WHY Scandinavia in general - and Sweden in particular - should have become the world epicentre of crime fiction is ostensibly a mystery. Since the war, this clutch of stable democracies has successfully industrialised, grown rich and built social welfare systems that are the envy of the world. The Scandi crime yarn, with its mash of mutilated bodies and miserable policemen, has risen in tandem with all that peace and prosperity.
Swedish film critic Michael Tapp offers some explanation. ''Expectations in postwar Sweden were enormously high; it was establishing a third way between communism and capitalism,'' he observes. ''But the reformists couldn't get rid of crime. Looking back, that was an absurd idea but authors had to make sense of that. It was a moral and philosophical challenge, a kind of riddle: Why should this be?''
As part of the Melbourne International Film Festival's Facing North program of Swedish films, Tapp has chosen five films - together dubbed Criminal Records - illustrating the development of the genre in the cinema. The first of his selections, A Woman's Face (1938), about a female crime boss embittered by her childhood disfigurement, reads more like 19th-century melodrama.
But by the time he gets to While the City Sleeps (1950), the anxiety of the idealists is starting to emerge. Written by Ingmar Bergman, it was one of a new wave of ''hoodlum films'', in which romantic delinquents rejected the new system.
The real revolution came in the 1960s, however, with a series of novels by married crime-writing team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. The Sjowall-Wahloo books, dubbed ''schwedenkrimi'' in Germany, were gritty police procedurals that also reflected the writers' Marxist-Leninist politics; for them, crime was a symptom of injustice. In Sweden, these novels and their many imitators became part of the national conversation, debated as social analysis.
Sjowall-Wahloo's schwedenkrimi novels were and continue to be adapted for cinema; Tapp's third selection, The Man on the Roof, based on their The Abominable Man, was shot by Bo Widerberg in 1976 ''during protests with the Red Army Faction, when young people frustrated by the slow progress of social justice feared the possibility of a police state,'' he says. There was less rhyme or reason in Il Capitano (1991), Jan Troell's attempt to comprehend a real case involving two killers.
It was in the 1990s, however, that Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and a host of books by writers in neighbouring countries, such as Norway's Jo Nesbo, would take the world by storm.
Film adaptations followed: Morten Tyldum's interpretation of Nesbo's art-heist romp Headhunters has been this year's big Scandi hit; another Nesbo mix of comedy, violence and criminals, Jackpot, is just out. In Sweden, the current big success is Nobel's Last Will, adapted from a novel by Liza Marklund. Like Sjowall-Wahloo, Marklund looks for murderers among those assumed to be above reproach.
The most recent film in Criminal Records, Easy Money, (Daniel Espinosa, 2012) takes a similar line of inquiry: an ambitious young business student (Joel Kinnaman, most recently seen as a scruffy cop in the Danish television crime triumph The Killing) throws in his lot with an Albanian gang. It is based on a novel by Jens Lapidus, one of the surge of younger writers to have emerged after Mankell.
Tapp and I are speaking a couple of days after the trial of Anders Breivik, whose massacre of 69 people at a youth camp has led to even more soul-searching. ''The immediate speculation, which seemed self-evident, was he was something foreign, probably al-Qaeda,'' Tapp remembers. ''But no, he was Norwegian - and his crime was rooted in Norwegian history, the legacy of the Second World War, which is the same subject Stieg [Larsson] addressed. It's no accident we have neo-Nazis here; we never got rid of them.''
Look in those dark corners. Even in sparkling Scandinavia, there's filth.
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