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Beyond the dragon tattoo: How Wendy Lesser plunged into Scandinavian crime

A book cover for Wendy Lesser's "Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery."
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Many readers’ awareness of Scandinavian crime fiction began 15 years ago with Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium trilogy, the series that sent a tidal wave of Nordic noir across the North Atlantic. For the critic Wendy Lesser it started much earlier, with Sweden’s Martin Beck mysteries, first translated in the ’60s. The pioneering Nordic thrillers, written by Maj Sjöwall and her partner, Per Wahlöö, ended just before Wahlöo died in 1975. Sjöwall died this week at 84.

“I caught up with them in the early 1980s,” Lesser said in a lively phone conversation shortly before publication of “Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery, the story of her passionate journey into the region’s fiction and culture.

Lesser has been reading crime fiction for decades — Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle but also French and Japanese thrillers and contemporary writers like Michael Connelly. Yet Scandinavian crime always felt different, more socially conscious and granular. As Nordic crime gained momentum globally, Lesser eventually felt compelled to compare fiction with reality. The result, “Scandinavian Noir,” is equal parts memoir, critical study and travelogue.

Lesser was at UC Berkeley, working on her PhD in English and launching the literary journal the Threepenny Review, when she started raving to friends and colleagues about Beck. “They were really groundbreaking,” she says of the 10-book series, “in terms of being a socially aware police procedural, and I think they are still the best thing ever written in the form.”

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Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Beck mysteries portrayed Sweden from a decidedly Marxist perspective; for Lesser it was a fantasy of sorts, an escape from the “depressing political situation” of the Reagan era. Though her book describes the series as “comparable in some ways to a Balzac, Zola or Dickens project, clothed in the garments of a police procedural,” she also learned the couple were influenced by several of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, which they had translated into Swedish. Like McBain’s New York City squad, the Beck novels feature a supergroup of Stockholm detectives who work together. The mysteries helped her form the beginnings of a mental map of her own private Scandinavia.

Lesser spent the next 20 years filling in that map, awakening to the distinctions and diversity of a region that would soon expand and challenge readers’ perspective of crime fiction. Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series pulled her in with intricate descriptions of Wallander’s process of detection. “Thoughts flicker in the margins of his brain before they take shape fully,” Lesser writes in the book. “They are mysteries, for the most part, about the process of thinking.”

In an excerpt from “Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery,” the essayist Wendy Lasser recommends her favorite writers in the booming genre.

Then came Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, the iconoclastic Swedish vigilante — not among Lesser’s favorites. “I had plenty of objections to [‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’] on the ground of implausibility, superficial character creation and general axe-grinding,” she writes. Yet she also acknowledges that, despite their “cheap feminism,” she found the books addictive and credits them with popularizing worthier fare.

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Among those are Norway’s Jo Nesbø, whose series protagonist, Harry Hole, cuts against the image of Nordic lawmen established by earlier authors. “Scandinavian police officers are humane and gentle and they don’t like violence,” says Lesser. “Harry just breaks all those rules. But Jo Nesbø’s novels are so well-written and well-plotted, you can just feel the intelligence behind them. Some of that seeps into Harry.”

For “Scandinavian Noir,” Lesser ended up reading and profiling 27 other Swedish, Norwegian and Danish authors. The first part of her book, “Fiction as Reality,” delves into what these novels suggest about the cultures that produced them, documented alphabetically in the spirit of Sue Grafton: A is for Alcohol, B is for Bureaucracy — and on through Z for the zealous journalists who star in more recent hits by Larsson and Thomas Enger.

One of Lesser’s memorable works of essayistic criticism was 2002’s “Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering.” So it’s natural to wonder what she gleaned from rereading the Scandinavian greats. The suspense of not knowing what happens next was replaced, she reports, with the thrill of retracing detective Wallander’s mental circuitry. And the Beck mysteries, which she’d read in the ’80s as social-democratic fan fiction, now feel more radical. “Here I was falling in love with the social welfare state, and they were pointing out its shortcomings, what it didn’t provide,” she says. “Powerful people were still in charge, wealthy people were still pushing around the poor. They were critiquing the society from a further left position than I realized at the time.”

She was also struck by the Scandinavian perspective on the United States. “They were holding up America as almost a dark mirror to Scandinavian life. On the one hand, there was the deplorable America that elected Ronald Reagan, that oppressed its black citizens, the America whose policies resulted in tons of gun deaths and violence. Then there is the other America — American television, pop music, jazz, even crime novels — that influenced these Scandinavian cops.”

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In part two of her book, “Reality as Fiction,” Lesser holds the mirror in the other direction — toward Scandinavia. She took a monthlong trip to Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm to compare the Scandinavia of her imagination with the real people, places and culture that formed the fiction.

Lesser makes herself a character in her own story, cleverly using the third person as she retraces Hole’s steps in Oslo and interviews cops in the city’s Violent Crime Section. For all the grisly murders investigated by Nesbø’s Hole and Enger’s Henning Juul, Lesser learns that Oslo has only a dozen homicides per year, the majority of them domestic cases. “We don’t have serial killers,” a female police official tells her. The crime most indelibly engraved in the Norwegian psyche is the horrific massacre of July 22, 2011, when Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo, killing eight, then drove to a nearby island where he shot and killed 69 more people, most of them teenagers in a Labor Party summer camp. The atrocity has come to define for Lesser a before-and-after version of modern Norway as clearly as Sweden’s unsolved 1986 murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme (which inspired a trilogy by Leif G.W. Persson). And yet, for an Oslo prosecutor Lesser interviewed, the hero of the case was not the police but Breivik’s attorney, whose even-handed defense gave the public an opportunity “to heal some of the painful feelings aroused by the murders.”

Lesser also visits small towns like Visby, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the setting of Mari Jungstedt’s “The Killer’s Art,” which she describes beautifully as a fantasy made real. But most compelling of all is her interview with Bengt Carlsson, a 60ish Stockholm detective, who says the Beck novels inspired him to apply to the police force. Lesser finds in Carlsson not only a kindred spirit but a thoughtful cop whose “measured, humane perspective” is the perfect embodiment of the socially engaged detectives she knew in fiction. Discussing crime and politics, they address the rise of populism and the possibility of renewal in the wake of xenophobia and fascism. He tells her never to give up hope. “As a police officer,” he says, “I think of myself as a guard of democracy and its values.”

Martin Beck would be proud, and so would his creators. It consoles Lesser to know that even though Wahlöö died long before the mysteries made a splash, his lifelong partner passed away this week as an international sensation. “Now they are considered classics of the genre, and all the best practitioners admire them,” says Lesser, “and I think she knew that.”

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Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.


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