Posted by: nordicnoir | April 17, 2010

Olof Palme and Swedish Crime Fiction

The Origins of Nordic Noir Part I: 

The Effect of Olof Palme’s Assassination

on Swedish Crime Fiction

[updates below – 8/29/12]

            Henning Mankell, author of the Wallander series, has written a play entitled Politik, which is set to debut at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theater next fall (2010).  The main character will be Olof Palme himself, the controversial and popular Prime Minister of Sweden who was assassinated on February 28th, 1986.  This appalling crime naturally had a huge impact on the Swedish people.

            Americans also experienced a national trauma of a very similar nature—the assassination of JFK.  But what makes the Swedish experience unique has to do with Sweden’s, well,  naïveté.  Just think: in 1986, Sweden’s Prime Minister walked home from a movie house with his wife… all alone.  Taking the slightly less traveled route.  At 11:00 PM, with no body guards.  Which was not unusual for him.  And it got him killed.  The killer walked right up to him, apparently talked to him for a minute or so, and then shot him at close range.

While the figure and fate of Palme discernibly influences the stories of writers like Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson in subtle (or not so subtle) ways, for now, I will just sketch out the bare historical facts and suggest their effect on the psyche of the Swedish people, and thus on Sweden’s crime writers.  My primary reference book is Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme by Jan Bondeson (Cornell: 2005).

a) The Shattered Ideal of Peace and Safety

As shocked and devastated as Americans were by JFK’s assassination (by sniper), the American public could fathom many reasons why Kennedy would be a target, and accordingly he possessed a full phalanx of bodyguards.  But Palme was the leader of a small, social-democratic country (about the size and population of California) whose generous health and welfare benefits lent the nation a cozy, peaceful atmosphere—at least on the surface.

For not everyone adored the articulate, talented, Kenyon College educated leader; a good many Swedes found his politics leaning too far to the left toward socialism, even while he clearly perceived and took action against the threat of Soviet communism.  Further, in the months after the assassination, untold numbers of Swedes reported their friends and neighbors and family members for having expressed severe hatred for Palme–for having even cursed him to death.

As the police scrutinized individuals and organizations for possible motives, the Swedish people got to see, up close, in their papers every day, the violent and disreputable characters in their midst.  Of course, they had been there for some time, but now decent law-abiding citizens were caught up in the lives of the most suspicious sorts of people.  It cannot have made anyone sleep better to know that sociopaths like Viktor Gunnarsson and psychopaths like Christer Petterson, ‘The Bayonet Killer,’ led full, despicable lives in the heart of their pretty cities.

Nor did it help to think that certain ruthless figures in the Kurdish ex-pat community might have reason to kill the Prime Minister of the country whose lenient immigration policies had allowed them a safe haven (the Kurdish organization, the PKK, was eventually absolved of any link to Palme’s death; but the murderous tactics of some of their members was brought to light and doubtless alarmed many people).

All things considered, then, the time had come for Swedish people to lock their doors and watch their backs.

b) A New Distrust of Authorities

If it is hard to imagine the leader of a country walking around town without any security detail, it is equally difficult to see how the authorities, once notified of the assassination, could have utterly bungled the whole investigation.  Indeed, because of police error, the case remains unsolved to this day, and is likely to stay that way.

For instance: there was a delayed response to the initial emergency call; police taped off only a very small area around the crime scene (just around the blood); bystanders threw flowers over the tape and onto the murder site; the crime scene was not guarded through the night and shoe prints old and new blurred together; the bullets could not be found by police technicians—but remarkably, one was found by a journalist across the street where technicians hadn’t looked, and the other was found right near the murder site the following day by a mourner. The list could go and on, as Bondeson painstakingly does in his excellent account of these events.

            In the first few days after the murder, Swedes had little idea just how badly things were going.  So as Hans Holmér headed up the investigation with confidence, good looks, and swagger, the country awaited a swift and reassuring conclusion.  Arguably, if the killer had been found quickly and brought to justice, Sweden would be a different place today.

But this was to be a story of the narrow-minded pursuit of wrong suspects, of corruption, of the petty desire for fame, of witness coaching and leading, and of improper interview methods (Olof Palme’s wife Lisbet got her way when she refused to be interviewed on tape and would only talk to specific individuals).

Time after time, the authorities dashed the hopes of the Swedish people as one suspect after another had to be let go.  Many felt and still feel that Christer Petterson, a violent drunk who had murdered before, was the killer.  But when he was brought to trial, it became clear that Lisbet Palme had likely been coached, or clued in somehow, before she picked him out of the line-up.  That said, Bondeson offers what I feel is an even better, highly compelling conspiracy theory as an alternative interpretation of events —and one that does not involve Petterson in any way. Yet it is easy to see how the guilty parties in his version might have been brought to justice if the early days of the investigation had been handled with any competence.

The point here is that within two years, Swedish faith in the ‘authorities’ had been severely damaged by all this bungling, and by a good deal of corruption too.  As a result, a hundred times over, the police and other authorities (groups or individuals) have been scrutinized for any possible involvement in the assassination.  Suspicions linger to this day.

c) Endless Coverage of the Murder Investigation

The investigation proceeded at full throttle until the acquittal of Petterson.  After that, work on the case slowed and regrouped, but continued to flounder.  In 1999, an official commission reviewed the efforts of the police  and judged them harshly for incompetence. Though the investigation is ongoing, and reports appear in the news about once a year, it seems unlikely the case will ever be solved.

But after the official investigation disintegrated following the acquittal of Petterson, dozens of “Palme Detectives” emerged—individuals acting alone or in small groups to develop new theories.  These independent investigators were so obsessed with the case that witnesses complained of harassment.  TV reporters (or ‘personalities’) continued to drum up interest by coaxing Petterson into being interviewed (at one point he actually confessed to the murder, but he had made so  many contradictory statements by then that his confession cannot be taken as any real proof).

Further, many books laying out new theories have also been published over the years.  Too often, they have been clear attempts to profit from the insatiable desire for new details and possible solutions–while offering little persuasive proof.  Bondeson’s Blood in the Snow is but one example of the better books; I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in true crime, police procedurals, conspiracy theories, historical mysteries, and/or the socio-political recent history of Sweden—not to mention the possible origins of Swedish Noir.


In short, one could speculate that the assassination of Olof Palme and the ensuing 24 year murder investigation drew in a whole generation of readers who might not otherwise have been so interested in crime fiction. Certainly one can argue that Sjöwall and Wahlöö, writing in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, offer proof of pre-assassination interest in crime fiction—and I agree.  The issue is rather one of degree of interest and subtle atmospheric differences in pre- and post-assassination novels (which I hope to explain in later posts).  To offer a taste of how I might argue this point, I can just point out the striking difference between the weary cops of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s who tend to get the bad guy and the conspiracy laden plots of Stieg Larsson, with Lisbeth Salander as an anti-authority, anti-hero battling the injustices of powerful people and institutions, including government authorities.

–Okay, okay.  I hear you Wallander fans.  Wallander is kind of like those ‘weary cops’ I just described, and Mankell’s Wallander novels were all written post-assassination.  But as I noted at the top of this post, Mankell is clearly preoccupied with Palme’s death, and I will have more to say, later on, regarding his more subtle reaction to ‘Sweden’s national trauma.’

Updates: For other theories regarding the Olof Palme murder, see the books written by Gunnar Wall. I’ve also posted more recently about an intriguing possible new lead in the Olof Palme investigation. Also see Andy Lawrence’s post on a new mini-series based on Palme’s murder.



  1. […] newish blog, Nordic Noir, examines the impact of Olof Palme’s murder on Scandinavian […]

  2. We did a lot of investigation in Holland, Germany and Sweden. We cleared a Dutch murdercase (Mahmut Bilgili, a PKK-lawyer, 1987) and found out that the motive has to do with his knowledge about PKK-involvement in the Palme-killing. The Swedish authorities (including the Ombudsman) refused to meet and/or to listen.

    • The book in question here, I believe, is ‘Oh was hij het…? De voorspelde moord op Olof Palme en de Dutch connection’, Elzo Springer en Dolf van Soest, uitgeverij PerTekst, 2006. As Dutch is not one of my languages, I can’t comment on it. But for anyone else who’s interested, here you go.

  3. Did you see our press-release about our experiences with the Swedish authorities with relation to the link between a
    Dutch killing (Bilgili) and the Palme-murder ? It was sent to you on the 23th of september 2010.

    • For those who are interested, here is the Press Release in question:

      28 February 1986 Stockholm – Sweden
      5 February 1987 Hengelo/Markelo – The Netherlands
      Is Sweden willing (or allowed) to ever
      solve the Killing of Olof Palme?
      Hardly anyone will have failed to notice that in Sweden the maximum period for prosecuting
      serious offences has been lifted and that this was apparently motivated by the approaching end –
      in 2011 – of the time allowed by law for tracking down and prosecuting those responsible for the
      assassination of Olof Palme in 1986. Is that a good thing?
      For us – Dolf van Soest, a retired detective superintendent, and Elzo Springer, a journalist – this
      development is highly surprising. After all, it suggests that there has been progress in the case
      and that the end of the period allowed for prosecution could put a premature end to the ongoing
      investigation. Our experience of the Swedish investigation in recent years has been totally
      For many years now, we have been engaged in a journalistic investigation of the unsolved murder
      of the Turkish lawyer Mahmut Bilgili in Holland in 1987. During the course of our investigation, we
      quickly discovered a connection to the Palme assassination. In 2006, we set out the results of
      our investigation in our book Oh was hij het? De voorspelde moord op Olof Palme en de ‘Dutch
      Connection’ [Oh, was it him? The Predicted Murder of Olof Palme and the “Dutch Connection”].
      As we explain in the book, the Bilgili murder was unmistakably a targeted PKK killing: a kangaroo
      court in the Netherlands found Bilgili responsible for “leaks” leading to the arrest of PKK members
      in Sweden in the Palme case in late 1986/ early 1987.
      We believe that Bilgili’s leading position in the PKK meant that he was aware of that organisation’s
      involvement in the Palme assassination and might have wanted to distance himself from that
      involvement. That the PKK’s own investigators decided so quickly that Bilgili was responsible
      (in February 1987) was partly due to the fact that the people arrested were quickly released
      without being brought before the courts so that their guilt or innocence could not be established.
      Their rapid release was incidentally due to “miscommunication” between the public prosecution
      department and the Stockholm police.
      Our investigation ultimately led to a leading PKK figure at the time, Huseyin Yildirim, informing us
      in 2005 that he no longer ruled out the possibility that the organisation, led by Abdullah Öcalan,
      was responsible for the death of Olof Palme. That is in line with previous statements by Öcalan
      himself: after being arrested and extradited to Turkey, Öcalan pointed to Yildirim as being the
      person who ordered Palme’s assassination. So one thing that they agree on is the involvement of
      the PKK!
      With that fact in mind and given that the Swedish investigation had been dragging on for years
      without producing any result, it seemed to us logical that – unlike in the years before – we could at
      least reckon on the Swedish authorities now receiving us or listening to us with a certain level of
      interest. After all, our efforts were aimed at breathing new life into that never ending investigation,
      which would also help the Dutch Bilgili case (which can now no longer be prosecuted due to the
      statute of limitations). In our view, it was still not too late: if all the countries involved were to join
      forces and reinvestigate the leads that had been revealed, a breakthrough would still be possible!
      Page 2
      But there was no response and no invitation. Doors were kept firmly shut, our e mails went
      unanswered, etc. We were ignored to such an extent that we cannot help but think – as previously
      suggested by others – that “Sweden” does not in fact want the Palme case to be solved. We have
      been assured on a number of occasions, for example, that “you’re right, but you’ll never get the
      opportunity to be proved right”.
      Even more conclusive was the following course of events. The discouraging attitude of the
      Swedish prosecution authorities (f.i. prosecutor Agneta Blidberg) led us to submit an official
      complaint to the Swedish Ombudsman, Mats Melin, based on prejudice. Our complaint was
      dismissed almost immediately, without any investigation or explanation and without any further
      contact. When we took the matter to the Swedish Parliament (especially Mona Sahlin), which is
      responsible for the Ombudsman’s office, we were met with total silence.
      That unified front that we came up against
      on the part of Sweden – involving even
      the independent Ombudsman and the
      Parliament – led to the Hudson Institute,
      a renowned think-tank in Washington DC,
      deciding to commence a project. This was
      announced to the world by Ms Zeyno Baran
      in an interview with the Turkish newspaper
      Hurriyet in July 2009. In fact, the project
      led to nothing, coming to a standstill due
      to a lack of time and opportunities on the
      American side.
      But lo and behold….
      Just when we were ready to throw in the towel, it turns out that – 24 years after Palme’s
      assassination – Sweden wishes to finally take action and see the crime solved after all!
      You lift the maximum period for prosecution, give yourself more time to investigate and make a
      final supreme effort. It’s never too late to do things differently. Surely, no one will buy that! If you go
      for 24 years without solving a murder, then you’ll never solve it by pursuing the same approach.
      No, the move to lift the maximum period for prosecution – like the attitude of the various authorities
      that we confronted – is of an entirely different nature. Despite the fact that throughout the course
      of the investigation the people of Sweden – and the rest of the world too – have been given the
      impression that the case was being worked on seriously, almost everything – not just our own
      findings – in fact shows that the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme must not be allowed to
      be solved. We call that a fake investigation.
      So why that fake investigation? And why when it concerns the country’s Prime Minister, of all
      people? Who have to be protected? Who ordered the investigation team – probably reluctantly –
      to adopt the approach that it has done? We don’t have the exact answers, but we do have some
      definite ideas, with the Kurds naturally being the focus.
      If this shameful performance is to cease, and because more murders are concerned than only that
      of Olof Palme, Swedish politicians will have to be forced to come clean.
      Deventer, The Netherlands, September 2010.
      R. W. van Soest
      E. G. Springer

  4. PM Rajiv Gandhi and Olof Palme of Sweden discussed the Bofors gun deal, a huge $1.3 billion order in 1986. Palme had used his friendship with Rajiv Gandhi to secure a SEK 8.4 billion deal for the Swedish armaments company Bofors to supply the Indian Army with howitzers. On the morning of 28-2-1986, the day end when Olof Palme was assassinated,, Olof met Iraqi ambassador to Sweden, Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf who became Saddam’s Information Minister during the 2003 Iraq war. The two discussed Bofors, which al-Sahhaf knew well because of its arms sales during the Iran Iraq war and Saeed al-Sahhaf told Palme about Bofors’ activities, including bribe that infuriating Palme. Infuriated Olof Palme who came to know that bribe to Rajiv appears to have threatened the deal. Bribe of 3% was for Rajiv Gandhi. Bribe was to be routed through a company called A.E. Services. Of the $250 million in bribes paid, the known recipients of $40 million were Quattrocchi and his wife, Maria, and Washeshar Nath Chadha and his wife, Kanta. Olof Palme was assassinated on 28-2-1986 in a central Stockholm street Sveavagen, Sweden at at 23:21 hours Central European time. Olof Palme was assassinated by Q’s henchmen, Assassination was carried out by Italian mafia linked to Q and Sonia Gandhi. Jan Bondeson in his 2005 book called BLOOD ON THE SNOW: THE KILLING OF OLOF PALME, says that Palme’s murder was linked with Bofors sale of arms to India. Bondeson says that Bofors had used a shady company called AE Services, nominally based in Guildford, Surrey, England to facilitate the bribe to Rajiv Gandhi. Swedish police suppressed vital MI6 intelligence about the Bofors/AE Services deal with Rajiv Gandhi. This mafia link of Sonia Gandhi would explain the elimination of many prominent second rank congressmen who would have posed a challenge to the leadership of Sonia, after she took over the congress party, by physically throwing out the previous congress president Sitaram Kesari.

  5. Well, controversial, all right, but popular. 75% of the Swedish population hated the man, and with very good reasons.

  6. […] my earlier posts on the Origins of Nordic Noir, I wrote about the moment when Swedes first became entranced by the work of detectives after the assassination of their prime minister in 1986. I’ve done a post on the circuitous road […]

  7. […] once wrote about how the 1986 assassination of Olof Palme had shaped Swedish crime fiction. I later wrote a post on Nordic Noir in a 1970s film in which I briefly mentioned the immensely […]

  8. Has any Swedish author followed up the South African connection that came up in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Craig Williamson and Anthony White and Operation Outreach certainly had motive and capacity, and South African prosecutor Jan de Oilviera was astonished by the lack of interest from the Swedish investigators. Having researched the South African material myself, I could not help but notice parallels to Kjell Sundvall’s THE LAST CONTRACT. It seems to me that blaming it on the apartheid government ‘s agents would be an easy, politically correct solution, so it is very hard to understand the authorities’ lack of interest in what would appear to be a promising lead. Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks!

    • I haven’t stumbled across anything recently, but if you’re researching it, please let me know if you find something. And thank you for mentioning Kjell Sundvall’s THE LAST CONTRACT. [readers: this is a 1998 film – Sista kontraktet – that offers a fictional account of how Palme’s murder all played out]

  9. […] […]

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