You know what? I like Swedish mystery thrillers. It seemed like everyone was reading breakout Swede hit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, so I gave it a look. (By which I mean, “a listen,” thanks to audible.com.) I’ve also recently read several books by the Jonathan Kellerman of Sweden detective writers, Henning Mankell. (I say this because they both have “Kell” in their name.)
These Swedish thrillers are taut and gritty, to be sure. And they are grim. The books may focus on solving murders, but they do a great job selling why this place is famous for its suicides. (Actually, Sweden’s rates aren’t that bad.) Sweden is cold and dark and cold and icy and dark. And the food is all boiled fish and potatoes. There’s strange bad guys aplenty up Scandinavia way: immigrant-hating Aryans, Russians, Latvians – they’ve got the whole Eastern block floating over to kill people. And everybody in Sweden has a Nazi past, if you can just find where they hid their Axis gold.
But here is what makes these novels awesome: they’re set in an ever-so-slightly alternate universe called “Sweden.” And in Sweden, you don’t know what anything means. How much is a Krona worth? If someone earns 250,000 Krona a year, are they rich? If they steal ten million Krona, is that a lot? I have no idea. And I like not knowing. And you have never heard of any of the cities. If the detective is driving from Malmo to Uppsala, is that far? What about from a kidnapping from Lund to Helsingborg? The not knowing is part of the fun. For someone who barely knows a kilogram from a kilometer, giving into this willful bliss of Nordic ignorance is like downing an ice cold shot of aquavit – it nicely freezes the brain. It’s a land where everything is 3 percent different – somewhere between an Elseworlds and a really boring episode of Sliders. It’s that 3 percent that gives the books the right dose of weird and other.
I like the Henning Mankell’s Wallender series better than the overrated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Dragon Girl book is flashier and sexier, with its petit super hackers and extravagant serial killers, but it also rings false with piles of easy super-victories and far-fetched one-in-a-million clue-findings. Starting with Faceless Killers, Mankell tells realer, more human, more neurotic stories of painstaking detection. Kurt Wallender, his insecure hero, is always overeating and getting diarrhea. Even though he lives in wacky ice-Krona-fish land, that’s what I call a relatable protagonist.