Håkan Nesser talks to Payal Dhar
A macabre Swedish export has gained popularity over the last few years: crime fiction. It is a phenomenon the whole world is talking about.
Author Håkan Nesser was surprised to learn that he had desi readers. He was scheduled to fly here for the Swedish embassy’s Crime Fiction Week (April 19-25), but his plans were scuppered by the infamous volcanic ash cloud.
That did not stop Nesser from sharing his views by email, on what makes writers from his small nation of 10 million dabble with such gruesome enthusiasm in this literary genre. “It’s because we have so many readers,” he says simply. He attributes the worldwide interest to market hype generated since the 1990s, when “the Germans started to love us”.
Nesser is sceptical about the existence of any such thing as a “Swedish tradition” in crime writing. “The only thing [Swedish crime writers] have in common is that we write in Swedish,” he says. Fans, however, will point out that the tradition goes back to the 1960s, when the husband-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series. Nesser (whose best-known character is the philosophical detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren) counters with the observation that since Sjöwall-Wahlöö no Swedish crime writer had gained worldwide recognition until Henning Mankell (creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander), Nesser himself and a handful of others shot to fame in the 1990s.
“When critics try to scrutinise the Swedish crime fiction situation,” he says, “they look for patterns... and find, because they want to find it, this or that which is rotten in the state of Sweden, and thus has caused this explosion of crime writing... Since Sweden used to be a kind of model society in the latter part of the 20th century, [they] like to link our literary hype to a fall from grace of the country.” Nesser does not consider his own books to be making any kind of social criticism, though he agrees that some authors do. This is not a Swedish specialty, he insists. “You can hardly write a realistic contemporary story, crime or not, without involving the society where it takes place.”
With Sweden known to have a relatively crime-free society, what sort of image does this morbid export provide to the world? “A rather strange image, I guess,” Nesser says. “But just because this or that country produces a lot of good singers, it doesn’t mean that people are singing in the streets.” He does admit that the Swedish stereotype of gloomy, depressive, tragic, but nevertheless interesting heroes is something readers find exotic. “I like to think that the above is not an accurate description of our national character, but in all clichés there is an element of truth... [T]hough I find it a little hard to acknowledge, such stereotypes might be good material for characters in a crime story: morose men and women who can store grudges inside themselves for half of a lifetime, and then one day take desperate but calculated action like a bolt out of... an Icelandic volcano!”
The reason that Swedish crime books sell like hot cakes, according to Nesser (who has written more than 20 himself), is simple: people like to read. “My prediction is that in 2025 we will look back to the Swedish crime fiction boom in the same way that we look back to the years when we used to have such great tennis players. With nostalgia.”
Until that happens, we readers are left with an embarrassment of riches. Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark (Pantheon) is now available in India. It is one of four Nesser novels which have been translated into English. Other Swedish crime writing available in English includes books by Åsa Larsson and Karin Alvtegen, both of whom Nesser rates very highly; Stieg Larsson of course; and Anders Roslund/Börge Hellström, whose novels have just hit Indian shelves. Bangalore-based Swedish author Zac O’Yeah’s Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan (Hachette India) is also due for release.
“Right now,” says Nesser, “we probably have the world’s largest number of good crime fiction writers per capita, but please be aware that we also have the world’s largest number of bad crime fiction writers... If you happen to come upon a really rotten crime fiction story from Sweden, please don’t judge the rest of us by that experience!” n
Payal Dhar is the author of the Shadow in Eternity fantasy trilogy