New thesis on 21st-century Swedish crime fiction: A Market of Murders

20 December 2017

Why have Swedish detective stories become so immensely popular in our century? What murder motives and weapons are most common in the genre, and why? And is it true that Swedish crime fiction is characterised by social criticism? A new thesis from Uppsala University provides answers.

Karl Berglund’s thesis in general literary studies, which he publicly defended in early December, consists of three separately published books. In them, he discusses the above questions and much else about the genre and its latter-day commercial triumphs. One proposition that permeates the work is that there is an interaction between the genre’s successes and the rapid structural transformation of the book market since about the year 2000.

Based on several extensive sets of material, the thesis can show, for example, that the Swedish crime novel’s reputation for social criticism is exaggerated. The content of the genre has broadened into a heterogeneous sprawl. The spectacular murder mysteries are often remote from real-life violence, while descriptions of the protagonists’ private and working lives are, in contrast, meticulous studies in contemporary realism.

As a rule, the main characters are white, heterosexual, middle-class Swedes with no immigrant background, while greater variation in terms of social strata prevails among the killers and their victims. The latter too, however, are almost always placed in relation to an implied middle-class “normality” that permeates the genre.

In addition, the genre has been substantially feminised in the 21st century. Most often, writers and main characters alike used to be male. The gender distribution of the most popular novelists in this genre is now even, and nearly two thirds of the main characters are female.

The thesis comprises three component studies, focusing on different aspects of the Swedish crime-fiction phenomenon. The first highlights the broad book-market context, with the evolution of the genre and its ever rising status over time. Its marketing and packaging are examined in the second. The third, Death and Everyday Life: A Quantitative Analysis of Swedish Crime Fiction From the Early 21st Century, analyses literary patterns and recurring themes in the genre’s commercially most successful novels of this century. It has recently been awarded the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy’s prize for the best non-fiction book of 2017.

Karl Berglund’s disputation, at which he publicly defended his doctoral thesis A Market of Murders. Sociological Literary Studies in Swedish Crime Fiction in the Early 21st Century, took place on 8 December 2017.