillers she used to specialise in have modulated recently into more static meditations, where the real trauma mostly happens in people's minds and their relationships with each other. Nesser, too, has been moving away from crime as such: his last few Van Veeteren books featured his grizzled protagonist retiring from police work to run an antiquarian bookshop, and his forthcoming novel will be set in London and have absolutely nothing to do with murder. To an extent, both writers agree they've been 'Steigmatized': caught up in and defined by the post-Steig Larsson rush for anything and everything Nordic and crime-shaped.
There's no doubt by the end of the session, though, that both writers are in for the long haul, regardless of literary trends and sales figures. Alvtegen speaks movingly about her great-aunt Astrid Lindgren as a model of what a writer should be, and tells the story of her own beginnings as a writer. Following the accidental death of her brother, a pilot in the Swedish air force, she suffered a breakdown from which only writing saved her. Writing her way out of her situation was a personal necessity, and when she finally stopped she found she had a book. Nesser, too, writes from conviction: 'You have a story worth telling, and a way of telling it, and you begin... sometimes it's like you have all these balls in the air, and you think "how will I catch them?" – but you shouldn't worry about that. They do come down'. We file out of the lecture theatre with the sense of a regional literature that doesn't care a hoot for the momentary fads of the publishing market - and is committed, simply, to continuing to produce damn good writing.