Scotland’s festival of crime writing honours a genre Swedish culture is struggling to find acceptable, says Arne Dahl
When the cultural guardians are in a really bad mood, crime writers are accused of the most frightful things. We profit from suffering. We glorify criminality. We wallow in violence. We reduce life’s most precious frontier – the one between life and death – to sheer entertainment.
This is at least the case in Sweden. Maybe you Scots – who really created the genre, through Conan Doyle – have lived longer with it and are thereby more familiar with the important role of crime fiction in the age of modernity. I certainly hope so.
The rather sudden boom of Swedish crime fiction was a bit of a shock to us Swedes. The public opinion is still stunned. Not the reading public, by all means – they love it, they read more than ever – but the official attitude spans from confusion to contempt.
The government has only just realised that the image of small, insignificant Sweden is spreading around the globe like never before – but they don’t really know what to do with this. It is not always the brightest images of Sweden that reach foreign shores, and thus the success of Swedish crime fiction is a double-edged sword that could bounce back into their faces.
And then there are the protectors of highbrow culture. They are also a bit confused. Suddenly the image of Swedish literature abroad is in the hands of what is considered popular culture. It is out of their hands. To a certain extent, I belong to these protectors – I still do believe that nothing will help you to grow like really good literature – but when I mention crime fiction in this context, it usually becomes very quiet. This is a sphere that will not permit any leakage between the sectors of high-brow and popular art.
Crime fiction’s role in society
They all have an old map. They still believe that crime fiction is a lower form of literature. I do not.
I believe that crime fiction plays a crucial role in the depiction of a society moving into modernity. The sense of mystery and thrill has been fundamental to all art since cave paintings and the first oral stories – and I believe that crime fiction remains the perfect way to talk about contemporary society, its abuse of power, its injustice, its inequality, its continuous failures. Crime fiction carries a critical potential like few other genres.
Crime fiction writers do not like crimes or violence. We love justice. We love it when the wrongs are corrected. We even create parallel universes where justice, for a short period of time, can prevail. We thrust the readers into chaos, but we promise that there will be cosmos in the end, there will be some kind of order, and even truth. And for a short while, you will believe us. There is justice after all.
Scotland has a great crime fiction tradition – from classics such as Michael Innes and Josephine Tey to contemporaries like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina – and now you also have a great crime festival, in the shape of Bloody Scotland. It’s about time.
Sweden doesn’t have a crime festival. Not even a small one. It always surprises foreigners. Norway has one, Denmark’s Horsens is really nice, but in Sweden – nothing. This has to do with the surprise and confusion about whose image of Sweden it is that is spreading around the world.
Connection between Scotland and Scandinavia
We are not truly loved at home like the crime writers seem to be in Scotland. The borderline between crime fiction and “real” fiction doesn’t seem to be as strict as it is in Sweden, the country of the Nobel Prize.
I have always felt that there is a mental connection between Scotland and Scandinavia. We are both part of the small north that the big centre tends to forget or ignore, the periphery slowly but surely moving towards the centre.
You also have a separate, northern tradition, a barren northern landscape with a special kind of sad beauty, and you have all of these great writers. With all their individual differences, they all speak in a tongue that I do not hesitate to call Scottish.
With Bloody Scotland, you have taken the step that still remains to be taken in Sweden. You have an international crime festival. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I will.
• Arne Dahl is a crime writer, author of Bad Blood. He appears at Bloody Scotland: www.bloodyscotland.com and at the Edinburgh International Book Festival: www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/arne-dahl-alex-gray