Fifteen years ago, a politician walked out of a municipal board meeting in Uppsala, Sweden. He was never seen again and, over time, declared dead. Then a Swedish tourist passing through Bangalore spotted him at the iconic Koshy’s café off MG Road. It turned out that the elderly politician was working with the gardeners at Lal Bagh Botanical Garden, where he had found peace among south Indian plants and herbs. But finally, his past caught up with him.
Swedish connection: Kjell Eriksson sends his sleuth to Bangalore where his quarry was first spotted at Koshy’s café, off MG Road. Dinodia
What mysterious circumstances drove him to this unusual exile? That is the basic riddle that kicks off best-selling crime writer Kjell Eriksson’s novel Den Hand som Skälver (The Hand that Trembles). Although it hasn’t come out in English yet, earlier books in Eriksson’s brilliant Ann Lindell series—such as The Princess of Burundi and The Demon of Dakar—are available from online shops, and so the mystery set in Bangalore should hopefully be next in line. While travelling around in Scandinavia recently, investigating its famous crime fiction boom, I amused myself by scouting for detective novels that have Indian settings. Although most books written by Scandinavian writers are naturally set in Scandinavia, my survey showed that a handful are a little more daring in their choice of locations.
The Bofors scandal—one of the hottest potatoes of Cold War Sweden—left surprisingly few traces in fiction but I did find one: Berget (The Mountain), which is a 2002 novel by Lars Andersson. In it a carpenter from Karlskoga (where the Bofors industries were founded) comes to India and gets mixed up in a strange kidnapping; the Bofors affair features in the sprawling novel’s mysterious undercurrents. Although Berget hasn’t been translated, I hear that another of Andersson’s books, Pestkungens Legend (The Legend of the King of Pests), is soon going to be published in Hindi as Mahamari ka Raja by Vani Prakashan.
Best-selling ex-poet Mikael Niemi, whose Popular Music was read by virtually every Swede (but some saw the film version), recently published an intriguing crime novel, Mannen som Dog som en Lax (The Man Who Died as a Salmon), about a grumpy man who is murdered in Pajala. The novel goes on to explore how the minorities of northern Sweden have been mistreated. In this perhaps only genuinely “postcolonial” Swedish novel there is also a connection to India—one of the characters, on a visit to Bangalore, meets a 10-year-old street boy who speaks four Indian languages, “four languages and no sign of an overloaded hard-disc”. This serves as an image of multiculturalism in contrast to the mono-cultural ideals that the welfare state espoused while suppressing its minority languages in favour of Swedish as a national language.
Browsing further, I next came across Calle Hård, an ex-tabloid journalist who partly sets his detective novels in Kerala where he spends his post-retirement time. His 2006 debut Numret till Calicut (The Number for Calicut) deals with a terrorist attack in Sweden. Leads are traced via a cellphone SIM card used by hackers to Kozhikode. It turns out to be a red herring which nevertheless results in the arrest of lots of foreigners in Sweden, including a visiting Indian academic. The author wanted to show how flimsy legal protection is for individuals when the global anti-terrorism mass hysteria spreads in the Western world.
Finally, the Norwegian “queen of crime” Karin Fossum, whose books are found in well-stocked Indian shops, has written a dark thriller called The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out For You). In it an elderly Norwegian bachelor on holiday in Mumbai falls in love, unlikely though it may seem, with a waitress in a tandoori restaurant. They get married, but on the way to her new home in rural Norway, the bride is murdered by somebody in the village—and her devastated husband is one of the suspects. In this novel the Indian connection is used to expose thinly-disguised Scandinavian xenophobia.
That’s the amount of Indian spice in Scandinavian detective fiction so far, but more will probably follow as crime writers gradually use up all available settings within the immediate neighbourhood, and cases take the detectives further away from their home turf.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org