When I was a lot younger than I am today, I was a fan of a detective series written by a Swedish couple, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They have pretty much faded from memory now apart from one particularly chilling story, The Man on the Balcony, and a passage on child-rearing from that or another of the ten novels in the series.
The series they wrote was within the genre “police procedural”, which may more appropriately be thought of as a sub-genre within the detective story, which may be thought of as a sub-genre within the mystery genre, which may be considered a sub-genre of the thriller, which may be considered a sub-genre of sub-literature, a sub-genre of literature! which –
Enough. My point, insofar as I have one, is that these are shifting categories that can exist in their own rights or within larger “theoretical” constructs. They can overlap and never fit perfectly.
Between these two writers’ work and today Swedish fiction and film adaptations of it have till recently pretty much passed me by. I’ve had other concerns, and once I started writing my own thrillers, I left off reading them almost totally.
Stieg Larsson brought Swedish crime fiction back into focus for the rest of the world; I picked up on his trilogy only through word of mouth and then the films made from them – see my earlier post “Grand Larssony”. By then I had run into some other products of the criminal creative genius of what I have decided to call (and claim the credit for, deserved or not*) Scandinoirvian.
There’s a lot of it about. I haven’t seen much of it that has gone on TV as I don’t watch TV very often, and as I haven’t been reading them, the novels they are based on have also been foreign to me.. A Danish series that is raved over has completely missed me, for example, and only lately have I seen the series based on the Swedish novelist Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander character.
These are pretty good**, and I’ve now seen the lot – around 35 episodes that have had a beginning, middle and end, as a novel might. Living within the rules and realities of TV means individual episodes that are self-contained, while allowing for “development” in the lives of the characters. The characters have turned out to intersect with the lives of some of the actors portraying them, in one case tragically.
What most makes for the popularity of Wallander is Wallander, an all too human detective whose failings are acknowledged by the man himself and whose professional life ends in a bittersweet denouement it hurt me as a human to watch. The “police procedural” aspect is there, but it is there for Wallander to ignore…his “hunches” lead to solving the cases.
The cases usually involve awful crimes – abduction and enslavement of young girls, sexual predators and murderers of young boys, cults, and the like. They are frequently more bizarre than would ordinarily allow viewers or readers to suspend disbelief, but work because of the human focus rather than the procedural.
The series as film is also for the most part extremely well done, and a credit to the producers, who were also responsible for the Millennium trilogy. Acting is of high quality and the more technical aspects of filming – location, shot composition, sound and so on, are often stunning. Many of the actors through the second of three seasons featured in the Millennium trilogy, but by the end the producers had run out of them and were using newbies for the most part. In media as elsewhere, success breeds success and the worldwide bonanza of the trilogy seems to have brought new blood into the industry.
Despite all this, Wallander is still television, substandard compared to film, though well beyond the quality of what one has come to expect from TV. It was one of the striking features of the Millennium trilogy that the second and third were made for TV yet worked as film – largely, it seems to me, because they were edited down in time and gained a tightness and intensity that would have been missing otherwise. The full versions have been released but I can’t be bothered watching them for precisely that reason
Sweden has not got a monopoly on Scandinoirvian even if it dominates it. I recently saw a not bad Danish film that appeared as a pilot for a series on TV, but the real deal for me is from Iceland, where Jar City is set. It is a terrific police procedural that turns out to be a genetic sensation. While the author of the novel has written a number using the same detective, so far as I can tell there has been no other film.
But there is another, in a league of its own: Noi the Albino. It is a thriller and not a police procedural, and its astonishing climax is among the most eye-opening and jaw-dropping of the century. Like Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare’s take on the Trojan War, it is arguable whether the blackness of this film is comic, or not. This simply-made but genuinely shocking film points a way forward for thriller writers and film-makers. That means it could take a generation for anyone to notice.
Thanks for reading.
*No hits on Google, unless this one makes it. As the mad scientist raves in Help! it is mine! Mine, do you hear? Except that it’s not – found it after a different order of search…sigh…
** The British series, starring Kenneth Branagh, has got rave reviews but I watched only one episode and dropped it. Too far-fetched and Wallander, despite Branagh’s acting talents and all the kudos, did not seem anything like fully realised.