Linda Rugg is a professor in the Scandinavian department at the University of California, Berkeley, where she specializes in Swedish literature and culture, and teaches a course called "Murder on Ice: Scandinavian Crime Fiction."
The daughter of a policeman, scholar of Scandinavian crime fiction Linda Rugg got the inside scoop on the shocking degree of crime in her small Nebraska town when she was growing up — which may account for her addiction to mysteries from an early age. The go-to scholar for all things Wallander, not to mention matters pertaining to Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rugg spoke to Masterpiece's Richard Maurer in September, 2010.
Select a topic from the list below to see Rugg's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Henning Mankell and Wallander
As someone who has read all of Henning Mankell's novels, what did you think of these Wallander adaptations?
They've done a very interesting job condensing the books and dealing with what I see as one of the major stumbling blocks — which is, there's a great deal of inward meditation in what Mankell writes. A lot of what you're reading is what Kurt Wallander is thinking and feeling. One of the ways the filmmakers handle this is they have Wallander out in the landscape just looking at things. You don't know precisely what he's thinking, but you can see how he's feeling while he's thinking. They've also managed to capture the incredible beauty of the countryside in southern Sweden, which is an important element of the novels.
And what did you think of Kenneth Branagh as Wallander?
He's very convincing. I would have thought that a Shakespearean actor who depends so much on language in acting would not necessarily have been a wonderful Wallander. But he is very good because he's able to convey emotion. There's no vanity in his representation of Wallander. He really lets himself be that slightly frumpy, ungroomed, difficult person.
Were there ways that the films diverged from the novels that you found interesting?
At the beginning of Faceless Killers the old woman whispers something as she's dying. In the book she distinctly says foreigners, and she says it not to Wallander but to another member of the police staff. It's interesting how the film handles this, because in the film Wallander is the person who hears the woman's last words. Also, she doesn't say anything clearly; she begins to say something, and he is left in this very difficult position of wondering whether he just put the word foreigner in there because his daughter is now dating a foreigner. He has anxiety around foreignness and doesn't trust himself. That's a very interesting part of the film that doesn't exist in the Swedish novel that I think is actually more compelling, because he is challenged to confront his own demons and his own weaknesses.
Can you guarantee that the world depicted in a Wallander novel is not what we would encounter should we visit Scandinavia?
The amount of crime depicted in Wallander is just outrageously disproportionate to what actually happens in Scandinavia. I was reading an essay by a Swede who said, it's kind of bewildering to us in Sweden that we've suddenly become the most popular crime fiction writers in the world when not very long ago our most serious crime was bicycle theft. There was an interview with Henning Mankell on NPR when his novel The Man from Beijing came out. The book opens with the discovery of a mass killing of many, many people in an isolated village, and the interviewer asked him, did that really happen? And Mankell said, "I do write fiction." I had to laugh. It is fiction. You definitely would not encounter that level of crime there.
Popularity of the Genre and Stieg Larsson
So why do you think Swedish detective fiction has caught on in the United States, when for example Strindberg and Bergman are not exactly big box office?
The detective fiction genre, in general, is always about looking at harsh realities, so the Scandinavians have a kind of advantage because this is how they've been representing life for a long time. But I think it goes beyond that. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon and how many, many people are attracted to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and his other books. He has created a heroine who looks fragile but can overcome any kind of brutality, which appeals to the desire that people have to grapple with darkness and overcome it. That's one reason people are reading Scandinavian crime fiction and Stieg Larsson in particular. But another reason is that Scandinavian crime writers like Mankell portray people who seem absolutely real. Their characters have diabetes or are a little overweight or got divorced. They're ordinary guys, sometimes women, trying to live their lives and do their jobs. Readers are attracted to that kind of realism.
Let's talk about Stieg Larsson. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is titled Men Who Hate Women in the original Swedish. Was that title actually appealing to Swedish readers?
No, not necessarily. Stieg Larsson was still alive when the book was about to be published in Sweden, and he absolutely insisted on that title, because that's what the book is about, he said. By the time they went to do the translation rights, he had died and they were able to get around his wish. That's why the Swedish book has that title. It would be hard to say whether people didn't buy it because of that; it still became a best seller in Sweden.
Mankell's book The Fifth Woman has elements of a feminist revenge fantasy, much like Stieg Larsson's novels, which came out later. Is this concern with the treatment of women a major theme for them both?
Yes, it is. Both men strongly articulated their support for women's rights and their dismay over the treatment of women worldwide. Swedish society is very much oriented towards equality between the sexes. And so in the pursuit of the ideal society that I mentioned earlier, one of the places where society falls short is in the treatment of women, according to these men.
Nonetheless, do you think there's a misogynistic streak in Scandinavian crime fiction or in crime fiction in general, with its frequent depictions of violence against women?
I don't think that there's an underlying misogyny. I do think that crime literature necessarily deals with some of our attraction to violence, even though ultimately what we're looking for is the vanquishing of the criminal on the last page. It's a problem I've thought about a lot. To what extent are we implicated as viewers and as readers in the violence that is directed against people? As consumers of crime fiction, we do take a certain kind of pleasure in it. I was showing a clip from a film yesterday in a class. I usually give my students warning if something is going to be particularly gruesome. So I said, there is going to be a very bloody murder scene in this clip. And one of the young men in the back row of the class said, "Yay!" In the case of violence against women, I don't know if it is a particular draw for some people, but it does allow for the expression of these forbidden acts to be justified by a morally acceptable outcome. You can have your cake and eat it too — by getting to look at the violence against women but really being against violence.
In what ways do Mankell and Larsson differ as writers?
Mankell is the more gifted writer. Stieg Larsson doesn't have the same of psychological subtlety that Mankell has. You have a much more meditative style with Mankell, all of it focused in Kurt Wallander's mind. The girl with the dragon tattoo might make a more compelling heroine in a superhero kind of way, but she's less believable as a real person. Also, both authors, being Swedish, tend to draw out the action. They go a little slower than an American would, but Mankell especially does that. He is very interested in depicting police work as work. His characters are seldom involved in car chases or shoot-outs, and they don't usually get knocked over the head by criminals. Stieg Larsson goes in for a lot more of that.
Scandinavian Crime Literature
Would you say that the genre of Scandinavian crime fiction is much older than the immigration issue?
It's not much older. The real start to the modern period of Scandinavian crime fiction is the Swedish husband and wife couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who wrote a series of ten books starting in the mid-sixties. The great wave of immigration in Sweden and in the rest of Scandinavia takes place in the seventies, but the issue is already there in Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Even in their first novel, they deal with the suspicion directed towards the immigrant community and how the influx of people from other countries is transforming Scandinavian society. Then the focus on immigration and foreignness becomes much more pointed by 1991, when Faceless Killers was published, which was Mankell's first Wallander novel.
There's been some speculation that the proliferation of Swedish crime fiction is connected to the decay at the core of the welfare state. Do you think there's anything to that?
The reason that they have a welfare state in the first place is that there has been an ongoing project to create a perfect society, and literature's function has long been to criticize the society that presently exists in order to move it closer to that perfect society. So the feeling in Sweden is not that, oh, now the welfare state has failed and we're going to create this literature to depict it. It's much more that starting in the late 1800s they've always written to challenge the current existing reality, to push it closer to an ideal. So when you have critiques of the welfare system in Swedish writing, it's not from the right. It's not because people think, we should become more privatized; we need to be more like America. It's almost always from the left. I think this is true of the other countries in Scandinavia as well.
Why is it that Swedish design is so clean and open and orderly, and their fabric is so colorful and cheerful, but their literature is so gothic?
What's important for Scandinavian literature is not just to depict reality or to entertain — God forbid! — but to push reality toward something that's more ideal. One of the ways you do that is by confronting the most difficult part of life, which is a way of getting beyond the difficulties. So you have writers like [the playwright] Strindberg who spend their whole lives thinking about death and divorce and suicide. [The film director] Ingmar Bergman is the same way. It's hard on the reader or viewer, who has to grapple with these terrible things. But life is hard! And that's the way they tend to portray it. Their detective fiction is pointed in that direction too.
Can you give us a reading list of some other Scandinavian crime writers?
There are number of very interesting women crime writers in Scandinavia. One is a Norwegian named Karin Fossum. Her detective is a man, and her novels focus on the psychology and social implications of crime. Another is Kerstin Ekman. Only one of her books has had any notice here in America, a novel called Blackwater, which I've taught in my crime fiction class and which got my students a little upset because it's not a traditional detective novel. It's about ecological crime in the north of Sweden. And then there is Helene Tursten, also Swedish, who has a female detective living in Gothenburg. This detective has kids, likes clothes, and faces all the problems of a woman trying to balance her family and professional lives. And there's another named Asa Larsson, a Swede whose work has begun to appear here in the United States. One of the great boons of the Stieg Larsson effect, as we call it, is that we now have many more translations of Scandinavian crime writers. I'll mention one more, a man named Arnaldur Indridason. He's an Icelander, and there's been a movie made of one of his novels which I showed here on campus. It's called Jar City, and it's filmed in Iceland. His is another middle aged, depressed, divorced detective — a very interesting character.