I started reading mysteries by Henning Mankell some years ago. I’ve always enjoyed well-written crime fiction, but Mankell’s work provided some extra dimensions. It is partly the cold, desolate Northern European landscape and partly a sort of related personality: enduring, obstinate, introverted. Endurance must be at least partly necessitated by the lengthy cold winter, the rain that can go on until midsummer, and the freeze that sets in again after a short warm season. The murders can be particularly gruesome and the process of finding the perpetrator slow, dogged, and full of time wasted on side trails. The investigators lead lives forever affected by the grimness of the scenes they witness. It is worlds away from the Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh mysteries that I grew up with.
I went on to read Karin Fossum, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and others. Recently, of course, the wildly popular Stieg Larsson has created another rush of interest in these Scandinavian writers. The background is more urban in some than others, but the darkness of mood persists.
As Peter Rozovsky says, in an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Swedish crime novels, more than most, are about the slow, rippling effect of a violent act on the minds, souls and social fabric of those they leave behind.
Sweden has spawned most of the current crime novelists, but the rest of the Scandinavian countries are doing their share. I found a fairly comprehensive list of works that have been translated into English by Barbara Fister. She provides a couple of explanations for the social changes that may have led to the explosion of work by Scandinavian crime fiction writers in recent decades.
Murder motives are hinted at in these books but much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to make assumptions. In Mankell’s Italian Shoes — not really a crime novel, but having the same landscape and mood — the protagonist Fredrik Welin lives alone on a remote island. He cuts a hole in the ice every morning and immerses himself in the water in a ritual that is never directly explained, although I suppose we can infer the reason from what we hear about the events that led to his removal from the world of other people. But an earlier betrayal is never explained at all: it is only described.
In the same book, Welin finds the body of someone else who lived alone:
I was looking at a painting of loneliness beyond description. The dead woman had a beautiful face. There is a special kind of beauty that manifests itself only in the faces of really old women. Their furrowed skin contains all the marks and memories imprinted by a life lived. Old women whose bodies the earth is crying out to embrace.
This elegiac mood is part of the deep, emotional appeal of these books for me. Sometimes, you don’t want sunshine and lightness — you want to wallow in darkness and regret and mourning, as you probably did in childhood and adolescence, when experiencing both passionate highs and despairing lows was an essential part of finding yourself.