Very cool cases: Scandinavian crime novels are exceptionally hot properties

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010

So you know about the insanely popular Scandinavian crime novelist, right, the author who has sold 3 million books in Sweden (pop. 9 million)? The one published in 40 languages? The crime-writing legend with more than 30 million books in print worldwide?

If you said the late Stieg Larsson, the publishing phenom who has sold more than 500,000 copies of his latest book, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," in the month since it was released, who currently has the No. 1 book in hardcover fiction, trade paperback and mass-market paperback -- well, get a clue.

Camilla Läckberg is the Swedish crime writer whose seven books have dominated Stockholm bestseller lists (she makes her American debut this week). Norwegian Jo Nesbø is the guy published in 40 languages. And Sweden's Henning Mankell, the godfather of the Swedish crime thriller genre, has been moving millions of books the world over since creating police detective Kurt Wallander nearly two decades ago.

With Larsson now leading the charge -- 1.8 million hardcover and e-book copies of his "Millennium" trilogy have been sold in the United States in past 16 months, with another 2.8 million paperbacks in print -- more than half a dozen Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Icelanders have become international crime-writing stars, churning out wildly popular tales of law and disorder from nations with some of the lowest crime rates on the planet. It's become so ingrained in the popular culture that Läckberg got her start in an all-female crime-writing class 10 years ago.

"Twenty-five years ago you had Björn Borg and very few other tennis players in Sweden," Mankell says in a telephone interview from his home in Gothenburg, giving his explanation for the explosion in popularity of his peers. "Then he had success and then there came Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander and all of a sudden we had a lot of them. . . . In that way, I might be sort of a locomotive that started the train."

Läckberg, 35, mother of three and stepmother of two, published her debut novel, "The Ice Princess," in Sweden in 2003, but it's finally reaching U.S. readers. It's a highly touted, moody tale of a long-ago murder in a tiny resort town of Fjällbacka. It's a monstrous bestseller in Europe (a British trade magazine ranked her as the continent's sixth-most-popular author last year) and Pegasus Books, her American publisher, is hoping for similar success here.

She says that Scandinavian crime writers "owe a lot to Stieg Larsson" for their international success since his trilogy began conquering the world in 2005. She recounts a story about how "Princess" was snatched up by a French publisher eager to ride Larsson's popularity after his first book, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Her book has since sold 300,000 copies in France, she says, and there's a movie deal already signed there.

"People don't usually perceive Swedes as action heroes," she says in a telephone interview from her home in Stockholm. "But a real window has opened up. It's sort of thrilling and sort of surreal. . . . I was at a book festival in Madrid and the schedule had me booked to sign autographs for three hours. Three hours! I thought it was a mistake. I got there, and it wasn't. I could barely move my right hand afterwards."

The 'Snow' storm

If there was a beginning to the Scandinavian international crime novel, it was likely "Smilla's Sense of Snow," Danish author Peter Høeg's 1992 book about an attractive, antisocial woman from Greenland who had an obsession with snow and with the death of a child in her apartment building. It was a huge international hit, fueled by a riveting plot and by Smilla's lyrical insights into the forbidding realm of ice:

"Now the ice will stay," she thinks to herself at one point in early winter, "now the crystals have formed bridges and enclosed the salt water in pockets that have a structure like the veins of a tree through which the liquid slowly seeps; not many who look over toward Holmen think about this, but it's one reason for believing that ice and life are related in many ways."

It was about this time that Mankell, across the water in Sweden, began a series of novels about a morose, alcohol-swilling police detective who was disillusioned, divorced and diabetic. This was Wallander, the star of 10 books and, recently, a British television series starring Kenneth Branagh (it has been aired in the United States on PBS).

He's as iconic a figure in Scandinavian pop literature as, say, Philip Marlowe is in the United States.

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