Film reviews: Artistic branding iron

Jim Moody reviews: Kjell Sundvall (director) The hunters (1996); False trail (2011)

False Trail: hands up!

Following 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.

Perhaps 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 release).

Though 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.

In 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.

But 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 marked.

From 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.

Fifteen 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 Lebowski).

They 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.

Lineage

These 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’ decalogy1 over 10 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.

As 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.

Indeed, 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 laughing policeman (as An 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.

Yet 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.

While 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.

This 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 bourgeois type”.3 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

The 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 to do.

 

False trail is currently on UK film release, while The hunters is available on DVD.

Notes

1. 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.

2. In volume order: Henning Mankell, Val McDermid, Jo Nesbø, Nicci French, Colin Dexter, Michael Carlson, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Lars Kepler and Dennis Lehane.

3. 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.

4. M Dibdin The Picador book of crime writing London 1994.

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