The Allure of Darkness

Dark and foreboding moods, brutal crimes, even social critique: Arne Dahl names many reasons why Swedish crime novels are so popular. Based on our findings, we headed out on the streets of Gothenburg to produce our own Swedish crime story. Our sleuth’s car: a Volvo PV544.
Text Natalie Diedrichs
Photo Vince Perraud

The motto this time is “Silence”. Do you think it was a good idea for us to interview you on the subject of Swedish crime novels for this issue?
In fact, it’s a great idea.

Why that?
Silence is a perfect prerequisite for writing. I prefer to write at night, in complete silence and darkness.

Would you say that darkness affects your state of mind when you write?
Both light and darkness have an impact on my work. Compared to the rest of Europe, we Swedes experience winters and summers in a very different way. In summer it is light out all the time, while in winter the sun almost never rises. And because I really like working in the dark, the time between November and March is actually my most productive time of the year.

So while others are hibernating . . .
Exactly! When the bears go lumbering off to their caves, I write my books.

The destruction of paradise.
Yes, or the snake in paradise. This is precisely what defines a Swedish crime novel: it shows the ugly side of society. Then there’s this very realistic writing style, which is of course interpreted quite differently by the large number of Swedish authors. Overall, Swedish crime stories are a bit closer to and touch more directly on people’s lives than other crime genres.

Can you expand on that a bit?
Let’s compare Swedish with American crime fiction. American stories are often about evil itself. It isn’t questioned, but taken for granted or natural. We deal with the “why”. Why does someone turn to crime? What social circumstances are to blame? We explore the darkness of the mind.

Do you think everyone is capable of committing crimes?
Yes, I think so. We are emotional beings, and even if someone is not fundamentally evil, external circumstances can drive them into crime. That’s the way it is most of the time. The simplest example is revenge. If someone kills your child, you want to kill him. The law forbids it, but your personal morality justifies the action. Which doesn’t mean that everyone automatically becomes a criminal, but it could work like that. And sometimes the forbidden simply seduces you. Pocketing money that you find. Or driving too fast on the highway when there is no one around . . .

Do you do that occasionally?
I wouldn’t admit that here, of course. But if you’ve been to Germany where there is no speed limit and then come back to Sweden, where the speed is limited to 110 km/h, then that could easily happen.

Do you like driving?
Yes, very much. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I enjoy owning my own car. It also helps me with my creativity.

How so?
To be creative, I need two important ingredients: silence and movement. The silence as I write, and the movement to develop ideas and gather various impressions. Passing landscapes are an excellent source of inspiration. And that really works best when I’m sitting in the car and just drive.

Why are Swedish crime novels so successful?
There are several reasons for this, and silence is certainly an important part of it. Often these stories have a very calm, quiet atmosphere to them. There is this idea that we have created a kind of paradise here in the north – at least this is what the popular children’s and youth literature suggests, such as Pippi Longstocking or the Bullerby Children. People assume that Sweden is a beautiful place where everyone is nice to each other. When a crime happens in this perfect place, that makes it all the more exciting.

“Silence is a perfect prerequisite for writing. I prefer to write at night, in complete silence and darkness.”

The destruction of paradise.
Yes, or the snake in paradise. This is precisely what defines a Swedish crime novel: it shows the ugly side of society. Then there’s this very realistic writing style, which is of course interpreted quite differently by the large number of Swedish authors. Overall, Swedish crime stories are a bit closer to and touch more directly on people’s lives than other crime genres.

Can you expand on that a bit?
Let’s compare Swedish with American crime fiction. American stories are often about evil itself. It isn’t questioned, but taken for granted or natural. We deal with the “why”. Why does someone turn to crime? What social circumstances are to blame? We explore the darkness of the mind.

Do you think everyone is capable of committing crimes?
Yes, I think so. We are emotional beings, and even if someone is not fundamentally evil, external circumstances can drive them into crime. That’s the way it is most of the time. The simplest example is revenge. If someone kills your child, you want to kill him. The law forbids it, but your personal morality justifies the action. Which doesn’t mean that everyone automatically becomes a criminal, but it could work like that. And sometimes the forbidden simply seduces you. Pocketing money that you find. Or driving too fast on the highway when there is no one around . . .

Do you do that occasionally?
I wouldn’t admit that here, of course. But if you’ve been to Germany where there is no speed limit and then come back to Sweden, where the speed is limited to 110 km/h, then that could easily happen.

Do you like driving?
Yes, very much. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I enjoy owning my own car. It also helps me with my creativity.

How so?
To be creative, I need two important ingredients: silence and movement. The silence as I write, and the movement to develop ideas and gather various impressions. Passing landscapes are an excellent source of inspiration. And that really works best when I’m sitting in the car and just drive.

“People assume that Sweden is a beautiful place where everyone is nice to each other. When a crime happens in this perfect place, that makes it all the more exciting.”

What is the most important thing for a good crime story?
Lots of people think that crime fiction is all about the plot. But when people have read the story, they remember the main characters – the detectives, who they will meet again soon in the next story. So as a writer, you have to make the protagonists interesting. And that works if the readers can empathize or even identify with them.

And how do you achieve that?
By revealing to the reader that they aren’t meeting someone here who is thoroughly perfect, but that the main character, like everyone else, has his problems and makes mistakes.

Is that why most Swedish detectives are a bit screwy?
Probably. [laughs] No, I don’t think I’d go that far. But it’s important to portray the protagonists as real, three-dimensional people. It becomes all the more exciting when the writer throws them into darkness during the course of the story. How do normal people, if there are indeed “normal” people, survive this darkness? How do they deal with it? How do they solve the problems they face? How do they make everything good again? This, in my opinion, is the greatest appeal of crime fiction.

You write at least one book every year. How do you manage such tight timing?
My goal is to always write an even better book than the previous one. Though honestly, that’s quite difficult when you’ve already written more than twenty books

Really? Doesn’t the experience make it any easier?
Sure, but it seems to me that I’ve already written about all the possible crimes in the world. Of course, I could stick to a successful crime series and keep it going. But then I risk becoming boring at some point. Instead, my aim is to constantly find new ways of storytelling and an even more exciting approach. That’s very demanding, but it’s also necessary. Otherwise you get old and tired.

Where do you find new ideas?
Of course, I read lots of newspapers and research online, but I also often talk to police officers and let them tell me what the latest “trends” are, so to speak.

And what are the latest “trends”?
In Sweden, organized crime is currently on the rise in many places outside the big cities. Lawless areas, ruled by syndicates, where even the police don’t dare to enter. Money laundering, shootings, bombings – all topics that make good material for stories.

So we can look forward to many more exciting books in the future. Do you actually have some kind of structure before you start a book, or does the plot come by itself?
For my Opcop series, I always set up fixed structures beforehand because the storylines were so complex and diverse. After all, I had created eight different protagonists living in different countries who were working together in a special unit. I always say you can compare it to music. First I composed a piece and then I played it by writing it. In each chapter, I knew in advance where I had to go, but I didn’t know exactly how I got there. In the current book series, on the other hand, I leave my creativity more freedom during the actual writing. Which then surprises me quite often. Suddenly there is a door in the room that the detective had previously overlooked. And he opens it to find out what’s behind it.

“How do normal people, if there are indeed ‘normal’ people, survive this darkness? How do they deal with it? How do they solve the problems they face? How do they make everything good again?”

How would you characterize yourself as a human being and what character traits should a good crime writer have?
Well, I don’t know whether the answers to these two questions are the same. But one thing that I’ve noticed over the decades is that crime novelists are generally pretty nice people. Unlike other groups who often make a rather angry and dissatisfied impression on me.

And crime writers are different?
Yes, they are surprisingly mostly quite relaxed and accessible. All over the world. No matter whether I’m talking to American, German or other Scandinavian colleagues.

What could be the reason for this?
I think it’s because, unlike other people, we often immerse ourselves in a fictional darkness. And as soon as we come back up, we’re “clean”. There’s no real darkness left. But that’s just a theory.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I love listening to music, and when I do, I focus completely on it. Then I can’t do anything else.

What kind of music do you listen to?
Jazz, pop, rock. The things I grew up with in the sixties and seventies.

Stones or Beatles?
Yeah, you can really use this question to pin down a person’s character. I prefer the Beatles or the early stuff from Genesis and Queen – more complex pieces, or classical music. Sometimes I think every writer is a failed musician.

How do you mean?
I know lots of writers who wanted to make music, but unfortunately didn’t succeed. And so all we had left was writing. [laughs]

You probably read books by other writers?
But of course. Besides writing and music, reading is probably my third great passion. I really read a lot, and not just crime novels. As a writer, it is important to constantly broaden your horizons. Otherwise, you get stuck in your own stories. And to stay young and fresh in your head, it is equally important to read the works of younger writers. That’s the only way to stay up-to-date.

One last question: Your name is Jan Arnald, but you use the pen name Arne Dahl. Are they two different people?
Not to worry, I don’t have a personality disorder. I started writing under my own name, but in the nineties I had a writer’s block. I just couldn’t come up with any new stories because my demands on myself were too high. I had to break out of that somehow, find my way back to storytelling. And I did so by creating a second personality. Someone who enjoyed writing again. And that was Arne Dahl.

Jan Lennart Arnald, a.k.a. Arne Dahl, was born in 1963. His big breakthrough came with his series about a Stockholm-based crime-fighting squad called A-Gruppen, or the Intercrime Group in the first English translation. He followed this up with his Opcop quartet about a special unit consisting of police officers from all over Europe. Currently he is “no longer devoting himself to the very big political contexts”, as he says, but is concentrating on the Swedish investigative duo of Sam Berger and Molly Blom. He has received many awards for his books, and most of his novels have been made into films. Jan Arnald lives in Stockholm but likes to drive his Toyota Prius to the countryside to get fresh inspiration. His latest novel, You Are Next, will be published in 2020.

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