December 15, 2019 8:15:08 am
The hottest Swedish export in recent years has been detective novels, commonly known as Nordic noir, and although the genre also includes Norwegian, Danish and Icelandic thrillers, the entire phenomenon was basically born, once upon a time, in Stockholm.
Being a capital city and supposedly full of crooks, Stockholm was the setting for the acclaimed 1960s police procedurals by Sjöwall-Wahlöö, which were made into cinematic classics and popular TV serials. The city also inspired recent bestselling writers like Liza Marklund, Jens Lapidus and the (Ernest) Hemingway of fictional crime: Stieg Larsson, who debuted posthumously with super-mega-hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and in whose footsteps we now can walk on guided tours.
“What kind of picture does this give you of Sweden?” the guide asks, after he has summed up Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (2005-’07) that has, till date, sold more than 100 million copies: Clearly, not the welfare state we used to think it was, with its jolly ABBA pop lifestyle. Many locals, including the king of Sweden whose palace sits next door, feel that the negative portrayal of the country does it a disservice — but tourists arrive in hordes to see the fictional crime scenes. Since the times of Sjöwall-Wahlöö, the city’s streets have been brimming with crooked criminals and corrupt cops — even if modus operandis have changed and become more digital, even if detective work is increasingly computer-aided, murders still take place in real streets.
The tourists nod gravely as they digest this fact. They’ve come from Japan and Taiwan, Austria and Australia, and even Brazil, while I’ve travelled from India. The guide then explains how Larsson’s psycho-geography was anchored in the social hierarchies of Stockholm: All the good guys and girls live on the southern island of Södermalm, traditionally a working-class area, while the bad guys live on the north side, in the posh, bourgeoisie Östermalm and Kungsholmen. Even Sjöwall-Wahlöö crime novels display the same geographical texture, their fictional cops used to eat at the fast-food stalls on Slussplan Square that achieved a cult status thanks to their thrillers — and which was seen as something of a physical central point between the good and the bad.
We walk past the many cafés connected with Larsson’s trilogy, for example, Mellkvists Kaffe Bar in Hornsgatan 78, where he wrote his books and, just like the characters in the stories, used it as an informal office.
In the Swedish movie version, the tiny café was substituted with the larger Café Solo in Skånegatan 71, while Kaffebar in St Paulsgatan 17 was used for the Hollywood production starring Daniel Craig.
The offices of the fictional Millennium Magazine were in Götgatan and there, at the corner of Svartensgatan, we find the convenience store 7-Eleven from where the offbeat heroine Lisbeth Salander gets her groceries, generally amounting to not much more than frozen pizza. So, if you want to live the Salander life, step in and buy a Billy’s Pan Pizza slice and have the staff microwave it for you. At the end of the walk, the guide takes us down to the City Museum on Slussplan Square, where a small exhibition is dedicated to Larsson’s fiction. I know it’s a bit nerdish but I can’t help feeling that Larsson’s fiction somehow becomes even more real before my eyes.
Previously, Sweden’s greatest cultural export was less literary, but rather lyrical in its own rhyming manner — the music of ABBA that conquered the world with its catchy refrains. Nowadays, there’s an ABBA Museum in Stockholm commemorating their success story. In one of the first rooms, I spot an old-fashioned, red telephone. Apparently, only the four members of ABBA know its number — they sometimes call to say hi to random fans. I stop and wait, but nothing happens. In my head the song goes on: “Ring-Ring”…
The museum also houses a Music Hall of Fame where one gets to listen to bands that followed in the wake of ABBA, including Europe, Roxette and newer hit factories such as First-Aid Kit, considered one of the best upcoming bands in the world. Stockholm is a great city for music fans — beyond ABBA — because there are concerts every day. Tickets for famous acts are sold out months in advance. When I visited Stockholm the other year, I was lucky to discover that Bob Dylan — winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 2017 — would be playing at a new venue, the Waterfront behind the railway station. Booking early, I got a seat in the eighth row, close to the stage and enjoyed watching the geriatric superstar up-close singing Tangled Up In Blue and other Nobel Prize-winning hits.
Before leaving Stockholm for a tour of the backwoods, it might be a nice idea to stop at Stortorget Square in the old town where one finds the Swedish Academy and the Nobel Prize Museum (which also houses the BistroNobel should one want a food break and to check out where Nobel Prize winners are served lunch before the award ceremony). Every year in early October, the million-dollar literature prize is announced here and the general public is welcome to attend (no tickets required).
Literature and lyricism have been serious business in Scandinavia ever since the morose Viking sagas told of brave men chopping off each others’ legs and heads some thousand years ago. It’s, perhaps, no wonder that Shakespeare set his arguably most famous and blood-splattering plot, Hamlet, in Scandinavia: Originally printed in 1603, it’s a gory tale of murder and madness, and, thus, perhaps, the first “Nordic noir” proper. The actual spot where Hamlet butchered his family is a short boat ride from southern Sweden, the quaint Danish city of Helsingør (formerly Elsinore) where one can visit the Kronborg Castle — yes, it does exist even if Shakespeare never set foot in it.
From there, it’s not very far to Ystad. I’ve always felt that every self-respecting town ought to have its own detective series. In Sweden, the art of “mofussil” crime fiction was pioneered by Henning Mankell in the 1990s. Although it was assumed that only a big city has crime worth writing about, his Wallander series portrayed southern small-town Ystad instead, where he’d been living off and on. Since then, Ystad has, as its main claim to fame, these police procedurals starring the mildly alcoholic and deeply depressed Inspector Wallander (played by Kenneth Branagh in the films) — and tourists travel from far and wide to walk in Wallander’s and Branagh’s footsteps to the pizzeria where local cops get their calorie fix and the coffee shop in which one can sample Wallander’s favourite herring sandwiches. One can download a free app to do a self-guided walk or join a guided tour.
Taking their cue from Mankell, writers have been describing mad action in smaller and smaller towns to the extent that there’s hardly a precinct without its own fictional netherworld — pick any backwater municipality, Linköping or Luleå, Sandhamn or Strömstad, and it’ll give Chicago a race for its money. Surveying the map, the island of Gotland (a province no bigger than Goa with a population 25 times smaller) is overflowing with fictional crime, what with some three writers spreading serial death there. There are even quaint villages like Fjällbacka, with a population of 1,007, which has been the setting of scores of serial killer hunts in novel after novel by Camilla Läckberg, the “crime queen” of Sweden.
Realistic? How many semi-professional serial killers would it take to decimate 1,007 people? It defies logic, but we read the books (and buy the movie versions on DVDs) because Fjällbacka is depicted as quaint and yet appears to have a darker side. That, in a nutshell, is the success story of Nordic noir. Somewhat ironically then, it is for its fictional crimes that Sweden is notorious, rather than real-life violence, because Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries remain among the safest in the world to be a tourist in.
Zac O’ Yeah is a detective novelist and pop musician from Sweden, currently based in Bengaluru where his “Majestic Trilogy” of comic thrillers is set. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Coffee with Wallander’
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