What Decades of Reading Scandinavian Crime Fiction Can Teach You

Obsessions are by nature individual, and difficult at times to communicate to others. Even popular manias can seem obscure to those not in their grip. So when Wendy Lesser dives deeply into a world of crime fiction in her new book, “Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery,” she acknowledges on the first page that its mission is “eccentric and personal.” Lesser isn’t here to win converts, but even those unmoved by its subject will thrill to the book, a beautifully crafted inquiry into fiction, reality, crime and place.

“Sometime in the early 1980s,” Lesser writes, “I began reading a series of mysteries that featured a Swedish homicide detective named Martin Beck.” She was a graduate student at Berkeley at the time — she went on to found The Threepenny Review, a literary magazine, and write a dozen books — and developed an addiction that she has fed ever since.

It’s an affection Lesser has struggled to understand. What was it about those Martin Beck books, written by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, “that so appealed to me back in 1981 or 1982, when I was about to turn 30 and America was on the verge of becoming what it is today?” That is, a country still in thrall to the small-government ethos of Reaganism, and the rampant economic inequality it ushered in. Set amid the “humane, non-Soviet socialism” of Sweden, the books hinted at a more egalitarian, harmonious way of life — even if, as she points out, the authors of the series themselves criticized Sweden on Marxist grounds.

[Maj Sjowall died last week at 84.]

The book’s first half, titled “Fiction as Reality,” is a spellbinding long essay in which Lesser tells us what she has learned in four decades of reading Scandinavian noir: mysteries and detective stories from Sweden, Norway and Denmark. (Iceland’s contributions are too rustic for Lesser’s taste, and Finland’s are too scarce.) Her engagement with the source material, hundreds of titles’ worth, is rigorous yet playful. She’s interested in the art on the walls in the characters’ homes, as well as the psychology behind the books’ most frequent themes — children in danger, female sexuality, the political ramifications of immigration.

The essay proceeds alphabetically, from alcohol (there’s a lot) to zealotry (of journalists, sometimes the nemeses and sometimes the allies of the detectives). Lesser examines the detectives’ domestic realms — their erotic lives and marriages, their kids and churches and holidays — finding some differences but a remarkably consistent sense of reasonableness and community. That’s why it fascinates her that Scandinavia’s hottest fictional export is filled with violent and often sadistic crime.

Lesser is especially interested in how Scandinavia and Scandinavians stack up against America and Americans. “Crime, in Scandinavia, is rarely seen as the bad action of a single bad actor,” she writes, invoking a system that both believes in and denounces its social safety net. (What’s not to like? a reader wonders.) Yet she also finds a kind of superiority: “We are essentially good people, the Scandinavians insist, often with some justification. But that very insistence may be the thing that blinds them to their own moral culpability.”

The chief moral imperative of our time, Lesser points out as she pivots from the book’s first half to its second, is the need “to draw a distinction between things that are made up and things that are true.” And so, to find out the truth, she leaves her reading chair to visit the places frequented by the books’ characters, centering her travels in Martin Beck’s city. “She does not have a Scandinavian bone in her body, and yet the first time she sees Stockholm, she feels she is coming home,” Lesser writes, kicking off a section titled “Reality as Fiction,” in which she eschews the first person and casts herself as an unnamed woman traveler.

She manages to interview several real-life police detectives, while also seeing the region’s museums, castles and tourist attractions. It’s charming and illuminating, if not quite equal to the brilliance of the first section. Perhaps when it comes to fiction and reality, what we need most are critics like Lesser, who can dissect the former with the tools of the latter.

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes