Many Swedish Americans find ways to live their heritage in America. They take Swedish language classes, study genealogy, do folk dancing, make and wear folk costumes, sing traditional songs, cook and serve authentic Swedish food, collect Swedish china, crystal or handicrafts, do embroidery, etc.

All these practices are fun and enriching, but they actually harken back to the Sweden of 150 years ago when their ancestors came to America. The emigrants were mostly rural folks from a homogeneous country. Modern Sweden is a diverse, urbanized place. It is a challenge for Swedish Americans to learn about modern, urban, diverse Sweden as it really is today.


Crime novels have come to meet this need. For several upcoming opportunities to enjoy a presentation on how detective novels give a glimpse into the real lives of Scandinavians today, see our calendar.

Fifty years ago Maj Sjöwall and Pär Wahlöö presented a truer picture of their country and its people through crime novels. The young couple created Martin Beck, a melancholy police detective whose priority was not family or personal happiness but doggedly solving crimes. Sjöwall and Wahlöö presented a critique of the Swedish welfare state and highlighted the struggles of the poor and neglected. They also offered a vivid sense of place — the beautiful countryside, the Göta Canal, the picturesque buildings and lanes of Stockholm.

These novels have enjoyed a huge public success. They were followed by authors like Henning Mankell, Åke Edwardson, Camilla Läckberg, Liza Marklund and Håkan Nesser. This model of the psychologically wounded detective, the social critique of the welfare state and the vivid sense of place has been an example for other Scandinavian authors was well, like the Danish Jussi Adler- Olsen, the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and the Icelandic Arnaldur Indridason.

Towering over them all, however, was the Swedish Stieg Larsson, a little-known writer who submitted three large volumes about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist and their struggles with evil criminals of all sorts. Larsson died tragically in 2004, before Norstedts published his colossally successful books.

Several years ago, Norstedts, sensing an opportunity to make a lot more money out of the franchise, hired David Lagercrantz, a respected Swedish author, to write a sequel to the "Dragon Tattoo" novels. This sort of thing is not unheard of, and in 2015, with a huge campaign of hype and advertizing the book came out simultaneously in many languages. "The Girl in the Spider’s Web" was generally reviewed rather positively. The greatest pleasure of it was to again be in the presence of the beguiling characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist and to live again in their world.

Many readers will feel this book is a mere reaction to daily news stories whereas Stieg Larsson’s drama of revenge arose in the deepest archetypes of human civilization. His stories would have been at home in ancient Greece as well as among the Viking adventurers. That resonant depth is missing from the new book. While Larsson’s books didn’t spare the violence it was so over the top that the reader didn’t take it seriously; it often ended up being funny or satisfying, like when little Salander nails her giant half brother’s feet to the floor. The ghastly cruelty against much-loved characters in "Spider’s Web" is hard to take.

The modern Swedish American need not be sidetracked by this rip-off. Amazon offers dozens of Swedish crime novels and DVDs. Start with Henning Mankell or Camilla Läckberg, continue on to Johan Theorin, Alexander Söderberg or Roslund and Hellström and pretty soon you’ll feel that you’re in Sweden today seeing how it really is now.

By James M. Kaplan