Swedish fiction is among the most translated in in the world. Crime writers such as Stieg Larsson, Camilla Läckberg and Henning Mankell have helped attract international readers.
Swedish fiction going global
International interest in Swedish novels has increased dramatically in recent years. Between 2002 and 2015, the number of translations rose by more than 50 per cent, from 500 to nearly 800. In total, close to 9,000 titles of Swedish fiction were translated into other languages during this time. Today, Swedish literature is translated into around 50 languages, primarily German, Danish, Norwegian, English, Dutch, Finnish and French. The ‘Nordic Noir’ genre – also known as Scandinavian Crime Fiction – makes up a large share of the translations.
But even before crime took over, Swedish novels were popular internationally. Widely translated authors such as Kerstin Ekman, Marianne Fredriksson and P.O. Enquist achieved considerable success in the 1980s and 1990s. At its height, Fredriksson’s book Anna, Hanna and Johanna (1994) was the fourth most sold book in the world.
Crime and social criticism
The pioneers of modern Swedish crime fiction are Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who between 1965 and 1975 wrote ten novels featuring detective Martin Beck. Their books were the first in the genre to analyse the challenges of a developing society from the perspective of those left behind in the modernisation process. Sjöwall and Wahlöö paved the way for the rich flora of Swedish crime novels written since, many of which have been made into films or TV series.
The tradition that originated with Sjöwall and Wahlöö is clearly evident in Henning Mankell’s books about Inspector Kurt Wallander. Mankell opened the door to the international market, and the social criticism in his novels was an important reason for their success. His books have sold more than 40 million copies and been translated into 40 languages. They have also been filmed, both in Swedish and in a British television series starring Kenneth Branagh.
One of the best illustrations of the Swedish crime fiction phenomenon is the Millennium trilogy (Milleniumtrilogin). Stieg Larsson’s series created an instant sensation worldwide and came to top bestseller lists in many countries. Larsson, who died in 2004, shared many personal traits with his hero, Mikael Blomkvist, including being an investigative political reporter. The Millennium trilogy has been filmed twice, once by Sweden and once by Hollywood.
Leif GW Persson and Liza Marklund also weave social criticism into their books. Persson, a criminologist, is one of Sweden’s most established crime writers. Many of his cases touch upon the 1986 murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, and a frequent theme is incompetence and corruption among police offi-cers, civil servants and politicians.
Marklund made her debut in 1998 with Deadline (Sprängaren), the first book in a series of nine about the investigative reporter Annika Bengtzon. Marklund has inspired other women to write crime fiction and their number has increased dramatically since her debut. Between 1991 and 1997, only two crime novels written by women were released. Then, between 1998 and 2007, more than 80 women crime writers made their debut.
One of Sweden’s most successful crime writers is Camilla Läckberg. Since publishing her first book, The Ice Princess (Isprinsessan), in 2003, she has sold 15 million books in 50 countries.
Jens Lapidus, Åsa Larsson and the couple behind the pseudonym Lars Kepler – Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril.
Photos: Thomas Karlsson, Anna-Lena Ahlström, Anette Nantell
Other international successes
Other writers who have found success abroad are Håkan Nesser and Arne Dahl. Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye (Det grovmaskiga nätet), published in 1993, was the first in the Maardam series, ten books about Inspector Van Veeteren. Arne Dahl is a pseudonym for Jan Arnald. Dahl has written a series of eleven novels about the A Unit, a special unit in the Swedish police dealing with international crime. The series has been translated into 25 languages and five of the books have been filmed.
Åke Edwardson’s novels about Inspector Erik Winter have been translated into some 20 languages, and several have become movies. Åsa Larsson made her mark in the world of crime fiction starting with her debut novel Sun Storm (Solstorm), the first in a series of books about lawyer Rebecka Martinsson.
Marie Jungstedt first became known in 2003 with Unseen (Den du inte ser). Since then she has written ten books about Police Inspector Anders Knutas. Her novels have been translated into more than 20 languages, and also given rise to a German TV series.
Karin Alvtegen’s six books have established her reputation worldwide, with translation rights sold in 30 countries. Her second book, Missing (Saknad), has been made into a British TV miniseries.
Jens Lapidus has been tremendously successful with his first three novels set in the criminal underworld and in a fast-paced, young and hip Stockholm. The novels have been sold to 30 countries and have also generated a trilogy of films.
Under the pseudonym of Lars Kepler, Stockholm couple Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril have written grim, nightmarish thrillers. Their Joona Linna series has sold more than 8 million copies in 40 languages.
Working-class author Vilhelm Moberg’s novels about Swedes emigrating to the US was made into a movie in 1971.
Fiction steeped in tradition
Among the classic writers of the 20th century best known for their accounts of working-class life are Eyvind Johnson, Ivar Lo-Johansson, Vilhelm Moberg, Artur Lundkvist, Harry Martinson, Jan Fridegård, Moa Martinson and Elin Wägner. Moberg was widely acclaimed for The Emigrants (Utvandrarna), a series of novels about Swedes who migrated to the US in the mid-19th century. Wägner’s themes include women’s rights, women’s suffrage, and peace and environment issues, and paved the way for Swedish feminist fiction.
In the 1960s, political activism increased in Sweden and documentary novels became popular, with P.O. Enquist and Sara Lidman the leading names. Two other prominent writers of social critique are P.C. Jersild and Jan Guillou.
Jersild tends to write idea-based novels, such as House of Babel (Babels hus), in which he criticises industrial-scale hospital care. He released his latest book, Den stökiga psykiatrin, in 2015 – at the age of 80. Guillou, who is also a journalist, is a controversial polemicist. As an author he is best known for his books about Swedish agent Carl Hamilton, and his historical novels about the Knight Templar Arn Magnusson. Both series have been filmed.
Kerstin Ekman penned a series of novels about working-class women, of which the first part, Witches’ Rings (Häxringarna) came out in 1974. Among her other leading works are Blackwater (Händelser vid vatten) and a trilogy, The Wolfskin (Vargskinnet), about social development in northern Sweden. Ekman was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1978, but left in 1989 in protest against its failure to support Salman Rushdie over the Satanic Verses controversy.
Torgny Lindgren is a member of the Swedish Academy and his books have been translated into 30 languages. His breakthrough came in 1982 with The Way of a Serpent (Ormens väg på hälleberget), which describes life in Västerbotten, in northern Sweden, at the end of the 19th century.
Journalist and author Majgull Axelsson has written numerous documentary books about the developing world. Her first novel, Far away from Nifelheim (Långt borta från Nifelheim), came out in 1994.
Gellert Tamas is a Swedish journalist and author of several works of non-fiction, the best-known being The Laser Man – A Story About Sweden (Lasermannen – En berättelse om Sverige). It tells of John Ausonius, a convicted racist murderer who shot at eleven people with immigrant backgrounds, killing one, in the early 1990s.
Katarina Mazetti has written books in different genres. Several of them have been filmed and many have been translated into numerous languages. Her book Benny & Shrimp (Grabben i graven bredvid), from 1999, is about an odd love affair between an intellectual librarian and a simple farmer. Many of her books have been published in several countries; in France more than 1 million copies have been sold.
Susanna Alakoski was born in Finland but grew up in Skåne, southern Sweden. Her debut novel, Beyond (Svinalängorna), was made into both a film and a play, and became the fifth best selling book in Sweden in its first year. It describes life in southern Sweden in the 1960s, in a culture where alcoholism was rife.
Carl-Johan Vallgren has won a number of awards for his books, which have been sold to 25 countries. Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercule Barefoot (Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia) is the novel that has achieved the greatest success internationally.
Jonas Gardell has published 22 books, the most recent novel being Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar: 3. Döden. This trilogy of books describes when AIDS came to Stockholm in the 1980s.
Jonas Hassen Khemiri made his debut in 2003 with the book One Eye Red (Ett öga rött) about Halim, a teenager with Moroccan parents, growing up in Stockholm. Written in ‘immigrant patois’, it deals with such problems as ethnicity, roots and the importance of language for a person’s identity.
- Library statistics at the National Library of Sweden (only in Swedish)
- The Swedish Publishers’ Association
- The Swedish Library Association
- The Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy (only in Swedish)
- The Swedish Academy
- Official website of the Nobel Prize
- The August Prize
- The Göteborg Book Fair
- The National Council for Cultural Affairs
Please note that this web version of ‘Swedish literature’ may have been updated more recently than the pdf versions.
Last updated: 21 April 2017