Bloodthirsty femmes: The Women of Scandinavian Crime Fiction

by Peter

They spend their time pondering crime and criminals, and often their thoughts are occupied with murder: how to commit it and make it virtually impossible to find the killer, among other things. Every year this group of famous ladies kills. Fortunately they limit themselves to doing it between the pages of crime fiction books.

But who are they, how do they write, and what do they have in common, the women of this exclusive group? Scandinavian crime fiction is often discussed by commentators as if the term itself denotes something in particular, apart from the very obvious – that Scandinavian crime fiction writers are Scandinavians. Which, of course, they tend to be. But is there something more? To what extent is this term meaningful beyond the obvious?

The Nordic countriesAnd who are these bloodthirsty Nordic ladies of the pen? As this post is for an English-speaking readership, we limit ourselves to authors translated into English. The Swedish members of this set are, for the moment, Karin Alvtegen, Kerstin Ekman, Inger Frimansson, Mari Jungstedt, Camilla Läckberg, Asa Larsson, Liza Marklund, and Helene Tursten. The Norwegians are Anne Holt and Karin Fossum, in Finland there is Tove Jansson, and in Iceland Yrsa Sigurdardottir. So it is a group numerically dominated by Swedish writers.

In this and a series of later posts I take a closer look at the authors in this group and discuss how they differ and what they have in common, as well as whether there is anything distinct to Scandinavian crime fiction that perhaps somehow sets the writings of this group apart from, say, the crime fiction literatures of the US and UK.

The writers discussed here do not fall neatly into the same sub-genre and there are many differences along multiple dimensions between them. Here I focus on their protagonists. In later posts I’ll look at the settings of their mysteries, how they build suspense, and what they have in common.

The Protagonists

No set protagonist

Some of the writers listed above do not write series, and do not write about the same protagonist from novel to novel. Karin Alvtegen and Tove Jansson mostly write about women, but different women each time. They tend to be, in some or other sense, women that are peripheral and who, for some or other reason – often psychological – find it difficult to fit into their surroundings.

The same is the case with Inger Frimansson and Kerstin Ekman (in the latters’ crime fiction books). They, along with Altegen, write psychological thrillers, and concern themselves with psychological processes and interpersonal dynamics. They tend to write about women, but not exclusively so. For instance, in one of her books Kerstin Ekman has a male protagonist, Police Constable Torsson.

Heroines

Perhaps it is to be expected that female crime fiction authors write about heroines. And some of these ladies do that. But only a few of them feature female heroines. Liza Marklund’s is a reporter named Annika Bengtzon. She is smart as a razor and very good at connecting loose facts. She has a problematic relationship with a man who mostly shares in the work at home and in taking care of the children. Marklund’s books tend to be somewhat “gendered” – they deal a lot with the private life of the heroine from a woman’s point of view.

Helene Tursten writes about Detective Inspector Irene Huss, an impressive and likable woman. She lives a tough life: a wife, a mother, and a career woman with a time-consuming, often dangerous, job. She is marrided to a chef, has twin teenage daughters and wandering terrier.

Interestingly, two of the writers have female lawyers as protagonists – Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s heroine Thora Gudmundsdottir is a Reykjavik lawyer and single mother, working hard to balance the needs of her family with a demanding job. Asa Larsson’s main character is Stockholm tax attorney Rebecka Martinsson, but police detectives Svein-Erik Stalnacke and Anne-Maria Mella also feature prominently in her books. Rebecka Martinsson is divorced and seems to be searching for the right job and her place in the world. She does not usually occupy the center stage in Larsson’s books to the same extent as Thora does.

Married couples

Anne Holt has a married couple as her protagonists in her later books, even though she wrote a series of earlier books (which I actually prefer to the current series) featuring a lesbian police officer, Hanne Wilhelmsen. However, in the books translated into English so far, the protagonists are the FBI-trained profiler and academic psychologist Johanne Vik and Detective Inspector Adam Stubo. In the course of the series, we have followed their relationship from its beginning and by the later books have learned much about their family life.

The same is the case for Camilla Läckberg’s protagonists, namely police detective Patrik Hedström and his wife, author Erica Falck. Considerable attention is devoted to the development of their relationship, pregnancies, family and social life.

Both these couples tend to exchange information and discuss the cases they are working with when they are together at home.

Heros

Both Norwegian Karin Fossum and Swedish Mari Jungstedt write crime fiction series with male protagonists. In Jungstedt’s books, set on the idyllic island Gotland, we meet the sleuthing duo Inspector Anders Knutas and Swedish news reporter Johan Berg. We learn a little about Inspector Knutas’s life as a married man, but quite a bit about the course of a romance between Johan Berg and a woman who is initially – in the early books – married with children.

In Fossum’s series, featuring the protagonists Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre and set in small-town Norway, on the other hand, we learn relatively little about their private lives. Instead, Fossum’s focus is more on the perpetrators of the crimes.

Summing it up

Most likely there are generally more heroines in the books by female writers than in those by male writers, and this is the case here. But among the ladies of Scandinavian crime fiction we find all types of protagonists.

crime fictionAs far as I can see there are some differences in style depending on the type of protagonist. Having a couple, as in Lackberg’s series, or two main protagonists, as for example Sejer and Skarre in Fossum’s books, makes it easy for the author to reveal some of the thinking of the protagonists, for instance in conversations between the characters.

Another difference of note is that in series where the protagonist, or one of the protagonists, is female, there tend to be a little more focus on family issues and relationships than in the other books. This difference relates to the “side stories” in the books and their relative prominence, and is one of degree.

Apart from that, it is probably worth noting that the hard, tough, one-man strike force heroes are absent in the writings of these Scandinavian ladies, as it generally is in Scandinavian and most European crime fiction. Characters of that type are so out of date, so 1950’s, and have been replaced by protagonists that more or less are ordinary people living ordinary lives and who solve their cases by means of hard work and brain power.

As far as protagonists are concerned, there clearly is no unique Scandinavian recipe that sets these authors apart from their counterparts in the rest of the world.

To be continued ..

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