new issue of Mystery Readers Journal on Scandi Crime Fiction

Yay! Mystery Readers Journal has a second special issue on Scandinavian Mysteries out. Check out that tempting table of contents.

Thanks to the kind permission of Janet Rudolph, who moonlights as a perpetual motion machine, I am reprinting an essay I contributed  (also posted at Janet’s Mystery Fanfare blog).

Reparations: World War II in Scandinavian Fiction

Many readers’ perceptions of Scandinavia as a peaceful, socially-progressive region have been shaped by childhood history lessons. Sweden was neutral during World War II. Norwegians bravely resisted German occupation. Finland fought for its independence both from the Soviets and the Nazis. Danes followed their king’s example and wore yellow stars of David to show solidarity with Danish Jews. In fact, these stories are at best half-truths, patriotic narratives that helped Scandinavian countries recover their dignity as they established strong post-war societies.

The reality was messier. Sweden’s iron ore supported German munitions factories and enriched Swedes. Thousands of Norwegians fought for Germany on the Eastern Front. Finland maintained a democratically-elected government throughout the war, but was allied with Germany against the Soviet Union, which had attacked Finland and seized territory. Danes took heroic efforts to help Danish Jews escape deportation to German camps, but neither Jews nor gentiles wore the yellow star in Denmark.

Crime writers have been drawn to debunking these patriotic myths while interrogating national identities, an urgent issue as immigration increased following the end of the Cold War. Neo-Nazi nationalist movements developed strength in the 1990s. Extremist nationalism showed its most horrific face when a white supremacist systematically murdered 77 Norwegians, most of them children, in July 2011. These perturbations have led writers to probe their nations’ historic relationships with Nazism.

Kerstin Bergman writes, in her excellent critical survey, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir that many Swedish writers have undertaken this task, but their historical reckoning only goes so far.  Nazi sympathizers in fiction are never viewed as truly Swedish but rather as aberrations that need to be acknowledged and rejected. InHenning Mankell’s Return of the Dancing Master, a colleague of Kurt Wallander on sick leave investigates a case that reveals an extensive Nazi network hidden beneath the placid Swedish surface. Yet the reader doesn’t conclude that Swedish culture accommodates hateful beliefs; rather, the message is that racism is something foreign that needs to be diagnosed and rooted out, just like the detective’s potentially silencing illness – cancer of the tongue.

Stieg Larsson, who mashed together practically every popular culture trope in his crowd-pleasing Millennium Trilogy, was a left-wing journalist who exposed the doings of the neo-Nazi movement and was the subject of death threats as a result. It’s not surprising that he added to the general misogyny and warped sexual appetites of his wealthy industrialist antagonists in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a Nazi past.

More recently, Camilla Läckberg addressed the legacy of the war in The Hidden Child. Läckberg’s highly traditional and romantic series features extraordinary murders committed on a picturesque island. The murderers motives are often traced to bad parenting. Läckberg’s happily married protagonists uphold traditional family values and gender roles as they solve crimes. Though The Hidden Child addresses Sweden’s involvement in World War II, it’s sugar-coated. Decent Swedes secretly supported the Norwegian resistance while only horrid people took the side of the Germans. The mystery revolves around a diary and a Nazi medal that one of the series protagonists finds among her mother’s effects which may unlock the mystery of why she was so unloving. The story layers the present investigation and the past, depicting the war experience as if Sweden was an occupied country that bravely resisted the Nazis, not a neutral state that took in Jewish refugees while it provided significant and profitable material support to Germany. Though it’s an effective page-turner that attempts to depict the lasting trauma of war, it paints a rosy picture of Swedish patriotism in wartime.

Åsa Larsson creates a more complex story in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which also has a layered chronology. In the present, police in northern Sweden are investigating the death of two divers who were searching for a plane that went down in a lake during the war. A dysfunctional family, ruled by an odious old man and his greedy wife had made their wealth during the war when ore mined in the north was shipped to Germany. In this case, the motivations of the Swedes who worked with Germans are more thoroughly explored and the extent of the country’s involvement with the German war machine is exposed, but those involved are depicted as greedy and monstrous outliers who don’t reflect Swedish values.

Perhaps the most intriguing exploration of a Scandinavian nation’s denial of the past is found in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast, which also has extensive passages set in the past following the fate of a group of Norwegians who fought the Soviets alongside the Germans during the occupation. After being wounded, one of them ends up in Austria where he falls in love with a nurse and schemes to smuggle her to safety as the world around them burns. In the present, the police are wondering if neo-Nazis will disrupt the celebration of Norwegian Independence day. Detective Harry Hole tries to connect the purchase of an illegal long-range rifle with a series of murders and discovers that the killer they seek likely fought on the Eastern Front, is an excellent sharpshooter, and quite possibly is suffering from multiple personality disorder.

At one point in the novel, a reporter asking a public official about Norway’s occupation likens it the Austrian Anschluss, a notion that the official strongly denies and finds completely puzzling. Yet throughout the novel, the patriotic notion that Norwegians generally supported the resistance is put to the test. In the world of the novel, many Norwegians joined with the Nazis and took their punishment when the war ended. Most were content to support the Nazis until it was clear they were losing the war, at which point, when it was a safe bet, they denounced the occupiers. In this analysis, the rise of neo-Nazism is not simply an aberrant response to immigration but an outgrowth of suppressed history. Eventually the killer does turn out to be two people in one body: a flamboyant Eastern Front sharpshooter coexisting with an elderly man who convinced others he had been a loyal member of the resistance. Nesbø suggests the nation itself is suffering from a split personality – a public persona that is peaceful and tolerant concealing a national identity that is too close to Nazism for comfort.

This historical reexamination of race and identity is extending into new areas. Two recent Danish novels, The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen and The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel take a fresh look at punitive ways the Danish state treated women who were deemed defective and locked away, justifying their treatment with eugenic theories as recently as the 1970s. The Nina Borg series by Leena Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis tackles the difficulties immigrants encounter in contemporary Denmark. Arne Dahl and Jens Lapidus have written ground-breaking series that explore the entanglement of Swedish society with a globalized Europe. Scandinavian writers who have challenged the accepted narrative of the wartime past have contributed to this work by exposing the historic roots of a contemporary challenge: redefining Scandinavian national identities in a multicultural world.

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6 thoughts on “new issue of Mystery Readers Journal on Scandi Crime Fiction

  1. Thanks for this excellent and perceptive piece, Barbara. I really like the way in which you explore the texts in the context of larger (often overly simplistic) narratives about the wartime past.

    You’re probably aware of this already, but Nesbo drew on his own family history for The Redbreast. He spoke very eloquently about the subject at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I posted on it here:

    https://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/theakston-file-1-jo-nesbo-interviewed-by-mark-lawson/

  2. Thank you for that info and link – I didn’t know that. Quite a moving backstory for the novel. As a Norwegian-American (my grandfather emigrated when he was five years old) I grew up with patriotic myths about the war years. Essentially we believed only one man got on with the Germans and there was a word for that – Quisling. The Redbreast remains my favorite of his novels.

  3. Really interesting piece! Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow (Little, Brown 2014) has an interesting slant on this – one half of Truc’s reindeer police duo, Nina Nansen, discovers uncomfortable facts about Swedish pre-war research designed to “prove” racial superiority (and Sami inferiority), and is shocked at how far this diverges from the Scandinavian tradition of liberal tolerance as preached at her southern Norwegian school.

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