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Has Sweden produced another series of great murder mysteries?

I’ve just finished the first novel from Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I’d have to say it’s a real possibility.

The book, published after Larsson’s death in 2004 at the age of 50, is a tightly plotted–until the last 100 pages or so anyway–page turner set inside the paternal world of the family business empires that dominated the post-war Swedish economy. In the last section of the book Larsson succumbs towhat I’d call  the William Gibson plausibility malady: give a hacker hero enough powers and anything is possible and nothing is very interesting.

Larsson’s fictional team of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker Lisbeth Salander is a far cry from Martin Beck, the detective in 10 mysteries written by wife and husband team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo from 1965-1975, or Kurt Wallander, the detective in eight novels (and counting) from Henning Mankell beginning in 1991.

Beck is, in the words of the Washington Post, “so ordinary it hurts,” and Wallander is, if possible even more depressed than Beck. The great question in the first series was “Is something wrong in Sweden?” and in the second “What went wrong in Sweden?”

Larsson’s pair, in comparison swim amidst the wreckage of a Swedish boom when everything seemed possible and available to those who were rich enough—even if their wealth was built on accounting fiction. Makes for a great read—warning: watch out for some of the very rough sex and sadism that seems to be de rigueur in murder mysteries right now—and proves again why Nero was much more entertaining than Seneca.

The second novel in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire, is due in hard cover in the United States in late July.

For me Larsson’s novels again raise the question: Why does Sweden produce so much really great crime fiction? Maybe because the country’s relatively low murder rate—2.56 homicides per 100,000 in population in 2005—still makes murder shocking—but yet is also high enough—almost three times the rate in Denmark—to make murder a real fear. Before you dismiss that theory, consider that Scotland, a country with about the same homicide rate as Sweden is home to Ian Rankin’s equally masterful and enjoyable seventeen-novel John Rebus detective series (1987-2007), the best in my opinion of the wave of crime fiction coming out of Scotland known as “Tartan Noir.”