Xenophobia in Scandinavia: Crime Fiction

The recent killings in and near Oslo, Norway, seem to have come as a surprise to many people, but not to me, because I read crime novels set in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland, where xenophobia, fear of multi-culturalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and home-grown terrorism are common themes! Obviously, some crime novelists have been aware of these undercurrents in Scandinavian societies for years.

To wit:

Both of Kerstin Ekman‘s books, Under the Snow (1961/trans. 1997) and Blackwater (1993/transl. 1996), take on local racism. The first is about murder in a small town in the far north, whose “subject is hate, poverty, and racism in a small town, touching on Sami-Swedish relations. The position of the Sami is also central to Blackwater, set in Sweden and Norway, which … [uses] a very violent double murder to talk about racism as well as small town hatred….” The Sami are a northern indigenous people living in Sweden, Norway, Finland and part of Russia.

Faceless Killers (1991/trans. 1997) by Henning Mankell: The first Kurt Wallander novel, set in Ystad, a small city in southern Sweden. An aging farmer and his wife are brutally killed on their farm. When Wallander tentatively mentions that the wife, before dying, said a word that sounded like “foreigner,” immediately the media seize on the word and soon a Somali refugee has been shot dead, with another promised to die “for the wife.” At the same time, Wallander’s daughter is dating a man of Syrian descent, which seems to make Wallander a trifle uneasy.

Racism is an aspect of most of Åke Edwardson’s books in the Erik Winter series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden. His ex-brother-in-law has racist ties. Aneta Djanali, who works on the police force, has African (Burkino Faso) parents but is herself a native Swede, born in Gothenburg; she is sometimes mistaken for a refugee because of her skin colour. Books include Death Angels (1997/trans. 2009); The Shadow Woman (1998/trans. 2010); Sun and Shadow (1999/trans. 2005); Never End (2000/trans. 2006) and Frozen Tracks (2001/trans. 2007)

When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998/trans. 2004) by Karin Fossum: In the Inspector Sejer series, set in Oslo, Norway. Bored, two teen bullies taunt Sejer’s adopted grandson Mattheus, a Somali immigrant trying to fit into Norwegian society, then rob a house in which an old woman lives alone (which turns out to be a mistake).

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø (2000/trans. 2006): Set in Oslo and other parts of Norway, as well as in Germany. The first in the Harry Hole series. Neo-Nazism is key to the plot; a Barnes & Noble review includes this description: “present-day Oslo, a city perched on top of a powder keg: a restive Muslim immigrant population and a resurgent neo-Nazi movement.” The second in the series, Nemesis (2002/trans. 2008), involves prejudice in Norway against gypsies. Another, The Redeemer (2005/trans. 2009), provides a grimly realistic portrait of the Norwegian capital — druggies shooting up in public; refugees being exploited in private ….”

Detective Inspector Huss (2002/transl 2004) by Helene Tursten. Set in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this book, the first in the Irene Huss police procedural series, Huss’s 13-year-old daughter becomes involved with a group of neo-Nazis and Huss investigates murder involving motorcycle gang members, skinheads, immigrants, and neo-Nazis. As Booklist describes the novel, “the overview of Swedish society, its liberal foundation cracked by racism, drugs, and a new wave of vicious crime, forms a compelling backdrop for the story.” Another description: “The picture Tursten provides in her first novel, Detective Inspector Huss, of Sweden’s growing anti-immigrant resentment — embodied in Huss’ skinhead daughter — imbues this novel with a cold chill of dread.”

Kjell Eriksson‘s novels in the Ann Liddell series also include references to immigrants and outsiders, including The Princess of Burundi (2002) and The Demon of Dakar (2005), with many mixed-race characters and a look at the immigrant community in Uppsala, Sweden.

Arctic Chill (2005) by Arnaldur Indriðason. Set in Iceland. Erlendur investigates the stabbing death of an immigrant Thai/Finnish boy and the disappearance of his half-brother, which soon “unearths tensions simmering beneath the surface of Iceland’s outwardly liberal, multicultural society.” As an Amazon reviewer notes, one of the kids’ “teachers is especially hostile to immigrants while others are more circumspect, alluding defensively to the dilution of Icelandic culture.” The central concern of the book is the reaction of Icelanders to Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino) immigrants and mixed marriages.

Snow Angels (2010) by James Thompson: Set in Finland, which is almost 100% white. In this book, a Somali woman is killed and racial epithets are hacked into her body. Additionally, the detective, Kari Vaara, is married to an American woman who is having a lot of trouble being accepted into the Finnish town where they live. (They move to Helsinki in the next book). Thompson, an American, has lived in Finland for over 10 years.

I haven’t read this one:

The Shadow in the River (2008) by Frode Grytten. Set in a small Norwegian town called Odda, in western Norway, the story concerns the murder of a local man, assumed by other locals and the media to have been killed by a group of immigrant Serbs who had been arguing with him. The investigator-journalist, Robert Bell, doesn’t agree and resents that the media are stirring up racial tensions.

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An article titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Novels” by Larissa Kyzer (in The L Magazine, 17 July 2009) briefly mentions racial tensions in Scandinavian countries:

“In Denmark, whole debates have been sparked over whether second and third generation immigrants — ‘New Danes,’ as they’ve been dubbed — should ‘be like everyone else.’ Tensions between Danish biker groups (really!) and gangs of immigrant youth frequently bubble over, most recently exemplified in a manifesto published by a group called The Hell’s Angels, which encourages young Danes to rally against ‘jackals’: those who “hate Danes, the mentality, lifestyle, Christianity and its symbols.” In Sweden, neo-nazi/nationalistic activity has been on the rise since the mid-eighties (not long, one might note, after the as-yet unsolved assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme) and anti-immigrant, racist tendencies have also become increasingly prevalent. Norway has seen a similar shift, with popularity for the staunchly nationalistic ‘Progress Party’ growing rapidly — this being the same party which utilized blatantly anti-immigrant scare tactics to gain support during a political campaign, and whose leader recently warned against the risk of ‘sneak-Islamisation’ in Norway.”

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<> Crime Writers Expose Scandinavia’s Dark Side by Sylvia Poggioli (NPR, 27 July 2011), with comments by Anne Holt, Norwegian crime writer and former justice minister. I especially liked this:

“Holt says politicians would do well to read crime fiction. It’s ‘the best genre to reflect society,’ she says. ‘Crime fiction is a mirror.’ It’s a mirror that reflects what a society is afraid of and, as Holt notes, ‘what people are afraid of says a lot about the society.'”

<> In Norway, The Past Is a Foreign Country by Jo Nesbo (NYT, 26 July 2011).

<> Breivik: Bad man from Scandinavian crime fiction? by Malini Nair (Times of India, 28 July 2011). Mentions Nordic crime writers Pers Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Haken Nesser, and Zac O’Yeah,

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