The somber, serious Scandinavian noir craze gets a much-needed kick in the funny bone with The Department of Sensitive Crimes, another laugh-out-loud series premiere from confirmed smart alec Alexander McCall Smith.
Most likely, you’ve known Alexander McCall Smith, the effervescent, Zimbabwe-born Scotsman (known as “Sandy”) through his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, one of the seven mystery series in his 50-plus bibliography. But what you haven’t seen is the first installment of his “Scandi-blanc” parody of Scandi-noir, in which a Malmö-based detective team led by Ulf “the Wolf” Varg investigates crimes that “you won’t find in the newspaper or on the ten o’clock news . . . unless it’s a particularly slow news day.”
Case in point: The three sensitive crimes featured herein include a market vendor who is stabbed in the back of the knee, a lonely young woman whose imaginary boyfriend goes missing and a nudist resort that’s apparently being plagued by werewolf howls. Challenging cases? Not exactly. But it’s the earnestness with which Varg’s equally eccentric team—made up of paper pusher Carl Holgersson, fly-fishing fanatic Erik Nykvist and Anna Bengsdotter, a married colleague who’s caught Varg’s eye—seeks to solve the unsolvable that keeps the laughs rolling.
McCall Smith, who has visited Sweden on numerous book tours, found a worthy foil for his notorious wit by watching dead-serious Scandi-noir TV programs, including “The Killing,” “The Bridge” and “Borgen,” at his home in Edinburgh, Scotland.
“The basic idea for doing Scandi-blanc came from the general enthusiasm that people have for the Scandinavian noir,” he says by phone from Edinburgh. “I loved the idea of really deflating the body count aspect of crime fiction, where everything is so ghastly that people are chopping one another to bits, as happens in real Scandinavian noir. That’s actually the fun—there are no bodies in these, [they’re] just really ridiculous. The only person who gets damaged is a person who get stabbed in the back of the knee! I took great pleasure in that, and the nudists and then of course the lycanthropy, the idea of someone turning into a wolf. It’s all tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at these stock images of Scandinavian crime.”
Scandi-blanc also offered McCall Smith the opportunity to tap into the curious cultural link between Scotland and Scandinavia.
“It’s an interesting thing,” he says, “because we are neighbors of Norway most immediately, and there is quite a lot of feeling in Scotland that Scotland is quite Scandinavian. Bits of Scotland were parts of Scandinavia in the past, and of course the Vikings came and ran quite a bit of the north of Scotland.”
Like many crime fiction fans who immerse themselves in the brutal, bloody world of Scandi-noir, McCall Smith was drawn into questions about the elements of Scandinavian culture that lead to these stories.
“There is a dark side to Sweden,” McCall Smith says. “Think about [Ingmar] Bergman films, those very intense films where everybody is looking very intense and agonized. There is that side of the typical Scandinavian approach to things. But Sweden is a very, very conformist society; they want consensus. It’s extremely important to them to all agree.”
McCall Smith also speaks to the “vein of melancholy” present in Scandinavian culture, which he explores through a plot thread of eccentric longing in The Department of Sensitive Crimes: Ulf’s unrequited passion for Anna, and the fact that it’s not completely clear whether Anna has a crush on Ulf or on his vintage light gray Saab. “ ‘The best part of any investigation with you, Ulf,’ she said dreamily, ‘is being in your car,’ ” McCall Smith writes.
“Yes, well, those unfulfilled romantic longings, that’s [a] poignant note,” McCall Smith says. “Ulf has an unrequited passion for a colleague, and he can’t do anything about it. That’s a good poignant. . . . There is quite a lot of brooding—brooding is the word.”
Ulf was originally created for a Twitter literary festival that invited authors “to write some stories that would be put out in tweets,” McCall Smith says. “A very weird way to read books—140–character chapters. I created for that a character called Ulf Varg and gave him a couple of really peculiar chapters. The whole story was about 500 words.” McCall Smith then went on to write a short story starring Ulf, published by his U.K. publisher, and now this full-length book. “I rather liked this Swedish detective and his deaf dog and his peculiar colleagues,” McCall Smith says.
Despite Ulf’s beginnings, there is one line this 70-year-old storyteller still refuses to cross: admitting modern technology into his clever tales.
“In my Botswana books, and indeed in my Isabel Dalhousie books, nobody uses a cellphone. I think that cellphones and Google really make classic detective fiction very difficult because you can get the answer to most issues by going online,” McCall Smith says. “In a sense, modern success ruins surprise, ruins poignancy, ruins anguish, because it has so many solutions. It depersonalizes, and it takes out all the waiting and anticipation and uncertainty. How could anybody be long-lost in the modern world? Modern technology is incompatible with a good solid plot; it’s just blocked. These days, lots of technology takes the mystery out of life. It collapses time and insults the dignity of time.”
Although McCall Smith cranks out up to 3,000 words daily, he retains an unquenchable thirst for new adventures. This year, even as he celebrates more than two decades of his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series (book 20, To the Land of Long Lost Friends, will publish this fall) and winds down his 44 Scotland Street series, he has not only introduced his Scandi-blanc breakthrough but also has another new release in the wings. The Second-Worst Restaurant in France, which continues the events of his romantic Italian countryside-set novel, My Italian Bulldozer (2016), is out this summer.
“It’s [about] a restaurant food writer by the name of Paul Stuart,” McCall Smith explains. “In My Italian Bulldozer, he goes to Italy and has difficulty with the rental car company and ends up renting a bulldozer, and has great fun with that.” The comic sequel finds Paul on holiday in France, where his story tangles with that of a local restaurant.
Fortunately for readers, if the past can predict the future, humor will always be a part of McCall Smith’s work. “That’s what I get great pleasure from,” he says. “With The Department of Sensitive Crimes, I’m able to have fun and enjoy the humor, and also to have behind it a novel of ideas. So ideas come up, and they have real human issues and desires and longings and disappointments where you can actually make quite a few points that you might want to make about the world. I do enjoy that.”