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News & Features » March 2016 » Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg’s Introduction to Stockholm Noir

Nathan Larson & Carl-Michael Edenborg’s Introduction to Stockholm Noir

To celebrate the release of Stockholm Noir, the latest release from Akashic’s award-winning Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a look at editors Nathan Larson and Carl-Michael Edenborg’s introduction, “While the City Sleeps.”

While the City Sleeps

To the tourist, the city of Stockholm appears a shimmering dream. Laid out on a series of islands, it is verdant, clean, and surrounded by crystalline water. On paper, Stockholm is paradise. And in some respects, it truly is. But in most respects, it is anything but.

While Stockholm is Sweden’s capital, crown jewel, and the seat of its monarchy, it’s impossible to understand the city without taking a closer look at the country as a whole. Its citizens are largely happy to prop each other up, paying taxes into a theoretically fantastic system of free health care, education, generous maternal and paternal leave, an expectation of six-to-eight-weeks paid annual vacation. Culture and the arts are valued and heavily subsidized. Government-sponsored graffiti contests, concerts, crafts fairs, and municipal skate parks abound. If born into this system, you can expect a very high standard of living.

Yes, there is much to be proud of and thankful for as a Swede. It’s a great country, a second home for one of us, the birthplace for the other. There’s a lot to love about Sweden.

Naturally, all is not so simple. Sweden, a famously neutral country, is one of the world’s biggest arms dealers. The Swedish role during World War II was . . . complicated. The extreme right wing is on a meteoric rise, as expressly isolationist/anti-immigrant groups steadily gain a foothold in the country’s government. While the myriad political parties create coalitions in order to survive, Sweden edges ever closer to a two-party political system, with the once-colorful spectrum of political voices narrowed and watered down.

Sweden is the home to multinationals like drug giant AstraZeneca, Spotify, Volvo, and, of course, IKEA—that benign beacon of modest conformity, still unable to shake the faint but persistent whiff of fascism that has surrounded it since its inception.

Like nearly everywhere else in the world, American exports such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc., are creeping in. There exists a shockingly vicious tabloid culture, and Swedish television is dominated by American films and TV shows, or homegrown versions of Fear Factor, Survivor, and The Voice—though this is a relatively recent development. Until the late 1980s, there were only two (state-run) TV channels. Programming was sourced as much from the East—Finland, the Soviet Union—as it was from the West.

Swedes, being modern Westerners, very naturally want their lattes, the occasional Big Mac, streaming Netflix, and their position on the world stage, whatever the field. Swedes want to make money and compete in the global marketplace. The end result is something like free-market socialism. And why not? But can the two “extremes” (capitalism, socialism) coexist in this way? With the appearance of “private” health clinics, bringing stratification to the system, the trend toward overseas boarding schools, and the pervasive lure and abundance of all things material . . . well, it challenges the myth of a classless society, as only the elite will be able to indulge in these “enhancements.” Naturally, this inspires a simmering anger amongst some of those less well endowed.


Returning to Stockholm itself—while this town is admittedly not a gnarly, crime-infested metropolis, the city is still plenty dark. Stockholm has two very distinct hearts that beat, each absolutely dependent on the other. One heart is lodged deep in the moneyed streets of Östermalm and Vasastan. The other beats deep in its suburbs, essentially an inversion of the inner city, an external growth of the old Stockholm that serves to triple its population.

This is the front-and-center issue of our age.

A Christian Democrat might describe this outer urban growth as a tumor, or a fungus, a deadly threat to the Swedish social system, to be surgically removed if possible. The left, on the other hand, would be at pains to express its view that this growth is an evolution, to be nurtured like the development of a new fantastic limb with which the entity called Stockholm can do exciting and new things.

Politics aside, we could be talking about Stockholm, London, or New York City when we observe that these dual trajectories can be classified as monied—indigenous, blue-blooded, white, comfortably settled; and aspirational—newly arrived, generally nonwhite, ready to work hard and climb the class ladder. In other words: the immigrant.

Pragmatically, all systems would fail without the aspirational heart. It’s this segment of the population that keeps the wheels running, the kitchens of fancy restaurants staffed, the hospitals functioning, the garbage collected. And in a country like Sweden, with its tremendous tax-driven health care system, you need a lot of folks pulling levers to keep everything upright. There should be nothing controversial about this observation.

Complexities arise when we acknowledge an obvious trend: increasingly, the dominant group (the indigenous white) no longer wants these core jobs. We can observe this worldwide.

To understand the nature of Stockholm’s outgrowth, we must examine the Miljonprogrammet (the Million Program), the Social Democrats’ staggeringly ambitious 1965 housing blitz, with its aim of constructing a million new homes within a decade—free from misery, bad air, and the disease of the inner city.

The architectural style employed here, almost by necessity, was termed modernist, but the end product seems to bear a closer to relation to functionalist style. To be more direct, most of these structures would not be out of place in the Soviet Union or the former German Democratic Republic.

The earnest, wide-eyed social plan to create “good democratic citizens” was clearly and happily stated as part of the public works project. The predominate living unit was called a normaltrea, a three-room apartment of about seventy-five square meters, designed to snugly contain a family of four.

The last elements of the Million Program—the construction of world-class schools, libraries, playgrounds, and areas of greenery—proved far more difficult to achieve. And the lofty if noble vision to integrate diverse groups of households was, it could be safely said, an abject failure. This was due in part to awkward, hasty construction . . . and in terms of the utopian vision of world citizens mingling, cross-pollinating—it was not to be.

Two coinciding factors in the late 1960s scuttled these plans, at least in the sense that their architects had intended. First of all, middle-class (mostly white) Swedes might pay lip service to the ideals of the Million Program over drinks—oh, absolutely! But they wouldn’t dare to actually live in these unfortunate places. This dynamic dovetailed with the steady arrival of more “New Swedes” from North Africa, the Middle East, subcontinental Asia, and later the former Yugoslavia, all in immediate need of housing.

A large percentage of Sweden’s Iraqi population resides in the suburban Södertälje, and it’s notable that Sweden has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the US and Canada combined. This arms-open-wide immigration policy is certainly commendable, and is a remnant of the Olof Palme administration: its solidarity with anticolonial struggle and general anti-American posturing. But many Swedes are perhaps not so comfortable with what the fruit of these policies actually look like.

By design, these new communities were self-contained, isolated from the outside world. As such, the immigrant communities of the greater Stockholm area were efficiently (if unintentionally) cut off from the rest of the population.

Walking through these areas today, spots like Husby and Tensta, you will see the Swedish equivalent of one of America’s most notorious housing projects—Chicago’s former Cabrini-Green Homes. The recent riots of May 2013—needless to say, an extremely rare occurrence in a town like Stockholm—are perhaps a taste of things to come. Class hatred has always been an issue, even in a supposedly classless society, and now a racial element has been introduced that was not there before, simply because the society had been too homogenous to support it.

Look again at the term “good democratic citizens.” Or the term normaltrea, with its Latin root normal (“conforming to common standards”), implying that the ingredients of “normality” involve a happy couple, two children, and a modest apartment. This is the same type of utopian/uniform thinking that led to the growth of the American suburbs in the 1940s, intended largely to house returning soldiers and their families.

In Stockholm Noir, the city is presented as a gaping maw ready to devour your soul should you wander down the wrong alley . . . but it doesn’t limit itself to the urban, even in the earliest incarnations of the form. The city can represent a place to reinvent yourself, to duck out on your history, to begin again and rise like a phoenix.

Even so, as early as the late 1940s—with the American suburbs a model for the upwardly mobile, for those seeking escape from the shadow of the urban—even as they were being constructed, the suburbs were recognized as places of immense spiritual corruption. Put a twenty-two-year-old male with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder fresh from the battlefields of Europe in a remote box with his family. Put an unhappy wife next door, looking to escape her hellish life. Add yet another angry, damaged man to all of this, and put a smattering of children in everybody’s path. You have on your hands material for countless problematic situations.

In this volume, Johan Theorin’s “Still in Kallhäll” takes place in the “suburbs” of Stockholm, and his tale astutely reflects the violent envy felt by those on the periphery. Anna-Karin Selberg’s “Horse,” as well as Inger Frimansson’s “Black Ice” and Malte Persson’s “The Splendors and Miseries of a Swedish Crime Writer,” similarly take place on the outskirts. These areas are as indicative of the true nature of Stockholm as the neighborhoods depicted in Torbjörn Elensky’s “Kim,” set in the central, beatific Gamla Stan, one of the best-preserved medieval sectors in Northern Europe. Or in the piece by coeditor Nathan Larson, where the events take place in the tony upmarket shopping district of Stockholm, among the haute clothing racks of Swedish designers.

Wherever there is existential dread, where there are shadows, where there is money in the hands of some and not in others, where there is lust, wherever a human can try and fail, there is noir. All that is required is the insight that we will not make it out of this life alive, and we are damned to chaos. Everywhere misery and hatred live, there is noir. Where there is fear and despair, there is noir. This is where literature steps in and gives voice to that creeping sense that there is a deep disease, a rotten core within all this shiny economic growth.

Everywhere is noir. Even, and especially, in a paradise like Sweden, where the citizen is given every tool to go out and become a great success but is paradoxically held to an almost subliminal expectation to fall in line . . . and never shine so brightly that you disturb your neighbor.

Even as crimes rates remain extremely low, Swedes love scaring themselves . . . and above all they love their crime fiction. Traditionally, Swedish crime novels have been verbose, realist stories about good-hearted, weary cops, faced with all the things the country has in truth never seen: mass murderers, rampant mafioso, and overall mayhem. The public devours this stuff, needing stimulation of the fear center that is so rarely disturbed in Sweden. Tired, flaccid police procedurals, often overly long.

Swedish crime fiction hasn’t always been Liza Marklund, Stieg Larsson, and Leif G.W. Persson. In the early days, the politically incorrect Gustaf Ericsson wrote hard-boiled fiction, most famously The Man You Killed (1932). Many of the early Worker’s Movement writers, like Jan Fridegård, explored the darkest edges of Sweden at night. Remaining within the safety of the harmless parlor-crime genre, authors like Stieg Trenter and Sjöwall and Wahlöö churned out material in the vein of Agatha Christie or Ed McBain—well-meaning but formulaic, social democratic stuff. From this rose the Mankells and the Marklunds, coming to full flower with the Dragon Tattoo series, and thus the Swedish crime fiction miracle was realized.

The rest is best-selling history. But it is emphatically not noir.

In this anthology it’s our aim to showcase the darker, grittier, more intense world of Swedish noir fiction. Here the dangers lurking beneath the IKEA lifestyle are given free rein, and words are given to the ambivalence and despair of a model society. We have invited only a handful of the finest crime writers; the other contributors are poets, uncompromising literary fiction writers, hard-core literary beasts.

Crime is frequently a vehicle for noir rides, but it needn’t be. Noir is unfailingly realistic in the sense that there is always moral and narrative complexity—if you’re a sociopath, you can fuck someone’s partner, take everything he or she is worth, and get away with it. No problem. And if you’re a sociopath, there’s no universal law. You can get close to success, but dread will always follow, and there’s always the possibility of total collapse. It transcends gender, race, or political system. Noir is not nihilism; it is exaggerated realism. In this sense there can never, ever be a truly happy ending.

Kinda like life.


Nathan LarsonNATHAN LARSON is an award-winning film composer, musician, producer, and the author of the novels The Dewey Decimal System, The Nervous System, and The Immune System, as well as the coeditor of Stockholm Noir. He has made music for many films, including Boys Don’t Cry, Margin Call, and the Swedish movies Stockholm Stories and Lilya 4-Ever. He and his wife, singer Nina Persson, divide their time between New York City and Sweden.


Carl-MichaelEdenborgCARL-MICHAEL EDENBORG is a publisher, writer, and critic with a PhD in intellectual history. He has written several short stories and novels. His independent Vertigo publishing company has brought out many nonconformist classics, from Marquis de Sade to Samuel Delany. His latest novel, The Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the prestigious Swedish August Prize in 2014. He is the coeditor of Stockholm Noir.

Posted: Mar 14, 2016

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