6 Great Books Set in Sweden That We Love

6 Great Books Set in Sweden That We Love

Wednesday, 22 April, 2020

Sweden is consistently judged to be one of the happiest countries on the planet. So why are so many of the great Swedish books so murdery?! Perhaps it’s the darkness that swallows the country for half the year.

Or maybe it’s those Midsommar traditions!

Whatever the true answer, we’re thrilled with the result: noir murder mysteries and historical fiction and family stories drenched in atmosphere, twists of plot, and the recognition that nature is beautiful, but also might kill you. Skål!

Here are six books set in Sweden that took us there the page: a historical novel steeped in royal intrigue, a coming-of-age story rich with atmosphere (and food), and examples of excellent Scandi noir, including a classic of the genre set on a bleak island, a twisty whodunnit in an isolated village, and a missing-person case set in the forest during Midsommar.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Sweden: So Happy, So Murdery.


The Stockholm Octavo - Karen Engelmann

The Stockholm Octavo
> Karen Engelmann

It’s good to be Emil Larsson. He’s a Sekretaire living the bachelor high-life in 18th-century Stockholm. Brokering deals by day, sipping drinks and playing cards by night at the tables of a popular gaming house.

But one night at the gambling establishment run by one Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, his fate is changed forever. The fortune-teller places a spread of eight cards for him in a secret room. It’s a divination Octavo, and it predicts for him a different path, a route to love and connection that relies on eight other individuals to make the vision come true.

Soon, both Emil and Mrs. Sparrow are introduced to new society and find themselves unwittingly caught up in the drama and intrigue of King Gustav III’s court.

Along the way to its very satisfying conclusion, the plot is generously sprinkled with magic dust in the form of geometry arguments, political intrigue, the secret language of fans, romance, poisonings, handwritten letters, courtly manners, betrayal, and shocking secrets. It’s a Swedish Dangerous Liaisons, and the whole glorious adventure is drenched in the golden hues of sunlight — with sharp shadows underneath to remind you that not all is what it seems. {more}

That night of cards began two years of exceeding good fortune at the tables, and in time led me to the Octavo — a form of divination unique to Mrs. Sparrow. It required a spread of eight cards from an old and mysterious deck distinct from any I have ever seen before. Unlike the vague meanderings of the market square gypsies, her exacting method was inspired by her visions and revealed eight people that would bring about the event her vision conveyed, an event that would shepherd a transformation, a rebirth for the seeker. Of course, rebirth implies a death, but that was never mentioned when the cards were laid. — Karen Engelmann

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

This grindingly suspenseful novel is an adroit combination of locked-room mystery, character study, political thriller, and family saga that begins in the 1990s and reaches back through time to the 1960s and WWII.

When we meet our antihero journalist Mikael Blomkvist, he’s just lost a libel case and will soon be reporting to jail for three months. At loose ends until his sentence starts, he’s offered a somewhat sinister lifeline by the patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in Sweden — the Vangers. Forty years ago, Henrik Vanger’s beloved niece disappeared, and he wants Mikael to use his investigative journalistic skills to dig into the case.

Mikael is forced to get to know the siblings in the Vanger family, and they are terrible: damaged, inconsistent, ruthless, wildly intelligent, and shut off from the rest of the world by their estate and their privilege.

Then Lisbeth Salander, punk hacker and a talented investigator in her own right, enters the picture. Covered in tattoos and emitting a loud F-off vibe, she’s also brutally intelligent and an unrelenting cyber spy.

When she and Mikael team up, they uncover secrets galore, unintentionally set off emotional bombs that rock the Vangers, put themselves in shocking danger, and ultimately, discover what really happened on that summer day in the ’60s. {more}

Much stronger boys in her class soon learned that it could be quite unpleasant to fight with that skinny girl. Unlike other girls in the class, she never backed down, and she would not for a second hesitate to use her fists or any weapon at hand to protect herself. She went around with the attitude that she would rather be beaten to death than take any shit. — Stieg Larsson

The Ice Princess - Camilla Läckberg

The Ice Princess
> Camilla Lackberg

Writer Erica Falck has returned to her hometown of Fjällbacka, Sweden, under the worst of circumstances. Her parents have both died in a tragic car accident. While she’s sorting through the last remnants of their lives, she’s also forced to deal with the violent, mysterious death of her childhood friend Alex.

Alex, the ice princess of the title, was found frozen in an ice-cold bath, the victim of a suspected suicide. Erica is an author and deals with her grief in the only way she knows how; she decides to write a book about her beautiful but frosty friend who, in both life and death, remains a mystery to everyone who knew her.

Meanwhile, the local detective Patrik Hedstrom has his own suspicions about the case. When he and Erica team up, painful, damaging, and dangerous secrets about their hometown are revealed — with devastating results.

Set in the real-life fishing village of Fjällbacka on the east coast of Sweden, this novel is rich in atmosphere and hidden motives. With just 900 residents, the town is rife with a shared history, old grudges, and the kind of social currency that can only be traded in a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business. {more}

Fishing had been Fjällbacka’s livelihood for centuries. The unforgiving environment and the constant struggle to survive, when everything depended on whether the herring came streaming back or not, had made the people of the town strong and rugged. Then Fjällbacka had become picturesque and began to attract tourists with fat wallets…. the young people moved away and the older inhabitants dreamed of bygone times. She too was among those who had chosen to leave. — Camilla Läckberg

Meet Matti, a young boy growing up in Pajala, a town in Swedish Lapland, where the men are stone-faced, the women are silent, and — if fate smiles — the trout and grayling and salmon run strong.

In this coming-of-age story liberally sprinkled with magical realism, Matti is our guide to the extraordinary everyday events in his hometown, near the Arctic Circle. We meet beautiful women from Finland and a terrifying witch. There’s an African priest, a Nazi, and long-lost cousins from Missouri. Plus, the Beatles and a music teacher whose hands have sprouted thumbs in the middle of his palms.

As Matti navigates his path to becoming the man he — and his very traditional father — want him to be, we get snapshots of the brutal landscape and culture of Sweden. The seemingly endless rounds of schnapps and ensuing arm-wrestling competitions (and fistfights). The feasts with reindeer stew and crispbread with salmon and sugarbuns and whipped cream with warm cloudberry jam. The sweetness of first romance and rock concerts and saunas and skiing under the stars. {more}

The wedding took place in the middle of summer when everybody was on holiday, and the family home was flooded with relations. I was nearly thirteen and was allowed to sit at the table with the grown-ups for the first time. A solid wall of silent men, shoulder to shoulder like huge blocks of stone, and here and there their pretty wives from Finland, like flowers on a cliff face. As was normal in our family, nobody said a word. Everybody was waiting for the food. — Mikael Niemi

Dark Pines - Will Dean

Dark Pines
> Will Dean

Tuva Moodyson is a handful and a half. She’s deaf, she’s determined, and she’s a reporter with a curiosity that could be deadly. Trapped at a small newspaper in the equally small Swedish town of Gavrik, she gets herself into big trouble.

It’s elk hunting season, and gunfire echoes throughout the spruce forest. But imposing mammals aren’t the only victims; a pair of hunters is found murdered in the woods, and - in a super-Scandi-noir move — their eyes are missing.

While investigating the crime for her story, Tuva finds a link to the ‘Medusa’ killings, a series of decades-old murders that happened in the same forest.

Soon she’s becoming intimate with the unusual folks of Mossen, a cluster of houses — too small to even be a village — in the woods near where the bodies were found. There’s a menacing taxi driver, a suspicious ghostwriter, a hoarder (anti-hunting, vegetarian) who lives in a caravan, the big-fish-small-pond mill boss, and two witchy sisters — Alice and Cornelia — who handcraft trolls adorned with human hair.

Author Will Dean makes the forest a primary character, equal parts menace and majesty — the perfect place for a reporter with the moxie to chase down the devil and face her own demons. {more}

An elk emerges from the overgrown pines, and it is monstrous. Half a ton, maybe more. I stamp the brake, my truck juddering as the winter tires bite into the gravel, and then I nudge my ponytail and switch on my hearing aids… Utgard forest darkens around me, and he stamps his hoof down and breaks a thin veneer of ice covering a pothole. My headlights pick out a splash of dirty water hitting his fur, and then he looks straight at me, and he drops his head, and he charges. — Will Dean

Black River - Will Dean

Black River
> Will Dean

Intrepid reporter Tuva Moodyson has been living in southern Sweden for four months, far away from her dark past in the forests and secrets of northern Gavrik. Then she receives shocking news that shakes her new and tremulous foundation: her best friend Tammy is missing.

Tuva rushes back to the place she definitely doesn’t want to be — at the height of Midsommar celebrations — to help lead the search for her lost friend. But it seems that someone else doesn’t want Tammy to be found; the search effort is routinely, cruelly sabotaged. And thanks to the bright light of the longest day of the year, day and night blend into one long, surreal horror.

While Midsommar revelers celebrate around her — with food and maypoles and aquavit and life — Tuva is trapped in her feelings of fear and regret as Tammy’s whereabouts remain unknown. As she gets closer to the truth of her friend’s disappearance, she also circles closer to what could become her demise. {more}

Utgard forest is overwhelming. Bigger than ever. Dark and summer-full; undergrowth exploding outward and upward, brambles and nettles creeping out from the forest fringes. I drive for fifteen minutes, and Utgard forest is the constant shade on the right-hand side of the road. I pass the narrow entrance to Mossen village — nothing good’s ever come out of that place — and I drive on. — Will Dean

Top image courtesy of Fredrik Öhlander/Unsplash.

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