Following in the Footsteps of Swedish Novelists

By Bo Zaunders

In Swedish fiction, local color and a strong sense of place have long been an integral part of the equation. In the mystery genre, it began with Stieg Trenter, who in the 1950s, excelled in vivid, sensuous descriptions of classic Stockholm locations. The only present my father ever wanted for Christmas was the “latest Trenter.” These mysteries became my introduction to the Swedish capital. At age twelve, long before ever setting foot in Stockholm, I was familiar with many of the streets, and knew about Gamla Stan, Slussen, Djurgården, and other Stockholm sights - all enlivened by crime and intrigue.

Things have changed, take a look at our video presentation of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series heroine: Lisbeth Salander - Trendsetter? or visiting crime writer Camilla Läckberg in New York

In the mid-60s, the husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö introduced what was to become the now famous Martin Beck series. With it, Swedish mystery writing continued with evocative portrayals not only of Stockholm, but other places as well (the first novel, Roseanna, begins with the gruesome discovery of the body of a young woman next to beautiful Lake Vättern, and, later on, in Murder at the Savoy, most of the action is in downtown Malmö). The Martin Beck series also marked the beginning of a new trend in Swedish crime fiction: political and social consciousness. The hero, a homicide detective, loves his work, but is stultified by inept bureaucracy, suffers from a nervous stomach, and is trapped in a loveless marriage. Which leads us directly to Inspector Kurt Wallander, the next sleuth of stature to emerge on the Scandinavian scene.

Ask anyone in Ystad whether crime pays
A disgruntled, middle-aged crime fighter with marital problems, Wallander is the creation of Henning Mankell, the writer who in the last two decades, has gained an enormous following in Europe and, increasingly, in the United States (more than 25 million books have been sold in 37 languages).
So far, there are nine Wallander novels. In Sweden they’ve all been turned into movies, and, for the English-speaking audience, three films by the BBC are already playing, starring Kenneth Branagh as the crusty, oddly likeable, inspector.
The home turf of this fictional lawman is the small town of Ystad on the south coast of Skåne, 35 miles east of Malmö. It is an idyllic setting, strikingly at odds with the dark happenings and the many brutal murders taking place in the novels. Reading Mankell, you feel as if you are right there with Wallander - whether he, after a troubled sleep-deprived night, walks from his home at Mariagatan to the police station, crosses Hamngatan for a pizza, or chases a shadowy figure through a cobbled alleyway dating back to the medieval days when Ystad was a Hanseatic port.

Most, if not all of the novels, have a couple of small maps: one of Ystad and one of Skåne, the latter so that even when Wallander leaves town, you can follow his every move, and in the process learn something about the Swedish countryside. Mankell excels in descriptions in which weather takes on a special significance. Thick mists keep rolling in, reflecting the mood of his ever-melancholy hero. Then it’s time to put on a cassette of arias by Jussi Björling, opera being one of Wallander’s weaknesses, along with whisky and work.
Ystad has now become somewhat of a tourist Mecca catering to Wallander fans. A vintage fire engine will take you on guided tours to key locations, and maps from the Tourist Board enable you to follow in the Inspector’s footsteps. See how some of the movies were made, sit in his chair, drop in at Fridolf’s Konditori for a cake named after him, or visit some favorite haunts, such as Hotel Continental, which, incidentally, happens to be Sweden’s oldest hotel.
The Tourist Board also supplies visitors with a comprehensive list of Wallander-related places beyond Ystad, which includes some of the best inns and restaurants in the region.
They say crime doesn’t pay. Ask anyone in Ystad.

Ystad - the little town that could! The town of Ystad (population 17,286), in southern Sweden, was recently filled to the brim with national and international representatives from the tourist business.
They had all come to check out the backdrop to what the British newspaper The Independent calls Sweden’s best export [since IKEA]: Henning Mankell’s Wallander books.
Marketing strategist Itta Johnson at Ystad Municipality believes many can learn something from Ystad: “The Wallander books put pressure on us to take the next step. It’s often vice versa you create something new in order to increase the interest in something. That’s where we feel we have something to teach others.” The 26 Swedish films about Wallander were all shot on location in Ystad and pulled money as well as tourists in to the region. And when BBC chose Ystad as the location for their British version of Wallander too (starring Kenneth Branagh), the interest increased even more and Ystad can count on more money pouring in in the future.
“We have yet to see the end to the so-called Wallander tourists,” continues Johnson. “Every year we see how new generations discover the books as well as the films.” She also reveals that Ystad has been visited by so-called location scouts, one of whom came from Hollywood, looking for locations for future films. But Johnson cannot say more. “They never say anything until everything is set anyway.”
What is set is that Ystad’s experiences in film production was the reason it was awarded the Swedish travel and tourist industry’s tourist prize (100,000 SEK or $14,572), and that Ystad is now to teach others how to create good conditions for a lucrative film tourism.
Making a movie? Looking to walk in Wallander’s footsteps? See www.ystad.se for more information.


The Millennium phenomenon
Now back to Stockholm, and to another sensation in the field of Swedish mystery writing. I’m referring to Stieg Larsson the writer and journalist who, prior to his sudden death from a heart attack in 2004, presented the world with three page-turning thrillers, all of which have garnered rave reviews and become huge bestsellers. I’ve read the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and was highly entertained. The characters are intriguing, there are serious undertones, the plot twists turns, and now I can’t wait to get to the next two: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. The protagonists are Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading liberal journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman investigator who is like no other investigator you’re likely to meet – a curiously loveable diminutive, antisocial hacker with tattoos and multiple body piercings. An added attraction is that Stieg, like his mystery writer namesake of long ago, gives you an inside take on the Swedish capital. His particular territory is Södermalm, a working class district in central Stockholm turned fashionable in the 1980s and 90s. This is where both Mikael and Lisbeth live, he at Bellmansgatan, she at Lundagatan. A large island south of Gamla Stan, it is the home of bohemia and cultural amenities, including smart restaurants and cafés.

Historically less affluent than some other parts of Stockholm, Södermalm has a rich literary tradition. Carl Michael Bellman, the most popular poet and songwriter of the 18th century was born and raised here; Strindberg opened one his novels with a rapturous account of Stockholm spreading out before him as he stood on Södermalm’s Mosebacke high above the rest of the city; and later came Per Anders Fogelström with “City of My Dreams,” a Södermalm generational saga. Then there was Ewert Taube, a latter day Bellman, who made it his home, and sang about it with passion. And so now we have the Stieg Larsson phenomenon – with books selling in the tens of millions in some 40 countries, and a Hollywood movie remake on its way.

Millennium Walks—Take a walk in the footsteps of the characters in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millenium trilogy. Tickets to a guided tour, which lasts approximately 2 hours, can be purchased at Stockholm City Museum for 120 SEK ($17) www.stadsmuseum.stockholm.se

As a fictional Swedish character, Lisbeth Salander - sometimes referred to as a grownup Pippi Longstocking – stands alone. Still, there are others.

History remade
Moving from contemporary mystery writing to historical fiction, we find, most notably, Arn Magnusson, a Knight Templar, born in 1150 in Västergötand (West Gothia) in the western part of Sweden.
The author Jan Guillou carefully chose Arn’s birthplace, between the country’s two major lakes, Vänern and Vättern. Called the cradle of Sweden, this is a beautiful stretch of land, rich in medieval history, and flourishing before there was even a country called Sweden. In other words, the perfect setting for a boy to grow up to become an educated young man, a skilled swordsman, and eventually be sent off as a Knight Templar to the Holy Land.

In recent years, fans of the Arn novels have in increasing numbers sought out the various locations connected to their hero. What better way to get a sense what this place must have been like in early, medieval days? An obvious point of interest is the Varnhem Abbey where, under the tutelage of Cistercian monks, our hero learns swordsmanship along with Latin.
On a visit to the area last summer, I noted that practically every restaurant had a special “Arn Menu,” featuring medieval dishes. Not bad at all, I thought, after sampling pork marinated in honey, with a little red wine, and with a gratin of root vegetables.


The two movies about Arn, the knight templar became the most watched movies in Sweden during their respective release years, 2007 and 2008 with over half a million viewers at movie theaters. The so-called “Arn tourism,” i.e., visits to the different sites described in the books is equally amazing, with 420,000 tourists going to the land between the lakes in 2002 alone. After the release of the second film, in 2008 360,000 visitors flocked to the area.

Related stories: The New York TImes on "Post-Stieg Larsson Writers" and Swedish crime stories - http://www.nordstjernan.com/news/people/2394/
On the literary hunger for more Swedish crime - http://www.nordstjernan.com/news/nordic/2687/
Interview with Camilla Läckberg - http://www.nordstjernan.com/news/people/2476/
Karin Alvtegen nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award -
http://www.nordstjernan.com/news/east/1229/