Swedish mysteries

We’ve been talking about Swedish literature–particularly, Bo Giertz’s The Hammer of God.   This would be a good time to discuss the latest outbreak of Swedish literature on our shores, the publishing phenomenon of Swedish mysteries.  The biggest sellers are by the late Stieg Larsson, whose “Millennium Trilogy” has sold millions, with the first title  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being made into what looks like a blockbuster movie that will be released December 21.

I started reading these as vacation diversions last summer and have to admit that I enjoyed them immensely.  I’m interested in the genre and the conventions of mystery stories.  As with all artistic forms, it is possible to follow them mechanically, resulting in merely conventional writing.  But they can also become the framework for infinite variations and fascinating applications.  These Swedish mysteries are especially complicated and absorbing:  There is not only ONE mystery to solve, there are several related mysteries.  And there is not only ONE detective trying to figure everything out.  There are several, working both together and at cross purposes with each other.   (This is true of the Larsson books, and it is also true of another Swedish mystery that I read,  The Hypnotist  by Lars Kepler.  Perhaps someone can say if these features are true of Swedish–or perhaps Scandinavian– mysteries as a whole.)  Also, the alliance between the rumpled but idealistic journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander advances the tradition of unlikely partners in detection that began with Holmes and Watson.  And Lisbeth is a truly compelling character, another eccentric-to-the-point-of-being-mentally-ill detective (think Adrian Monk) whose problems give them their advantages.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo even makes use of the famous “locked room” plot and then completely, we might say, deconstructs it.

So The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a really good mystery, combining also elements of the suspense thriller.  The subsequent ones,  The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, not so much.  They are thrillers, but not really mysteries.  One reads them just to see what the characters will do next.  And I would say those other two lay bare the over-the-top sensationalism that is also in the first one, but that is compensated for by the mystery.  After awhile, things get ridiculous.  But you can’t help but keep reading anyway.

Don’t read them, though, if you can’t imaginatively handle violence and sex, which in these novels are not presented in a pornographic way but in a disturbing way.   Here is one of my complaints about Larsson:  His villains are sexual transgressors.  Sex trafficking, sadism, pedophilia, prostitution–these are definitely presented as bad things.   But his good guys have open marriages, cohabit without marriage, experiment with bisexuality, and have a completely casual attitude towards sex that is also transgressive and yet belies how we are supposed to feel about what the bad guys do.

The Swedish settings are also interesting, and these novels are so immersive that you feel like you are in Scandinavia.  Here is a completely secularized society that nevertheless has Christianity as its cultural religion.  Everyone orients themselves according to the church year–such as Advent and St. Lucy’s day–and feels free to consult the friendly liberal pastor of the state church.  Some of the young people, though, are attracted to “fundamentalism,” which their parents don’t approve of, but tolerate because it’s their kids.

The over-riding question is this:  In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface?  And why is everybody so depressed?  And why is everyone so guilty?

 

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?

    Conscience

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?

    Conscience

  • SKPeterson

    sg – Sin.

    I have yet to read these novels. In contrast I have read, and enjoyed immensely, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. These novels are set in Botswana and they do give one a sense of the place and the people. And the characters all have flaws and quirks and sins, yet there is a currency of humanity that underlies the scenes. Things are rarely fast-paced, but there is the interesting thematic interplay of modernity and tradition throughout the novels. It seems that the Swedish novels are also dealing with issues of sin in the context of modernity. Perhaps that is some of their appeal?

  • SKPeterson

    sg – Sin.

    I have yet to read these novels. In contrast I have read, and enjoyed immensely, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. These novels are set in Botswana and they do give one a sense of the place and the people. And the characters all have flaws and quirks and sins, yet there is a currency of humanity that underlies the scenes. Things are rarely fast-paced, but there is the interesting thematic interplay of modernity and tradition throughout the novels. It seems that the Swedish novels are also dealing with issues of sin in the context of modernity. Perhaps that is some of their appeal?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Sin.

    Yeah, I agree.

    But then what? We all have sin. Not all reflect much on it.

    Hence, conscience, meta cognition, or whatever you want to call it.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Sin.

    Yeah, I agree.

    But then what? We all have sin. Not all reflect much on it.

    Hence, conscience, meta cognition, or whatever you want to call it.

  • Bob Herring

    I read the Larsson trilogy earlier this year and was fascinated by the complexity of each story. You’ve got to pay attention in those stories to figure them out!

    Let me offer to you another series of mysteries by Mark Schweizer entitled “The Liturgical Mysteries” http://www.sjmpbooks.com/pages/home.html

    These delightful, humorous stories center on a unique main character who, besides serving as a detective, is also the part time organist and choir director of the local Episcopal church. For those who enjoy the church these stories will add to your lives.

    They are a relief from much of the stress of the world.

    Finally, Dr. Veith, how could you fall asleep in the middle of last night’s game? I couldn’t stop watching.

  • Bob Herring

    I read the Larsson trilogy earlier this year and was fascinated by the complexity of each story. You’ve got to pay attention in those stories to figure them out!

    Let me offer to you another series of mysteries by Mark Schweizer entitled “The Liturgical Mysteries” http://www.sjmpbooks.com/pages/home.html

    These delightful, humorous stories center on a unique main character who, besides serving as a detective, is also the part time organist and choir director of the local Episcopal church. For those who enjoy the church these stories will add to your lives.

    They are a relief from much of the stress of the world.

    Finally, Dr. Veith, how could you fall asleep in the middle of last night’s game? I couldn’t stop watching.

  • Tom Hering

    “In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?”

    Remember that Larsson was a super leftist, who saw right-wing threats everywhere in Sweden. Not least because right-wing extremists actually threatened him, repeatedly. He even wrote a will that left everything to the Communist Workers Party in his home town. I think one can question whether his fiction is a good portrayal of Swedes and Swedish society.

  • Tom Hering

    “In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-statey, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?”

    Remember that Larsson was a super leftist, who saw right-wing threats everywhere in Sweden. Not least because right-wing extremists actually threatened him, repeatedly. He even wrote a will that left everything to the Communist Workers Party in his home town. I think one can question whether his fiction is a good portrayal of Swedes and Swedish society.

  • AAKSoler

    I have not read the novels but did watch the ” The Girl with the Dragon Tatto ” movie. It was an all Swedish movie dubbed into English and subtitles. Like Mr. Veith, i thought the same. One would expect a perfect society since we are constantly told by the MSM and other liberal and secular sources that our problems in the USA would vanish if we just adopted their system.

    Instead i saw corruption, outkasts, murder, vengence, perversion and many other sins that even our secular elites condemn. Add to this the sins i saw that the secular elites approve of and this story could have been told in any American city.

    How can this be? How can the perfect system not produce a perfect society with perfect people?

    We know why but what reasons are given by the elites?

  • AAKSoler

    I have not read the novels but did watch the ” The Girl with the Dragon Tatto ” movie. It was an all Swedish movie dubbed into English and subtitles. Like Mr. Veith, i thought the same. One would expect a perfect society since we are constantly told by the MSM and other liberal and secular sources that our problems in the USA would vanish if we just adopted their system.

    Instead i saw corruption, outkasts, murder, vengence, perversion and many other sins that even our secular elites condemn. Add to this the sins i saw that the secular elites approve of and this story could have been told in any American city.

    How can this be? How can the perfect system not produce a perfect society with perfect people?

    We know why but what reasons are given by the elites?

  • Michael

    “His villains are sexual transgressors. Sex trafficking, sadism, pedophilia, prostitution–these are definitely presented as bad things. But his good guys have open marriages, cohabit without marriage, experiment with bisexuality, and have a completely casual attitude towards sex that is also transgressive and yet belies how we are supposed to feel about what the bad guys do.”

    I’m a little confused here. Are you asking how someone can be okay with a couple living together before marriage but not okay with molesting a child? My apologies if I misinterpreted this.

  • Michael

    “His villains are sexual transgressors. Sex trafficking, sadism, pedophilia, prostitution–these are definitely presented as bad things. But his good guys have open marriages, cohabit without marriage, experiment with bisexuality, and have a completely casual attitude towards sex that is also transgressive and yet belies how we are supposed to feel about what the bad guys do.”

    I’m a little confused here. Are you asking how someone can be okay with a couple living together before marriage but not okay with molesting a child? My apologies if I misinterpreted this.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “One would expect a perfect society since we are constantly told by the MSM and other liberal and secular sources that our problems in the USA would vanish if we just adopted their system.”

    The thing is they don’t consider what Sweden was like before socialism in order to compare the impact of its policies. The question isn’t so much whether we could benefit from following their example, but whether they have benefitted from their own policies.

    We should look for improved incidence rates not perfection. Poverty is down and health care better more due to technology than socialism. Social function is diminished because crime and illegitimacy is up. Is that more due to technology or socialism?

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    “One would expect a perfect society since we are constantly told by the MSM and other liberal and secular sources that our problems in the USA would vanish if we just adopted their system.”

    The thing is they don’t consider what Sweden was like before socialism in order to compare the impact of its policies. The question isn’t so much whether we could benefit from following their example, but whether they have benefitted from their own policies.

    We should look for improved incidence rates not perfection. Poverty is down and health care better more due to technology than socialism. Social function is diminished because crime and illegitimacy is up. Is that more due to technology or socialism?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Tom, yes, Larsson’s alter ego Mikael Blomkvist is that way, leftist and idealistic. But Lisabeth Salandar is NOT. She scorns collectivism and insists on individual responsibility. Her sense of social justice is to KILL the bad guys. Both, of course, are extremes, but part of what’s interesting in the novels is this double vision–perhaps a projection of Larsson’s sunny leftism along with an underlying dark side.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Tom, yes, Larsson’s alter ego Mikael Blomkvist is that way, leftist and idealistic. But Lisabeth Salandar is NOT. She scorns collectivism and insists on individual responsibility. Her sense of social justice is to KILL the bad guys. Both, of course, are extremes, but part of what’s interesting in the novels is this double vision–perhaps a projection of Larsson’s sunny leftism along with an underlying dark side.

  • George A. Marquart

    “The over-riding question is this: In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-state, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?”

    I suspect we may be misled if we accept the description of Swedish society from several fiction writers as being accurate. Each writer has his or her agenda, and it is likely that those aspects of society to which the writer is particularly sensitive may receive “hyperbolic” treatment; that is, exaggeration for effect. I have spent a great deal of time in Sweden, both on business and for leisure, and my impression, based on the behavior of my Swedish friends, is that they are friendly, hard working, enjoy get-togethers with friends over good food and beer during which countless songs are sung with gusto, very knowledgeable about conditions in the rest of the world, and fundamentally no different from you and me.

    As to “depressed”, Swedes may at times be more so than we, but some of the blame (I could not hazard a guess as to how much) is due to the northern latitude. Beginning around October and ending at the beginning of May, the days are short and the human organism reacts to the lack of sunlight by becoming depressed. The condition is called S.A.D., or “Seasonally Affective Disorder.” It is something that affects all people in northern latitudes, but we hear more about the Swedes in this regard, because their population is greater than that in most countries north of the 50th Parallel. By comparison, Seattle, one of the northernmost cities in the USA is roughly on the 47th Parallel; New York City on the 40th. On the other hand, during the summer, when it never gets really dark, it’s almost impossible to find a depressed Swede.

    Skol!
    George A. Marquart

  • George A. Marquart

    “The over-riding question is this: In a society so tolerant, so prosperous, and so welfare-state, why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? And why is everybody so depressed? And why is everyone so guilty?”

    I suspect we may be misled if we accept the description of Swedish society from several fiction writers as being accurate. Each writer has his or her agenda, and it is likely that those aspects of society to which the writer is particularly sensitive may receive “hyperbolic” treatment; that is, exaggeration for effect. I have spent a great deal of time in Sweden, both on business and for leisure, and my impression, based on the behavior of my Swedish friends, is that they are friendly, hard working, enjoy get-togethers with friends over good food and beer during which countless songs are sung with gusto, very knowledgeable about conditions in the rest of the world, and fundamentally no different from you and me.

    As to “depressed”, Swedes may at times be more so than we, but some of the blame (I could not hazard a guess as to how much) is due to the northern latitude. Beginning around October and ending at the beginning of May, the days are short and the human organism reacts to the lack of sunlight by becoming depressed. The condition is called S.A.D., or “Seasonally Affective Disorder.” It is something that affects all people in northern latitudes, but we hear more about the Swedes in this regard, because their population is greater than that in most countries north of the 50th Parallel. By comparison, Seattle, one of the northernmost cities in the USA is roughly on the 47th Parallel; New York City on the 40th. On the other hand, during the summer, when it never gets really dark, it’s almost impossible to find a depressed Swede.

    Skol!
    George A. Marquart

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’ve read 2 of the 3 Larsson novels, and find them similarly compelling and puzzling. Lisbeth herself is, as you note, something of a contradiction to her creator’s principles–she is (as is frequently noted in the books) an inflexible and terrible moralist–but according to her own lights. The real theme here (as I understand it), is the abuse of the less powerful, especially of women (the Swedish title of the first book can be translated, “Men Who Hate Women”). As a modern Swede, Larsson seems to be incapable of imagining that there could be anything wrong with consensual sex of any kind. But abuse is unforgivable, and this is a world without grace.

    I think the Left has a hard time dealing with its moral sense, and is still trying to sort out its feelings of outrage. Lszbeth is, in a sense, a cry from the Imago Dei, buried somewhere in the Socialist heart. She does not know what she hungers for, but she knows she hungers for it–and she will kill to get it.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I’ve read 2 of the 3 Larsson novels, and find them similarly compelling and puzzling. Lisbeth herself is, as you note, something of a contradiction to her creator’s principles–she is (as is frequently noted in the books) an inflexible and terrible moralist–but according to her own lights. The real theme here (as I understand it), is the abuse of the less powerful, especially of women (the Swedish title of the first book can be translated, “Men Who Hate Women”). As a modern Swede, Larsson seems to be incapable of imagining that there could be anything wrong with consensual sex of any kind. But abuse is unforgivable, and this is a world without grace.

    I think the Left has a hard time dealing with its moral sense, and is still trying to sort out its feelings of outrage. Lszbeth is, in a sense, a cry from the Imago Dei, buried somewhere in the Socialist heart. She does not know what she hungers for, but she knows she hungers for it–and she will kill to get it.

  • Tom Hering
  • Tom Hering
  • bruce Gee

    Henning Mankell’s Wallander bookss are great. A smart, insecure, aging and lonesome investigator sorts out all sorts of intersting cases. THE DOGS OF RIGA is quite good.

  • bruce Gee

    Henning Mankell’s Wallander bookss are great. A smart, insecure, aging and lonesome investigator sorts out all sorts of intersting cases. THE DOGS OF RIGA is quite good.

  • Tom Hering

    The BBC-PBS Wallander series starring Kenneth Branaugh is also very good!

  • Tom Hering

    The BBC-PBS Wallander series starring Kenneth Branaugh is also very good!

  • michael henry

    “…why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? ”
    Obvious answer, sin.

    “And why is everybody so depressed?”
    Because like looking at a mirror and seeing the answer in front of us, when the results don’t match, we go looking for solutions, which have to be someone’s fault but our own, and find that all the other mirror gazers don’t agree with us. We cannot see past ourselves to the one who can save us.

    “And why is everyone so guilty?”
    Because God says so. But if you meant on a mean level, because our conscience belies what we think we know while supressing the truth.

  • michael henry

    “…why is there so much evil lurking beneath every surface? ”
    Obvious answer, sin.

    “And why is everybody so depressed?”
    Because like looking at a mirror and seeing the answer in front of us, when the results don’t match, we go looking for solutions, which have to be someone’s fault but our own, and find that all the other mirror gazers don’t agree with us. We cannot see past ourselves to the one who can save us.

    “And why is everyone so guilty?”
    Because God says so. But if you meant on a mean level, because our conscience belies what we think we know while supressing the truth.

  • David Palmer

    I’ve just finished Wallander, 13-20 – the first five riveting stories. Two things the countryside is just so grey which was also my impression when I visited Stockholm in 1974. Most Swedes are depressives I think and if Wallander is to be believed, divorced, though Henning Mankell maybe showing his age, most Swedes no longer marry.

    Maybe if they had become Calvinists instead of Lutherans they might have done better….

  • David Palmer

    I’ve just finished Wallander, 13-20 – the first five riveting stories. Two things the countryside is just so grey which was also my impression when I visited Stockholm in 1974. Most Swedes are depressives I think and if Wallander is to be believed, divorced, though Henning Mankell maybe showing his age, most Swedes no longer marry.

    Maybe if they had become Calvinists instead of Lutherans they might have done better….


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