Film reviews: Artistic branding iron
Jim Moody reviews: Kjell Sundvall (director) The hunters (1996); False trail (2011)
False Trail: hands up!
what has now become a healthy tradition, recent works from
Scandinavia have engendered a growing appreciation of ‘police
procedural’ crime fiction in its different formats as something
well worth reading or watching. A couple of its currently released
films may help enhance this reputation.
you might imagine that the reindeer and timber country of the far
north of Sweden is not a location where heinous crimes are likely to
occur. But in this estimation you would be wrong, if Kjell Sundvall’s
two sequential films are anything to go by (Sundvall’s earlier work
premiered on DVD in the UK a few days before the sequel’s film
the two films’ storylines are separated by 15 years (as are the
years of production), Stockholm cop Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgård,
the first on-screen Wallander) appears as the key outsider in both.
He gets a lot more than he bargained for in each case.
The hunters (Jägarna) Erik returns to
his home town in the sparsely populated top half of Sweden, Norrland,
to take up a job in the local police department. He is publicly
welcomed at first as a star returnee, later even celebrated with a
large, open-air plaque ceremony and an article in the local paper.
Erik, the city-trained policeman, is not about to turn off his
criminality radar. And therein lies the rasp that sets his erstwhile
homeboys on edge. For the first case that comes across his desk is
one of reindeer-poaching, which the local police boss (Åke Lindman)
and others consider relatively unimportant, since it only adversely
affects Sami (known pejoratively as Lapp) herders. Erik, however, is
not prepared just to go through the motions and, once he mounts a
routine check of all the many hunting rifles in the area, his card is
there things spiral to hell in a handbasket, as the pack of thugs and
their friends in high places do everything to keep a lid on their
activity, including assault, gang-rape and murder. Local police boss
complicity is written all over it. Despite being caught red-handed,
without a Swedish equivalent of that good old English legal standby,
‘joint enterprise’, the killers cannot be prosecuted: no-one
knows whose bullets were responsible.
years after all this, False trail sees Erik Bäckström
sent back to his home town in Norrland by the Mordkommissionen
(National Murder Commission) in Stockholm - although he is
understandably reluctant to return to the scene of so much personal
misery. And this time Erik’s new nemesis is one of the local
policeman, Torsten (Peter Stormare of Fargo and The big
lock horns early on when everyone is looking for a missing woman,
Elin Ledin (Ellenor Lindgren). Torsten and the rest of the local
force want to hang her disappearance on his main bugbear, lowlife
Jari Lipponen (Eero Milonoff). Sadly for them, Erik is equally clear
and adamant that Jari was not involved, nor is he going to fall for
their ‘it’s obvious’ routine. Instead, Erik applies his best
police practice to ferret out the real culprit. Torsten’s dirty
tricks fail to gain purchase and the denouement sees Erik vindicated,
methodological exactitude paying big dividends.
two films are part of a whole genre of police procedurals and
thrillers. The godparents of this creative ‘family’, which has
acknowledged authorial ‘offspring’ in the UK and around the
world, were the Swedish Marxist couple, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö,
who wrote alternate chapters of their ‘Detective Martin Beck’
years, from 1965 to 1975. The 10 books were in fact conceived by the
authors as but 10 sections of one big book. They made no bones about
having been themselves inspired by such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond
Chandler and Georges Simenon. In their writing they aimed to reflect
the real nature of a changing Swedish society, striving to strip away
the ‘social democratic consensus’ that attempted to disguise its
class nature, deprivation and exploitation.
exemplars of police procedurals within crime writing, Sjöwall and
Wahlöö’s works were unparalleled at the time. During the 1940s
and 1950s there had been a strangely persistent, sentimental
hankering for cosy Agatha Christie mysteries solved at the last
moment by a solitary, private or amateur detective’s brilliant
insight. This milksop approach is still rife in such recycled works
as the Poirot and Miss Marple series, and unfortunately
has been continued in the new-old cosiness of Hart to Hart;
Murder, she wrote; Jonathan Creek; Hetty Wainthropp
investigates; Rosemary and Thyme; Midsomer murders,
and so on. But the way is open for new police procedurals, with their
levels of complexity, reality and humanity.
their literary ‘progeny’ took such inspiration from Sjöwall and
Wahlöö that several leading crime writers2
were easily persuaded to write a series of introductions to recent
reprints of the couples’ 10 books. You have to look back to 1973,
however, for a Hollywood production of the work: only The
investigation of murder)
has been filmed in English, though with its location moved to San
Francisco; over the years there have been several Swedish one-off
films and series. But UK screenings of Sjöwall’s and Wahlöö’s
works have been sadly absent.
it is the gritty, hardboiled work of more realistically portrayed
detectives and police work that can move us beyond mere entertainment
and to where complacency is dislodged. It is reality rather than
quiescent fantasy that enlivens the kind of crime writing that
Sjöwall and Wahlöö rejuvenated 40 years ago. A hallmark of their
work, which also distinguishes the best of those who follow in their
literary lineage, is that their stories are about more than just one
person. So it becomes more than merely sharing Beck’s thoughts,
strivings and foibles, but extends to those of his colleagues,
members of the public and criminals upon whom we focus. In fact, it
becomes akin to how the reader might get to know those around her or
him in the real world - but with the added insight of the author and
the characterisations brought out in concrete dramatic situations.
novels such as Irvine Welsh’s stunning Filth can take us
into the cesspit mind of an individual police officer, what the
police procedural is often able to do is expose the failings of our
capitalist society, through skilled characterisation. As Sjöwall and
Wahlöö showed, at its best such fiction is an artistic branding
iron searing the soul.
is what Sjöwall and Wahlöö accomplished. Indeed, Wahlöö is
widely quoted as saying that it was essential to “use the crime
novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically
pauperised and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the
Even non-Marxists find they too are enamoured of the pair’s work,
arguing, for example, that “... the Martin Beck series itself ...
is not only unique in presenting a detailed and evolving vision of
police work from a definable political perspective, but consistently
transcends the level of the average police procedural thanks to a
prevailing sense of unease, which in the end seems as much
existential as ideological.”4
acknowledged legacy of these 1960s Marxist pioneers of the
revitalisation of police procedurals continues in the work of
excellent writers within the same genre, including Henning Mankell,
Val McDermid, Jo Nesbø, Ian Rankin and others working exclusively in
film and television. Long may this continue, as it seems very likely
trail is currently on UK film release, while The hunters
is available on DVD.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö Roseanna 1965; The man who
went up in smoke (Mannen som gick upp i rök) 1966; The
man on the balcony (Mannen på balkongen) 1967; The
laughing policeman (Den skrattande polisen) 1968; The
fire engine that disappeared (Brandbilen som försvann)
1969; Murder at the Savoy (Polis, polis, potatismos!)
1970; The abominable man (Den vedervärdige mannen från
Säffle) 1971; The locked room (Det slutna rummet)
1972; Cop killer (Polismördaren) 1974; The
terrorists (Terroristerna) 1975.
In volume order: Henning Mankell, Val McDermid, Jo Nesbø, Nicci
French, Colin Dexter, Michael Carlson, Lee Child, Michael Connelly,
Lars Kepler and Dennis Lehane.
Quoted in C Beyer, ‘Death of the author: Maj Sjöwall and Per
Wahlöö’s police procedurals’, in V Miller, H Oakley (eds)
Cross-cultural connections in crime fictions Basingstoke 2012.
M Dibdin The Picador book of crime writing London 1994.