We think of Sweden as dark. Close to the Arctic Circle, the winters are long and frigid with little sunshine. A Darker Shade of Sweden, published by Grove Atlantic’s The Mysterious Press and released January 7, has seventeen short stories by twenty of Sweden’s acclaimed crime writers. About half of the stories are set in winter. However, those that are not still have a physical or psychological darkness to them. For example, in “Never in Real Life” by Åke Edwardson, the male protagonist is chasing “the tracks of the sun” under a “slate-gray sky,” even though it’s summer when the days are long.
I had never read anything by Edwardson, nor by most of the Swedish authors published in this book. But I have long been a fan of Henning Mankell, whose story “An Unlikely Meeting,” co-authored with Håkan Nesser is included. Mankell has written ten novels featuring detective Inspector Kurt Wallander (played by Kenneth Branagh in the PBS series), and Nesser has written 10 novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren. In this short story, which is actually the weakest of the stories, Wallander is driving to meet his daughter, Linda, for Christmas, but takes a wrong turn in a snowstorm and ends up in Maardam, the fictional home base of Van Veeteren. No one dies, but the two detectives meet and spend a pleasant Christmas Eve together.
Darkness does not always take the expected form. One of the creepiest stories is by Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. “Brain Power” is more of a science fiction story than crime. It’s about a man in the prime of his life who is chosen for a horrible medical project because of his physical prowess. He’s a runner who won a Gold Medal at the Olympics. Not to give anything away, but he has no choice but to submit.
“Reunion” by Tove Alsterdal is an eerie story about Johanna, who is joining several of her women friends at a lake house where they have met before but not for many years. She is haunted by the ghost of Lillis, who drowned in the lake the last time everyone was there. We learn what really happened to Lillis and who really planned this reunion.
“Something in His Eyes” by Dag Öhrlund takes a look at love and the grief it can cause, especially when a family with one set of moral customs settles in a country with different ones. When a young Kurdish woman is found dead, the belief is that her strict father killed her because she was in love with a young man forbidden to her. However, Detective Captain Jenny Lindh, suffering her own romantic pain after finding her husband in bed with another woman, has her doubts.
And in “He Liked His Hair” by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind, the protagonist is a night person. He seeks darkness through murder:
At first it had been just a woman.
Anyone of the right age.
And just one.
But it wasn’t enough. He had thought that one would be enough, a single one, to lower him in to darkness once and for all.
It wasn’t that simple.
The light caught up with him again.
The stories are all good, and John-Henri Holmberg, one of Larsson’s closest friends, has done a terrific job of editing and translating these 17 original stories, all published for the first time in English. The story by Larsson, who died in 2004, was written when he was only seventeen. Holmberg is an Edgar-nominated co-author of the 2011 book The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time. He also reviewed crime fiction for more than fifteen years for southern Sweden’s largest daily newspaper, and he edited and published the Swedish quarterly Nova Science Fiction, which won the 2009 Eurocon Award as best professional science fiction magazine in Europe.
Holmberg says that American and British crime readers became aware of Swedish crime writing about forty years ago when ten novels featuring Detective Inspector Martin Beck were translated and became bestsellers. “Given the proliferation of new writers; its sudden freedom from earlier restraints on themes, styles, and elements; and it great popularity among readers, Swedish crime fiction today is at both an enormously exciting and a chaotic stage of its ongoing development,” Holmberg concludes in his introduction.
Holmberg also introduces and ends each story with a biography on each of these talented authors, most of whom we might not have known of or read were it not for this book.