Tortured women, guilty men and dead children

The small Swedish town of Ystad has a population of only 17,000. According to the acclaimed Swedish TV detective series, Wallander, based on the books by Henning Mankell, Ystad is also home to a bloodthirsty criminal population that includes serial killers, international drug runners, demonic cults, people smugglers, paedophile rings, mass murderers, gangland bosses and professional hitmen. The criminals largely prey on the middle class, who are depicted as greedy, racist, insular, angry and utterly self-interested. Hardly anyone is nice to anyone else. Everything is a sham.

The Wallander books, and movies, are part of a whole recent genre of super-popular Swedish detective novels that have all made it onto TV or the cinema screen or both. It’s not just the Swedes of course. For example, the Danish TV series The Killing and the Danish-Swedish collaboration The Bridge both feature a lot of the conventions of Swedish noir: women detectives, the sadistic murder of women, dead or traumatised children, political corruption, numerous plot twists, and a preoccupation with the mental states of women and the paternal identities of men. The Killing and The Bridge both have endings that make the final scene of Hamlet look cheerful. Perhaps Shakespeare had a hunch about Danes. Or maybe Hamlet should be filmed as Scandinavian noir.

Anyway, it’s the Swedes’ mini-industry of noir that initially grabbed the sales and the airtime and in fact kicked all the others off, and the Wallander TV series is a useful prism through which to examine the rest of the genre. Along with Mankell’s Wallander series, the Swedes have produced Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books, Johan Ajvide Lindqvist’s vampire novel Let the Right One In, and from the founders of Scandinavian noir – the Marxists Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – the Martin Beck novels. Interestingly, most of these writers are writers of the Left. All of them except Sjowall are men, but she wrote in tandem with a man.

Kurt Wallander, Ystad’s chief of detectives, is depressed, divorced, world-weary, obsessive about his work, prone to drinking too much and always on the edge of a catastrophic existential crisis, which makes him sound like every fictional male cop from Philip Marlowe, Dave Robicheaux, and Raylan Givens to Inspector Shan and Sam Vimes. More specifically, it situates him within the Scandinavian tradition that begins with his fellow Swede Martin Beck, later includes Mikael Blomqvist, Saga Noren, and Rebecka Martinsson, and also spawned the Norwegian Harry Hole, the Dane Sarah Lund and the Icelander Erlendur Sveinsson.

Kurt Wallander’s identity and responsibilities as a father are central to the Wallander narrative. The identity of fathers is a big issue in Scandinavian noir. Where the male characters are not fathers themselves, they occupy a paternal role for a tormented or marginalised woman. Kurt Wallander is the template for this, a template also occupied by The Bridge’s Martin Rohde, The Killing’s Lennart Brix and Jan Meyer, and the Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist.

As a parent Wallander flounders, and, for the most part, ignored the needs of his daughter, Linda. Linda, now a detective under Kurt’s authority, spent some time in a mental hospital, has a co-dependent relationship with her father and yearns for love she can never have. Her immediate colleague and occasional lover Stefan Lindman is flaky, macho, angry, has no impulse control or friends, and was repeatedly raped as a child.

The Wallander TV series, like a lot of Scandinavian noir, features a large number of traumatised children, often girls, and it’s something of a convention in the genre. For example, Arnaldur Indridason’s novel Silence of the Grave opens with a baby chewing on a human bone, and features numerous beaten and violated children. Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher begins with a terrified child finding a corpse, and has a narrative rife with misogyny and the abuse of children. The Killing is concerned with the brutal murder of a teenage girl. A major plot point in the humanising of The Bridge’s female detective, Saga Noren, is the stalking and murder of a neglected homeless girl, and the villain’s driving motive in The Bridge is revenge on children and the fathers of children for the death of a child.

In Wallander, children find dead bodies, see murders committed, are pursued by murderers, are kidnapped, raped and sometimes murdered themselves. They wet themselves when confronted by assassins, have botulinum put in their birthday cakes and are routinely orphaned.

Linda Wallander and Stefan Lindman are two traumatised and abandoned children who, as adults, become cops. When Linda is asked late in the second series by another detective (who is secretly Ystad’s serial child molester and murderer) why she became a cop, she replies that she hates people who kill other people. This earnest statement seems like an odd reason for becoming a police officer and begs the obvious – that is, that Linda’s father is a cop. We could speculate that actually Linda herself feels dead and hates her father for killing her. Perhaps that is why she became a cop: the only way for her to survive was to put on her father’s clothes.

Of course what happens as a result is that once in uniform Linda becomes even more traumatised, being always within the remit of the father’s orders, wearing the father’s skin as it were. In fact, like Stieg Larsson’s books about the abused Lisbeth Salander and The Killing’s driven detective Sarah Lund, the Wallander series seems to exist solely in order to continually torture Linda Wallander. Whenever there is a traumatised child to be interviewed, it’s Linda who is sent along to do the job. When a baby is found alive in a shipping container of dead Iraqi asylum seekers, it’s Linda who finds it and is the most distressed about the baby’s future.

In the space of a couple of episodes (spoiler alerts), Linda is forced to kill a former lover, a lover she has recently rediscovered feelings for, and finds her colleague and ex-lover Stefan dead by his own hand, shot in the head. Heads are important in Wallander. A lot of miserable and toxic stuff goes on in them, and many Ystad murder victims are shot or bludgeoned in the head, poisoned or decapitated. In another episode the badly injured Linda (head injury of course) is kidnapped by a psychopath and locked up in a cellar with a terrified young girl and a woman’s headless body.

Like Wallander, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander series is also concerned with an abused girl who grows up to become an abused woman. The protagonist of The Bridge, the autistic Saga Noren, is a superlative detective but a strange woman, more like a child who sometimes has sex – vulnerable but protected by considerate men. Johan Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Let the Right One In – also, in essence, a detective novel, and later a Wallender-esque movie – is about the child vampire Eli, an abused girl who can’t grow up to be a woman of any kind, but like Lisbeth Salander and Linda Wallander is reliant on a father-figure for survival. As with Lisbeth and Linda, Eli is so damaged that she can only continue to re-enact her childhood traumas on others, over and over, forever, under the gaze of the father. In the TV series Beck, based on Sjowall and Wahloo’s novels, the policewoman in the spotlight (who we learn was almost raped by a male colleague) is a detective called Alice Evander, giving us a tormented and uncannily named female trio of Salander, Wallander and Evander, names that with a Swedish pronunciation sound even more identical than they look.

In Wallander, the actor who plays Linda’s psychopathic kidnapper is also the actor who played Lisbeth Salander’s paternal protector, Mikael Blomqvist, in the Salander movies. Linda Wallander’s offsider, Stefan, is played by an actor who was until recently married to Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander. Two of the main actors from The Killing, a cop and a murderer, appear in The Bridge as victims. This probably says a lot about the small world of Scandinavian film and television, but also gives the various productions a strange psychological atmosphere, as if all the characters are part of an extended and dysfunctional family who keep taking turns to abuse each other, with everyone exchanging roles.

Sjowall and Wahloo were Marxists writing a couple of decades earlier than Lindqvist, Larsson and Mankell. Many writers of Scandinavian detective fiction identify them as the godparents of the genre. ‘Everyone has a tradition,’ said Henning Mankell, and he points to Sjowall and Wahloo as the progenitors of Scandinavian political noir.

The project that Sjowall and Wahloo portrayed was a social-liberal democracy that was corrupt and uncaring, dominated by the rapacious and the cruel. In their final Martin Beck novel, The Terrorists (1975), a homeless young woman who has been abandoned by the welfare state, shoots the Swedish Prime Minister dead with a small revolver. As far as Sjowall and Mahloo are concerned, it’s not much of a loss:

[Beck] remembered what Kollberg had said about the little revolver – you could hit a cabbage with it at a few inches range, providing that it held absolutely still. Martin Beck looked down at the dead Prime Minister and at his shattered head and thought that was roughly what Rebecka had succeeded in doing….’I can’t say I was one of his admirers,’ said Allwright. ‘But it does seem a bit pointless. They’ll find another one just like him inside half an hour.’

In 1986 the real Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered in the middle of Stockholm while walking home from the cinema late one night with his wife. His killer has still not been identified despite a massive police investigation.

One can imagine that this event, the Swedish equivalent of the assassination of JFK, opened something of a wound in Swedish public life. The paternal welfare state, all-protecting, lost its father-figure in the most Swedish of circumstances: the prime minister walking home sans bodyguards, in his peaceful, orderly capital city, arm-in-arm with his wife.

In 2003 the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, was stabbed while shopping. Like Palme, Lindh had no bodyguard. She later died in hospital.

Lindh’s murder was solved. Palme’s was not. In the absence of the unsolved crime, conspiracy theories have proliferated – it was the South African police, a right-wing extremist, Kurdish extremists, Chilean fascists, the Bofors armaments company, the Red Brigade, Iran-Contra conspirators, the Swedish police, the Yugoslavian secret service. To prove any of the above as Palme’s killer would turn his murder into a facsimile of an episode of Wallander. There’s even some physical resemblance between Palme and the Kurt Wallander played by Krister Henriksson. Olof could have passed for Kurt’s brother: the sensible one, the good one who really knew how to parent, who was always there for his kids and didn’t drink too much.

The story of Palme’s murder is pure Scandinavian noir. Someone is going about their ordinary daily business when they are brutally murdered. The ensuing investigation uncovers an elaborate web of deceit, conspiracy, and political corruption and a revealing of the victim’s Byzantine secret life. The ordinary – the Swedish ordinary – is not ordinary at all. Ordinary life is just a screen for the demonic, the corrupt, the unimaginable and the unsolvable.

Scandinavian noir, and Wallander in particular, portrays damaged or dead children over and over. If English-speaking cop shows are largely concerned with ludicrous one-dimensional men racing against the clock to catch other even more ludicrous and sneakier men, the genre of the Swedish crime series is about the paranoid terrors that children cannot be protected from, and the fetishisation of the vulnerability of girls and women.

To watch Scandinavian detective dramas is to watch women being tortured in a variety of inventive ways. Lisbeth Salander and Linda Wallander not only rhyme with each other, they could also compete with Sarah Lund for the title of TV’s Most Tortured Woman. And they’d probably both be candidates if the child vampire Eli needed a sympathetic adoptive mother.

To be a modern feminist in Scandinavian noir is to be sexy but troubled. In other words, sexy with brains and in need of a father. The only way to need a father or get a father in Scandinavian noir is to be troubled, and the only way to be troubled in the way that father-figures can rescue you from is to be tortured and humiliated.

Why are Linda and Lisbeth tortured so often? Perhaps so the father-figure can have a greater satisfaction when he rescues them. The greater a young woman’s torment and the longer it goes on, the greater the father-figure’s satisfaction and relief when he saves her. The father gets to rescue the abused child who is now conveniently a woman, and therefore he can presumably have either real or imaginary sex with her.

Of course, for the father, there is a lot of guilt too, as his woman-child may have been tortured for so long because of his inadequacies. But that becomes part of the frisson of satisfaction. He gets to have it both ways: to heroically rescue his damaged woman-child, and show his remarkable inner depths by the guilt he experiences in considering his masculine failings.

The actor who played Linda Wallander, Johanna Sallstrom, who like Linda had experienced psychiatric care, killed herself after the second series ended. Watching Sallstrom visibly deteriorate episode by episode as the character of Linda simultaneously becomes more traumatised is a distressing thing. I’m not about to argue that being Linda Wallander contributed to Sallstrom’s suicide, but the strange misogynist dynamics of Wallander and its special genre seem to have an uncanny ability to reveal something about contemporary fear, enjoyment, anxiety and the persecution of women. To write the history of Wallander is to write something that sounds like an episode of Wallander.

Everyone in Wallander, adults and children, as in every other Scandinavian crime text I’ve mentioned, is barely holding themselves together amidst the deluge of violence that sweeps through contemporary life. Johanna Sallstrom experienced the 2004 tsunami in Thailand with her three-year-old daughter and survived by clinging onto a tree. This terrifying event seems almost like an unsettling premonition of Sallstrom’s suicide, as if she just couldn’t hold on anymore to whatever it was she was clinging to in her life, only this time she couldn’t hold onto her daughter either. At any rate, her life and death seems like a powerful metaphor for what is being played out in the description of contemporary life by these crime writers of the Left.

The Swedes have by most quantitative measures reached the apogee of Western democratic liberal affluence. But the stories told by Mankell, Lindqvist, Larsson, Sjowall and Wahloo, and their Scandinavian neighbours seem to want to address the idea that something is broken in that model, as if affluence is not enough and is only ever founded on political crimes and bloody murder. It’s as though something unspeakable lurks in the dark heart of affluent liberal democracy and nobody is allowed to name it directly.

While politics could be named as the analysis of what gets done and who gets to do it, it might also be characterised as the description of what gets enjoyed and who gets to enjoy it. More specifically, we might think of modern cybercapitalist democracy as the use by people of other human beings for their own enjoyment. Given the privileging of masculine power, it is often going to be women and girls who are the enjoyed. But when one considers the strange psychological condition of contemporary masculinity, that enjoyment seems to be increasingly predicated on the creation of tormented internal states in others, states that no-one should have to experience. Even in Scandinavian cop shows.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Interesting thoughts, although I don’t think Krister Henriksson bears a resemblance to Olof Palme.

    There are actually quite a few female Swedish crimewriters: Camilla Läckberg (Fjällbackamorden series), Anna Jansson (Maria Wern series), Helen Tursten (Irene Huss series), Åsa Larsson (Solstorm) whose books have also been turned into TV series or films.

    It will be interesting to see how actress Charlotta Johsson portrays Linda Wallander in the final six Wallander films including Den orolige mannen (The Troubled Man).

    Hmmm – this is not Krister Henriksson as Kurt Wallander. Unless I’m mistaken this is a scene from the Strindberg play Fadren?

    1. What is so ironic is that so few of the novels of the Nordic Crime wave are used in TV and film. The Bridge, the Killing, The Eagle and Unit One are reliant on all original screenplays. For the first time we have seen series such as The Killing and The Bridge focus a whole series on one or two related crimes, enabling the viewer to see the moral dimension of a crime and its impact on families and the wider community. Novelists since the inception of screen writing have suffered the consequence of selling the TV and film rights; truncated, unbalanced and mutilated storylines. Finally the fashion in UK TV drama is turning to the slow development of a plotline influenced by Scandinavian offerings,as witnessed by recent productions such as Broadchurch; yet they are not using books as the source material. CRAZY. The success of TV Scandi crime series, piggybacked on the global reception of Nordic Noir crime novels. Oh well, life is not fair as any post-modernist crime offering will tell you.

  2. All a bit schematic I think. So I don’t agree.

    Much as I’m dedicated to Scandinavian crime fiction the pitch here misses out a few other key authors that don’t perform to these rules.

    Karin Fossum and Hakan Nesser don’t fit at all, nor does Jo Nesbø. You also concertina the Wallander TV series as though it was one event, but in fact there are three: (1) the original novel adaptions; (2) the Linda Wallander episodes (written by many different script writers) and (3) the after-that mess. Similarly you cannot force Maj Sjowall’s and Per Wahloo’s work into this perspective at all. But they are the parents of the whole genre.
    I agree that the Wallander TV series that focuses on Linda Wallander is as you suggest in terms of children but it’s a long bow you pull thereafter. In the Linda Wallander TV episodes it is the young MALE cop is has been abused.
    Linda potentially survives and grows–at least on the television.
    For my money, Karin Fossum is the true master of the genre with the the most challenging perspective.Mankell –although he had a Maoist past — lamented the changes in Swedish society and began writing crime fiction in response to the refugee issue — no one has risen to the critique offered by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo — and their novels predate the Olof Palme murder.

    Similarly you totally skip the Danish TV crime series, Unit 1 because it doesn’t fit your argument directly–although it does indeed have a father theme.

    1. Sure there may be writers who don’t fit my proposals, but the thread I’m identifying can still hold true. Perhaps there’s something to be written on those writers who dissent from it, if they do. And if they do, I’d be more interested in their writing as dissent from the representations of men, women and children I;m identifying rather than taking the position that they are different therefore my argument is negated. There is enough repetition of the perspectives I’m suggesting across Scandinavian crime fiction to raise a lot of questions.
      Sallstrom’s portrayal of Linda just got more and more difficult to watch; a traumatised young woman, visibly deteriorating on camera playing a traumatised young woman. Linda seems to me to be the central character of the series and the weight the character carries, by design and by accident is substantial. The depiction of noir crosses into actuality, like the murder of the prime minister. These are the two significant events that I have trouble accommodating, and they need to be accommodated. Otherwise it’s just a meaningless argument about boring popular TV.
      It seems to me that Wahloo and Sjowall’s books can easily be read in the way I’m suggesting. I’m aware their work predates Palme. That was my point.
      I left out Unit 1 because I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen and read enough northern noir for the rest of my life.

  3. Raylan, since you mention him, has a thing about liberal values. He doesn’t like the concept of property ownership and has no liberal sense of self. That doesn’t make him a marxist. He’s just opposed to John Locke. Maybe Raylan’s a neo-con evolutionarily determined bachelor. Any aspects of this in Scan N?

  4. Of course Raylan is no neoliberal. He’s a good guy, of which there doesn’t appear to be (m)any on your account in Scan crime drama.

    1. Justified’ (which is a noir I think) is more interesting to me than than Scand-N. And I’d argue it shines an interesting light on class and racism in US, via poverty-stricken Harlan County. In series 2 Raylan even makes a speech in praise of fair pay and stuff. Anyway, ‘Justified’ is funny.
      Class in Scand-N is a predictable thing. The various books and series I’ve read and watched are often about the seedy side of the middle-classes and often focus on ‘issues’ – child abuse, neglectful parents, immigration – when in fact (my argument) what is unsaid but revealed in their narratives, is what needs to be explicated; bourgeois guilt and self-hatred, punishment of women and children and the angst of men, It’s bullshit and its boring.

  5. Seen the recent film The Hunt? It’s a menacing, mostly realistic Danish thriller about a town’s response to an allegation of child abuse.

    Rather than belonging to the literary strain your post discusses, I’d say it’s aware of it, and reflects the related preoccupation of Scandinavia with the welfare of children.

    Either way it’s an excellent film that provides a different angle on that recurring obsession from the big-selling noir novels.

    1. I haven’t seen it, but the few reviews I glanced at made me think it was more about a Scandinavian paranoia with children’s welfare.

        1. LOL! That makes sense. Speaking about child abuse is hardly ever just about the children.

          1. No, that’s right,it’s speaking about the entire western set-up of abuses, within the loss of the sacred, which centres around violence to children.

  6. I have never watched or read Northern Noir, and after reading this post, I too have had my lifetime’s worth.

    Whilst the themes of cruelty, violence, and using of humans for enjoyment is not new, as much as I am now pondering the genre’s focus on violent cruelty towards children in particular, I am wondering how these themes speak to its audience’s experiences of enjoyment and violence, as in, what is the story between the viewed and the viewer? If these northern noir are saying something about “bourgeois guilt and self-hatred, punishment of women and children and the angst of men”, what is the story of the huge popularity of these writings saying in relation to this? What is the dialogue between the inner states of characters and the inner states of audiences?

    1. Like, as much as the genre is speaking of the lurking unnameable within neoliberal democracy, what is the popularity speaking of without naming?

      Am I making any sense?

      1. It’s a very interesting question. I don’t want to speak to anyone else’s enjoyment, but it’s as if we look for something to speak of what is bothering us, that we can’t identify ourselves. And I think the whole area of gender relationships (especially the violence in them) and the effect on children, is largely about angsty men, tortured women, and a strange mix of lurid interest in child abuse and an ignorance of its real effects.
        The thing about Wallander that was uncanny and freaked me out was Johanna Sallstrom’s deterioration. It was only about 3/4 of the way thru the 2nd season that I finally woke up and thought ‘something is actually real-world wrong here.’

        1. I would like to think that everyone watching such material is seeking such insight, consciously or not…but I doubt it.

          I do think violent, abusive, cruel, and dark material such as this is probably more realistic than a rom-com though. Though, as you have previously pointed out, rom is up there on the violence and abuse behaviour too.

          I once did a research project where we were required to thoroughly understand the violent aspects of a particular political situation; it was through that process I learnt that it is only a matter of circumstances and minimal basic factors that distanced me from those who were behaving violently. Violence is a choice, and is expressed in infinite forms gross and subtle, direct and indirect, so the question is, for me, do what degree have my choices resulted in some kind of violence somewhere today? to what degree did they not?

          Violence is a possibility in a multitude of everyday choices, thanks to capitalism.

  7. A couple of points on a post I know little about. I received an email from English Pen on a roundtable discussion they are running on Dramatising Politics, looking specifically at the Danish television drama, Borgen, which seems to be something of a hit, and features a woman who becomes the first Danish PM. If you looked at it, I wonder if that fits in your schema? Also, and I was going to mention this before, but declined, Beowulf was set in almost the exact same spot as Wallender, and as conjecture still rages about what its monsters signify today – remembering there are three: Grendel, whom Beowulf kills; Grendel’s mother, whom he also kills; and the dragon, whom Beowulf fights, causing the death of them both – I wonder too if that has any relevance to the Danish violence foregrounded in the post?

    1. I didn’t realize that Ystad was Beowulf country. That’s interesting. Beowulf is concerned (as I recall) with monstrous children, the wages of sin, and monstrous women. Also there’s an absent father – Grendel’s.
      When i studied Beowulf at uni an aeon ago, I deem to remember a discussion about the dragon episode feeling like a bit of an add-on. It happens 50 years after the Grendel episode, and in my memory didn’t seem really connected to anything. It could have been a story on its own.
      I went and Wiki”d ‘Beowulf’ and there seems to be an argument that Grendel’s mother has had something of a bad press – that she’s not so much the housewife from Hell, but a warrior, just as Beowulf is a warrior.
      Anyway, i’m not going to get around to watching Borgen. I’ve had my fill of Scandinavian TV. I guess in my way of thinking in this post, there would be a female protagonist, some paternal figures who struggle with angst, and the slow moral or psychological deterioration of the said woman.

  8. What is so ironic is that so few of the novels of the Nordic Crime wave are used in TV and film. The Bridge, the Killing, The Eagle and Unit One are reliant on all original screenplays. For the first time we have seen series such as The Killing and The Bridge focus a whole series on one or two related crimes, enabling the viewer to see the moral dimension of a crime and its impact on families and the wider community. Novelists since the inception of screen writing have suffered the consequence of selling the TV and film rights; truncated, unbalanced and mutilated storylines. Finally the fashion in UK TV drama is turning to the slow development of a plotline influenced by Scandinavian offerings,as witnessed by recent productions such as Broadchurch; yet they are not using books as the source material. CRAZY. The success of TV Scandi crime series, piggybacked on the global reception of Nordic Noir crime novels. Oh well, life is not fair as any post-modernist crime offering will tell you.

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