The Sunday Magazine

Swedes air their society's problems in bestselling crime novels - a Karin Wells documentary

In her documentary "The Swedish Motive", Karin Wells looks at how the issues of the day - immigration, violence, the disappearance of the Swedish utopian state - play out in the pages of Nordic noir.

If you think IKEA is Sweden's biggest export, think again. It turns out that no one does murder, mayhem and mystery better than Sweden - at least when it comes to crime fiction.

These days hardly a week goes by without a Swedish crime writer on the New York Times bestseller list. The international success is all the more impressive when you consider that these books are translated from a language spoken by just 8 million people.

In addition to offering page-turning entertainment for millions of readers, so-called "Nordic Noir" shines a light on the difficult issues of the day -- immigration, violence and the disappearance of the Swedish utopian state. Issues that Swedes have been reluctant to talk about.
Henning Mankell died on October 5, 2015, at the age of 67. ( Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

Nordic Noir really started 50 years ago, before the name was coined. Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, were left-leaning writers who wrote together back in the 60's and who wrote with a political agenda. They introduced the world to police officer Martin Beck, an angst-ridden detective who would become the prototype for what became known as the "ulcer school" of policemen. Beck was succeeded by Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, another tortured detective disillusioned by Sweden's failing utopian state.

CBC Radio documentary producer Karin Wells travelled to Ystad, a picture-perfect little town on the south coast of Sweden, where Mankell set the Wallander novels, to find out more about this literary phenomenon.

Rooney Mara stars as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Merrick Morton/Columbia Pictures/AP)
Kerstin Bergman is a crime fiction scholar and a member of the Swedish Academy of Crime Fiction. She is the author of Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir.

"In Sweden, crime fiction has been, since the 1960s, the genre to discuss social issues, to portray reality, the here and now," she says.

"We have a past and we don't want to talk about it," says Stefan Thunberg, one of Sweden's leading screenwriters.

"Wallander is a guy who makes justice in a very good way.  He's not Clint Eastwood,  he's not Dirty Harry. He doesn't say, 'Make my day,' and shoot people.  He really tries to understand.  Very Swedish."

Henning Mankell's series of Wallander novels became so popular that Swedish television adapted them into two Wallander series – Thunberg was a writer on one of the series. Now there is a third, English-language version, starring Kenneth Branagh.
A poster for "Wallander", which aired on PBS in North America. It starred Sir Kenneth Branagh as the Swedish sleuth. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Jack Lofgren is a film officer with Ystad film studios, the largest film studio in Sweden, started by Henning Mankell.

"We used to live in a social utopia where everything is great," says Lofgren. "And then something happened. You could say it was the killing of Olof Palme, our prime minister.  And we quickly realized that, oh, my God! - we're not bulletproof."

The assassination of Palme in 1986 signalled a loss of innocence. Sweden had to come to terms with many of the social issues plaguing the rest of Europe. In the early 90s, one man went on a shooting spree killing immigrants. 

We had the first mass murder in modern history. And suddenly the crime novel was one of the instruments to explore (a social issue.)And that's when this whole new era in crime writing started.-- Swedish crime writer Anders Roslund

"He was called the laser man because he used a laser rifle.  He continued for several years," says crime writer Anders Roslund.

"We had the first mass murder in modern history. And suddenly the crime novel was one of the instruments to explore (a social issue.)  And that's when this whole new era in crime writing started."

"When they start to talk about their political feelings you quickly lose interest.  But when you write it through a crime novel, filled with murders, you listen to the end," says Jack Lofgren.

"A week later, a month later, you realized that, oh, crap -- this is the real society, but now I get it.  It is a society criticism with a bow on it."

To find out more about Nordic noir, listen here to Karin Wells's documentary, "The Swedish Motive."