Give me a Danish pastry!

Christopher Tayler

Chasing a cross-dressing serial killer through a tunnel beneath Helsinki, Timo Harjunpää, the hero of The Priest of Evil by Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu, pulls out his gun and then pauses to consider the health and safety implications of what he’s doing. ‘He recalled that this communal tunnel was used for almost everything: water and drainage, heating, electricity, telephone cables. It also occurred to him that he ought to be wearing a hard hat, as the rock-faces hadn’t been secured with concrete.’ These sensible observations, made while running through the dark in pursuit of a man who likes to drink pigeons’ blood, are fairly typical of the current wave of Nordic crime fiction. Even while uncovering the nasty secrets of their prosperous social democracies, the heroes are often reflexively concerned with enlightened workplace practices and the everyday machinery of communal wellbeing. Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander, whose popularity is responsible for the huge number of translations being published, is particularly vexed by under-regulation. ‘They have no insurance,’ an appalled policeman tells him at a crime scene thronging with ill-protected workers in Faceless Killers (1991). ‘If we hadn’t had this damned double murder to solve, we could have cleaned up that shit.’

For English-language readers, such attitudes might be part of Wallander’s exotic appeal. Few British or American investigators would worry about such things. Fictional detectives are famous for being gloomy, drinking too much, having troubled personal lives and so on, and these attributes fit well with the stereotype of the Scandinavian who drinks too much and has debilitating bouts of existential unease: when a Nordic detective gets drunk or can’t get to sleep until dawn, it’s doubly satisfying. Wallander is scrupulously self-questioning, often worrying that in some small way he shares the dark urges behind the crimes he solves. Most of all, he worries about Swedish society, brooding on crime rates and responses to immigration – his own included – while trying to see his work as a pragmatic, sympathetic type of social engineering:

The Sweden that was his, the country he had grown up in, that was built after the war, was not as solid as they had thought. Under the surface was quagmire. Even back then the high-rise buildings that had been erected were described as ‘inhuman’. How could people who lived there be expected to keep their ‘humanity’? Society had grown cruel. People who felt they were unwanted or unwelcome in their own country reacted with aggression. There was no such thing as meaningless violence. Every violent act had a meaning for the person who committed it. Only when you dared accept this truth could you hope to turn society in another direction.

Wallander is not the first Swedish detective to dabble in social criticism. His frequent illnesses and digestive problems, his soap-operatic supporting cast, and the importance of time and patience in his investigations – which sometimes drag on for months – are modelled on the adventures of Martin Beck, the hero of a ten-novel cycle of skilfully plotted, atmospheric police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, published between 1965 and 1975. They were written, Sjöwall said, ‘to show the reader that under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed’. They also aimed to document Sweden’s transformation into ‘a completely capitalistic, cold and inhuman society’, and the later books include a fair amount of Marxist polemic. Generally, though, the authors’ viewpoint comes across in their mordant depictions of police brutality and incompetence – the splendidly dour and laconic Martin Beck (both names are always used) is an exception.

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