- Swedish Marxist Noir: The Dark Wave of Crime Writers and the Influence of Raymond Chandler by Per Hellgren
How did a genre that began as overt Marxist agitation grow into a global phenomenon in which Swedish authors could sell books by the tens of millions? Per Hellgren—journalist, author, and Per Wahlöö scholar—attempts to offer new pieces to this puzzle by tracing the ideological evolution of Nordic Noir. He finds the genre's roots in Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled and socially conscious Philip Marlowe novels (1939–1958), which inspired Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall to transform the traditionally conservative genre into a vehicle for leftist critique. With their Martin Beck decalogy (1965–1975), the author-couple was open about their political agenda, but Hellgren argues that Marxist—or Marxist-adjacent—theory also permeates later Nordic Noir. Hellgren pins his Marxist labels on works from writers such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Roslund & Hellström, Jens Lapidus, Arne Dahl, and Lars Kepler. With the concept "Swedish Marxist Noir," Hellgren hopes to bring to the forefront Marxism's influence on Scandinavian crime fiction. He performs a Marxist reading of Swedish crime novels and ends up with three categories of writers: (1) bourgeois, (2) Marxist Noir, and (3) Post-Marxist Noir (pp. 211–2).
Nordic Noir remains trendy with readers, viewers, and scholars, but you can hardly criticize Hellgren's approach for being fashionable. As literary criticism slowly moves away from theory and political tilt (Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique, University of Chicago Press, 2015; Toril Moi, Revolution of the Ordinary, University of Chicago Press, 2017), Hellgren decides to go full Marx—not only in his reading of older literature, but with his encouragement to contemporary authors. Hellgren attempts to re-invigorate belief in the ideology's value for crime authors who want to "galvanize future generations into consciousness" (p. 215). If that strikes you as a recipe for vexatious political proselytizing instead of useful insights, you are likely to be pleasantly surprised. The independent scholar places his work at the nexus of the academic discussion regarding Nordic Noir's ideology, and he offers new perspectives on the interplay between fiction and societal beliefs in Sweden from the 1960s until today. Hellgren develops his somewhat eccentric argument confidently and with commendable candor when findings refute his thesis. The weakness of his approach—at least in the opinion of this reviewer—is that Hellgren waters down the concept of Marxism so much that his typology is unlikely to be useful for other scholars. Still, as a portrait of Swedish leftist ideological evolution over half a century, this book brings valuable pieces to the captivating puzzle that Nordic Noir has become. [End Page 134]
"Marxist Noir" is a term cultural historian Alan Wald coined for American left-wing pulp writers in the 1940s and 1950s. These writers were purged for an ideology that found barren soil in Senator Joseph McCarthy's America, and they have long since been forgotten. But Hellgren sees in their writing a parallel to literature that later bloomed in Swedish soil. Wahlöö's inspiration, though, came from a less obscure source. In chapter 1, Hellgren identifies Raymond Chandler's dystopian L.A. as chief inspiration for the latter word in Nordic Noir. This is a connection that other scholars have also made (p. 15). Hellgren attempts to hang "a Marxist turn" on Chandler because his literature portrayed crime as a systemic symptom. The Swedish scholar admits that a Marxist label is an odd fit for Chandler, who was a Communist-despising liberal. But Hellgren still concludes that Chandler's thinking "resonates with Marxist critique" (p. 39). This semantic flexibility is what allows Hellgren to further his bold thesis as his argument ventures into rougher and rougher terrain.
No one disputes that Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote with Marxist conviction, or that this conviction resulted in narratives that were informed by Marxist and related theories. Chapter 2 deals expertly with this historical phenomenon, which Hellgren also accounted for in his...