Crime In Sweden: Fact vs Fiction – Shubham Chakraborty, XLRI Jamshedpur

I love reading, not just a particular genre, but all of them. I enjoy devouring everything from ancient Greek mythology to modern high fantasy, from the exploits of Sherlock Holmes to modern high fantasy like Game of Thrones. As a reader, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years that has caught my fascination.

It is fascinating that there’s a growing number of really great crime novels coming out of the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden. The phenomenon is so pronounced that it has been popularly dubbed as “Scandicrime”. From the late Steig Larsson, Håkan Nesser to Jo Nesbø, the line doesn’t seem to end. But such a localized phenomenon is not altogether rare. Earlier, we have seen anti-war novels coming out of the USA, predominantly at the time of the First World War. French authors have consistently delivered path-breaking pictures of the erstwhile society, Germany has given us Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, etc., whereas, Russian novels have been a comment peasant life and its stark differences with that of the military & aristocracy. What’s common in all the above is that the writing reflects the prevalent times in the respective regions. However, this is not the case with Sweden. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sweden, with its homogeneous population, is the seventh richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. It has the highest telephone/internet penetration and the third lowest Gini coefficient in the world. The Nordic countries also consistently rank among the happiest nations in the world. As per a 2014 report by International Centre for Prison Studies, Sweden had an incarceration rate of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 which was significantly lower than other countries. In comparison, the figure in the USA is 707 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants (“USA – World Prison Brief”. International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved 17 July 2014) & the EU average in 2008-10 was 126 (“Crime trends in detail”. Eurostat. Retrieved 17 July 2014). It seems like more people are murdered in Scandinavian crime novels than in the entire Scandinavia itself.

The question then is: How is Sweden, a prosperous country with remarkably low crime rates be the hotbed of such spectacular crime novels in recent times? In the following lines, we’ll explore the manifold reasons for this phenomena.

Firstly, the original writing is mainly in Swedish or the country’s native language. When the same is translated to English (for bulk of the readers across the world), the resulting style is crisp & upfront, with minimal unnecessary words. This makes for an easy read for most of the readers.

Secondly, Scandinavian crime novels are often set in an idyllic, peaceful country, where social structure, overall welfare levels and peaceful surroundings can seem almost utopian to an American or say, Asian reader. In such a setting, any crime seems to be an unthinkable violence and a disturbing occurrence, precisely because it’s not expected. Such a shock value makes for a thrilling read.

Thirdly, the protagonist or the detective in such novels is more often than not, a rustic, careworn & relatable character, which is at odds with say, a suave James Bond or the supremely talented Sherlock Holmes. Such relatability with the protagonist leads to a deeper connect between the readers & the story, leading to better sales.

Fourthly, these novels often incorporate prevalent social themes such as immigration, misogyny, racism, intolerance, social inequality, etc. into the story, imbuing the story with elements of the Scandinavian psyche. Such writing improves the realism in the story, as the setting is not far removed from reality.

Lastly, the bleak Scandinavian landscape aptly mirrors the dark thoughts of the characters. It has an air of mystery and danger only adds to the setting of a crime novel, making the ancient land of the Vikings an apt setting for the stories.

In my opinion, any story worth its salt is greater than the sum total of its parts. As for the definitive reasons for Sweden being the fountainhead of such acclaimed crime novels, the jury is still out. On the basis of the above reason, we can just hope that this tradition continues. Happy reading.

Shubham Chakraborty