You Can Go Home Again to Scandinavia

The statement I am about to make may be as reliable as Wikipedia to most librarians but I believe there is some confusion in the world of crime fiction as to what constitutes a work of Scandinavian fiction.  What is the definition of Scandinavia?  I believe it is the peninsula that includes the present countries of Norway and Sweden.  The term refers to the cultural aspects of the people who lived or live there but is now mostly a geographic reference when discussing the origins of the crime fiction that is sweeping through libraries and book stores in America.  Present day thinking includes Finland, Denmark and Iceland in the fold because the thought is that is where Scandinavian people have migrated to in significant numbers.

This is most certainly true, as the Scandinavian Lutherans would say, because in preparing for a talk I gave recently at the Wisconsin Association of Public Libraries, I verified my list of authors at Scandinavian Crime Fiction:  Your Portal into Northern Deviance ( which has a wonderful list of authors to read including the geographically diverse Jussi Adler-Olsen, Karin Alvtegen, Åke Edwardson, Kerstin Ekman, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Arnaldur Indridason, Lars Kepler, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Håkan Nesser, Sjöwall-Wahlöö, Johan Theorin and Helene Tursten.

The list above does include Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason but I have one name to add to the list from that island country.  It is the Queen of Icelandic crime fiction, Yrsa Sigurdadottir.  I heard Yrsa herself declare her supremacy based on the fact that she (at that time) was the only woman writing crime fiction in Iceland.

Actually you only have to jump back to my post from March 19th to remember that the first wave of Scandinavians was led by the wonderful pair of writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.  If you did not read that post, here is the skinny:  they were great and they are still great.  Then jump to the post from April 11th regarding the leader of the pack in wave two:  Henning Mankell.  The skinny on that post is greatness.

The third wave was led by Steig Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  While I think the first two waves were about atmosphere and location, I am going to argue that the third wave is based on the most popular way to approach crime fiction for most readers:  character.  That is why my read-alike list for those who love Lisbeth Salander includes the following characters, none of whom live in Scandinavian by any definition:

Kathleen Mallory—a feral child from the streets who finds a refuge in the police department where her issues can be worked out hunting down the bad people.  The books are by the author Carol O’Connell.

Cass Neary—described as “your prototypical amoral speedfreak crankhead kleptomaniac murderous rage-filled alcoholic bisexual heavily tattooed American female photographer.”  The books are by the author Elizabeth Hand.

Ree Dolly–the heroine of Daniel Woodrell’s book Winter’s Bone

Maureen O’Donnell is a psychiatric patient and survivor of sexual abuse who in each book deals with trying to get some good out of life.  The books are by the author Denise Mina.

Lately I have dipped a toe into the Scandinavian world by reading The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg and Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss.  While these books proved entertaining, I did not find them particularly inviting for me to use as a book discussion title.

The opposite was true when I did something I normally never do:  I read a book in a series without reading the titles that preceded it.  Gasp:  I read book six of the Chief Inspector Eric Winter series by Sweden’s Åke Edwardson, Sail of Stone.  For me, this book rocked mostly because I felt like I was reading poetry.  It is a challenging read because of that but the quality is so high that I found some of the writing breathtaking.  If you want to test whether you will appreciate the style of this book, reading the opening chapter.  If you are amazed, you will continue.  The use of the landscape as a secondary character in the story is done so well that it overwhelms the reading experience and removes you from where ever you are to Sweden (unless, of course, you are Swedish reading this in Gothenburg).

The basic premise of this book is that Eric is pulled to a case that eventually takes him to Scotland to try to determine why a contemporary death seems to point to a mystery that occurred on a trawler during World War II.  The second case is handled by Aneta Djanali when she becomes obsessed with helping an abused woman who appears to not want to be helped.  Besides the wonderful writing style, the other joy was that there was nothing in this book that a non-series reader would find confusing.  Book discussion groups should consider this novel for discussion purposes.



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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