Is the Swedish welfare state a social disaster permeated by crime?
15 September 2011
The Swedish police force appears on our television screens, year in and year out. The socially critical police narratives in novels and films have a tremendous impact. But have the fictional police affected real-life public opinion and political decisions? This is one of the issues investigated by film studies scholar Michael Tapper in his thesis: "The cop in the twilight land: Swedish police narratives in novels and films 1965-2010".
Aiming a magnifying glass at the bestsellers within the Swedish crime genre in both novels and films, Michael Tapper maps their development from Sjöwall-Wahlöö to Stieg Larsson. His work is a history of Swedish ideas and culture in the years from 1965 to 2010, dealing with the social debate, views on criminality, the role of the police and masculinity.
Popular Swedish police films have persistently presented a TV picture of a Sweden in which the welfare state was rotten to the core and barely concealed a brutal class structure and rampant crime.
“For years, criminologists have tried to give a more subtle image of violent crime and to tone down the threatening representations of an invading Eastern European mafia, but crime journalism, populist politicians of various ideological persuasions and crime literature thrive on an alarmist outlook. A black and white world view with good pitched against evil, us against them, is also something we have all learned from fairy tales. This is why we are receptive to such stories.”
Regardless of whether the social criticism has come from the right or from the left, the disaster scenario has been remarkably similar. Sjöwall and Wahlöö were Marxist-Leninist, and their series of novels, The Story of a Crime, became germinal for an entire generation of authors. They saw their novels as contemporary documentaries, and wanted to show through their writing how social democracy betrayed socialism and strived towards a social-fascist dictatorship. This suited their view of history, according to which capitalist society inevitably tends towards increased inequalities of class and more pronounced antagonism, resulting inevitably in a communist revolution.
After them, the tradition in crime novels developed along two main lines. For authors such as Olov Svedelid and Henning Mankell and in detective series such as those featuring Beck, Johan Falk and Wallander, the police constitute the citizen’s defence against the threat of invasion from well-organised international crime. Leif GW Persson, Jan Guillou and Stieg Larsson, on the other hand, are examples of authors who perceive that a greater threat comes from extreme rightwing and anti-democratic forces within the police and intelligence services.
Similarly, police officers have been portrayed in two ways. Either they were a symptom of the country’s diseased condition, themselves affected by stress, ulcers, diabetes, obesity, alcoholism and chronic depression (Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander, Ewert Grens) or on the contrary, they were on a par with the over-performing superheroes of our time, as society’s last stand against criminal barbarity (Carl Hamilton, Johan Falk).
Unlike earlier interpretations, Michael Tapper’s study sees the Swedish crime novel and film as a part of – and not separate from – the international development of the genre. It is also one of the explanations for the worldwide success of the Swedish crime novel – the combination of a new location (Sweden) and partly new themes for stories that are basically very familiar.
Michael Tapper publicly defended his thesis on 10 September 2011.