You could be forgiven for thinking that Scandic drama, Nordic Noir, whatever you call it, is all over our screens like a gothic fungus. Wallander, The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge, Those Who Kill… And if they all seem a little dark and intense to you – from severed female corpses in The Bridge to the torture scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to the politics and backstabbing in Borgen – you’re not alone. One of the genre’s founding fathers, mysterious Swedish novelist Arne Dahl, is unsure about the route his wayward children are following.
“We’re crime writers, and crime is brutal, so you can’t avoid talking about violence,” he explains. “But you don’t need to revel in it. I have been writing crime novels for 14 years, and recently I’ve found, and I must mention no names, that there are some Scandinavian writers who take violence to the next level… who seem to be glorifying it. I think we’re in danger of losing the light touch, the humour I hope to find in a good crime story.”
UK viewers will get a chance to judge Dahl’s own approach when The Blinded Man launches on BBC4 this week. Adapted from his 1998 novel Misterioso, which has been translated into 25 languages, it’s a two-part origins story for Dahl’s Intercrime series of ten novels featuring a crack team of Stockholm detectives – “A Unit”, or the A Team, depending on your translation.
The action in Dahl’s stories unfolds at a break-neck pace compared with the leisurely unspooling of The Killing, for example. And, like the characters in The Magnificent Seven, A Unit is a team of specialists with difficult personalities who are brought together by the city’s senior female detective, Jenny Hultin, after a serial killer starts targeting Swedish bankers.
“The team has become my trademark,” Dahl laughs. “In crime drama, normally teamwork is a bad thing. Most of the Scandinavian writers have this traditional, tormented hero who’s so alone and carries the burden of society falling apart on their own. I didn’t want that. Although it did create a problem… One of the reasons I created so many detectives is that they were supposed to die. But I failed miserably – I liked them too much. At the end of the ten books, there are even more detectives than in the beginning…”
All the same, it’s clear the group are heading for a serious personality clash – one officer is a second-generation immigrant from Chile and there’s doubts about racism in the group. Other officers seem bent on self-destruction – an older officer, Viggo, is so determined to prove he’s tough that he risks his life in the slums of Tallinn. The chaos is interlaced with low-key deadpan gags – the ageing Viggo tells the team his name is the Viking word for “man of battle”, and the discovery that four dead bankers played a crucial round of golf together prompts neat riffs on the dangers of golf as an extreme sport. What’s missing from the TV version is the moody imagery of the novel’s killer, who listens to the Thelonious Monk track Misterioso while executing the elite.
Misterioso is, to be fair, a more appropriate title for the author – Dahl is a pen name, a fictional disguise for one Jan Arnald, who had a reputation as a literary novelist, academic and cultural critic in Sweden before secretly moving into crime fiction in 1998. Eventually journalists dug up pictures of a masked Dahl at a crime fiction festival and compared them with Arnald to crack his secret identity. At the time, it caused quite a stir in Sweden – it would have been like fans of British detective novels discovering that Mark Billingham, creator of fractured detective Tom Thorne, was really literary novelist Ian McEwan in disguise.
“An academic and crime writer at the same time – in Sweden that is not really acceptable,” the genial 50-year-old explains. “I had the feeling that I had been cornered and I just needed to get rid of my past. That’s why I chose a pseudonym – it was a way to start again.” Fifteen years on he still insists on using his pseudonym when discussing his crime writing. But why did he turn to crime?
“I was turning from introspective personal fiction to looking at society. I had children, and that’s when you get interested in what kind of society they’re going to grow up in. So I started looking around me, and something was happening in Sweden.
“We thought perhaps that we were a little better, the moral conscience of the world. And then we had a few setbacks – our prime minister Olof Palme getting shot in the street in 1989, the foreign minister Anna Lindh getting stabbed to death in 1993. Our innocence got lost.
“This formerly isolated and self-righteous little country found it a bit confusing to realise that we had been living in a lie – not big, but still a lie. And that started a crime fiction boom.”
Of course there has always been an interest in crime. The sleuth is as old as storytelling itself – epic crime tales from China’s Ming dynasty, for instance, or the Three Apples story from The Arabian Nights, where the caliph’s vizier Jafar is given three days to solve the crime or the king gets his badge. But while detectives used to share the stage with cowboys, kings, saints and priests, the warrior no longer faces the enemy, preferring to sneak around as part of Special Forces, killing them from behind. In his Intercrime novels, Dahl created “A Unit” to be heroes for a world whose leaders lie, whose generals carpet-bomb villages and whose athletes soak up chemicals for a fractional advantage on a gaudy global stage.
“Through crime you see what’s wrong with society – but the detectives give you a brief hope that the problems can be solved as easily as the crime,” he says, with a soft laugh. “They are flawed, imperfect, often lurching from failure to failure but plugging on to solve the crime regardless – although their victories just hold back the inevitable night.”
While this reeks of the bleak melancholy associated with Sweden’s long winter nights, Dahl’s most direct inspiration was a little closer to Britain – DCI Jane Tennison. “When I saw the early Prime Suspects, I realised you could tell crime stories in a way that I wouldn’t be ashamed of. My stories are always about the team, but they are put together and led by Jenny Hultin, who has the qualities of Tennison. She’s on the outside, she’s strong, she’s wry and she’s very much in charge.”
If anything, on screen there’s greater pace to The Blinded Man than to Prime Suspect. As the tale unfolds, we flit from midnight stakeout to Russian mafia to a sordid attempted gang rape by members of Swedish high society, taking in drink and drug smuggling, secret societies and hints of mystic Viking magic. The Killing seems positively pedestrian by comparison.
“Well, I think that’s a little unfair,” Dahl laughs. “The team had to stretch the story out over 20 episodes in series one for specific reasons to do with the broadcaster and they picked up the pace very nicely after that. That’s what you need from a crime story – it’s always going somewhere, an aim, a goal… Pace and action, not broody introspection – that’s how crime writing should be.”