Journey from the north: Will a global vision renew Nordic crime fiction's appeal?

Henning Mankell quits provincial Sweden for an international mystery that takes in China, Africa and Soho

Take a cold Sunday evening in the dimmest depths of January. Schedule, in a coveted prime-time slot, a downbeat drama, far more psychological than procedural, about a morose Swedish policeman. Set against it on another channel a sensation-soaked reality TV show that has captured red-top headlines for weeks on end. What happens? On Sunday 10 January, Kenneth Branagh as Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander attracted 5.1 million viewers. Celebrity Big Brother lured a mere 2.7 million.

On the page or on the screen, big numbers and high quality all too seldom coincide. We have seen for some time now that, for British readers and now TV viewers, Nordic crime fiction is one terrain on which they do. During 2009, the three volumes of the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium series together sold a million copies in Britain.

Film versions both actual (from Sweden, and director Niels Arden Oplev) and potential (from Hollywood, with George Clooney the latest A-list star enlisted in the LA rumour mill) will help maintain sales over years to come. Elsewhere, an avid readership guarantees a warm welcome for the latest hot name from a cold climate – Iceland's Arnaldur Indridason, Sweden's Camilla Läckberg and Norway's Jo Nesbø, among a pack of recent contenders.

Both sensible and fanciful, explanations for the form's appeal have helped to fell acres of sustainable forest from areas not too far south of the Arctic Circle. They include the strictly sociological: that Nordic crime writers chronicle the collapse of community spirit into a competitive free-for-all punctuated by solitary acts of mayhem. They record and regret the withering of a once-prized welfare state, and so have struck a ringing chord among foreign fans who share the same anxieties. At the other extreme, some critics detect a bloody and exciting resurgence of the mythical mindset of Viking sagas, with cunning hunters and the odd wild berserker on the trail of monsters who have threatened hearth and hall.

Different strokes will deliver thrills to different folks. But all the evidence suggests that success breeds success in every genre. This Scandinavian snowball effect ensures that disciples old and (thanks to Branagh) new will over the coming weeks be rushing out, or logging in, to buy Mankell's newly-translated non-Wallander mystery, The Man from Beijing (translated by Laurie Thompson; Harvill Secker, £17.99). They have a few surprises in store.

To the occasional chagrin of "literary" authors from Reykjavik to Helsinki, crime stories have become the mass-market vehicle that now carries the Nordic countries to the world. Indeed, some under-informed pundits have even taken to smothering all new Nordic fiction for export under a criminal blanket. I have seen Per Petterson's beautiful novel of growing up and learning fast in the summer woods of post-war Norway, Out Stealing Horses, labelled in several contexts as a "mystery" – which it is, but only in the most subjective and non-statutory sense.

Translators from Nordic tongues who harbour a passion for contemporary poetry or ancient mythology will know that those dour detectives still do most to foot their bills. Last spring, I attended a conference in rolling countryside north of Oslo at which 125 translators of Norwegian literature – into 30 languages from Korean and Polish to Hebrew and Catalan– gathered to discuss their art. Crime, most of them agreed, did pay relatively well.

Funded by Norway's ministry of foreign affairs, this friendly Babel heard an address from the foreign minister himself: Jonas Gahr Støre, who spoke of the written word's power to widen and deepen his small country's "footprint" across the globe. And crime writing has a record of reaching right to the summit of the state in Norway. Anne Holt, the lawyer-turned-author who created a series of novels featuring gay detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, served for a while as her country's Minister of Justice in the 1990s.

For the bulk of non-Scandinavian readers, the footprint from the North now comes pleasurably stained with blood. The current vogue for crime has sucked in authors who, in different cultural weather, might have kept their distance from the genre. Sarah Death, a distinguished translator from both Swedish and Norwegian, reports that the Swedish author Alexander Ahndoril - who recently turned episodes from the life of Ingmar Bergman into a novel entitled The Director - has now gone down quite a separate path.

He and his wife, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, will be rolling out a collaborative multi-volume crime series under the pen-name of "Lars Kepler". Their first title to feature Inspector Joona Linna, The Hypnotist, appeared to loud acclaim in Sweden last autumn.

Other writers, beyond Mankell himself, had already sought to melt that brittle partition between "genre" and "literary" fiction – notably, in Sweden, Kerstin Ekman. A life member of the Swedish Academy, although one who declined to take part in its work after what she saw as its failure to defend Salman Rushdie, Ekman kicked off her career as a mystery writer in the 1960s. After moving through a broad spectrum of forms from social realism to ecological fable, she returned to scenes of crime later with books such as Blackwater. Her latest novel, The Practice of Murder, sounds like a boilerplate shocker. In fact, it re-interprets one of the most famous dubious deaths in all Scandinavian literature, from Hjlamar Söderberg's 1905 classic Doctor Glas.

Meanwhile, another popular serial chiller in Sweden turns out to be a literary critic: Arne Dahl, whose real name is Jan Arnald. His 11-strong "Intercrime" series will soon begin to make its way into English thanks to Tiina Nunnally, whose credits as a translator involve many of the most illustrious names in Scandinavian literature.

So dark secrets, and their solutions, will continue to blow in from all points north. But will, in a super-served marketplace, their taste and timbre begin to change? Almost certainly - and in a direction that Larsson and Mankell themselves have already shown.

Many readers relish Scandinaviancrime in part because of its densely realised local backdrops. In compact, often lonely communities, grim deeds suddenly erupt: the small islands of Mari Jungstedt and Johan Theorin; the fishing backwater of Camilla Läckberg; and, of course, Kurt Wallander's own deeply provincial but now world-renowned town of Ystad.

Yet attentive readers will spot that the masters of this game often take pains to trace hidden links that bind cosy corners of the wealthy North with a bigger, and poorer, world. Cross-border trafficking of people, body-parts and drugs; neo-Nazi networks that stretch across Europe and beyond; migrants and asylum-seekers from Asia or Africa who risk violence from new neighbours or vengeance from old ones: Nordic crime at its boldest tends to act locally, but think globally. It gives a mighty voice to that deep-seated Scandinavian sense of a conscientious connection with the plight of humankind. This self-imposed duty has inspired initatives from the Nobel prizes through the Nansen refugee passport to peace missions in combat zones in the Middle East, Asia and South America.

Increasingly, I suspect, Nordic mysteries will travel as far as the region's peacekeepers and aid workers. And Henning Mankell has never fixed the boundaries of his fiction more widely than in The Man from Beijing. Followers will know that, since in the 1980s he found a home in Mozambique and began to run the Teatro Avenida in its capital Maputo, the Swedish author has had a second, African identity.

This other hat he wears for half of every year. Mankell the African has tended to write fiction for children and young adults, often in relation to his sterling work for Aids prevention and relief. Meanwhile, his Swedish crime novels have drawn on a world of strife that extends far beyond the Baltic.

But they have seldom stayed there for very long. The Man from Beijing, however, unfolds on a truly global scale.

In a hamlet in the deep north of Sweden, a massacre by an unknown killer wipes out 19 people. Almost by chance, a judge from the other end of the country, Birgitta Roslin, discovers distant relatives among the dead. As the provincial force pins the blame on a hapless misfit, Birgitta fills in the history of her André*forebears. In a freelance parallel investigation, she follows a slender clue – a red ribbon from a restaurant lamp - leading back into history and across oceans. This case will prove to be "bigger, deeper and more mysterious" than local eyes can see.

The crime's "remarkable link spanning time and space" then catches up with the ordeal of two Chinese brothers in the 1860s. Maltreated migrants, "no more than dogs", they labour on America's cross-continental railroad in Nevada under the eye, and whip, of a brutal Swedish overseer. Back in the present, in one of Beijing's gleaming skyscrapers, an arrogant entrepreneur plots both to secure his power within the state, and to avenge the crimes that his family has suffered. For Ya Ru, one of China's new masters of the universe, "The necesssity of revenge left its mark through history like a leitmotif".

In Birgitta, whose sleuthing trip to China brings back memories of her time as a Mao-worshipping "red revolutionary youth", Mankell can explore his own background in the radical Swedish counter-culture of the 1970s. Among her Beijing helpers, in a multi-focus intrigue that even whisks us to Africa and an audacious Communist Party plan to entrench Chinese influence there "not as conquerors, but as friends", she meets soul-searching divisions over the new superpower's role. Will China, as the still-idealistic party cadre Hong Qiu fears as in Zimbabwe she uncovers the secrets of her nation's future African strategy, now begin "to treat the rest of the world as imperialists had always done"?

To Mankell's credit, all this wide-angle geopolitical debate somehow meshes with the slow unveiling of a motive for mass murder that lies deep in the past. A hectic plot that scoots from Copenhagen to Harare to Beijing finally reaches its climax in London's Chinatown, among proud buildings that – to some Chinese ears at least – still echo to "the screams and pains of slaves". Scandinavian crime writing has seldom shouldered the burdens of world history with such upfront ambition.

Some readers, for whom Nordic nastiness should unravel amid picturesque backwaters thanks to the deductions of endearingly flawed cops, will turn away in alarm at the big political picture Mankell presents here. But the international dimension has always been a factor in his work, as with Stieg Larsson and many of their peers. No man, and no crime, is an island – however charming the woods and coasts in the background of the murder scene.

Mankell's long-haul departure points to one exit from routine and repetition for his genre. All the same, admirers of his classic style will be pleased to learn that, next year, a final Wallander case will arrive in English: the very last, according to his creator. Its title will be The Troubled Man. What else?

A fresh ice pack

Arnaldur Indridason

Iceland's banking-induced meltdown will no doubt be propelling thriller plots for many years. No local author will be better placed to clean up than Arnaldur Indridason. In books such as 'Jar City' and 'Hypothermia', the Detective Erlendur cases of this former film critic have tackled themes offbeat (spiritualism and new-age belief) as well as urgent: anti-Asian racism raises its head in 'Arctic Chill'.

Jo Nesbø

Pop musician and economist, Jo Nesbø joined the ranks of widely-exported Norwegian crime authors when his maverick detective, Harry Hole, began to uncover fiends in high places in novels such as 'Redbreast', 'Nemesis' and 'The Redeemer'. With his fury at official corruption, and reckless bruised integrity, this rebel Oslo cop looks well placed to secure the loyalty of Stieg Larsson fans.

Åsa Larsson

A breath of fresh cold air in the seething squad of Swedish sleuths, Åsa Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson is (like her author) a tax lawyer by training. Along with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella, she delves into the background of grisly crimes in such novels as 'the Savage Altar' and 'The Black Path'. Sometimes with a religious dimension, the cases come to light amid the deep freeze of Sweden's far north. This double act has a dangerous edge to gladden fans of Lisbeth Salander.

Camilla Läckberg

Camilla Läckberg sets her mysteries in her own Swedish coastal town of Fjällbacka. With crimes pursued by a writer and detective in tandem, her books have topped national charts like clockwork. After 'The Preacher' and 'The Ice Princess', her next title due in English (thanks to Stieg Larsson's translator Steven T Murray) will be 'The Stonecutter'.

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