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Very cool cases: Scandinavian crime novels are exceptionally hot properties

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; C01

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.

Mankell became a major star in Europe before first being published in the United States in 2003. He has since sold 750,000 books here, 88 percent of those involving the 10 Wallander titles. His newest, "The Man From Beijing," which does not involve the detective, has sold 75,000 copies in hardcover and e-book since being published by Knopf this spring.

Mankell's dark tones, his concern with development of character over relentless plot, the weight of the subarctic cold and gloom, became the model for the next generation of Scandinavian authors. Typically covered in frost and a sense of foreboding, the Scandinavian thrillers eschew some of the bang-bang-shoot-'em-up of their American contemporaries for a more stately pace through bloody homicide. There was racism with recent immigrants, the collapse of the neighboring Eastern Bloc countries and the corruption of the state to be concerned with, these writers found, not just a serial killer skinning people alive.

"The success of Mankell opened the door to a lot of Scandinavian writers," says Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York and editor of the seminal "The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps," a collection of early detective fiction. "People liked it, and he was only doing one book a year, so it didn't really fill the appetite. People would ask, 'Do you have someone else like that?' Well, yeah, we did, because it's all so similar."

Writers like Nesbø, Iceland's Arnalder Indridason and Norway's Karin Fossum put together series of books, often focusing on one recurring character and often playing along the familiar lines of the standard noir thriller, the kind of thing created in the United States by titans such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

"They're all usually placed in cold, dark, wintry settings, with people drinking a lot to keep warm," Penzler says. "There's the general gloominess of the people, who seem resigned to the worst thing happening. There's not much humor. There certainly are no Carl Hiaasens or Elmore Leonards."

Into this brew came Larsson. A former Swedish wire service reporter and graphic designer, by his late 40s he was running a magazine called Expo, dedicated to exposing racist and fascist groups. He noodled around with a crime thriller idea for several years, and eventually based his two main characters on two icons of Swedish children's literature: Pippi Longstocking, the adventure-seeking red-haired girl in pigtails; and Kalle Blomkvist, the boy detective.

Misfit grownups

In October 2004, months before the first of his books was published, he gave a somewhat cranky interview to Lasse Winkler, editor of a Swedish book trade magazine. He said that he imagined those two fictional characters as misfit grownups. Pippi morphed into Lisbeth Salander, the bisexual computer-hacking punk who is the title character in "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and the two subsequent books of the trilogy. Kalle morphed into Mikael Blomkvist, a troubled, 40-something journalist stung by a libel conviction. The two work together in sorting through mysteries of corporate corruption, family secrets, violent death and various forms of abuse against women. (Misogyny is such a part of the first book that its title in Sweden is "Men Who Hate Women.")

He wrote all three books before submitting them to a publisher. He had no doubts he was about to become a rich man.

"I know they're good," Winkler quotes him as saying. "I knew that someone would want to publish them. This is my retirement fund."

A chain-smoking workaholic, he died of a heart attack three weeks later. He was 50.

The books have become a worldwide publishing phenomenon -- more than 30 million copies are in print, a number that rises by the hour -- and has pulled along the rest of the Scandinavian crime-writing crowd in their wake.

Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, publishes Mankell, Larsson and some of Nesbø's titles, almost cornering the market for subarctic crime thrillers in the United States.

"It is extraordinary, this strain of crime writing appears to be persistent in all the Scandinavian countries," he says. "They don't zip along, these things. They're brooding. It's not plot-driven in the way that many of their American contemporaries are. . . . Part of the appeal is you're being introduced to something that should be familiar, that seems familiar, but it's not."

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