Americans are often unaware of major cultural trends developing just slightly off the beaten path. Take the Scandinavian Whodunit Boom. A month ago, Karin Fossum’s novel, “The Indian Bride,” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best mystery. Fossum, a glum Norwegian, beat out a moody Swede and a German who writes about a severe Finnish cop. Yes, there also were two Irish writers in the running, but there was not a Yank or a Brit in the bunch.
I first became aware of the Nordic Mystery Boom two years ago while dawdling in a bookstore in Philadelphia, my downbeat hometown. Informing the manager that I was tired of the French, the Italians, the Aussies, the Scots and those coy mysteries set in Botswana, I asked if she could recommend something a bit more exotic.
“Try ‘The Dogs of Riga,’ ” she suggested. “It’s Swedish.” And a first-class mystery it was, the latest in a series by Swedish novelist Henning Mankell featuring the chronically depressed detective Kurt Wallander. Wallander is a divorced, middle-aged man whose daughter is a mess, who has a difficult relationship with his elderly father and who is not in great health. He is a patient, plodding gumshoe who often needs some lucky break to crack a case. Based on this description, it is hard to see how Mankell’s books would in any way stand out from the herd.
But Mankell is a deceptively gifted writer who uses the plebian mystery format to address the disintegration of Swedish society, the horrors of old age, the very meaning of police work. In this he resembles, without equaling, the great Belgian novelist Georges Simenon, whose Inspector Maigret series stands second only to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes saga in the mystery canon. (Some may argue for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, but Christie is a conventional mystery writer whose work never even vaguely approaches the level of art.)
I was so taken by “The Dogs of Riga” that I went out and bought eight other Mankell books and within weeks had polished off his entire chilly oeuvre. After that, I read his formidable antecedents, Mag Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whose forlorn 1968 novel, “The Laughing Policeman,” was made into a dispiriting movie starring Walter Matthau. Then I began gobbling up Mankell’s numerous proteges and imitators. God, were they glum.
Finally, I began giving Swedish murder mysteries to fellow mystery lovers as anomalous Christmas presents. Everyone found the morbid atmosphere oddly beguiling. Everyone liked the way Mankell and Fossum told part of the story from the point of view of the murderer. The anomic prose, the obsession with society’s moral collapse, the general avoidance of gangland motifs and the absence of wisecracking that characterizes so much contemporary American crime fiction was a nice change of pace. Wallander did not wear cool clothes and did not have a cool record collection and did not have any cool friends and was not an oenophile. He was an old-fashioned copper trying to figure out why scalped corpses kept turning up all over town. This was true of his peers as well. None of their characters were cool. They were glum.
Mystery lovers are a finicky breed; we share a love of the genre but do not love all its practitioners equally. One of my friends adores Harlan Coben but doesn’t think much of Michael Connelly. This is like admiring Barnum but disliking Bailey. My sister Agnes has read all of Christie, who leaves me cold, while I have devoured 100 books by Simenon, whose charms remain elusive to most Americans. The only other hard-core Maigret fan I know is an ex-Marine who flies corporate jets, does not speak French and has no use for most other mystery writers. But he has read every Simenon book ever translated into English and traveled to Paris just to visit Maigret’s fictional home on the Boulevard Richard Lenoir.
My sister Eileen passes along every Ruth Rendell mystery she reads, while I send her the latest book by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of a French medievalist whose 12 mysteries center on a weird cop named Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. One friend swears by the wry Dutch novelist Janwillem van de Wetering, while another beats the drum for the recently deceased Michael Dibdin, creator of the hypochondriac Italian cop Aurelio Zen. A friend of mine, 32, in a spectacular deviation from officially sanctioned generational behavior, was very involved in the punk rock movement of the 1990s, yet has read all 72 of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. Given that Wolfe is a bovine, orchid-loving lush who never leaves his apartment, and that the books are set in the 1940s, this is an unusual predilection indeed. But she does not read the books to be eccentric or hip or ironic. She reads them because they’re great.
Mysteries set in foreign climes have steadily grown in popularity in recent years. This is partly a scam, as their basic selling point is their colorful settings, not their prose or plot lines; few writers from Italy, the Netherlands, Brazil, France or anywhere else can approach Coben or Connelly or Dennis Lehane for ingenuity, pacing and thrills; Elmore Leonard for dialogue; Raymond Chandler for atmosphere; Dashiell Hammett for style.
Yet the Nordic mysteries -- for Mankell has inspired many imitators -- possess a seductive charm all their own. Part of their appeal is their reverse exoticism: The unrelenting bleakness, the zero tolerance for chuckles and the ferocity of the crimes -- the Swedes really go in big for decapitations, scalpings, tattooed torsos floating to the surface, disembowelments -- make the books much darker and spookier than glib mafiosi capers from Bologna and Bensonhurst. And the Swedes do not write conventional whodunits; they are obsessed with understanding why people become ax murderers in the first place. Mostly, it’s because something happened to them as children, often involving axes.
Since I got started on my Scandinavian mystery jag, I have read the Inspector Van Veeteren novels by Hakan Nesser, the Inspector Lindell series by Kjell Eriksson, the Inspector Winter novels by Ake Edwardson and two Inspector Huss novels by Helene Tursten. I also have branched out into other regions of the frozen north, where Fossum’s Inspector Sejer functions as a distaff Norwegian Kurt Wallander. Every one of these writers is good, but in my book, Arnaldur Indridason is even better. His books have sold about 2 million copies, and one of them, “Jar City,” has been made into a movie.
Indridason’s books are set in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Boy, are they fun.
Joe Queenan is a New York-based writer.