I have met Kerstin Bergman twice, once at a conference about Stieg Larsson at UCLA and again when she came to our campus as we held an event focused on women crime fiction authors from Scandinavia. She struck me as a person who knew a lot about crime fiction and was able to communicate her knowledge clearly. That quality is evident in her new book, a thorough scholarly examination of Swedish crime fiction published in English (by an Italian publisher! truly an international effort). Though Bergman is quite young, she has long established herself as a major scholar, writing many articles and a standard Swedish textbook on the topic, holding a research appointment at Lund University. She is also a member of the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy. So I was not surprised to find her new book an absolutely terrific contribution.
Bergman begins the book by providing a history of crime fiction in Sweden from the late 19th century to the present, noting the changes it has gone through including the “breakthrough of the police procedural” with Sjowall and Wahloo’s ten-volume “story of a crime” in the vangard, the interest in the genre reignited with Henning Mankell’s success, and finally taking off like a rocket with the worldwide popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.
She then provides several chapters in which she examines in greater depth the following:
- the Martin Beck series and later police procedurals (“Sweden’s favorite kind of crime”)
- Henning Mankell’s treatment of Swedishness and “the other” and how it has played out in other writer’s work
- women authors, including Liza Marklund, who broke ground for women writers, and the women who have come since
- the urban scene of crime (from Stieg Trenter to Jens Lapidus, who has done something quite novel with the genre).
- the neo-romantic countryside (from Maria Lang to Mari Jungstedt, with consideration of Camilla Lackberg and other popular writers who focus on the countryside and on a Sweden untarnished by change; these novels are not notably focused on social criticism but rather on local crimes that arise out of family disfunction.)
- the Stieg Larsson phenomenon and how his mix of playful remixing of genre conventions and social critique became an international success that opened the door for many writers to reach an international audience while also enabling Swedish writers to try different kinds of crime fiction than the police procedural.
- the “Europeanization” of Swedish crime fiction in the works of Arne Dahl, who turned his focus from Sweden to Sweden in a more global context.
- and finally, a handy review of crime fiction in other Nordic countries, providing both a run-down of major authors but also a comparison of crime fiction traditions in the countries.
This is a superb book that perfectly balances the interests of scholars and the passions of ordinary readers. Bergman is no slouch when it comes to critical theory, but I’m pleased that she chose to keep her focus firmly on the literature itself rather than on abstrations. Though this doesn’t diminish the scholarship involved, it makes the book accessible. It’s also unusually affordable for a scholarly book – which makes it a tempting purchase for readers who enjoy Swedish crime fiction as well as a gulit-free course adoption. Anyone teaching Scandinvian crime will want to assign this clear, well-organized, insightful book as a text. Those teaching Swedish literature or the crime fiction genre might want to consider it as a supplemental text. It should also find a home on the shelves of every academic library. It’s a very useful, well-done survey of Swedish crime fiction.