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.

As Mankell points out in his introduction to a reissue of Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were also ahead of him in connecting local crimes to global politics. This too is more explicit in their later books, but Roseanna nods towards the war in South-East Asia by mentioning ‘a Vietnamese tourist’ in its scene-setting opening passage. ‘A Vietnamese tourist!’ Mankell writes. ‘In Sweden in 1965! That may have happened once, at most.’ In Mankell’s books, the symbolic outsider is more likely to be from Africa or the former Soviet bloc, and the contrast is heightened by his predominantly rural settings. But Wallander and Martin Beck exist in a similar world of terse descriptions, terrible weather and carefully drawn minor characters. Mankell specialises in drily understated dialogue. ‘Eriksson must have been a more complex man than we imagined,’ Wallander says in The Fifth Woman (2000) after finding a shrunken head in Eriksson’s safe. Unromantic dejection is laid on thick: ‘He ate a hamburger special. He ate it so fast that it gave him diarrhoea. As he sat on the toilet he noticed that he ought to change his underwear.’

Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, the chess-playing lead detective in Håkan Nesser’s Borkmann’s Point, is told about a racist attack on a provincial refugee camp that sounds like a mildly parodic version of an episode in Faceless Killers. Quite a lot of Nesser’s dialogue sounds suspiciously like parody – although this may well be unintentional, and the translator may be partly to blame – as when Van Veeteren is grilled by some journalists whose ‘ruddy complexions’ are ‘a telltale indication of their trade’:

‘Is there a link between the victims?’

‘Yes.’

‘What is it?’

‘…’

‘How do you know?’

‘Give me a Danish pastry!’

‘Will there be any more top brass coming?’

‘If necessary.’

‘Have you any previous experience with axe murderers?’

Or (a chapter opening):

‘Melnik has gallstones,’ said Kropke.

‘What in hell’s name … ?’ said Van Veeteren. ‘I’m not surprised, actually.’

Van Veeteren – middle-aged, divorced, son on parole, drinker, melancholic temperament – is sent to Kaalbringen, a windswept coastal town, to help the local police solve a series of murders. The case unfolds slowly, in part because the detectives knock off at teatime; they’re also hampered by the comic Constable Bang. Only Beate Moerk, an attractive young inspector, seems to make any progress, but when she’s kidnapped by ‘the Axeman’, her colleagues respond with further inactivity. The novel is set in an imaginary, unnamed country – the kind of place where the police can squeeze a difficult witness by threatening to impound his haul of fish, and where people are called Cruickshank, Genner, Sopinski, Kreutz. This is an interesting departure from the regionalism of other Swedish crime writers, but it would have been good to have been told more about Van Veeterenland, which was introduced in an earlier, untranslated novel.

Nesser’s book is also representative to the point of parody in its obsession with wayward daughters. The killer, it’s revealed early on, is out to avenge his only child, who became a drug-addicted prostitute after being introduced to cocaine by a yuppie boyfriend, and eventually killed herself. Perhaps because of all the drinking, divorces and depression, such behaviour is strikingly common among the offspring of Nordic detectives and their professional acquaintances. Wallander’s daughter, Linda, once tried to commit suicide and used to worry him by disappearing for long stretches of time before becoming a police investigator herself in Mankell’s more recent novels. Eva Lind, the hero’s daughter in Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices, is an on-off addict and prostitute who sometimes contemplates suicide. And thanks to her cruel parents, a key character’s sister in The Priest of Evil is an alcoholic bag lady who ‘won’t live much longer’.

Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast bucks the trend – but only because it adheres too rigidly to other Scandinavian thriller conventions. Nesbø’s hero, Harry Hole, is an off-the-peg maverick detective whose alcoholism and solitariness are extreme even by this genre’s standards. Hole is too alienated to have children or an ex-wife, though he does have a sister with Down’s syndrome. His work also forces him to take an interest in controversial political issues – in this case, the less than glorious reality behind Norway’s postwar self-conception as a nation that collectively resisted German rule. The killer is a Norwegian Nazi-sympathiser who fought with the SS on the Eastern Front and sets out in old age to take his revenge on the establishment that, as he sees it, betrayed him. He’s assisted by neo-Nazis, whom he views with contempt, but who, unknown to him, have a high-up mole in the police force. Just for good measure, the suspects include an establishment historian, a wartime partisan and a senior civil servant who enjoys humiliating women.

Nesbø orchestrates his multiple storylines by exploiting various hackneyed devices in a shameless – and entirely successful – attempt to create suspense. There are numerous third-person passages told from the anonymous killer’s point of view, not to mention extensive flashbacks to wartime Russia and Germany. Characters swap identities or have dual personalities, ancient witnesses are tracked down in nursing-homes, and there’s a lot of flamboyantly cinematic cross-cutting. Plausibility isn’t really a priority, but Nesbø’s long-range plotting is careful, and the debate about the Norwegian elite’s behaviour during the war cleverly managed. By coincidence, The Redbreast was first published in Norway in 2000, the same year as Mankell’s similarly themed The Return of the Dancing Master, so it’s a nice touch that Hole is briefly taken off the case and sent to fester in Wallander’s territory, a.k.a. ‘some godforsaken place in Sweden’.

‘In the detective story,’ Auden writes in ‘The Guilty Vicarage’, the setting

should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighbourhood (but not too well-to-do – or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing-room carpet.

Preferring stories in which society’s innocence is restored by the murderer’s unmasking, Auden excludes Chandler’s novels from his analysis. Chandler’s irredeemable Los Angeles is a version of ‘the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged not as escape literature, but as works of art.’

Nordic detective stories have one family resemblance to the cosy English mysteries that Auden was addicted to: they’re set in famously peaceful and affluent countries. On other levels, though, the most successful ones evoke all kinds of contradictions to do with both crime novels and the Great Good Places of postwar social democracy. On the one hand, the landscapes are beautiful and the public services are great. On the other, the weather can kill you, and there’s sometimes a suspicion that these faltering secular paradises were built on ‘ill-gotten gains’. The books’ downbeat realism, existentialist atmospherics and attention to social problems signal ‘works of art’, but the genre’s rules are rarely stretched sufficiently. Bread-and-butter right-wing issues – immigration, sexual licence, drugs, violent crime – are frequently yoked to a leftish appraisal of national shortcomings. For readers from more stridently market-oriented societies, this has an additional wrong-footing effect, because the invocation of such issues in the context of the welfare state leads you to expect rants against Big Government rather than a sense that it’s not big enough.

Arnaldur Indridason, the author of a series of novels starring the fantastically gloomy Detective Inspector Erlendur, is Mankell’s closest competitor when it comes to sending out mixed messages. Like Wallander, Erlendur is a traditionalist figure with an unexpectedly compassionate approach to his work, but Indridason has to work much harder to make his Icelandic settings flicker between being Great Good and Great Wrong Places. In Swedish and Norwegian crime novels the characters are often shocked by the brutality or ingenuity of murders, but it doesn’t seem unlikely to them that serial killers or vengeful ex-Nazis should be going about their business in Oslo or Skåne. This is a bigger problem for crime writers in countries with smaller, more homogeneous populations: in The Priest of Evil, many pages go by before Harjunpää accepts that a serial killer is at work, ‘impossible as it seemed in a country like Finland’. Erlendur, similarly, never expects to be called out to anything more dramatic than ‘a pathetic Icelandic murder’: ‘squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence’.

Indridason’s mysteries glance at changes in Icelandic society – the psychic effects of the country’s huge genetic database in Tainted Blood; rapid urbanisation in Silence of the Grave – without forcing the characters to become amateur sociologists or having them stumble across colourful conspiracies in the course of their low-key murder investigations. The books’ truculent witnesses and pompous forensic experts are vaguely grotesque in the best detective-novel tradition: ‘A man wearing jeans and a traditional Icelandic woollen sweater, tall, with a scruffy, greying beard and two yellow dogteeth fangs that protruded out of it through his big mouth, came over to them and introduced himself as the archaeologist.’

Although Indridason has a sense of humour, both Erlendur and the cases he investigates are relentlessly sad – so sad that when a forgetful witness refers to him as ‘that other detective … the sad one’, no one has to ask which one she means. A stocky man in his fifties, shabbily dressed, rumpled from sleeping in an armchair, he lives on ‘cold boiled sheep head’ and ‘tubs of curds’. He kills time by browsing in his book collection – mostly accounts of ‘missing persons in Iceland, the tribulations of travellers in the wilds in days of old, and deaths on mountain roads’. Erlendur has a traumatic childhood back-story, and his ex-wife has never forgiven him for leaving her. His daughter cares about him, but her drug addiction makes her unpredictable. He’s rude and sarcastic, and people sense that it would be better not to get on the wrong side of him. In Tainted Blood, two men bang on his door just as he’s nodding off in his armchair:

Erlendur asked what they wanted his daughter for. They asked if he was hiding her inside his flat, the dirty old sod. Erlendur asked if they’d come to collect a debt. They told him to fuck off. He told them to bugger off. They told him to eat shit. When he was about to close the door, one of them stuck his knee in past the doorframe. ‘Your daughter’s a fucking cunt,’ he shouted. He was wearing leather trousers.

Erlendur sighed. It had been a long, dull day.

He heard the knee crack and splinter when the door slammed against it with such force that the upper hinges ripped out of the frame.

At the end of an investigation, however, he’s unfailingly gentle to the cornered murderer, who’s always a victim of another crime. Cruelty to women or children long ago tends to drive the plots. Each story ends with Erlendur making a poetic gesture in honour of someone with an even sadder back-story than his, coinciding with a significant fluctuation in his relationship with his daughter.

Erlendur is a well-designed character to form a series round: mysterious, discreetly sentimental, predictable in much of his behaviour but with enough capacity for change to keep things interesting. In Voices, he arrives at a Reykjavík hotel where a porter has been found stabbed in a basement room. The dead man is dressed as Santa Claus; a condom hangs from his penis. The hotel manager doesn’t want to alarm his guests – tourists visiting ‘the distant land of winter’ – but Erlendur checks into an unheated room and starts making himself obnoxious to the fat, sweaty manager, the irascible chef, the unctuous head waiter, the cowed reception manager, and the record-collecting British ‘pervert’ staying in room 312. Turning down his subordinates’ invitations to festive meals of herring and ox tongue, he doesn’t leave the hotel until the case is solved. He also shows encouraging signs of becoming more dependent on alcohol, settling down with a bottle of Chartreuse to read about ‘people who freeze to death outdoors’. Although the solution to the mystery isn’t especially ingenious, the pathos and poetic gestures are expertly done; if any of these writers deserves success on Mankell’s scale, it’s probably Indridason.