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.