Sweden’s Stieg Larsson helped create a new genre: crime novels with a conscience. But if you prefer them lighter and non-PC, hop across the borderby / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
by Jo Nesbo, (Harvill Secker, £12.99)
Not long ago, if you wanted to read about serial killers, social corruption and moral despair the only place to turn to was American crime fiction. Thanks to Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (creator of Kurt Wallander), over the last decade the action has decisively shifted to Sweden. Instead of New York, Los Angeles and Florida, nowadays the settings for a crime novel’s murderous sprees are more likely to be Stockholm, Gothenburg and the province of Skåne.
If Sweden, that model of a fair society, could make itself a plausible home for multiple homicides and venal conspiracies, then why not its neighbour, Norway, whose murder rate is even lower? Enter a Norwegian writer, the 50-year-old Jo Nesbo, whose commercial bona fides—“Over 5m books sold worldwide”—are displayed on the front of his latest novel, The Leopard.
There has been much discussion about why crime fiction has proven so attractive to Swedish writers. It’s been argued that, in the wake of the Social Democratic party leader Olof Palme’s assassination in 1986 and the demise of the social democratic utopia, the genre provided a convenient refuge for disillusioned left-wing intellectuals. Rather less attention, though, has been paid to why the Swedish take on crime has such an appeal to readers.
Broadening the question to encompass Scandinavia as a whole, one answer might be landscape and weather. Society may have been largely tamed in the northern extremes of Europe, but nature remains compellingly stark and unyielding. And the most obvious signifier of not just wilderness, but of innocence awaiting despoiling, is snow, of which there’s no shortage.
Nesbo’s previous blood-in-the-snow novel was entitled The Snowman (2007), an icy tale about the sort of homicidal maniac that in reality is a total stranger to Norway. As with that book and the six other efforts that preceded it, the hero of The Leopard is Harry Hole (pronounced Holy), an alcoholic detective who can outsmoke Sam Spade and outsmart Sherlock Holmes. In common with Holmes, he also has a taste for opium. When we meet him at the beginning of The Leopard, he’s strung out in Hong Kong, hiding from debtors and the nightmare memories of tracking down the previous novel’s serial killer, the Snowman.
Nesbo, who is also the lead vocalist in the Norwegian rock band Di Derre, comes from the modern Scandinavian school of flat-packed prose and pre-fabricated characters. But in the course of 600 slick pages he manages to answer the demand of Norway’s most celebrated novelist, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952), that writers capture “the whisper of blood and the pleading of bone marrow.” There are passages of The Leopard so anatomically gruesome—in one memorable scene, Hole is forced to dislocate his own jaw with a wall nail—that they can only be properly read through the gaps between protecting fingers. The forensic macabre of Thomas Harris is a conspicuous influence, and it’s also from Harris that Nesbo has borrowed the idea of a cop who is self-destructively drawn to serial killers.
In fact, the debt to American culture steadily mounts throughout the book. Aside from his noirish wisecracking, Hole is given to Tarantino-like theories about why Hollywood screen toughs have feminine voices. But what really marks Nesbo out as a writer who looks a long way west is that his preference is for criminal psychology over political crimes.
In both Larsson and Mankell, the political-industrial complex invariably shows its ugly face, and often the ugliness involves men with a penchant for shiny boots and commemorating Hitler’s birthday. Perhaps the Swedes’ preoccupation with neo-Nazis in fiction has something to do with the fact that, as a result of its neutrality during thesecond world war, Sweden didn’t have to contend with genuine Nazis. Norway, by contrast, was occupied—and one of Germany’s most outspoken supporters was the towering cultural figure of Knut Hamsun himself. The far right thus has a much heavier historical and literary meaning in Norway. neo-Nazis do appear in an earlier Nesbo novel, The Redbreast, but Hole didn’t find his international bestselling feet until he started chasing the more neutral enemy of demented multiple killers.
Perhaps as a consequence, there’s little sign of the liberal guilt or dark underbellies of social dysfunction that are found in Larsson and Mankell. The single nod to a penitent mindset comes at the beginning of the novel, when Hole is holed up in Hong Kong, and it’s a throwaway joke. Explaining that he’s developed an opium habit to atone for Britain’s invidious role in the opium wars, Hole quips: “I see it as my duty, as a European, to smoke some of the shit we have imported into this country.” Elsewhere, the developing world is described in harsh, unsympathetic terms. Africa, in the shape of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has seldom look darker or more pitiless. The book climaxes with a Conradian voyage to Goma, a city in the eastern DRC, where violence is the major currency and everything and everyone can be bought. Hole’s psychopathic but charming adversary makes a long and uncontested speech in which he condemns the “whites’ guilt about colonising Africa” as “pathetic.”
In the end, the only moral framework that survives the smorgasbord of death and destruction is Hole’s romantic individualism, albeit self-consciously resigned to defeat. It’s a charm that, once the pyrotechnical plotting concludes, melts like spring snow. Hole isn’t quite empty, but he lacks the authenticity of his Swedish counterparts. Not in terms of accuracy, but style: for with their slightly hectoring tone—the curious sense on finishing their novels that you’ve just listened to a fiendishly disguised lecture—Mankell and Larsson have created a genuine Scandinavian crime genre.