Feminist voices in Sweden’s crime fiction

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Crime fiction scholar Rosemary Erickson Johnsen

There’s more to Swedish crime fiction than internationally best-selling author Stieg Larsson, but the casual visitor browsing the bookstores might not know it. He seems to dominate the cover blurbs, even a dozen years after his death:

If you’re a fan of Stieg Larsson, you’ll LOVE this,” blares a red circle on one cover, while another volume claims to have “a dangerous edge to gladden fans of Lisbeth Salander.” Åsa Larsson, whose series is set in the far north of Sweden, was crudely hailed as “the new Larsson” on one cover. When “translated by Stieg Larsson’s and Henning Mankell’s Steven T. Murray” is printed on a book cover as a selling point, readers may begin to suspect that a shared language is all these writers have in common. Crime fiction readers are alert to distinctions among subgenres, but the massive influx of Nordic noir — a term that itself eclipses any number of meaningful distinctions — has blurred important boundaries in marketing these titles in English translation. Comparisons are a practical device for signaling subgenre to potential readers, of course, but the Stieg Larsson effect has overwhelmed normally observed distinctions.

treacherousSo begins an article by Rosemary Erickson Johnsen, a crime fiction scholar, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Hej, Men Nej, to ‘The Girl’ and ‘Girl’s Books’: Three Swedish Women Crime Novelists.”  She considers three new Swedish authors – and all three have books in English, too: Liza Marklund, Camilla Läckberg, and Helene Tursten:

Each author has her own brand of feminism, authentic yet inflected by different strands within feminism and crime fiction. One fundamental marker of their difference from the putative feminism of the Larsson books is the presence of fairly ordinary families in the sleuths’ lives and the integration of their central characters’ personal and professional autonomy. Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon, Läckberg’s Erica Falck, and Tursten’s Irene Huss are presented as characters balancing motherhood, personal life, and career, all while being involved in criminal investigation. Their developing characterizations are central to their respective series, and are interwoven with the crime-fiction plots and tied to social commentary. All three writers are blending genres, borrowing from other genres including romance, suspense, and thriller, and those borrowings shape their female investigators in ways that impact reader experience and probably contributed to the backlash they inspired.

She concludes:

Larsson

Not the only party on the block.

Some of the more romance-novel elements might be distracting to crime-fiction purists, but even the silliest of the main characters’ struggles reflect something real, and not all women are feminists. The detectives in most other police procedurals may not worry about their children’s homework or reflect on their long-time marriage, but there’s no reason why such ordinary features cannot be included. As I have already suggested, the genre blending that includes these elements calls for a different relation of reader to text; perhaps this, as much as anything, contributes to the annoyed dismissal by both the male traditionalists and Maj Sjöwall. Marklund, Läckberg, and Tursten are not Stieg Larsson; nor are they sisters of “the Girl” or writing “girls’ books.” Instead, these authors suggest there are many ways to inhabit a feminist worldview, many ways to situate oneself as an independent woman, whether that’s in Sweden or anywhere else.

Read the whole thing here.


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