Death for Export

 

Hollywood fights over the latest manuscripts, Martin Scorsese wants to film them, and James Ellroy sings their praises. “Nordic Noir” has become a million dollar business that defines Sweden as much as Ikea and H&M. How did our authors and their agents become hottest on the global crime scene?

 

After a couple of unusually intense days at the London Book Fair, Jonas Axelsson was standing at a cocktail party feeling giddy. This feeling wasn’t due to the drinks but to a number of overwhelming days. He felt a tap on his shoulder and yet another person expressed their interest in Hypnotisören, the year’s hottest book: yet another unreleased thriller by Lars Kepler, a Swedish pseudonym.

The woman explained that she worked in the film industry, and gave the name of her production company – Heyday Films. Jonas Axelsson looked puzzled.

“You’ve maybe heard of Harry Potter?” she asked.

Later, when Jonas Axelsson met a publishing colleague in the crowd, he told them what had happened.

“Yes. Brad Pitt and George Clooney’s company were just asking too”, they replied.

Jonas Axelsson had never seen anything like it. Already, before the book fair started on April 20th 2009, the publisher had been contacted by the entire world. By then it had been about a month since the manuscript of Hypnotisören landed on his desk at 56 Sveavägen, Stockholm, after one of the publisher’s literary agents had had it sent to them by an unknown but cocky author. The covering letter was almost too much; whoever had written it clearly wasn’t embarrassed by their own brilliance. But for once the manuscript was thought to be as good as was claimed.

“Sometimes that sort of thing’s off-putting”, says Jonas Axelsson today. “But it was clear that this person knew the genre. Moreover, the tempo was very good, and the narrative in the historic present made me suspect someone literary as the author, because it brings with it narrative related problems – or challenges – depending on how you look at it. In addition, it distinguished itself from the others by not having the detective, Joona Linna, at the centre”.

Axelsson planned a focus group, and on friday the same week gave 15 people the task of reading the book for the following monday.

“I’m ruining your weekend”, I told them, but everyone read it and gave it the thumbs up.

Jonas Axelsson himself began unravelling the mystery of the author’s identity. He thought he recognised certain wordings in the letter, and began to go through his old mail. Sure enough, some of them were reminiscent of author Alexander Ahndoril, whom he himself published. It turned out he was half right; the co-author was Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril.

80 pages were quickly translated into English and sent out with the entire manuscript in Swedish. For a few days in the English capital, Albert Bonnier’s Publishers was one of the most courted in the book world. And when Jonas Axelsson returned to Stockholm from London, the impoverished Ahndoril couple could prepare themselves for their new life as multi-millionaires – several months before the book even became available.

The interest in Hypnotisören illustrates more than any other book the marvel of what has been called the phenomenon of the Swedish or Nordic crime novel. After Henning Mankell joined crime literature’s absolute elite during the 1990s and 2000s, and after the Stieg Larsson phenomenon, the world market cried out for more Nordic crime writers. And in this instance, the publishers outbid each other for a still unreleased book. If it had previously been possible to sell an author’s work on reviews from, and success in, their own country, it was now done on just 80 pages in English and the opinion of a bunch of well qualified literary scouts (with a knowledge of Swedish). Nobody knew how the book would actually be put on the market.

The Hypnotisören affair was controversial. In Swedish daily Aftonbladet, author Jan Guillou was hard on the literary editor, who he suggested had unsuspectingly got large, international companies to pay for a pig in a poke. “The problem, of course, is that the trick can’t be repeated indefinitely. This is little comfort. Compared with how nice it would’ve been to see that swindling Axelsson from Bonniers put behind bars.”

Three years later, Lars Kepler was no longer a one off. Jan Wallentin received an even larger amount for Strindbergs Stjärna and Guillou’s own literary agent, Niclas Salomonsson, sold Alexander Söderberg’s thriller Den andalusiske vännen into 33 languages before the book was even released in Swedish book shops in the late spring. And we haven’t even mentioned Hollywood yet. Danish Brottet has been popular on the BBC, and in the US a remake of the serial was made (with Joel Kinnaman in one of the supporting roles). Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s Snömannen is to be directed by Martin Scorsese. Our very own Leif GW Persson has recently sold the TV rights for his unforgettable Evert Bäckström to Fox, and now the film version of the already mentioned Hypnotisören has its premier.

The Swedish crime novel has been pronounced dead for several years. But obviously it’s still twitching.

The mystery of its success can be summed in a single word: why? Much points to the answer lying in an echo from the past.

Jan Guillou had invited acquaintances to show them round a newly-built house at his country place – the result of the success of his Hamilton and Arn books. He turned to a woman in the group.

“If you and Pelle had taken care of your finances, you’d have been as rich as I am”, said the author and journalist.

The woman was called Maj Sjöwall. She lives in a one room flat in Stockholm’s Södermalm and, until a few years ago, she could only dream of even owning a summer house, despite being a part of and creating the template that the Swedish crime novel grew out of.

Jan Guillou has spoken of how he ploughed through her and her life partner Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck books when serving his sentence for the IB affair; they gave him the idea for the Hamilton books. The same thing happened with Leif GW Persson. When he was out in the cold after being exposed as Dagens Nyheter journalist Peter Bratt’s source in the Geijer affair, he was inspired by the Beck series to write the trilogy GrisfestenSamhällsbärarna, and Profitörerna (the first later filmed as Mannen från Mallorca).

But despite the fact that Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s books have been sold across the world, despite the fact that Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle was turned into Bo Widerberg’s film classic Mannen på taket, and despite the fact that 38 Beck films have been made, Maj Sjöwall has never even had the means to own a little summer cottage or a car. When Per Wahlöö died in 1975, she stopped writing, and the publishing contracts and translation agreements of the time weren’t as lucrative as today.

“The old Eastern Bloc, for example, couldn’t pay anything at all because they were so poor”, she says. “But it was good fun to be published in Poland! And when an Icelandic company wanted to print the Beck series, they could only offer a thousand krona. Then I asked if they could take me to Iceland instead, and that was great. After Pelle’s death, and while the books were half forgotten for a while, I lived by doing translations and other small things. Then I was damn glad for the royalties or a new edition in Denmark. Although I’ve actually been able to avoid being employed somewhere since the 60s, and that’s a kind of wealth.”

She’s sitting at a rustic, local restaurant on Bondegatan, where the best window table is permanently reserved for Maj Sjöwall. She turns up here every afternoon and spends a few hours “before it gets too rowdy”, together with some other famous cultural workers. It’s like a little youth centre, and sure enough her mate Michael Segerström turns up and sits down a short distance away.

Today things are better for Maj Sjöwall. For the last five years she’s had a new literary agent who’s re-released her books internationally and negotiated new publishing deals. Because even if she’s not rich, her books do have high status, even abroad.

But what was it that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö actually achieved between 1965 and 1975?

When they began writing Roseanna during the first half of the 1960s, the Swedish thriller was “bourgeois”. Maj had certainly read Stieg Trenter, but mostly for the depictions of Stockholm. His books were too “bourgeois”. However, both Per Wahlöö and her were crazy about Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Georges Simenon. Just like the Ahndorils, they handed in their first manuscript with a certain secretiveness; Per Wahlöö was already an established author, and claimed that it was a friend who’d written the book when passing it to Lasse Bergström at Norstedts publishers. But, as with Keppler, they couldn’t fool a professional reader.

“Lasse liked the book, but he said that it looked like Pelle’s friend had been very influenced by him”, says Maj Sjöwall.

The couple’s idea was to write realistically about police work, following developments for exactly a decade. There were already initial plans to write a book a year. The aim was not just to write exciting stories; they also wanted to address “social democracy’s betrayal of the working class since the Second World War”. The intention was to describe a society moving towards “an almost totalitarian capitalist society”.

“That was our idea. In the form of entertainment”, she says.

Per Wahlöö had got to know a policeman while reporting for Vecko-Revyn, and he came to give valuable insights – not just into the daily work but also into the complicated reorganisation that the police, typically enough, went through just after the couples first book was accepted by Norstedts. Activity was centralised, police stations were shut down, new titles and pay grades where brought in; these were, of course, aggravating circumstances for both authors.

Almost 50 years after the first novel in the series came out, it’s clear that this political slant has been important throughout Scandinavia. Many of the biggest Swedish thriller writers are or have been socialists, although of course you don’t need to sympathise with them politically to be drawn into their world. What made Sjöwall/Wahlöö so popular was their detailed descriptions and social realism. In their desire to illuminate injustices and depict a society, they created unforgettable characters – just by making them incredibly normal and typical of their time. Reading the Beck novels wasn’t just thrilling entertainment, it was also a peek into your neighbours’ home. A brusque character like Gunvald Larsson was born because, among other things, the couple found it depressing writing about their protagonist; the case could be as spectacular as you like but Martin Beck still had a very, very boring marriage.

“We thought, of course, that police are people too and that a man in Beck’s position was forced to put his job first because of his responsibility and unsociable working hours. With Simenon’s Commissioner Maigret, you got to accompany him to restaurants and when he was eating wonderful food, but Chandler and Hammett mostly wrote pure detective stories. The private detectives’ lives weren’t so involved in the action, so it was probably also quite new to the genre that we wanted to create more fully-formed portraits for our characters. It was received positively and negatively. Some felt that this kind of thing shouldn’t be brought into the crime novel, it was simply unnecessary. They probably thought that the criminal mystery was everything, I don’t know. Anyway, we received that criticism from some quarters. Now when I read Swedish crime novels I most often think that half the books are about picking up the kids from nursery. Maybe we didn’t create a monster, but a template”.

In 1997, author Sören Bondeson made his first attempt to set up a course on how to write “criminal novels and thrillers”. He got the idea after he’d written a couple of overlooked books in the genre, at the same time as noticing something that might be the beginning of a new movement. In 1991 Mördare utan ansikte was released, the first in the series on opera-loving Detective Chief Inspector Kurt Wallander, In 1993 came Kerstin Ekman’s Händelser vid vatten, and the following year Håkan Nesser came up with Borkmanns punkt where he launched Inspector Van Veeteren. They were followed by Åke Edwardson who, after a book about an opera-loving detective, switched to Erik Winter (a younger detective, but with culturally conservative tastes intact).

Kerstin Ekman’s epic murders in the north of Sweden, which would most likely be placed in the country noir bracket today, were awarded with the August Prize, the Nordic Council Literature Prize, and the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for book of the year. The others didn’t get this kind of backing but these three men had a lot in common. Their protagonists were somewhat unsuccessful people who went around pondering on society’s progress. In addition, the books began to sell in very large numbers.

Even so, only three people applied to Sören Bondeson’s first course, which was put on ice due to lack of interest.

The next year he tried again because, in any case, he’d already decided what the lessons would be about. Then the interest was something else. Because in 1998 a book came out that, more than any other, updated Beck’s life-puzzle problems for modern times: Sprängaren by Liza Marklund. The main character wasn’t a melancholic man, but was called Annika Bengtzon, was a journalist on an evening paper (just like Marklund herself), and tried to find time for her husband, children, and exciting cases. Just like Sjöwall/Wahlöö, Marklund put in diverse contemporary problems and even described the workplace intimately. The reader was taken into the special, hard-boiled editorial environment, which in itself attracted interest. Sprängaren became a Eurovison heat; a subject for the entire Swedish population. At least, that’s how it seemed.

“When I started the course, publishers were throwing themselves at crime novel manuscripts”, says Soren Bondeson.
What he taught (and teaches) was, amongst other things; basic dramaturgy, choice of perspective, and planning.
During the first two years, the course was attended by Tove Klackenberg (Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy debut prize, 2002) and Åsa Larsson (Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy debut prize, 2003), among others. Mari Jungstedt and Camilla Läckberg made their debut the same year as Åsa Larsson. Two years later, a book came out called Män som hatar kvinnor by an already-deceased writer named Stieg Larsson. In 2006, Snabba cash by another of Sören’s students, a lawyer by the name of Jens Lapidus, was published.

Afterwards, Sören Bondeson could see a clear pattern. Not just with his own pupils, but with all the books that enjoyed success.

“You know, Beck had a really boring marriage. Kurt was divorced and a real sexist pig. It’s an important component that the heroes aren’t too good. They can and should be capable police but as people they should be pretty unsuccessful. Salander is completely crazy and Blomkvist is no paragon either. But even the place itself is meaningful. Just take Åsa Larsson’s Kiruna. It’s a special place, even for a Swede. Kiruna is a settler community with mines and mountains where you can’t even grow potatoes, the winters are black and summer just consists of mosquitoes. The environment itself is interesting. In Germany, it seems that a little, Swedish, summer-house is enough to give them a collective hard-on.”

Now he gives courses via Ordfront, the team that put out his course book Konsten att döda last year, but also on his own. A couple of nights a week, he gathers students in the white-painted cellar-vault which at other times accommodates the Institute for Grief (and yes, he sees the slight comedy in this). It’s on Tegnérgatan in central Stockholm, and the institute, appropriately enough, is run by a former bank robber (who’s now writing a book). Almost 15 years after the first failed attempt to launch the course, there’s definitely no problem filling the classes. Many still feel the urge.

Sören Bondesson’s explanation for the international successes is that it’s mostly PR and marketing.

“Whoever came up with the concept of Nordic crime did everyone a big favour. It became like a brand, not so unlike Ikea: neatly stylish, functional, but not especially original. Most people put themselves in the middle of the road, and it works. Swedes are on the whole good at middle-of-the-road. A little capitalism, a little socialism. It’s in our genes. And Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, and Camilla Läckberg have simple language that’s easy to translate. I suspect that it may even be better in translation.”

On the second floor, above the bustling exhibition level, is the agent centre. Gothenburg Book Fair isn’t just the popular publicity stunt it can easily appear as to the visiting public. Although the fairs in Frankfurt and London are more important, numerous agreements are made in Gothenburg. But agent Niclas Salomonsson nearly forgot what he was doing when the call came, soon followed by the ping signalling a new phone message. This time it was a PDF of a contract.

The signature was director Martin Scorsese’s.

Inside, Niclas Salomonsson swore for joy, ”Shit! Jesus!” But he had to hold his poker face. Much could still go wrong – the news could under no circumstances slip out.
The impossible deal had gone through: Norwegian Jo Nesbø’s hopeless terms for the filming of his thrillers about Harry Hole had been accepted.

The author had given Niclas Salomonsson a list of four directors.

“For God’s sake, this is unworkable. Can’t we stretch it a little?” he asked, and wrote a long wish-list with long explanations of why these directors should be given a chance.

Jo Nesbø didn’t accept it. His four names stood. Top of the list was Scorsese, and now the contract was signed. The director would really make Snömannen.

“Of course, it was a dream for me too”, says Niclas Salomonsson, firmly ensconced in a generous armchair in the apartment at Mosebacke where the Salomonsson Agency has its offices.
The office’s spacious rooms are wrapped in so much red velvet that you sense they must have used the entire proceeds of a Nesbø book.
Niclas Salomonsson is regarded in some quarters as the Swedish book industry’s Gordon Gekko equivalent: a smooth operator – an opportunist! – who, without conscience, flogs clunky Swedish thrillers to unsuspecting large, foreign publishers (for the kind of sums usually called ”astronomical”, of course). What Guillou said about Jonas Axelsson, he could just as easily have said about Niclas Salomonsson, if it were not for the little snag that Guillou himself is represented by the Salomonsson agency.

Before he started the agency with his brother Marcus twelve years ago, Niclas Salomonsson had been behind the counter of a video store for half a decade. But he made an attempt to sell the rights to then-girlfriend Unni Drougge’s books, and showed himself to clearly have talent. Today his clients consist of names like Liza Marklund, Jo Nesbø, Jan Guillou, Leif GW Persson, Kristina Ohlsson, Arne Dahl, Jens Lapidus, Anne Holt, Anders de la Motte, Roslund & Hellström, and Sjöwall/Wahlöö. And I’m only mentioning the best known or most contemporary thriller writers (the agency also has, for the sake of clarity, names like Klas Ostergren, Hannes Råstam, and Sofi Oksanen in their stable).

Although 2000 doesn’t feel like a particularly long time ago, the profession of literary agent was then only ten years old in Sweden. Exactly a decade earlier, author Marianne Fredriksson had begun cooperating with Bengt Nordin, who quickly linked himself to several of the country’s big names. Today he’s retired, but the Nordin Agency carries on (and looks after Camilla Läckberg among others). Until then the Swedish book industry was entirely weighted towards publishers. In many cases they didn’t value foreign sales. But Bengt Nordin quickly showed that successful Swedish authors could become successful international authors. If you’re going to understand the phenomenon of the Swedish crime novel, you can’t overlook the role that literary agents have played.

It was Anneli Høier at Leonhardt & Høier that gave Henning Mankell his big breakthrough. Anneli Høier says that it was hard going. It was only when the books came out with a prestigious German publishing house and got new, more serious covers that the interest began. And German interest created a domino effect. Soon respected publishers in other countries were getting in touch and, around the turn of the century, the big breakthrough came.
“Today, we estimate that he’s sold 40 million copies but it is impossible to give an exact number of books because they’re always being reprinted. The entire Wallander series just came out again in the United States and Great Britain with beautiful new covers”, says Anneli Høier.

Mankell’s success showed what was possible. Niclas Salomonsson quickly became an effective competitor to Anneli Høier as well as other operators in the market, especially after the turmoil that followed Bengt Nordin selling his agency in 2007.
This morning Niclas Salomonsson reveals that they’ve just sold the rights for Anne Holt’s books to a major Hollywood company. He’s there several times a year these days. Then he usually has 40 to 50 meetings booked.
“We have a fantastic agent there who we work together with. Thanks to her, people like film producer Jerry Bruckheimer have heard of us. But I’ve been there as a nobody too, and it’s vastly different. It’s cool to meet people with an attention span of fifteen seconds. Then it’s about having some good hooks to work with. What I like about negotiating with Hollywood types is that they appreciate it when you let it all hang out. I get to channel the American in me, and honestly, it’s quite wonderful. People don’t hear what you’re saying as boasting and conceit, but as showing the enthusiasm you feel and can bring out. At home I often feel that I have to hold back a touch so as not to appear half mad.”
Judging by Niclas Salomonsson’s future projects the Swedish thriller phenomenon is far from dead. It is the Salomonsson Agency that’s behind Fox making a TV series of Leif GW Persson’s books on Evert Bäckström. It has negotiated a so-called pilot agreement, which means that the TV company must invest at least enough to make a pilot – otherwise there’s a penalty and the rights revert to the agency. The project is strong stuff. Bäckström is racist and sexist, but the project is also pointless if the human waste is toned down.

“We’ve compared it to the TV series House. But Backström pushes it a little bit further, and it’s because Fox is willing to offend people. But people like James Gandolfini and Michael Chiklis have been talked about for the lead roles, so it could be magical.”

The Salomonsson Agency has also taken an interesting step with Alexander Söderberg’s Den andalusiske vännen with came out in the spring. It is the first part of a trilogy that has been sold in 33 languages, and Hollywood has already bought the film rights.
The author submitted a manuscript of 900 pages, and agent Leyla Belle Drake spent half a year editing it with Alexander Söderberg. Before it even came out in Sweden, the Salomonsson Agency had sold it in 34 languages as well as to Hollywood.
“But it’s not magic”, says Niclas Salomonsson, “We have a well worked-out method. We know which order the countries must be taken in and we know which factors have got to be timed – but the key to why it’s gone so well is that we work with very, very good writers. What makes our crime writers so popular is their expert craftsmanship. They can create the drive, tension and characters to raise them to what the industry calls ‘elevated crime’. They’re crime novels and thrillers, but with an originality that makes them literature. I think the crime novel phenomenon could have got even bigger a long time ago but that Swedish publishers are generally too easily pleased. Sure, they sell foreign rights but they don’t work as agents in the same way we do. Sometimes I take over an author who’s been neglected by the publisher’s agents after a few years of half-hearted attempts to get them to succeed internationally. Our writers are our top priority; it’s them we stand or fall with. It’s great that Jonas Axelsson and the Bonnier Group Agency succeeded with Kepler and Wallentin but, what is it they say? Even a blind hen finds a grain of corn. A phenomenon is never as much of a phenomenon as when it makes it big in the US. Successes there tends to fascinate a great deal more than number-ones in countries like Germany, Italy, and Spain (where it seems easier to just blame high sales figures on geography), not least because it means an increased interest from the film industry. David Fincher’s Stieg Larsson film is, of course, the main example but the new filming Danish TV series Brottet has also worked extremely well.”

Hollywood agent Sylvie Rabineau (RWSG) works closely with the Salomonsson Agency. She’s the one who negotiated with Working Title for the Scorcese film version of Snömannen and helped to sell Arne Dahl and Leif GW Persson to US TV companies. Her theory is that the film companies are constantly looking for good stories, and that Swedes and other Scandinavians are very good at this.

“The quality and the characters are important factors, you’re quickly longing for the next book in the series, to follow the main characters and find out what happens to them. It’s certainly true that Stieg Larsson opened the door for all the others, but Jo Nesbø was selling well previously, Mankell likewise, and if these writers continue to deliver equally powerful stories, they’ll continue to be successful.”
Sylvie Rabineau points out that, in the case of film and TV productions, the so-called phenomenon is just beginning in the US. The Leif GW Persson series waits a little in the future, just so Arne Dahl, and Snömannen has not even started. Once they arrive, she’s certain that it’s going to be win-win for all parties. The impact won’t be minimal.

When Mons Kallentoft enters Café Ritorno beside Vasa Park in Stockholm, he’s just returned from the US. There he met ”pleasant, small-boned, well-read American publishers – a special breed. It was hard to hide being a farm boy from the country”.

He gave the impression of being late on the ball when he released his first book about Linköping policewoman, Malin Fors, five years ago. He’d already written an award winning collection of essays on food and three acclaimed novels which, especially the latest: Fräsch, frisk och spontan, had a big media impact. He contributed to most of the dailies, had consistently good reviews, and was praised by Magnus Utvik on SVT’s morning program. This resulted in nearly 15 000 copies sold (today he’s repressed the total number). At the same time his first child arrived and he realized that he didn’t have enough time. He worked as a copywriter and journalist but was burning to write – which wasn’t so easy to manage during days which consisted of client meetings, editorial lunches, and nursery collections. Something had to give. So he followed his agent Bengt Nordin’s advice and started writing a detective novel.

Mons Kallentoft is interesting because he doesn’t duck his materialistic economic self-interest. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he’d wanted to live from his writing, there would perhaps never have been any books about Malin Fors. And after sounding out the terrain of the industry, he identified various devices that seemed to work. The books therefore contain plenty of close descriptions of his childhood town of Linköping, a female protagonist who has alcohol problems, a teenage daughter, a complicated life puzzle, and, of course, conflict in the workplace. Mons Kallentoft’s USP (”unique selling point”) is that the dead speak, like the chorus in a Greek drama, and that he – unlike many of his competitors – really cares about language.

“The first edition of Midvinterblod sold out in two days. That was of 5 000 copies. After the summer they’d sold 10 000-12 000 in hardback. Then I got a contract for a book and an advance which covered six or seven months of writing. After that Pocketförlaget did a campaign with the book and it went to 150 000 copies in three, four months. But it took a year and a half to get a good publisher in the UK after I’d rejected the first offer. With hindsight, I did the right thing. The publisher I’m with now has One Day and successful books like that. Midvinterblod was made campaign book at WHSmith and sold 125 000 copies which would not have happened without their ultra-professional machinery.”

Today he has no problem making ends meet. His books are available in 24 languages and in the autumn Vattenänglar comes out, the start of a whole new quartet on Malin Fors, based around the four elements.
Success story follows success story. You have to begin to wonder how long the Swedish concept will hold. Mons Kallentoft doesn’t think anything threatens the genre’s success. Not for a while yet.
“Readers tend to tire later than publishers and critics. That’s what I’ve learnt. But people also want to have classic stories. It’s a pattern passed on through the generations, almost since cave paintings. Readers want good stories with flow, nothing that’s torture to get through. Most crime novels are built around a formula and this can be applied to other genres. Take Dennis Lehane. He can go from a book on the police to a historical novel about Boston. But it still follows the same clear, classic dramaturgy as his thrillers.”
Sören Bondeson essentially agrees but still wishes for a kind of revitalising – for someone to just dare to really break away from the prevailing pattern or at least to renew the genre on home turf. He just wonders if we really want it enough and if we dare to.

“We Swedes haven’t had an outstanding philosopher since Axel Hägerström, who was a nihilist with a fair reputation. We’ve no great thinkers and actually not many inventors. Karl Marx didn’t come from Sweden. People like Christopher Polhem and Carl Linnaeus were more systematists than anything else. However, we are very good at imitating what comes in and refining the concept. This time, an entire generation has been dedicated to trying to refine Sjöwall/Wahlöö, but I think something new needs to happen. The publishers mustn’t be allowed to draw themselves into this security and hold on to the old for ever. It’s about bringing in new things that are happening, to signal that they are prepared to invest in other genres than this one. They mustn’t stand still, you can’t release the same car model a hundred times and think that things will work themselves out. Publishers need to sneak in other models to keep this success going. And that requires courage. It’s about finding new protagonists and new crimes. Not every book needs to start with a man finding a woman lying in the reeds.”

It seems that it’s already happening.

Niclas Salomonsson is hoping for more hybrids and wild blendings of genres.

“Personally I’d really like to see suspense novels with supernatural elements, or horror, erotic, or science fiction. Now the market’s flooded with suspense novels, it requires originality and a really good execution”.
Jonas Axelsson says that Bonniers have already sold such a book in several countries. It’s called Stalloand is written by literary critic Stefan Spjut.
It’s a thriller about trolls.

    Text Klas Ekman
    Foto Oscar Falk
    JENS LAPIDUS

    USP (Unique Selling Point): Lawyer who writes insightfully from the criminal’s point of view.

    Hero: Wannabe-yuppie JW can hardly be called a hero, but is played by Joel Kinnaman in the film version of Snabba cash.
    Successes: Translated into 32 languages. Snabba cash has been filmed and recommended by Martin Scorsese in conjunction with its US release.

    How do you get a back-cover quote from James Ellroy?
    “We met in Helsinki where I was going to interview him at the Academic Bookstore. I was terrified, he’d driven out dozens of journalists and chewed others out to the edge of tears. I heard from my Finnish publishing contacts that he’d said that he was going to ‘eat me alive’. But after five minutes, we were getting on with each other, he noticed that I kept a close eye on his books, and we could have a well-informed conversation.
    “Later, I sent the English translation of Snabba cash to him and he loved it. I don’t think any other Scandinavian writer has ever been to Ellroy’s taste. His recommendation gives American readers the right signals.”
    Your books can almost be read as work-place reportage but about criminals. How important has this factor been for readers?
    “I don’t know. But for me it’s important that the books are experienced as credible and contemporary. That said, you have to remember my books are fiction. A few people still seem to think that what I write is documentary, and the single most common question I get from journalists is: ‘Have you ever been threatened?’ The answer is no.”
    You differ a lot from your colleagues, are you harder to market abroad?
    “I think both yes and no. Many foreign readers expect something more traditional when it comes from Sweden. On the other hand, I stand out from the crowd.”
    Which Swedish thriller writers do you like?
    “I like Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström and Leif GW Persson. They know what’s going on and what they’re talking about. They can also write.”
    What have Sjöwall/Wahlöö meant to you?
    “I wasn’t even born when Roman om ett brott came out, and the first contact I had with Sjöwall/Wahlöö was the film Mannen på taket which as a book was called Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle. A few years ago I was asked to write the book’s foreword for the American edition. It was still completely amazing and felt as radical as when I read it the first time around 20 years ago. They emphasize social issues without them feeling tacked on.”

    MAY SJÖWALL

    USP: Started the Swedish detective-fiction phenomenon with Per Wahlöö in 1965.

    Hero: Martin Beck.

    Successes: Translated into 30 languages. Six independent films based on the books, including Bo Widerberg’s Mannen på taketand the American The Laughing Policemanfrom 1973. Gösta Ekman played Martin Beck in six films, with the first coming out in 1993, and since then there have been another 26 films with Peter Haber in the lead role.

    You were very clear about your left-wing sympathies. Did it affect your reception?
    “Yes, I think so. But it wasn’t just the left who read the books; other people thought that the comments were unnecessary but the stories were exciting. But our biggest audience was among our peers, in other words those who already thought like us.”
    Were people skeptical of the genre at the time?
    “Reading detective fiction was not something you talked about doing, at least not academics and left-wingers. But many readers discovered that we shared views and opinions with them and that opened the doors to giving that kind of literature a little higher status. Also linked with the success of our books was the founding of the Swedish Crime Academy in 1972 to raise the quality of detective fiction and even criticism. Because detective fiction is literature and should be treated with some respect.”
    Jan Guillou, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson . . . Why do the old socialists become such successful suspense writers?
    “Are they so far to the left? I don’t know . . . But I was at a film festival with a lot of crime writers in Paris, where I got to know detective writer Fred Vargas. She introduced me to a lot of her colleagues, and all looked like they’d stepped straight out of the ’60s. They had big beards, they were clumsy, rough, and had baggy khaki trousers. I asked if they were all socialists. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘All but one!’”
    Why are Swedish detective novels so popular abroad?
    “To take one example, is German crime fiction nothing like Swedish? They don’t have the same social perspective, as I understand it, and perhaps that’s why the Swedes are popular there. Our society and the German one are quite similar and have had a similar development. But Sweden is also strangely exotic for them – they still think we bathe naked and eat pine cones.”

    CHRISTINA OHLSSON

    USP: Writes about a civil investigator in the police force.

    Hero: Fredrika Bergman.

    Successes: Has been sold to 25 countries and the first three books are to be made into films.

    You were previously security policy analyst at SAPO. When did you decide to stop doing that and focus entirely on writing?
    “Hard to say, but I stopped on January 4th this year. It was very carefully thought through. Purely economically, it’s paid its way from the start, my debut was quickly sold abroad – but I had such an interesting job and was afraid to burn bridges in case I wanted to go back. But I don’t think that’s the case.”
    What did you feel your original angle was when you started writing?
    “When I started writing, I knew I wanted to portray a civil investigator, because not everyone knows that they exist. But there are actually civil investigators employed in the police force. And then of course details sneaked in from my own life, about being lost in a career, but not knowing what to do instead.”
    What is your relationship with Sjöwall/Wahlöö?
    “Embarrassingly enough, I’ve never read them, but I have learned lots from Dennis Lehane and Stephen King. So my books can be quite violent, with axes and things. I’ve always liked the nasty stuff.”
    How has the image of Sweden been affected by the crime fiction phenomenon?
    “If I’m reading a thriller, I don’t expect it to reflect reality, but many international Stieg Larsson readers seem to think that Sweden is full of terrible and strange people.”
    What’s the most bizarre thing that’s happened to you in writing career?
    “Suddenly being number one in Taiwan? Otherwise it was when I was doing book-signings in Spain and doing lots of interviews, and because of my book Askungar, I got a tremendous number of questions about the Madeleine McCann case. When I wrote the book, I wasn’t thinking about that case at all, and in the end I got tired of it and blurted out that it was obvious that the parents had done it. Which perhaps wasn’t so smart as the journalist came from Spain’s second biggest newspaper.”
    You’re in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy. Do you meet at Den Gyldene Freden like the Swedish Academy does?
    “Unfortunately not. Or thankfully not, because in that case I wouldn’t have time. We meet twice a year when we give out the prizes for best Swedish and foreign crime novel, and sometimes also a debut prize.”

    MARI JUNGSTEDT

    USP: The books take place on Gotland and are often connected with childhood and growing up.

    Hero: Detective Anders Knutas and TV journalist Johan Berg.

    Successes: Translated into more than 15 languages. Her books have also become a German television series.

    Which came first – the plot or Gotland?
    “The plot. Gotland is a playground, even though I love the island. I’ll never forget when my family went there and, as a nine-year-old, I got to experience my first sandy beach. And the first morning at journalist college in Sundsvall, I heard a guy talking with a lovely Gotland dialect, and he’s been my husband for 22 years. So I’ve been on the island a lot.”
    You were a successful presenter, why did you become a writer?
    “I’d dreamed of writing all my life, but as a journalist I slipped into radio and television. And I had children and bought a house, and the writing dream was put off. But at the turn of the millennium, I began to think of a detective novel, even if what I wanted to describe was about children’s vulnerability and how childhood affects us. I was bullied myself, and that subject was an important part of the book, even if, of course, it could be read as an exciting detective story.”
    When were you able to change your job?
    “I wrote my two books at the same time as working full time at ABC news. It was tough with young children. But when I wrote Den inre kretsen, I took leave, and then Jonas Axelsson at Bonnier’s said that I should choose between careers. I was going to pick writing if there was a film, if I came up with a new story, and if the books were sold to more countries. And all that happened.”
    How quickly did you notice that the books also worked internationally?
    “It was an auction early on when the big publishers in Germany were outbidding each other. It was absolutely incredible, because I wasn’t thinking on those lines when I sat and wrote.”
    You debuted the same year as Åsa Larsson and Camilla Läckberg . . .
    “ . . . but Karin Alvtegen, Inger Frimansson and Liza Marklund came out about five years earlier. Sure, it’s remarkable that Åsa, Camilla, and I came along at the same time, because I assumed people would already have got tired of it. But I think that the women brought in relationships and everyday realism, so the books could be read as more than just exciting stories.”
    Have you received a medal from the Gotland tourist board?
    “I’m waiting. It should be on its way, but maybe they haven’t the faintest idea how many have read the books.”

    MONS KALLENTOFT

    USP: The dead speak.

    Hero: Detective Inspector Malin Fors.

    Successes: Translated into 24 languages. His debut novel, Pesetas, which wasn’t a crime novel, won the Catapult Prize in 2001.
    What do you think lies behind the Swedish crime novel phenomenon?
    “Sjöwall/Wahlöö brought the private and down to earth, their books were anchored in society and that’s reappeared. And people like Ahndorils and Håkan Nesser know the craft. They can tell stories. The fact that they’ve chosen crime fiction is probably partly because you have to think commercially to support yourself as a writer in our language area.”

    So how were you thinking?
    “I made a materialistic analysis, like a bag maker that uses good leather but does its plastic handles in a nice colour to differentiate itself from its competitors. My assessment was that there was room for a little magic in among all the everyday descriptions. So the dead got voices. My former publisher, Nina Wadensjö, didn’t like that device. But I stood by it.”
    Many readers identify with your protagonist, Malin Fors, especially abroad. How do you explain it?
    “This thing with having a constant bad conscience is a human dilemma. You want to cook, but today there ended up being a frozen pizza too. In Poland I have many female readers, and they say Malin is fantastic and that ‘You must know me better than my husband’. Same thing in Italy where readers like her independence in a male environment.”
    You’re open about being very calculating with your career. Aren’t people irritated by it?
    “The majority are normal readers and 99 percent of them probably don’t have a romanticized image of the author. I think almost everyone has some understanding that you need to pay bills and support your family.”
    What’s the most absurd situation you’ve ended up in since the success of the Malin Fors books?
    “I remember my first participation in Polish morning TV. I was hungover and I had lumbago. Then it turned out that the other guest was R2D2. So I sat there beside a beeping robot and his translator. I found it difficult being in that situation. Afterwards the publisher was surly. ‘You didn’t even smile once,’ he said.”