Swedish crime fiction is not all like Stieg Larsson

Millennium Ever since the phenomenal, and continuing, success of the Millennium Trilogy by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson, we have read numerous articles in newspapers and on the internet likening the output of other Swedish, or Scandinavian, authors to him. Increasingly, "blurbs" on or about newly published novels are explicitly likening the book in question to S. Larsson (recent examples include Jo Nesbo's The Snowman (Norwegian), Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Ashes to Dust  (Icelandic), Ake Edwardson (Swedish), Camilla Lackberg (Swedish) and Roslund/Hellstrom's Three Seconds (Swedish). I am sure there are lots of other examples.

 Let's put aside the obvious fact that an author from a region of the world does not by default write books that are clones of other authors from that region (is Martin Amis the next Jane Austen or James Patterson the next Edith Wharton?).  Let's also put to one side the publisher's motivation to attempt to emulate S. Larsson's commercial success by likening its own titles to his novels.

What are we left with? What elements do "define" S. Larsson and hence could be used to liken other novelists to him?  I'll list ten here but welcome further suggestions or contradictions.

1. Exciting plots with many themes: thriller, political cover-ups, financial scandal, Nazis, serial killer, thugs, drug dealers, lesbians, spies, police corruption, sex, detective agency, blackmail, evil doctors, tortured family history, bikers, gore, devious lawyers, bad businessmen, lots of very nice and principled women – it's all there. 

2. Unusual and highly sympathetic female central character who has been very badly treated so is justified (in the reader's mind) in a search for vengeance.

3. Campaigning journalism (what I call the nostalgia ticket!). Journalists expose financial, political and other wrongdoings, and the world cares. That is so nice, I wish the world really was like that, and I like being able to imagine that it might be – hence one appeal, for me, of these books.

4. The goodies are good and the baddies are bad.  The lack of shades of grey is not particularly appealing to me but I think it helps to make the books more widely commercial.

5. Each book is about the same characters yet is distinct by having a different theme. Book 1 is a locked-room mystery; book 2 is a fugitive drama; book 3 is a political spy thriller in the Le Carre mould.  This is the structure of other successful series, most notably the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, that is, a tried and tested recipe for success and a classic structure that readers can recognise while enjoying the unusual settings.

6. Masses of detail, eg how to put a magazine together, or open an offshore bank account, that the average reader will not know about and which appeals to the "inner nerd".

7. The curiosity factor. The author's necessarily enigmatic life seems to fascinate people and make them want to read his books.

8. The books are written at an "easy reading" level while not being dumb. Hence they appeal to a broad readership.

9. The books have been made into films, which often boosts sales.

10. The books have won awards and been bestsellers in other countries before being published in English, which encourages people in the English-speaking world to try them.

I am sure there are other factors in the Larsson make-up, but the above ten are the ones that immediately occur to me. By this count, a standard crime novel such as a police procedural series does not qualify for comparison. Jo Nesbo is perhaps a little closer in that his police procedurals also have strong thriller, gory and historical elements, but to my mind there is no more in common between the two authors than there is between Larsson and a standard US or UK (or any) thriller involving a police investigation. And Yrsa Sigurdardottir? No point of comparision, apart 3 seconds perhaps from the fact that Liesbeth and Thora are both women. (But then, so is Kinsey Millhone or Hannah Scarlett.)

Perhaps the novel published after the Millennium Trilogy that comes the closest to it is Three Seconds by Roslund and Hellstrom. The cover has a big red banner across the bottom, stating in capital letters "The new crime sensation from the publishers of Stieg Larsson".

Factors in common:

It is long

It is one of a loose series, this time about a seriously depressed, ageing policeman and his colleagues and other contacts (eg a prosecutor).

It is very thrilling with a scorching pace, while being replete with minutiae about things the average reader will not know about.

It concerns corruption in many institutions and at  the highest levels, and lots of it. Paranoia is rife.

There is no equivalent to the morally upbeat and forceful characters of Liesbeth Salander and Mikhael Blomqvist, but the character of Piet Hoffman is certainly well drawn and intriguing. I think the reader is supposed to like him more than I did.

Part of it takes place in a prison.

The English publisher is almost the same (MacLehose/Quercus for Larsson, Quercus for Roslund/Hellstrom).

Er, it is Swedish.

10 thoughts on “Swedish crime fiction is not all like Stieg Larsson

  1. Maxine – An excellent post! One can understand why publishers would like to liken other work to Larsson’s because of its phenomenal success. But I agree completely that we cannot categorise other Swedish crime fiction authors as “like Stieg Larsson,” simply because they are Swedish. Each author has her or his own unique way of writing crime fiction, and nationality has little to do with it except the language (Swedish, French, Italian, etc.) in which it’s written. Your list of the themes and elements in the Larsson series makes a lot more sense in terms of deciding how comparable a work might be to Larsson’s. Well said.

  2. Great analysis.
    In my opinion Larsson´s series has some things in common with Liza Marklund´s early stories, especially the one where we learn something about Annika´s past.
    It would be somewhat easier to find the new Camilla Läckberg; a number of the Scandinavian femikrimi series have quite a bit in common.

  3. Very interesting analysis ,Maxine.
    In my view Mankell,S.Larsson and Roslund-Hellstrom,
    are different unique crime fiction writers,but what
    they have in common is the desire to use the genre of
    crime fiction to explore what they see as iniquities
    and short-comings within Swedish society. As far as I can see
    they all-like Mankell think that Sweden is -by an large
    a decent society,but in many ways it falls short of the
    promised social democratic panacea that seemed possible-
    when the authors’ were younger,and was blown apart –
    symbolically by the assasination of Premier Olaf Palme.

  4. Thank you, Margot, Dorte and Simon.
    It is interesting about the “fundamentally decent” idea. I do get a strong sense of this from Mankell, but less so from S. Larsson or Roslund/Helstrom, who seem more cynical about government/politics.
    Liza Marklund I think is a bit more interested in the personal/feminist aspects, and she bites much harder in this regard than any of these male authors I believe, even with the Lisbeth character (who is too much male fantasy figure, really, to be taken that seriously as a representative of the “female in today’s society”). I think Karin Altvegen and Liza Marklund are addressing much more specifically “women’s issues” in our modern society than S. Larsson does, even though S. Larsson is so sympathetic to the women’s viewpoint, it is not quite the same as when these other authors write about it, for me. Lackberg is OK but too romanticised. That’s fine, but I don’t see her novels as addressing serious women’s issues on a par with A. Larsson, Altvegen, Marklund, who “get” the family/workplace tensions so much more instinctively.

  5. Very good points on Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I agree with all of them. Larsson is a great story teller, a writer of a sweeping epic. That’s a major skill of his. You also refer to the good women characters. One selling point for me is that the third book, which contains the trilogy’s resolution, is that it did not come about through violence, but rather through the cooperation, strategic thinking and planning, intelligence and action of several strong, courageous and smart women, and Blomkvist. Also, that third volume contained a legal thriller section as well, good for me who enjoys courtroom strategy, repartee and denouements.
    And I cannot stand the comparisons to Larsson by publishers, booksellers, whomever. All writers write differently, and even in Sweden, not all are good writers. As Marilyn Stasio said in the New York Times Book Review, Swedish citizenship does not a writer make. Many are good writers, all for varying reasons.
    And let’s include the grandparents of today’s Swedish writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, whom you refer to often, as they wrote great stories with social commentary.

  6. Excellent analysis of Stieg’s appeal, Maxine. Publishers in New York are falling all over each other trying to find “the next Stieg Larsson,” but it’s a futile undertaking — he was definitely an original. But watch the horizon for some excellent books to come out of Denmark soon…

  7. An excellent and useful analysis, Maxine. I think the writer who I have read who possibly comes closest to Stieg Larsson is Liza Marklund, and she is Swedish. ;o)

  8. Possibly, Norman. Karin Altvegen, also – at least, her Missing is very similar to The Girl Who Played With Fire – perhaps even a better treatment of a similar situation, and more thrilling.

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