Scandinavian Soul: Six ‘Must Read’ Authors from Sweden
Sweden has long punched above its weight in many aspects of cultural importance, be it music, progressive politics, or simply being a great place to raise kids. Its sparkling history of memorable literary tales is no different. A country renowned for its safe living conditions yet besotted with crime also reflects this in its literature: its populated by authors who seem fascinated by sparse mystery, and wind imaginative weaving subplots and occasional surrealism into their tales. Much of the country’s best work also explores its environs, be it in the bizarre escapism of Jonas Jonasson’s atypical protagonists, or Stieg Larsson’s loving nods to strong women and marinated fish.
If there’s a single coherent theme, though, it’s in the intelligence of what seems to succeed: even the more flippant bestsellers often sparkle in historical context and glisten with sharp character development. Of course, you can’t generalise a country – or its books – in a few words, but you can celebrate some of its best. If you’re new to the sparkling streets of Stockholm and the grey wilds of Northern Sweden, or simply looking for the best voices through which to explore them, you’re in the right place.
Here’s a short list of the very best fictional writers Sweden has to offer.
The first thing you’ll note about Jonas Jonasson is he has an incredible imagination. His subtle sense of humour will kick in shortly afterwards. His work is spectacularly surreal; his novels late-in-life, left field tales that meander ludicrously through personal adventures whilst touching on historical events. His stand out is his debut, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window And Disappeared. In it, the protagonist runs from a nursing home and gets himself embroiled - entirely by chance - in criminal escapades. Various subplots recount his fantastical life, which touches on the atomic bomb, Franco, and dictatorship in North Korea. The links are made all the more spectacular by the fact that the main character is plainly not that bright.
Those oddities are not, however, odd for Jonasson: quite the opposite. In follow ups The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden and Hitman Anders and the Meaning of It All, the tales are bizarre, meandering and absolutely packed with intelligent real-life references. The basic format is similar: winding surreal tales, and Jonasson’s are the kind of fiction that makes for great holiday reads. They’re smart without being too deep; mesmerising yet faintly and imaginatively daft.
Jonasson has a surreal history of his own. He quit a ‘life in the fast lane’ job and sold off a his €12 million company before dedicating himself to his fiction, which he produces from a remote island in isolated Gotland, where he also raises chickens. “I felt like writing gave me identity in a period of trauma,” Jonasson once revealed in interview, referencing a post-business life in which he struggled for direction. That identity could scarcely be more distinct.
Bachman’s opus A Man Called Ove is a slightly morbid tale about an old man struggling with life. Ove (pronounced as if it’s a part of the word ‘Hoover’) is a strange character, disconnected and dissatisfied with life circumstances, and giving up on it all in the absence of his deceased wife. He’s a slowly-unleashed oddball, in fact, around whom an entire winding yet everyday plot about getting by and the kindness of strangers unfolds in beautiful prose. Ove is outwardly and vocally selfish yet somehow endless giving despite it. He’s obsessed with Saabs. He takes his shed very seriously, and ‘hates’ all too easily. He’s a classic grumpy old man in a slow-paced yet brilliantly, delicately unveiled late-life tale.
In fact, Bachman loves to do ‘old’. In Britt Marie Was Here, he reveals a socially insensitive almost-pensioner and her late ‘come of age’, while My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is a tale of someone’s influence extending beyond death, a kind of PS, I Love You minus the romance, and aimed at a lonely seven year old girl.
“I work on my characters first,” Backman often tells interviewers of his writing style, and it shows; they are larger than life and profound, often showing spectacular development. It’s how he gets away with his stories seemingly doing so little, but saying so much. “I just try to tell stories that I feel something about,” he’s said of his writing. Millions of copies later, he’s clearly plucking a few other heartstrings, too.
Touted as the queen of Scandinavian crime writing (and given the depth of the genre, that’s quite a title), Liza Marklund novels seem to fire out of the presses at an astonishing rate. Her shtick is a well-worn but exceptionally well-formed one; many of her books form a series with a lead detective character, exploring dark crimes against the backdrop of a culture that’s generally-speaking exceptionally squeaky clean.
Marklund’s books are great, though, because they don’t seek to idolise. There are heroes, but they tend to be deeply flawed characters that bring out conflicting feelings in the reader. She touches on current events, but doesn’t become obsessively absorbed in them, while plots of titles like Borderline and Red Wolf race along at breakneck speed.
If you’ve come across the hit Netflix series Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter, you’ve already experienced a gentle reinterpretation of Marklund’s work. Lively left-leaning politics and deep explorations of unlikely areas of history and sociology are thrown into a mix that also sometimes involves graphic violence. The combination has made Marklund’s dozen books so far the kind that hook in readers by the millions.
Another left-winger, another crime writer, another TV series, and another avid explorer of world culture: Mankell and Marklund have a lot in common. Mankell famously used the proceeds of his first book – a fictional exploration of the Swedish labour movement – to travel to East Africa, where he was to spend extended periods of his life, experiences that end up heavily influencing his later work.
His key character is Kurt Wallander, a hard-drinking, tough-talking and distinctly moody policeman who features in ten of Mankell’s books. They explore several decades of Wallander’s life and several decades of Swedish society alongside it. Faceless Killers was the opener (though Mankell later returned with a kind of bitty fusion of prequel novellas in The Pyramid) and unravels much of Wallander’s soul: he’s a suffering nobody in a difficult marriage with an unbearable teenager in tow, yet alongside it all, Mankell’s fictional crimes feel important. He manages to touch on racism, refugees and other aspects of societal change without detracting from his slowly unravelling tales. There’s a lifelike and overwhelming sense of ambiguous complexity to it all.
Mankell’s also written children’s books and, more recently, an unlikely take of the sex industry in Mozambique, and that’s just the tip of a forty-plus-book iceberg from a man who himself has a reputation as being somewhat... difficult. Mankell even admitted in interview that he’s sick of Wallander now, having dropped him for the second time after giving the character a decade-long break around the turn of the century. But his newer novels have the same glorious subplots and the same sense of importance. They’re just set around different characters.
Given the enduring current popularity of his books, it comes as a surprise to many of his readers that Stieg Larsson passed away in 2004, before any of his popular three book series were published. His posthumous trio, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest are broadly speaking crime novels, and were written in their entirety before Larsson decided to show any of them the light of day – a decision that perhaps cost him any knowledge of the fame they were to achieve.
The books carry characters between them, but each has a distinct theme, incorporating legal elements alongside the drama, and plenty of Swedish colour, especially in Larsson’s tendency to expand on the localised food choices of his characters, and in the way the environment touches the series itself. Lisbeth Salander – the girl referenced in the title – almost drifts in and out of the slow-building novels, resting atop the action like a kind of brooding, moody presence amid the drama.
Larsson had come to the novels through a background in journalism, editing an anti-racism magazine that had seen him receive death threats (though he died of a heart attack). He only ever gave one interview about the trilogy of novels he wrote about Salander and her exploits. Bizarrely, in it he revealed the character was intended as some kind of modern-day Pippi Longstocking, aping the Swedish children’s character’s strength and determination. A fourth book was on the way, incidentally: Larsson also revealed he’d written 150 words of the next ‘Girl’ title. Sadly, we’ll never get to read it.
Kerstin Ekman, oddly, is almost as famed for the rush of multinational translators that her books have attracted as the books themselves: there are even seminars specifically for translators of her novels. The reason? Ekman’s language is intensely emotive. Blackwater is her opus; a bleak crime novel set in the far north of Sweden, almost mythical in its treatment of nature and weather, and it’s inbuilt references to Norse mythology.
The result is culturally fascinating: the more simplistic side of the story deals with Ekman’s exploration of a long-unsolved murder, and the potential it has to drive a family apart a generation after it takes place. Interwoven with that are themes of almost magical landscape, eco-loving people, and yet such profound and memorable dysfunction.
“Perhaps we are closer to nature,” Ekman says of her style. “Sweden is not very urbanised. Perhaps there is a certain underlying melancholia due to the long, dark winters.” Ekman wasn’t the first local to grasp those dark angles, and even described crime writing as a 'corset', in that it follows certain tropes, in particular about the plots eventual and necessary 'solving.'
Like the five other novelists listed here, Ekman’s style might feel otherworldly and unfamiliar to those who don’t dabble in Swedish tomes. Her writing, like her colleagues, offers a distinctive style that’s unquestionably and memorably beautiful; a little taste of Sweden on the page.