Arne Dahl

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Every autumn dozen of international crime fiction writers arrive in Vienna to participate in an exciting literature evening dedicated to the “murderous” genre. Last year Mary Higgins Clark read from her novel „The shadow of your smile“ and the British best-selling author Simon Beckett presented his book “The Calling of the Grave”. There is a sense of strong concurrence between writers who, on one single evening, simultaneously address the audience in different Viennese Coffee houses. Keen crime fiction readers are forced to choose between two or three of their favourite writers and if they are too late with bookings they can always discover new talents. Hand on heart, as soon as I found out that Arne Dahl was coming to Vienna to read from his Opcop (invented police operative unit) novel “Chinese whispers”, I didn’t hesitate for a moment to book a table in Coffeehouse Schwarzenberg. It’s there that I approached him with the question, if he was willing to give me an interview and to my big surprise he immediately agreed! The next morning , we were sitting in the restaurant of the hotel he was checked in, where this interview took place.

I was really curious about Arne Dahl, the man who plots incredibly exciting crime and who, at the Crime evening in Schwarzenberg, electrified the audience with funny remarks about his interview to the Austrian television ORF (which nick-named him “the world-improver”), about unrealistic crime scenes in Swedish suspense novels, but most of all he enthused his fans reading from his novel “Chinese whispers” which he is currently promoting in Europe and Japan.

As I arrive at the hotel, Dahl is having breakfast with his Danish colleague Jussi Adler-Olsen, but jumps to his feet as soon as he sees me. Although this man “knows how to kill” in hundred ways, he is a genuinely pleasant person. He speaks in a soft, almost whispering voice and he takes time for every answer. It’s good to know that Arne Dahl isn’t only a good writer, but also a charming person.

“Chinese whispers” is a novel packed with crime. The plot doesn’t only revolve around murder, but also maffia, environmental crime, human trafficking, finance crime, furniture piracy, pedofilia, illicit work… What’s left for the novels that follow?

It was my purpose to create a type of network which is connected to the financial crisis and that’s how the story emerged. The novel is bulit as a sort of tour de force of future criminality.

Arne Dahl in Vienna

I promise that there is enough of material left! The second novel from this trilogy is already written and it’s called “Musical Chairs”. If “Chinese Whispers” is more of a story about the network of different crimes which surround the main plot. “Musical Chairs” is about multiple murders mostly connected to the Soviet Union past. As you can see, both books are named after children’s games.. “Musical Chairs” is translated into German as “Journey to Jerusalem”. They tend to chose snappytitles here.

Some of the German title translations really make you wonder. “Chinese Whisper” became “Greed” which doesn’t reflect the logic of the original title.

They have a very clear idea what works in the German-speaking countries and I cannot argue against it because I don’t know the market that well. The title must be correct in a way, but it still feels a bit strange. Both of the book titles are obviously referring to games known here.

There are lots of technically specific details which must be difficult to write about without expert opinion. Did you have any advisors in, for instance, Europol?

It usually takes me one year to write a book, now I’ve dedicated twice as much time because I felt that I needed to understand how the European police force functions. I had a great deal of contacts with police officers and politicians, but most of all I completed lots of research through which I, so to say, learned how these things work. There are topics of a more sensitive nature, such as writing about the Italian mafia or other complicated structures of power. “Chinese Whispers” is all about a secret unit which doesn’t exist and that’s why I really don’t know if there’s anything similar going on within Europol, not even if they are considering the possibility of founding such a group which I think that they are actually doing. Even if that were the case, nobody would admit it to me and that’s why I had to invent the story about Opcop. It is obvious though that Europol is working towards a more international police power.

Do you make insinuations about a certain famous furniture producer in your novel?

Of course I do! IKEA‘s role in the world has become pretty bizarre. On one hand, it’s a genuinely Swedish product, on the other – the company founder Ingvar Kamprad has a very troublesome past. It is well-know that IKEA tends to push all other furniture producers out of the market. They were involved in a couple of small incidents, but not such as poisonous chemicals, as described in the book. In stuffed furniture there often is a sort of fire protection which consists of poisonous chemicals, dangerous for the environment. I’ve linked polluted furniture with IKEA like an ameba which spreads across the globe. In the book it’s a small furniture factory, affected by Chinese copies, which is not unusual nowadays. Swedish or generally Scandinavian exclusive furniture is copied by Chinese who often stuff them with cheap, toxic components. China as the country which conjures with the world economy, plays a significant role in “Chinese Whispers”, but more of a background one. I am trying to include a bit of it in my book.

You hate to be called a typical Swedish crime author, but you do have many things in common with your compatriots: you are all politically correct, you treat serious topics and you don’t have violent anti-heroes who are so often idealized by your American colleagues.

Yes, you are right that most of us correspond to that image, but it’s mostly due to a Swedish crime novel tradition, which is deeply rooted in social critique. I clearly belong to that tradition but I’ve never felt at home in the domestic writers’ circles that are solely journalistic. I think that there are more purely entertaining writers among the Swedish crime novel authors whom I spoke about last night on Austrian television. There is also more regional crime set in the provincial small cities…

Like Ystad?

Gotland is also widespread!

And you also don’t moralize…

I find that moralizing people are strenuous and I would love to believe that nobody apprehends me as such.

You’ve got another thing in common – almost all famous Swedish crime writers have their roots in socialist ideas

Absolutely! I belong to the social-democrat school.

And you don’t let hundreds of cars explode in one book…

It is clear that Sweden has its own clichés but we don’t really have those tough guys, or rather we do, but they are totally different to the American ones. .

Austrian journalists have nick-named you “the world-improver” which probably relates to your habit of taking up the uncomfortable truth or trying to point out certain injustice

The world-improver Arne Dahl on the Austrian television… (laughs) What’s so special about crime novels is that at the end every puzzle piece comes to its place, all threads form a bobbin which you can just put aside. And then it’s all about keeping a little something which stays in the head for a very long time. I think that I’m trying to do exactly that or at least I’m pondering about those questions. There are things in our society that we are maybe avoiding to see and I would like to lighten them a bit. I also personaly need to feel passionate about something when I start writing. If there is something that upsets me or drives me mad, it makes me want to expand the problem in order to cast a bit of light on unknown sides of injustice. Because that usually has something to do with criminal activities, a thriller is a damn good way of bringing this issues up. Injustice and crime often go hand in hand.

What does your typical working day look like?

My trick is to not begin to write too early – I have to have the whole story ready when I start working on a novel, which ususally ends up being complicated because I like it that way. It’s funny with a bit of surprise but I have to, so to say, build up the whole story in my head before I start writing- at which point almost the whole book is finished in my head. When I started writing crime novels, I wanted to learn how to do it and I started using post-it notes and arrows. I would sit on the floor in my working cabinet, totally absorbed in what I was doing, which lasted until my daughters (at that point aged 3 and 5) stormed in the room and moved all the notes and everything became very complicated. The whole story changed!

It’s interesting that many of internationally established crime writers come from Sweden. Why is the country caught by killer virus?

There is a theory which I also find correct in a way and that’s the longer the distance between a person and a certain phenomena, the more exciting it gets. A crime novel during the war in former Yugoskavia wouldn’t stand a chance because the reality was much worse. Things get interesting only if they are somehow exciting or strange. Sweden was a very peaceful country for a long time, with its own problems, but totally different from the rest of Europe. That’s why it’s so exciting when something as extreme as the assasination of the prime minister Olof Palme happens (1986). It was a big deal, a criminal mistery that was never solved, with everybody wanting to participate in solving the murder case. I think that the fascination with crime-solving was born then. Everyone was playing private detective looking for Palme’s murderer.

When I interviewed PO Enquist four years ago, he said that the biggest reason for so many Swedes trying to establish themselves as writers is that there’s nothing much more there to do.

Speaking of P. O Enquist there’s a Norrland tradition from Västerbotten, a place where winter generally lasts ten months a year. You can start writing books because you can forget about long walks in the area. But it’s pretty true that you have to be in a boring environment to write. You are protected even if you grew up in Stockholm suburbs like I did. You just try to invent things to bring some spark in life. Maybe that’s the part of it – to be a bit outside, isolated and slightly bored to go and invent things.

Who are your favourite writers?

When I strated writing crime novels some 15 years ago, I wasn’t into that genre for quite some time. I only read “serious” books and I’m saying this without wanting to claim that crime novels can’t also be serious. What I mean by that is that I didn’t have role models other than Henning Mankell. I remember swallowing the novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö when I was 15 – these books became incredibly popular in Europe through television series “Beck”, but never in such degree as Henning Mankell’s Wallander or later – Stieg Larsson (“Millenium” triology) which became global. Anyway, I read Sjöwall & Wahlöö in the 1970′s. Already then there was so much that I wanted to write about, relatively complicated stories rooted in social critique, but with lots of humor. Sjöwall & Wahlöö had a collective working together & solving crimes and even if there’s lots of outdated things, it was their style that I identified with. I wanted to see if I could do something similar, to write 10 books in 10 years about happenings relevant to the times.

Don’t you think that you are also on your way to international glory with films based on your books which are about to be broadcasted in many European countries?

That would be undoubedly wonderful, but it’s very much dependent on the reception. Synchronisation to German took a whole year (10 episodes x 90 minutes)

Can you recommend a good book that you read recently?

I would like to recommend a book by a writer called Jan Arnald. Do you know him? (laughs). Last year my book called „Intimus“ was published in Sweden – it‘s going to be called „White novel“ in German. It didn’t get much attention in either of German-speaking countries, that‘s why I’m giving you a little tip about it. But if you would like to get another tip, I can suggest Carl-Johan Vallgren’s „Havsmannen“ which is really exciting. It’s not suspense, but it’s nevertheless very dramatic.