Edited and translated by John-Henri Holmberg — When you open A Darker Shade in the expectation of some suspenseful, Nordic noir short stories, don’t make the mistake that I almost did and skip the 20-page introduction to this anthology. What I wrongly assumed to be an act of indulgence by John-Henri Holmberg turned out to be a masterful survey of Swedish crime fiction from the 1890s to the present day. It’s essential reading and will have you scurrying online for available translations of novels by the authors he mentions.
We’ve become used to English language critics opining on Scandinavian crime, so it’s refreshing to read a Swede offering his authoritative verdict on current authors and their antecedents. We learn, for instance, that SA Duse employed a literary contrivance for which Agatha Christie is still celebrated today, even though her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd did not appear until almost a decade after Duse’s The Diary of Dr Smirnos (1917).
After World War II, pulp fiction was popular in Sweden where hundreds of titles, including translations from Peter Cheyney, Mickey Spillane and James Hadley Chase, were sold from newsstands and known disparagingly as ‘dirt literature’. When the hardboiled tradition was combined with social criticism by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Swedish crime fiction was transformed and became a respected literary form at home and abroad.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote hardly any short stories but their entry in this anthology is a riveting, perceptive account of a conman encountered by the narrators on board the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. The Multi-Millionaire, first published in Sweden in 1970, is a psychological study that reflects the crime couple’s political concerns – and it shows they were as skillful at short fiction as novels.
There’s another double-act for An Unlikely Meeting, written by Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser. However, this doesn’t quite live up to its billing as the story is a sly piece of meta-fiction in which the two detectives, Wallander and Van Veeteren, enjoy a chance meeting in a snowbound restaurant at Christmas before being joined by the authors themselves.
It’s actually one of several tales set during Christmas that feature in A Darker Shade, whose authors seem to relish the opportunity to shatter the peace and goodwill of the festive season. Inger Frimansson’s In Our Darkened House is a nasty, highly effective story; knowing someone’s going to die, you keep reading this grim tale to find out who and how. An Alibi for Señor Banegas by Magnus Montelius is even better: a perfect balance of character and story. When a visiting Honduran politician demands a Swedish construction company manager provide him with marital alibis in exchange for a big contract, it seems to open up the Swedish host’s natural hostility to Christmas with dreadful consequences.
There’s a strong Nordic noir tone to several of these stories and it’s refreshing to see women portrayed as criminals (Anna Jansson’s The Ring) or modern femme fatales turning the tables on weak, abusive men (Never in Real Life by Åke Edwardson). Perhaps the strongest story is also the strangest: He Liked His Hair by Rolf and Cilla Börjlind is a beautifully written description of the inner turmoil of a psychopath, which features an unexpected everyday item as a murder weapon.
A Darker Shade has hardly any weak entries, though its weakest by far is its star name: Stieg Larsson. Holmberg was a friend and biographer of Larsson, so it’s understandable that the editor sought to include the late author in this collection. However, Brain Power is a piece of juvenilia that Larsson wrote aged 17 and it is not worth reading even out of curiosity.
If you focus on the rest of A Darker Shade, Holmberg’s selection is as sure-footed as that expert introduction. This anthology is a testament to the enduring quality of Swedish crime fiction and it will almost certainly introduce you to some favourite new authors.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 4 Stars