Millions of readers who were transfixed by Stieg Larsson’s thrilling murder-and-mayhem trilogy, starting with "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," saw something that is seldom seen by outsiders — the dark side of Scandinavia, a region that usually ranks among the happiest places on Earth where residents live in relatively crime-free, worry-free bliss.
Stieg Larsson, author of the blockbuster series of "The Girl Who ..." crime novels, dubbed the Millennium trilogy.
To explore this grim literary landscape more thoroughly through the blockbuster works of Larsson and other popular Scandinavian crime novelists, UCLA’s Scandinavian Section is hosting a one-of-a-kind symposium. The event is getting lots of attention from students — plus some interest nationally — for its singular focus on Larsson and the genre of Scandinavian crime fiction.
"We’re a small section, and it’s not often that we see a phenomenon like this from Scandinavia," said Claus Elholm Andersen, a UCLA lecturer who is organizing the May 20-21 "Stieg Larsson and Scandinavian Crime Fiction" symposium that will bring in experts from universities in Sweden, Denmark and Finland as well as from the United States. "One of the questions we’ll investigate is why this (the Larsson trilogy) has been so successful. I think there will be just as many answers to that question as there are scholars and, perhaps, readers."
Larsson, a Swedish writer, investigative journalist and magazine publisher, finished three novels — dubbed the Millennium series after the name of a fictional magazine in the books — before he died of a heart attack in November 2004. Published posthumously, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest" have sold more than 50 million copies in more than 41 countries, including an estimated 17 million copies in this country alone. This, despite the challenge of stumbling over incomprehensible Swedish words that can give you eye strain.
All three of Larsson's books have been turned into movies in Sweden.
While literary critics at the New York Times, Salon.com and other publications have skewered Larsson — charging that his work is packed with clichés, illogically plotted and poorly written — Andersen counters that the criticism "is yet another instance of elitism. I think the novels actually challenge the way we think about crime fiction and really bring something new to the table in terms of the genre."
Larsson is adept at leading his unsuspecting readers down one path before veering off in a different direction, Andersen said. "His books invoke the traditional ‘whodunit,’ but in the end, it turns out to be something else," with side plots galore, peopled by such memorable characters as his unlikely action heroine, the mysterious and psychologically damaged Lisbeth Salander.
Larsson is just one of several crime novelists who have achieved renown far beyond the land of fjords and Vikings. In the early ’90s, Peter Høegs "Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow" was named the Book of the Year by Time Magazine. Prior to Larsson’s success, Swedish writer Henning Mankell outsold the Harry Potter novels in Germany and won the Gold Dagger award given by the Crime Writers Association in Britain for the best crime novel in 2001. The same award was captured by another crime writer, Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason in 2005 while Swedish journalist and crime writer Liza Marklund has sold 8 million copies of her books worldwide.
"Right now, if you go to a bookstore or talk to publishers, they are all trying to find who the next big Scandinavian crime writer will be," Andersen said.
The region — made up of the five countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — has been a hotbed of crime fiction over the last 50 years with the genre becoming a way to discuss societal issues and push a political agenda.
"When the Berlin Wall came down, along with the Iron Curtain in the early ‘90s, what you saw was a quest by Scandinavia for a new identity — how are we going to navigate in this new world? " said Andersen. "Overnight, Scandinavia had new neighbors, the Baltic countries." The Scandinavian countries were also becoming more multicultural, with an influx of immigrants into the region, especially from Yugoslavia.
Other unrelated trends also caused Scandinavians to feel disoriented. One of these was globalization, which brought international crime to the region. "We saw a spike in crime," Andersen said. "So the crime novel became, especially in the case of Henning Mankell, a way of bringing up important questions: How do we maintain our welfare states — our egalitarian societies where you get sentenced to 15 years in prison for murder — in a new, globalized world where we see evil acts, transnational crimes and trafficking being committed? How do we reorient ourselves in this new world where our countries are not as homogenous as we thought they were?" Mankell’s novels, Andersen added, provide no answers for these troubling questions.
The symposium is being sponsored by the Nordic Council of Ministers, which represents the five Scandinavian countries and supports cultural and political events. UCLA’s Humanities Division and the Swedish Embassy are co-sponsors.
"This is just an amazing chance to put the focus on Scandinavia and the work that we do here. And it’s an opportunity for the UCLA community to hear some of the best scholars in the field," Andersen said.
Giving the keynote address will be Daniel Alfredson, director of the Swedish film, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest" (2009).