An evening with Inger Frimansson, Kjell Eriksson, Håkan Nesser and Helene Tursten, Part I
The evening's second reading concluded with a passage that muses on the place of leeches in the universe. "Leeches don't deserve to live," declares a character in Frimansson's Goodnight, My Darling before crushing one of the slimy bloodsuckers. The leeches are among the torments inflicted on Frimansson's protagonist, Justine, a character for whom the author has profound sympathy.
Frimansson, neither a bully nor a victim during her youth, by her own account, nonetheless recalls seeing a group of boys grind a girl's face into the snow. The girl's resulting asthma attack made a profound impression. "I remember how we stood there looking, clinically looking, and now we understood that this was asthma," she said.
Years later, after Frimansson had started writing books, "I had to help her get revenge, but how? I was her creator. ... I felt that I had to use my fantasy to help Justine get her revenge. ... I decided to send her out into the world so she could kill."
For Kjell Eriksson, the sympathy takes the form of identification with his neighbors in Uppsala, a Swedish city known for its university, the oldest in Scandinavia (founded in 1477). It, along with the city's main cultural attractions, is on the west side of the Fyris River. "I'm on the wrong side if you're talking literature," Eriksson said. "I'm from the east side. ... I had no dreams to become a writer." Instead, Eriksson left school at fifteen and became a landscape gardener, a career he says included one job at a nuclear power plant.
Eriksson says the main purpose of his crime novels "is to describe my home town, my society, the conflict between east and west." Early in his novel The Princess of Burundi, a man with a lengthy though small-time criminal past is found murdered, likely tortured to death. "Little John is dead," the police chief tells a meeting of investigators convened to discuss the case. "There are probably those of us who don't think that's much of a loss. ... That would be a pity, however," and he proceeds to explain why. That is an unexpected note in a police procedural.
Eriksson says he bases characters on local residents, and he acknowledges his fellow feeling with those characters: "They are my neighbors."
Tursten, three of whose novels about Göteborg Detective Inspector Irene Huss have been translated into English, said she "wanted to create a female investigator that would be believable as a good cop." That meant she was older than twenty-five and lacked the looks of a runway model. "She's intelligent, she has intuition, but she's not intellectual; she doesn't have time."
Detective Inspector Huss, the first of the books to be translated, includes a subplot about one of Huss' daughters and her involvement with racist music and the people who play it. The subplot stemmed from Tursten's alarm at the strength of the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, the biggest in Europe at the time she wrote the book, she says. (Read more of my comments about Helene Tursten here – scroll down after clicking – including Irene Huss' special skills at observing her colleagues' behavior.)
Håkan Nesser expresses his sympathy in several ways, some of which I discuss here (scroll down after clicking), others of which are harder to talk about without giving away critical plot elements. But he did say that his excellent novel The Return was spurred by a notorious Swedish murder case in which a man spent twenty-four years in prison based on dubious evidence.
Each of the four writers has a different take on the question of sympathy for his or her characters. "We are not interested in telling how to kill people," Eriksson says. Frimansson, whose writing is significantly different from that of the others in at least one respect – she declares flatly that she has no interest in how police solve crimes – nodded when I suggested a compassionate interest in characters as a common element. "I think we all have that sympathy," she said.
© Peter Rozovsky 2007
Swedish Crime Fiction
Scandinavian Crime Fiction