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Crime fiction is a major export of a country that had just 91 murders last year — and 84 crime novels.
GOTEBORG, Sweden — Sweden’s second city does not look like it’s in the grip of a crime wave.
Cafes are filled with well-dressed citizens chatting over coffee and cinnamon buns. Elegant 17th-century buildings line the canals, funky boutiques and cool design stores cluster along the broad boulevards.
It only takes a look in any bookstore however, to see that this is a city, and a country, with murder on its mind.
Henning Mankell, Stieg Larson and dozens of other home-grown writers of deckare (detective) novels fill the shelves. They reflect a national obsession with crime in seeming contradiction with Sweden’s happy position as one of the safest countries in Europe.
“That is a big paradox,” said Goteborg crime writer Ake Edwardson. “It’s not so much an obsession with crime, it’s using crime as a device to take a good look at the country we are living in.”
Within the 27 nations of the European Union, only Germany, Austria, Malta and Slovenia have lower murder rates than Sweden. In 2006 there were 91 murders registered in Sweden. In the same year, 84 crime novels were published in the country.
Peter Wahlqvist, a Goteborg-based lecturer in crime fiction, said the international success of Swedish thrillers results from a combination of good writing, a taste for the exotic and the contrast between the make-believe mayhem and common foreign perceptions of Sweden as a blond, healthy, welfare state utopia.
“It’s for real, psychologically about real people and about real life, real society,” said Wahlqvist.
Crime has also become a major export.
Larsson’s posthumously published “Millennium” trilogy is an international phenomenon, selling some 20 million copies in more than 40 countries since 2005. The third volume, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" is due for release in the U.S. next year.
Mankell’s novels featuring the angst-ridden detective Kurt Wallander have sold more than 30 million copies. Actor-Director Kenneth Branagh won British television’s top drama award this year for a series of three BBC features based on Mankell’s books. Mankell has a huge following in Germany, which sends flocks of tourists to follow a Wallander trail through southern Sweden complete with a visit to the cafe where the fictional sleuth lunches on herring sandwiches.
Readers around the world are lapping up Camilla Laeckberg’s tales of grisly crime in the fishing villages of the west coast; Asa Larsson’s dark dramas in the frozen north; or Edwardson’s murder mysteries in urbane Goteborg.
Sweden may not have many murders, but one in particular haunts the national psyche. In 1986, Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot at close range as he walked home from the cinema on a February night. Palme was the dominant political figure of his generation and his killing stunned the country.