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Sweden and the Renaissance of Marxist Crime Stories

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For fans of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo novels and the film adaptations both American and Swedish it inspired, I have good news about similar crime stories that appeared on Swedish television originally and that can be seen on Netflix, Amazon and on other commonly available sources.

For reasons to be explained momentarily, there are good reasons why Marxists like Larsson decided to write what can arguably be called pulp fiction. Foremost in Larsson’s mind was the need to create a nest egg for his long-time partner who unfortunately has run into conflicts with Larsson’s father and brothers over the author’s estate. (Larsson, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack, did not leave a will.) While there are undoubtedly sharp observations about the dark side of Swedish society in his novels, his main goal was to tell compelling stories with memorable characters. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for in popular culture, then the existence of other Swedish works in this genre should be most welcome.

For most of us, including me I must confess, Swedish society is a bit of a blur. The most common perception is of a placid social democracy disturbed only by the murder of Olaf Palme in 1986. When I used to sell the Militant newspaper in college dorms a lifetime ago touting it as a socialist newsweekly, students would ask me, “Socialist, like in Sweden?” I used to sneer at the idea that Sweden had anything in common with my Bolshevik ideals, but it is ironic that government subsidized healthcare, education and housing now seems as radical as the assault on the Winter Palace in 1917.

My stereotype perception of a weak-tea social democracy was altered somewhat by Bo Widerberg’s 1969 neglected film masterpiece “Adalen ‘31” that dramatized the general strike that led to the election of the country’s first social democratic government. Indeed, it was a bloody strike that laid the groundwork for necessary reforms just as bloody attacks on reformist politicians like Palme have helped to create an environment favorable to the dismantlement of the welfare state. It was a fascist-abetted retrenchment that Larsson and his fellow Marxist crime story writers sought to examine through the medium of the police procedural or what the French call le policier.

Beck

In 1965 the husband and wife writing team of Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall published their first novel “Roseanna” that introduced Stockholm Chief Inspector Martin Beck to the world. Both were committed Marxists and hoped, in Wahlöö’s words, to “rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society”.

Like the “Wallander” series reviewed below, the Swedish television series titled “Beck” should probably be described as “inspired” by the novels rather than a direct treatment that was faithful to the authors’ radical vision of Swedish society. That being said, “Beck” retains the noirish sensibility of the original and can be relied upon to hold the dark side of Swedish society to scrutiny as well as being first-rate television drama.

In the premiere episode of season one that aired in 1997, two teen-age immigrant male prostitutes have turned up dead. The first reaction of Beck and his fellow cops is to wonder if another “laser killer” was on the loose again, a reference that would be obscure to most non-Swedish viewers but key to understanding the preoccupations of the writers.

From August 1991 to January 1992 John Ausonius shot 11 people in Sweden, most of whom were immigrants, using a rifle equipped with a laser sight—hence his nickname. The shootings occurred when the New Democracy was on the rise in Sweden, a party that had much in common with Golden Dawn and other fascist parties throughout Europe.

Not long into the investigation, Martin Beck refocuses it on a search for a homicidal pederast. Like Bjurman, the social worker who preys on Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, the killer is a respectable member of Swedish society. This is the most common element of all the television series reviewed here: the moral rot of the people at the top.

As Beck and his team make their rounds interrogating suspects in the dark of night, Stockholm is recast as a noir landscape under dark clouds and rain. This is not a city of strapping male and female blondes preparing for a weekend skiing trip but of junkies and prostitutes who belong in William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch”.

Nobody could ever confuse Beck with the Aryan ideal. With his thinning hair, homely face and flabby body, the fifty-something cop played by Peter Haber, who resembles Karl Malden, looks more like an accountant or a middle manager than someone heading up a homicide investigation—or at least what American television would put forward for such a role. Nor is Beck particularly assertive in his relations with people outside his department. After he refuses to co-sign a loan his daughter needs to move into an apartment obtained illegally (likely violating Sweden’s strict housing codes), she bawls him out in a crowded restaurant as if he were an errant child.

In the first episode, we meet two of the characters with major roles in “Beck”, his subordinate Gunvald Larsson who is constantly bending or breaking rules in Dirty Harry fashion and Lena Klingström, a cyber-cop who spends her working day on the Internet looking for clues rather than going out and busting heads like Larsson. In this first episode, bending rules and trawling the Internet both produce results.

Comic relief occurs in every episode when the divorcee Beck returns home each night to his lonely apartment. Like clockwork, he runs into his unnamed sixtyish neighbor who has hennaed hair and a neck-brace that is never explained. Played by veteran actor Ingvar Hirdwall, he is always musing on the decline and fall of everything, a perfect Greek chorus of one to accompany some classic crime stories.

“Beck”, seasons one through three, can be seen on Amazon streaming.

Wallander 

Kurt Wallander is the chief of police in Ystad, a sleepy seaside resort that might appear to be the scene of petty crimes such as zoning violations rather than the positively gruesome murders that take place on a regular basis. Like “Beck”, Hanning Mankell’s novels serve as an inspiration rather than a blueprint. Written by a small army of scriptwriters, the show is a stunning display of plotting, dialog and acting that puts American crime shows to shame even if structurally it will remind you of something like “Law and Order”.

Each show begins with a body being discovered, mostly in macabre circumstances. It is up to Kurt Wallander to lead the investigation that inevitably turns up some villain who is at the apex of Swedish society.

Season one and two of “Wallander” can be seen on Netflix streaming and season three, the final season, has just become available as DVD’s from Amazon.com. I was fortunate enough to review screeners of season 3 from its American distributor MHz Networks, a source of European crime and mystery TV series second to none. My advice is to buy season 3 from MHz Networks rather than Jeff Bezos for obvious reasons—Swedish Marxist crime novelists would likely find him too evil to be credible as a character in one of their novels.

Kurt Wallander is obviously a second cousin to Martin Beck. Divorced and in his sixties, his main pleasure in life is to listen to classical music while drinking whiskey in his seaside home when he gets home from work. He also enjoys walking his beloved pet dog Jussi, named after the famous Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling. Unlike the typical American police chief, Wallander has trouble getting it together. When confronted by a younger and more physically fit criminal, he is likely to be knocked down and kicked around for good measure.

But as an investigator, he is second to none. “The Troubled Man”, my favorite episode of season three, is based on a Mankell novel of the same name and very close to the tangled politics of the Cold War that shaped this novelist just as did me and other baby boomers.

In the opening scene, the body of a frogman has been caught in a fisherman’s seine decades after he failed to come to the surface when on assignment to track a Soviet sub that had been spotted inside Swedish waters

Not long after Wallander is called in to investigate, a retired Navy admiral and father-in-law to Linda Wallander, his daughter who works in the Ystad police department, disappears under mysterious circumstances. We will learn that he is connected to the frogman’s death and to betrayals at the highest level that make Cold War assumptions hardly up to the task of explaining Sweden’s peculiar relationship to both the West and the East. In a nutshell, the same Swedish policy initiatives that made Olaf Palme a marked man explain the frogman’s death and the constant pressure applied on Sweden to make it conform to neoliberal economics and NATO’s ambitions.

A word or two should be said about British television’s adaptation of Wallander that feature Kenneth Branagh in the title role and can be seen on Netflix. They have the advantage of being in English, a gift to those averse to reading subtitles. Unfortunately, the creative team behind the project decided to make Kurt Wallander much more neurotic and self-doubting than the Swedish version. If the Swedish Kurt Wallander was apt to be upended by a criminal, the British Wallander would likely collapse in tears in such an event. That being said, the series is very enjoyable on its own terms.

We should be grateful that the 66-year-old Henning Mankell is still going strong. Just a month ago, the Guardian summed up his latest work of fiction, “A Treacherous Paradise”:

Henning “Wallander” Mankell takes a fascinating historical fragment as the basis for this tale of Portuguese Africa. In the early 20th century, one of the biggest brothels in Lourenço Marques (now Mozambique’s capital, Maputo) was owned by a white Swedish woman.

She crops up in tax records, but we know nothing else about her. Mankell names her Hanna and gives her a thoughtful nature (she “radiates an aura suggesting she is a totally genuine human being”) and a harsh backstory: she grew up in Sweden’s remote north, was pushed out by her poor family and ended up on a boat to Australia but never got there. The most successful parts of the novel portray the brutal, segregated life of Lourenço Marques – the black population lower their gaze to whites who may beat them for a slight, while the whites fear that outward pliability hides defiance. Hanna’s decency is undermined by the society she finds herself in; when she embarks on a personal crusade, the town closes ranks.

Who said the political novel was dead?

Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter

Strictly speaking, this series available on Netflix streaming is not of Marxist origins. Liza Marklund, the author of the novels upon which it is based, is of the left but not a Marxist. Most of her activism is involved with human rights and is funneled through her ambassadorship in UNICEF.

Whatever she lacks in Marxist orthodoxy is made up for by her storytelling abilities that in some ways are stronger than the authors cited above. Furthermore, for all practical purposes her task is identical to that of the trained Marxist writer, namely to put a spotlight on the corruption and greed of Sweden’s one-percent.

Like Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander, Annika Bengtzon’s career and personal life are not in sync. Unlike these older divorcees, she is married and the mother of two young children. But not all is well in the Bengtzon household. Her husband is growing increasingly annoyed by her devotion to her job that requires her to spend long hours following a story, leaving him on his own to prepare meals and keep an eye on the kids—women’s work in his view. Needless to say, the show has a strong feminist perspective.

Season one of Annika Bengtzon is on Netflix and I strongly recommend episode four, titled “The Red Wolf”. Based on a Bengtzon novel, this is the story of aging 60s radicals similar to the Weathermen holding a reunion in order to pull off one last big-time “blow” against the Empire to remind the world that the struggle continues.

Bengtzon stumbles across their plot in the course of trying to find out why a colleague of hers who had been tracking the Maoists had died in a mysterious hit-and-run accident.

To be sure, “The Red Wolf” is not a celebration of sixties style urban guerrilla warfare but rather a caustic view of why it failed to produce any meaningful results. What it is really about in the final analysis is the psychology of an “extremist”, something that has challenged the imagination of writers since the days of Dostoyevsky and Joseph Conrad.

Sizing Up the Crime Novel

As much as I loved watching all of these crime stories, I could never quite overcome the cognitive dissonance involved with comparisons to our police chiefs, from William Bratton with his “broken window” philosophy that allowed Staten Island resident Eric Garner to be chocked to death to the white police chief in Ferguson who had a Confederate flag on his wall.

I suppose that is why they call such works fictional.

Trotskyist leader Ernest Mandel was a life-long fan of crime novels. Just as Stieg Larsson wrote the Dragon Tattoo novels in his spare time, so did Mandel toss off “Delightful Murder: a Social History of the Crime Story”, probably over a weekend in 1984.

In the chapter titled Inward Diversification, Mandel puts the classic crime story nto the context of the early days of capitalism, when competition was king:

The paraphernalia of the trade — Sherlock Holmes’s magnifying glass or chemical retorts — are mere secondary tools, subordinated entirely to Reason. The criminal, too, is clever, and often outwits the police, but cannot outwit the great detective’s super-brain.

Here we have the purest, most elementary expression of bourgeois society: commodity production and commodity circulation under conditions of perfect competition. Everything is rational, totally geared to the maximization of income (profits), through continual cuts in production costs and sales costs including profit margins). All’s well that ends well. In the end, rational individual economic behaviour by all will bring the maximum well-being (including the satisfaction of the consumer) to the maximum number of individuals. Let the best one win (Sherlock Holmes, not the criminal), and this will be good for everybody, including the criminal (if not for his body, at least for his immortal soul).

But when imperialism comes along—the latest stage of capitalism as Lenin put it– reason tends to collapse under the dead weight of irrationality, particularly in the age of Hitler and Mussolini. Now that we are in a period when the storm clouds of inter-imperialist rivalry are gathering, there will be an ever-increasing demand for a literature that is up to the task of holding up irrationality to ridicule as Jonathan Swift once did or to cry out against it prophetically as the great writers of the 1930s and 40s from Silone to Orwell once did. For young aspiring writers anxious to fulfill their obligations to a world hurdling into the abyss, a look at the shows under review in this article would be a good place to begin.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

 

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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