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.