The Philadelphia Inquirer  

Posted on Tue, Jun. 19, 2007

Killing's not the key to Swedish novelists

The aftermath of murder is what absorbs these writers.

By Peter Rozovsky, Inquirer Staff Writer

What do four of Sweden's most celebrated crime novelists share, other than international success, a fistful of prizes, and a hectic tour schedule?

"We are not interested in telling how to kill people," Kjell Eriksson says. Oh, characters die, all right - these are crime novels, after all - and often in especially gory ways.

The ex-convict whose killing sets in motion Håkan Nesser's The Return (Pantheon, $22.95) has been decapitated and dismembered. So has the male victim - or is the body female? - in Helene Tursten's The Torso (Soho, $13). Little John in Eriksson's The Princess of Burundi (St. Martin's, $12.95) gets off easy. His killer/torturer removes just a few fingers.

As painful as these killings may be, though, there is little voyeurism in them. The reader does not see them happen. Investigators may throw up at the scene, but the upchucking is never extravagant or cathartic. The police react, they clean up, and they emerge, shaken perhaps, but ready to go on with their jobs.

Swedish crime novels, more than most, are about the slow, rippling effect of a violent act on the minds, souls and social fabric of those they leave behind.

Nowhere is the rippling slower than in Inger Frimansson's Goodnight, My Darling (Caravel, $16), whose protagonist seeks revenge for wrongs done to her when she was a girl.

Frimansson, by her own account neither a bully nor a victim during her youth, recalls seeing a group of boys grind a girl's face into the snow. The girl's resulting asthma attack made a profound impression. "I remember how we stood there looking, clinically looking, and now we understood that this was asthma," she says.

Years later, after Frimansson started writing, "I felt that I had to use my fantasy to help Justine get her revenge. . . . I decided to send her out into the world so she could kill."

Reviewers invoke Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels when discussing Eriksson, but Eriksson takes the ensemble approach further. Killers, neighbors, workers, wives and lovers get their say, the shifts in point of view evoking a reader's sympathy for all but the very worst characters.

Early in The Princess of Burundi, a man with a criminal past is found murdered, likely tortured to death. "Little John is dead," the police chief tells investigators. "There are probably those of us who don't think that's much of a loss. . . . That would be a pity, however."

The sympathy is no accident. Like his characters, Eriksson is from the east side of Uppsala, away from the cultural attractions of that old Swedish university city, and he acknowledges his fellow feeling with those characters: "They are my neighbors."

Recently, though, Eriksson has taken a tentative step toward Uppsala's west side. He says an acquaintance asked him how he could live in a famous university town without writing about academic life. The Cruel Stars of the Night (St. Martin's, $23.95) features a professor of Italian Renaissance literature. "But," Eriksson says, "I kill him in the first chapter."

Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss is a hard-working, self-aware, observant and socially conscious woman who fills multiple roles: mother, wife, and lead investigator of brutal killings.

In The Glass Devil (Soho, $24), a young schoolteacher and then his parents are found shot dead, and the investigation takes Huss to England to interview a relative of the victims. The father was a pastor, and Huss interviews members of the parish circle who could have financial, professional or personal motives for the killings. The novel also includes a prominent red herring and a masterly piece of misdirection.

In outline, The Glass Devil may sound like a traditional English village mystery. In attitude, it is anything but. The crimes at the novel's heart are especially wrenching, and there is little sense that their resolution has set things right. A merry upshot of Huss' trip to England provides a pleasant conclusion, however.

Håkan Nesser's novels offer something unexpected from the land of clear, strong drink and pessimistic detectives: humor. Chapter II of The Return is a droll account of a chaotic school outing that would have been hell for its leader but is fun to read about. Borkmann's Point (Vintage, $12.95) includes an amusing solution to a married couple's difficulties in achieving intimacy in crowded quarters.

Concision is a watchword of Nesser's work. He shifts point of view frequently, saying just enough to add flavor, breaking off before veering into mawkishness and excessive psychologizing.

And he has fun with his settings, which have features of Sweden, the Netherlands and northern Germany. Names are close to Dutch, but spelled not quite the Dutch way, and his protagonist's surname, Van Veeteren, is an acknowledged tribute to the humorously philosophical Dutch crime writer Janwillem van de Wetering.

Nesser says The Return was inspired by a Swedish murder case in which a man spent 24 years in prison based on dubious evidence. This sympathy for a possibly wronged man may be Nesser's closest temperamental link with his three compatriots.

Frimansson, for one, acknowledges the connection. "I think we all have that sympathy," she says. ________________________________________ Peter Rozovsky is an Inquirer copy editor. He blogs about international crime fiction at