Norwegian Noir with Jerry Holt
One of the great modern bonds that have been forged between Sweden and Norway has to do with the mutual love the two countries have for noir novels—and in this instance Norway is more than happy to bow to Sweden as the country that was there first. I have interviewed quite a number of Norwegian noir writers by this point, and every one of them has provided a mirror image of John Lennon’s famous quote “Until Elvis, for me there was nothing”—but of course in their case the observation goes: “Until Sjöwall and Wahlöö, there was nothing.”
Towering figures in international crime writing, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are often described as “the couple who invented Nordic noir.” Though they never married, they were indeed a couple—for 13 years until Wahlöö’s death in 1975. During that time, the two co-wrote 10 novels featuring the reticent and sometimes even plodding Martin Beck, a detective inspector with the Stockholm National Police who heads up a team of investigators who always manage to get the job done—and the jobs run from homicide to kidnapping to terrorism. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, it turns out, owe a large debt to American crime fiction here: it was their desire to emulate the police procedurals of American writer Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), whose 87th Precinct novels were great influences on them—and likely a reason why Martin Beck stories can adapt so well to American settings: the Beck novel The Laughing Policeman became a hit American film in 1973.
Even though Beck had his counterparts in American fiction, he was something unique in the 1970s for Sweden. Divorced and very unhappy when we meet him, Beck seems to be suffering from a chronic head cold and a perpetual case of the grumpies. But we also come to know him as an excellent—though often bumbling—father and a man of great honesty. The supporting characters are no slouches either—especially Gunvald Larsson, the errant son of a rich family whose merchant marine background often helps him in violent situations, and whose abrasive manner often clashes with his colleagues even more than his penchant for tailored suits. Novels in this series like Cop Killer (1974) and The Terrorists (1975) have kept their relevance—and that is just as the Sjöwall and Wahlöö team would have wanted it: their goal was to bring the grit of real police work to the genre—and they certainly accomplished that.
Following very closely in the footsteps of Sjöwall and Wahlöö came Henning Mankell, a Stockholm native who from 1997 to 2011 produced a series of 13 novels whose protagonist, Kurt Wallander, follows closely in Beck’s footsteps. Like Martin Beck, Wallander is divorced, but in his case, he has an especially troubled relationship with his daughter, Linda, who will also become a police officer. Wallander is based in Ystad, where he is pretty much an alcoholic workaholic, practicing an unhealthy lifestyle, which will in time make him a diabetic. Even so, he has a knack for solving the most inhuman of crimes, and the series does not shy from violence, explicit and implied. As an introduction to the Wallander series, Firewall from 1998 is about as fine an entry as you could ask: when, at book’s opening, a man dies in front of an ATM, you can be pretty sure you are in for a socioeconomic comment. And Mankell provides it: the criminal in this book plans to crash the world economy by completely subverting the world banking system. Mankell, a lifelong liberal, has pertinent commentary, and he expresses it in this remarkably prophetic Wallander.
And then there is the tremendously troubled final Wallander novel, The Troubled Man (2011), in which the troubled man of the title, a Swedish naval officer who has disappeared during his morning walk, also becomes Kurt Wallander himself, who breaks our hearts as he battles the onset of Alzheimer’s: the moment when he realizes that he has forgotten his gun in a bar is one of the great scenes in this series.
There is a little back story here: isn’t there always? But in this case, it is almost gut-wrenching: by this time, the Wallander character had been brilliantly recreated for film by several actors—most memorably Krister Henrikkson in the Swedish version—in which Wallander’s daughter, Linda, had been portrayed by the very talented Johanna Sällström, whose own biography is nothing less than Chekovian. Perhaps it helped her in her conflicted portrayal of Linda Wallander—but Sällström was a troubled soul, suffering from clinical depression and—well maybe just pure fate—for she found herself caught while on holiday with her young daughter Talulah in the Thailand tsunami of 2004. Imagine that. She likely saved her daughter’s life in that storm, but that did not prevent Talulah from dying by suicide in 2007. Mankell had already begun a new series featuring Linda Wallander at this point, but he abandoned it—his connection with his creation and the actress who played her was too unutterably strong by now. If that is not some kind of a love story, I don’t know what is.
And then there is the remarkable story of Stig Larsson (1954 – 2004) an investigative journalist who scored big time when he wrote a series of articles exposing right wing extremism in Sweden. Who could have known that after his day job he was working on the first of a series of novels that would introduce the world to the ultimate kick-ass woman of the printed page—Lisbeth Salander.
She would make her debut in 2008 in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—as taut and movie-ready a thriller as you would ever want to read. Salander, Larsson’s alter ego, fights a good number of battles that Larsson himself would not live to fight in his own life—he died under mysterious circumstances. This series continues under the capable command of David Lagercrantz. Both the novels and the films generated by them have feminist creds and, of course, the more of them the better—particularly when they involve motorcycles and fights worth fighting.
This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.