Hej, Men Nej, to “The Girl” and “Girls’ Books”: Three Swedish Women Crime Novelists




“IF YOU’RE A FAN OF STIEG LARSSON, you’ll LOVE this,” blares a red circle on one cover, while another volume claims to have “a dangerous edge to gladden fans of Lisbeth Salander.” Åsa Larsson, whose series is set in the far north of Sweden, was crudely hailed as “the new Larsson” on one cover. When “translated by Stieg Larsson’s and Henning Mankell’s Steven T. Murray” is printed on a book cover as a selling point, readers may begin to suspect that a shared language is all these writers have in common. Crime fiction readers are alert to distinctions among subgenres, but the massive influx of Nordic noir — a term that itself eclipses any number of meaningful distinctions — has blurred important boundaries in marketing these titles in English translation. Comparisons are a practical device for signaling subgenre to potential readers, of course, but the Stieg Larsson effect has overwhelmed normally observed distinctions. Apart from a few reviewers (including Sarah Ward here in LARB), most seem content with generalized hyping, and the publishers’ blurbs continue the cycle.

Liza Marklund, Camilla Läckberg, and Helene Tursten are three Swedish women crime novelists who have little in common with Larsson. This is particularly so in refutation of widely promulgated claims regarding the feminism of Larsson’s books. Yes, it is true that the original title, Män som hatar kvinnor translates literally as “men who hate women,” and readers are exposed to documentary-style presentation of facts about women’s mistreatment in Swedish society. While most reviews happily agreed that the book constitutes a feminist intervention, I concur with the contrarian author of the aptly titled review on the Tiger Beatdown blog, “The Girl With The Lots of Creepy Disturbing Torture That Pissed Me Off: On Stieg Larsson” when she argues that “reading the book, you start to get the feeling it’s not a polemic so much as a manual.” Not only does Larsson indulge in depictions of extreme violence to grab jaded readers, his much-touted “strong women” only serve as markers for journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s scorecard (in my view, Blomkvist is the real protagonist of the “Girl” franchise). Marklund, Läckberg, and Tursten meet the challenge of crafting strong female investigators who are not in service to male fantasies, but to their own autonomy. Further, they present their characters in crime-fiction series that allow for the quotidian reality of women’s lives and invite ordinary readers to identify with those investigators, rather than passively admire them as models of unrivalled brilliance or toughness.

Swedish women crime novelists have been squeezed out of the limelight by the wildly successful Stieg Larsson franchise and belittled by some traditionalists, who dismiss their work as somehow unworthy because of its attention to women’s lives. While many of these traditionalists are male authors and critics, Swedish crime fiction forerunner Maj Sjöwall herself complained at the 2013 Edinburgh book festival that contemporary Swedish crime fiction authors “are themselves almost like film stars,” and their novels are “not about police work and crime, but very much about love and relationships — like girls’ books.” But none of these women writers deserve to be seen as carbon copies of Larsson, and their feminism, which has room for, yes, love and relationships, is an essential part of their distinctive contributions to “Nordic noir.”

My focus here is on writers whose work is available in English translation, but I’d like to provide a bit of Swedish context for these writers’ feminism. Although postwar crime fiction included high-profile women writers, including Maria Lang and Maj Sjöwall of Sjöwall & Wahlöö, by 1997 the dearth of female crime novelists was recognized as such a problem by the Swedish crime-fiction periodical Jury that they sponsored two initiatives for Swedish women crime writers: an award to recognize success and a writing workshop to foster more of it. Marklund won the award, and Läckberg took the workshop. The success of Jury’s efforts can be judged by the fact that 10 years later, in 2007, Läckberg and Marklund were at the center of a media furor that began when successful women crime writers were attacked by male writers in the Swedish tabloid Expressen as threatening the very existence of “quality literature” in Sweden. Several women writers fired back, arguing that the hungover angst of middle-aged bachelors in the men’s work was no more “serious” than the private lives of women in theirs. Given that Marklund and Läckberg were the beneficiaries of a contest designed to encourage women writers in the genre, it was perhaps predictable that there would be a backlash against their work, but that backlash provides an important frame for considering their feminism — as opposed to the “feminism” of Stieg Larsson.

Tursten (b. 1954), Marklund (b. 1962), and Läckberg (b. 1974) all came to writing crime fiction from other careers. Marklund was a well-established print and television journalist, and the author of one book based on her journalism (1995) when she won the inaugural Jury prize. Läckberg began work on her debut novel on the Jury-sponsored crime-fiction writing course for women; four years later she completed it, and published it as Isprinsessan (The Ice Princess) in 2003. She was an accountant during the writing of the book, but lost her job shortly before its publication; her initial goal, long since surpassed, was to make enough money from her writing to earn a basic living. Before becoming a writer, Tursten worked in the medical fields of nursing and dentistry, a history that’s reflected in many of her short stories. Her first Irene Huss novel, Den krossade tanghästen (the crushed Tang horse, translated into English as Detective Inspector Huss by Steven T. Murray), was published in 1998. The first English translations of their work became available in 2000 (for Marklund), 2003 (for Tursten), and 2008 (for Läckberg). Marklund’s 10 Annika Bengtzon titles are all available in English, and several of the earlier translations are being replaced by newer Neil Smith translations and published by Random House imprints. Eight of Tursten’s 10-book Irene Huss series are available in English, as are all of Läckberg’s eight crime novels set in Fjällbacka. In short, all of these women are internationally successful, writing crime fiction initially for a Swedish audience and then, later, for a global translation market (while the English-language market is significant, it is by no means the only one; Tursten’s Huss series, for example, has been translated into 18 languages.)

Each author has her own brand of feminism, authentic yet inflected by different strands within feminism and crime fiction. One fundamental marker of their difference from the putative feminism of the Larsson books is the presence of fairly ordinary families in the sleuths’ lives and the integration of their central characters’ personal and professional autonomy. Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, Läckberg’s Erica Falck, and Tursten’s Irene Huss are presented as characters balancing motherhood, personal life, and career, all while being involved in criminal investigation. Their developing characterizations are central to their respective series, and are interwoven with the crime-fiction plots and tied to social commentary. All three writers are blending genres, borrowing from other genres including romance, suspense, and thriller, and those borrowings shape their female investigators in ways that impact reader experience and probably contributed to the backlash they inspired.

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Liza Marklund’s series offers the most direct comparison to Larsson, as Annika Bengzton is a journalist like Mikael Blomkvist and Marklund’s books offer a similarly overt political and ideological critique of contemporary Sweden. With investigative journalism and a co-authored 2005 feminist manifesto to her credit, Marklund has the bona fides to mount her critique. As the co-founder of a successful publishing firm, Piratförlaget, Marklund also has greater control over the final form of her books and, as a publisher, she exercises a broader influence on the market. From the beginning, photos of the author appeared on the Swedish front covers of the Bengzton books, testimonial to Marklund’s presence as public figure and suggesting connections between the author and her character.

Feminism is strongly thematized in Marklund’s crime novels. The first series novel, The Bomber, lays out a detailed structure for a fictional Swedish Olympics committee, with the woman in charge (who is the first to die) facing resistance from nearly everyone, from the veiled sexism of politicians and managerial staff to the open misogyny of construction workers. Prime Time uses its crime plot to offer an in-depth analysis of what the television industry itself might call “women’s issues,” including programming for women, ageism and competition among women in the industry, and the sexual double standard. The central issue in Lifetime concerns the ethics and politics of life sentences, and the figure under threat of receiving a life sentence is a woman accused of murdering her abusive husband; their small son is missing, presumed dead. In this book, Marklund alternates scenes from Annika’s perspective with those from Nina Hoffman, a police officer and friend to the woman falsely accused of murder. The exchanges between Annika and Nina underscore the different roles between journalists and police, encouraging examination of their place in Swedish society. While the investigation is going on, there is labor unrest at the newspaper, and readers learn that Annika takes advantage of the situation to get feminist material printed, such as

her article about the nine cases in which the Labor Court had decreed that it was okay for women to be paid less than men in the same job, because they had a lower value on the employment market […] Without the paralysis that the others were displaying, she would never have got a piece like that in the paper, but when the alternative was empty pages even articles with a feminist angle could get in.

Annika’s expressed feminism can seem at odds with her behavior toward other women at the paper, however, and the melodramatic tenor of Annika’s personal life can strain credulity and negatively portray (other) women. In Lifetime, for example, Annika’s house has burned down on the very night her husband Thomas has left her to move in with his mistress Sophia Grenborg; when Annika appears with her two children, distraught and empty handed, at the home of her long-time best friend Anne Snapphane, Anne refuses to let her in because she is entertaining a younger man she picked up in a nightclub! Nonetheless, Marklund is committed to educating her readers about feminist issues and context, and while the occasional lack of coherence between Annika Bengzton’s personal and professional conduct can seem to pull against the feminist effect, it also lends verisimilitude to the portrait of a professional woman trying to advance her career and care for her family. It also points to a different kind of engagement with the reader than that associated with traditional mystery/detective fiction. In Marklund’s genre-blended novels, as Annika chases down wrongdoers, going into situations most readers would never be in, perhaps female readers are also tempted to speculate how they would do better on the personal front.

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The invitation to the reader to identify with the main character is even more pronounced in Camilla Läckberg’s series set in the western coastal town of Fjällbacka. Läckberg’s series, featuring writer Erica Falck and police detective Patrik Hedström, is an updated cosy, centered on a picturesque small town roiling with secrets, past and present. As demonstrated by her website and the celebrity-style news coverage she garners, Läckberg’s self-branding strategy takes it up a notch. Läckberg is not simply attractive, like Marklund; she is hot. Läckberg’s series offers Spice Girls–style feminism, and she approaches her protagonist’s agency relatively unselfconsciously. Like Marklund, she interacts with her readers through extensive author’s notes, and even more so than Marklund, she invites readers to draw parallels between the author and her protagonist.

However conventionally feminine her manner, Erica is the successful author of nonfiction books, and there are many tributes from other characters to the research that informs these works. These skills are, in fact, her entrée to the investigations, which are formally in the charge of her husband, Patrik Hedström, and his fellow police officers. The presentation of her research relies upon frequent allusions to unspecified “archives,” and these aspects of Erica’s investigative qualifications are mirrored in Läckberg’s own self-presentation. In Buried Angels, for example, Erica happens to be researching a historical crime case that turns out to be central to the present-day plot and consequently she becomes involved in an extra-mural investigation with one of her husband’s colleagues. The novel includes a series of short retrospectives, moving forward in time from 1908, in which Läckberg develops a Nazi-related subplot that echoes one of the contemporary themes of the book. On her own behalf, in the afterword, she says “I needed to do a lot of research about [Hermann] Göring in order to write this story.” She then names a single book and thanks its author in these terms: “Thank you, Björn, for the inspiration your book gave me.” Although she routinely includes a historical subplot — the 1920s in The Stone Cutter, World War II in The Hidden Child — I find Läckberg’s historical material largely unmoored, lacking basic grounding in social context, class relations, and changing laws and customs. In one way, the parallels between author and protagonist can be seen as self-justifying; they also, however, offer a way for readers to simply engage the always-suspenseful plots without examining the “research” too closely.

Erica meets her police-officer husband in the first book, The Ice Princess, when she visits her hometown and begins investigating the apparent suicide of a childhood friend. As the series develops, Erica establishes her relationship with Patrik, starts and then enlarges a family, negotiates relationships with her mother-in-law and her husband’s co-workers, and maintains her career as nonfiction author. Readers notice that she uses similar strategies to manage her personal life and to conduct her investigative work. Perhaps Läckberg’s ability to create this fusion comes from creating a character that is in so many ways her alter ego. Läckberg’s author’s notes are relentlessly cheery, and emphasize the parallels between her and Erica. Here is one example that conveys the style, from the afterword of Buried Angels:

Thanks also to my husband Martin Melin, who is always so enormously supportive of my work. Since he’s now working on his own manuscript for the first time, we’ve been able to encourage each other as we’ve both spent many long hours writing. Of course it’s also an incredible advantage to have my own police officer, and I can ask him everything between heaven and earth about police work.

As she goes on to thank her three children by name, her “network” which includes her (presumably supportive and helpful) mother, and “my older children’s father, Mikael Eriksson,” she performs an idealized personal and professional life that her readers are invited to admire, perhaps envy. That Läckberg subsequently moved on from Melin to a highly publicized relationship with a much-younger Simon Sköld shows that she continues to develop her Spice Girl feminism. She recently posted a lament about her fitness a year after giving birth to a child, her fourth, with Simon Sköld; now 41, she included two full-body photos and says she has no plans to diet, as for women to diet is “stupid” and unhealthy. She embraces her celebrity status and appears happy to be exactly the kind of “film star” crime novelist Sjöwall objects to: she told Svenska Dagbladet that “in Spain I was hailed as a rock star and was signing autographs for hours” and she aspires to reach the top of The New York Times best seller list because “It’s nearly impossible to succeed in the U.S., but I like challenges and adventures.” My translation: Swedish Crime-Fiction Spice, come on down!

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Down the coast from Fjällbacka is Göteborg, a regional hub and second city to Stockholm, the setting for Helene Tursten’s police procedural series featuring Irene Huss and a more pragmatic feminism. Although Tursten is a less public figure than Marklund and Läckberg, she is successful author and is regularly profiled by Swedish media. She has visited the United States to promote her work, and the second novel in the Huss series, Night Rounds (translated by Laura Wideburg) was named as one of five “best books” in the mystery genre by Library Journal. As of 2014, the Irene Huss series had sold over four million copies worldwide. Tursten’s interest in the translation market is more pragmatic than Läckberg’s; she observed in a recent interview with a Swedish Sunday supplement that only a quarter of her sales are in Sweden, but she “makes a good living like that,” (my translation).

As is traditional in the police procedural, third-person narration is used to bring readers into varying degrees of familiarity with characters and their perspective on events. The team is heterogeneous, but not in the crayon box style sometimes found in the procedural. Tursten leverages the potential of the subgenre to combine representation of multiple constituencies with consideration of social issues. This is not a “dream team,” but a realistically distributed demographic crew led by Superintendent Anderson and supported by the usual complement of forensic specialists. Irene Huss is the focal point, and she represents a grounded, pragmatic brand of feminism. When young and attractive officer Birgitta Moberg is being harassed by pornographic pictures delivered via inter-office envelope, her reaction and Irene’s to the culprit’s punishment are contrasted. Hans Borg will be transferred as an end to the matter, enraging Moberg. Irene cautions her:

Forget fantasies of revenge. Of course what Borg did was disgusting. But if bosses feel backed into a corner, they’ll lash out. At you. If you keep pushing, you’ll be transferred and there will be a write-up in your file about how uncooperative you are to work with. They’ll bury you in the bowels of the department without a chance of any career advancement.

Moberg remains angry, and disappointed in Irene, but the investigative team continues professionally, and Borg’s departure from the team makes a long-term spot available for Finnish-Swede Hannu Rauhala.

Tursten deliberately set out to create a realistic female police inspector when she began the series; she wanted Irene Huss to be a good investigator and to have a full, ordinary home life. She knew that real policewomen have normal lives, but in crime fiction they seemed to be lonely and rather odd. Irene ages normally over the course of the series. She is 37 in the first book; by the 10th, she is 47 with her children grown and gone. Even the family dog, Sammie the terrier, ages realistically. Irene’s husband is a chef — this may be the main fantasy element of the series, as Irene never needs to grocery-shop or cook — and they have twin daughters who challenge their parents in realistic ways, by adopting veganism, becoming involved in violent animal rights activism, and having unsuitable boyfriends. One of the daughters brings a new perspective to Swedish Lucia pageantry when she is chosen by classmates to serve as the Lucia at her school because of her shaved head during a short-lived neo-Nazi phase. Irene’s widowed mother, in her 70s, also features in the books; notably, she has a life beyond her role as Irene’s mother, developing a new relationship and traveling abroad.

The series provide windows into social issues, sometimes grounding these historically. There are elements familiar from other Scandinavian crime fiction, such as drug trafficking and biker gangs in Detective Inspector Huss, and Huss works on a cross-border pornography case with Danish detectives in The Torso. Less familiar from the Stieg Larsson fictional landscape are contexts such as contemporary dance and elder care in Fire Dance, and social policy concerning mental health, addiction, and homelessness in Night Rounds. Night Rounds is set primarily in a private hospital which can no longer compete with larger private hospitals, particularly under pressure of government regulations that demand updated facilities and emergency contingency plans, or with the public health services.

Tursten has now moved on from the Huss series, launching a new one in 2014 with the publication of Jaktmark (Hunting Ground), featuring 28-year-old inspector Embla Nyström in the province of Dalsland. (Embla is the Eve of Norse mythology’s creation story, and her name is cause for comment within the books.) Tursten’s short stories, not available in English, include Huss stories with focal issues such as domestic abuse and drug addiction, ghost stories drawn from Tursten’s past career in medicine, and several tales concerning older people, including a series of stories entitled after their “older lady” protagonist. Her pragmatic feminism leads her in multiple directions, considering ordinary Swedish women at all stages of life, a far cry from the fireworks of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.

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Should fans of Stieg Larsson read Marklund, Läckberg, and Tursten? Absolutely! There’s plenty of social commentary, dramatic events, even some torture scenes and international criminal shenanigans for those who appreciate them. But there are other reasons to read these books, other things to enjoy, learn, or contemplate. Marklund and Läckberg foreground the author/investigator/reader relationship, a strategy familiar from other literary genres. Some of the more romance-novel elements might be distracting to crime-fiction purists, but even the silliest of the main characters’ struggles reflect something real, and not all women are feminists. The detectives in most other police procedurals may not worry about their children’s homework or reflect on their long-time marriage, but there’s no reason why such ordinary features cannot be included. As I have already suggested, the genre blending that includes these elements calls for a different relation of reader to text; perhaps this, as much as anything, contributes to the annoyed dismissal by both the male traditionalists and Maj Sjöwall. Marklund, Läckberg, and Tursten are not Stieg Larsson; nor are they sisters of “the Girl” or writing “girls’ books.” Instead, these authors suggest there are many ways to inhabit a feminist worldview, many ways to situate oneself as an independent woman, whether that’s in Sweden or anywhere else.

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Rosemary Erickson Johnsen has been writing about crime fiction for nearly 20 years, publishing articles, reviews, and a scholarly monograph, and presenting to academic and general audiences. She is a professor of English, and her website can be found at rosemaryj.com.


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