This past week Jan Arnald was in town as part of a visiting writers program hosted by our Scandinavian Studies department. Jan Arnald is, of course, known to many of us as Arne Dahl, a rearrangement of letters that he used to write crime fiction in secrecy for many years. I enjoyed having him over to our house for lunch last Thursday and hearing his lecture that evening, with a packed audience – quite an accomplishment considering how close the students are to their final exams. What follows is a combination of my memory of our conversation and his evening talk.
Arnald finds this part of the United states strangely familiar, partly because so many Swedish immigrants settled in this part of the upper Midwest, partly because of the weather that feels a bit like home. (It was cold and gray and blustery.) His talk opened with a series of “what ifs” in a Tristram Shandy-ish mode. Intriguingly, his parents emigrated to the US in the mid-1920s and adopted the name Arnald, but returned home in 1929, so he became a native-born Stockholmer (which is, like New York or LA, a place largely populated by people who grew up somewhere else).
After talking about many ways he could have been someone else, born in a different place and time or under even slightly different circumstances, he said “that is the vertigo of literature, of fiction.” Even in an era of information overload, we need these “what ifs.” Without the ability to tell stories, to imagine the world through the eyes of other people leading fictional lives, we become lesser human beings.
Though he isn’t particularly fond of the question “what defines Swedish crime fiction?” given how much variation there is among writers, he outlined some ways that modern Swedish crime fiction evolved, starting with an insight he gained from a fellow author at the Oxford Literary Festival, Nigerian author Ben Okri, who said it seemed to him to have its roots in Norse mythology and elements of the Icelandic saga. Arnald was surprised because he considers himself more anchored in Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies, but Okri said Nordic crime has “a crude power, a distinctive ethics, few words, lonely people, a lot of weather and not so much food, and a boundless single-mindedness.” Arnaldur Indriðason once told me once that it all goes back to the old sagas, at least for that Icelander, but this was a new perspective for Arnald. He found the idea of old traditions handed down unconsciously quite an appealing notion.
During the 19th century, he told us, Sweden was a monarchy with a strong state church and a farming culture, from which 1.3 million Swedes out of a population of 5 million emigrated to other shores. In the early 20th century, the country began to urbanize and developed a strong union movement and a social democratic government that in the 1930s developed the concept of the folkhemmet – the Swedish idea that all people in the country were part of a family and shared a “people’s home,” a way of fostering solidarity and equality while treading a middle ground between revolutionary socialism and unbridled capitalism. Swedish crime fiction grew out of this tradition, but only when cracks began to appear in the foundations of the people’s home. This is the Sweden that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö described in their ten-volume “story of a crime” in which the crime was the betrayal of social ideals. They set the standard for crime fiction, demonstrating that it could be as good as any other literature, raising readers’ expectations of the genre.
After their series came to an end, however, crime fiction as a genre virtually disappeared from Sweden. It wasn’t a popular genre from the mid 1970s to the 1980s, until the shocking murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. This was a moment that changed the country. “We lost our innocence,” he said, having to face the fact that crime was no longer something that happened in other countries, not in safe, secure Sweden. It gripped the nation, and because the killer was never caught meant it wasn’t a story easily resolved. “The entire nation followed the investigation very closely,” he said. “We all got involved in solving crimes. Everybody became a detective.” This loss of innocence and collective attention to crime set the stage for a crime fiction boom.
Henning Mankell conducted the same sort of social analysis that Sjöwall and Wahlöö did, looking at crime as a way of examining changes in Swedish culture, but he became an international success, far more famous and widely read than Sjöwall and Wahlöö. “We got our first Swedish superstar,” as he put it.
Arnald considers himself part of a third generation of writers, ones who came of age in a Sweden that was part of a globalized world, where the fall of the Berlin Wall made Eastern Europe suddenly much closer. (I was reminded of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis talking about how astonishing it was to travel to Eastern Europe and find this strangely preserved culture, separated from the rest of Europe for so long.) In the early 1990s financial speculation almost ruined the country’s economy, which set the stage for Misterioso, the first of his crime novels to be translated into English.
At this point in his life, he knew he wanted to be a writer and had published a serious novel, some short stories, and poetry, but (as he put it) “it proved very difficult to make a living from writing experimental Swedish poetry.” He earned a PhD in literature, taught at a university, and co-founded a critical journal. But he still wanted to write imaginatively, and the interior style of literary fiction didn’t seem to suit the world that was changing around him. He wanted to write about society as it changed, and realized that kind of project might give him back his love for writing.
During a bout of flu, he tried reading Kafka, which turned out not to be the best thing to do when in a high fever, so he stumbled over to his shelves to get something else – which turned out to be Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, It reminded him of his passion for crime fiction as a young reader, and realized that the genre had room for high quality writing. He set out to write ten books in ten years, like Sjowall and Wahloo, but describing a very different Sweden.
He didn’t want to focus too much violence, though facing fear is a powerful motive for reading and writing fiction. He didn’t want to dwell on evil, per se, but understanding the roots of evil acts in the past or in the pursuit of money and power is interesting. He wasn’t particularly interested in crime, but he found the seduction of the forbidden paired with the promise of justice being served compelling. “The transgressions on the borders of society,” he said, “define that society.” When new kinds of crime arise in a society, it says a lot about changes in that society, and those changes, he decided, would be the focus of his series.
Though often crime fiction is faulted for being formulaic, he felt there were many variations to work on that formula. He was particularly interested in avoiding closure, which he called “the enemy of literature.” His challenge was to create endings that left some questions unanswered, to leave readers thinking after closing the book.
He also resisted the cliche of the lonely detective, a middle-aged man carrying the sins of the world on his shoulders. For him, writing about crime was an opportunity to give his art a “social turn,” and he wanted to create a collective protagonist to provide both various perspectives, but also to show how justice isn’t always an individual pursuit, that people can come together and form a team.
He did all this in secret, though, wanting to have his Arne Dahl identity have a fresh start and not be seen as the work of a “learned bastard” who wrote criticism and taught literature. He found his stories influenced (apart from his literary roots in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy) in proletarian literature of the 1930s and in American television – particularly Homicide, which had a similarly collective cast with complicated lives that extended across the series.
Among the attractions of the genre are intensity, catharsis, a problem to solve, the sudden appearance of truth, clarity that life generally lacks, a troubled past put in order, justice being served. Crime writers, he said, don’t love violence and horror. They love justice.
He wanted to portray a Swedish decade through the eyes of a team working together to solve new kinds of international crimes occurring in Sweden, writing stories that tap the core tragedies of life while at times being playful and ironic. And through crime fiction, which he believes is true literature, he found his way back to “the pure pleasure of writing.”
Of course, we English readers are coming to his work very late. I asked him why there was such a long delay in the publication of Misterioso, as I’d been hearing it had been translated for years before it finally came out. Apparently, Random House acquired world English rights but was in no hurry to exploit them, even as his books were selling well in the rest of the world. The publisher wanted changes to Misterioso, particularly to the ending, that neither he nor his translator (the masterful Tiina Nunnally) were happy with. But eventually it was published, and at a bizarrely appropriate moment, when the 2008 financial crisis was fresh in mind and a mystery involving the systematic stalking and murder of wealthy men who had crashed the economy was curiously satisfying. Bad Blood was also uncannily timely, with its Iraq war plot elements easily shifting forward in time for American readers from the first Gulf War into our more recent military adventure in the Middle East.
Though I’m sure it was frustrating for him to wait so long to have an English-speaking audience, he joked about it in his evening talk, calling translation a time machine, one that brought him back to his younger days as a young and promising crime writer, “This is a time machine I don’t mind traveling in.”
I’m rather more impatient – I waited years to read Misterioso! but I’m pleased to see a third book is coming out in the UK soon and look forward to reading it. My reviews of Misterioso and Bad Blood can be found at Reviewing the Evidence. I hope to have a review of the third book, To the Top of the Mountain, joining them soon because I now have a copy of it. Tack så mycket, Jan Arnald.