The detective plot, like the marriage plot to which it bears so many resemblances, is a conservative structure: beginning with antisocial confusion, it moves through a process of discovery and self-knowledge to reach recognition and, finally, arrive at social re-order. So it’s not surprising that the golden ages of detective plots in whatever medium have all come during periods of turmoil, when the rule of law was a soothing fantasy: 1930s Britain, 1970s America, and, most recently, Sweden in the 1990s and early 2000s.
In this last period, an economic downturn brought into sharp relief the effects of fifty years of Europe’s most liberal immigration policy. Sweden spent the postwar years proving its “moral superpower” status (and expiating the guilt from its collusion with Germany during the war) by accepting all kinds of oppressed people, from Ugandan Asians exiled by Idi Amin to Chileans fleeing after the coup against Allende. Unlike in the rest of Europe, where migrants from poorer countries came for a bit to work, and then, generally, left, these refugees entered Sweden and stayed. Without resources or connections, frequently the traumatized victims of war and torture, rarely familiar with Swedish (unlike people from the former French or British colonies who migrated to countries that spoke their language of education), they were in a much different situation from the guest workers on the continent.
They found themselves in a country that viewed itself to an astonishing degree as a racially discrete unit. It was a country that had a functioning, government-approved eugenics program, based at the Institute for Race Biology at Uppsala University, from the 1920s until 1975. Official Swedish policy was to integrate rather than to assimilate the ethnically foreign refugees; a sensitive approach, perhaps, but one with the unfortunate side effect of creating ethnic enclaves in the affordable-housing projects that ringed Sweden’s major cities. And when that first round of unassimilated migrants started having children, and those children grew up speaking fluent Swedish and being in all respects Swedish except for their race and their poverty and cultural disenfranchisement, it created confusion for ethnic Swedes. Allan Pred’s 2000 book on Swedish racism, Even in Sweden, quotes the center-right paper Svenska Dagbladet, editorializing in 1993: “The Swedish people no longer recognize their country. Sweden’s ethnic identity has been changed, and another Sweden, consisting of a growing underclass and a cultural and economic proletariat with different skin and hair color, is in the process of developing.” Even now, it’s possible to walk around downtown Stockholm for days without spotting any people who deviate from the Scandinavian norm, although 13 percent of Swedes are foreign born.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, first the Iran-Iraq war and then the breakup of the Soviet Union produced unprecedented numbers of refugees, and this—alongside a major recession that led to a 10 percent rise in unemployment—put unprecedented pressure on the welfare state (or Folkhemmet, “the People’s Home,” as it’s called). Violent crime rose precipitously over this period, causing many Swedes to doubt the foundations of the society they had believed in so strongly for so much of the 20th century. And this became particularly true after the assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme in 1986—a crime that remains unsolved.
Nineteen ninety-one was the crucial year, both for Swedish immigration policy and for the birth of the modern Swedish detective novel. In September, a center-right coalition led by Carl Bildt’s Moderate Party, running in part on greater restrictions for refugees, ended a Social Democrat reign that had persisted with only one interruption since 1932. In the same election, a right-wing party founded just six months before, the New Democrats, won almost 7 percent of the national vote on an anti-immigration platform. Meanwhile, over the course of six months starting that August, a neo-Nazi named John Ausonius, known as the Laser Man, shot eleven dark-skinned immigrants with a laser-sighted rifle and a revolver, killing one. The son of German and Swiss immigrants who changed his name and dyed his dark hair blond to seem more Swedish, Ausonius became a symbol of the sick racist id of Swedish society. The government’s response to the killings struck many as maladroit, exemplified by the unfortunate attempt by the culture minister, Birgit Friggebo, to force an angry, frightened group of immigrants at a press conference to sing “We Shall Overcome.”
It was in 1991 also that Henning Mankell published his first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers. An old couple is brutally slaughtered, and the wife dies with one word on her lips: “foreign.” The police detective on the case, Wallander, is a grumpy, volatile middle-aged man coping with his own demons—an estranged wife and daughter, an eccentric aging father, and soft-core fantasies of anonymous sex with black women. He tries to keep the victim’s last words a secret, afraid of fueling conflict between the Skanian natives (he lives in the southern town of Ystad, close to the ports through which most refugees enter) and a local refugee camp. But word leaks out, and nativist groups begin placing harassing calls to the police station, finally setting off a bomb in the camp and shooting a Somali refugee.
Yet it is the Swedish welfare state rather than Swedish racism that is the villain of Faceless Killers. Toward the end of the book, Wallander ruminates about the new violence of Swedish culture and how the welfare state fails to protect its own citizens: “How long would the principle of the generous refugee policy be able to hold without leading to chaos? Was there any upward limit?” The Swedish couple’s murderer does turn out to be a foreigner, though not a racial outsider: he’s a Czech who convinces immigration officials that he’s a Gypsy, a persecuted minority, to gain refugee status. Sweden’s open-door policy, then, carries the responsibility for the first two deaths—and its tendency to cluster refugees in port-city camps while they await reassignment is implicitly given some responsibility for the third.