Q+A: Arne Dahl

Feb 5, 2023
Dimitris Passas

More than two decades ago, in 1999, the Swedish novelist and literary critic Jan Arnald made a decision that would be transformed into a milestone event in the rise and subsequent establishment of Nordic crime fiction as one of the most acclaimed international branches of the genre. Thus, Misterioso was born, the first novel in the renowned Intercrime Series (or A-Gruppen as it is known in Sweden), a saga of 11 police procedurals that would cover a timespan of almost a decade with the last installment, Elva, being published in 2008. The series featured a group of elite police officers who form a special unit in order to confront and put away pernicious felons in a country where criminality has skyrocketed from the 1990s onward, with many factors such as immigration, the booming of financial crime, and the explosion in the number of young offenders contributing to the phenomenon. Dahl incorporated all these aspects in his socially conscious novels that blended the intriguing plotline of a modern thriller with pieces of penetrating, as well as insightful, critique to the ills of his home country. With his texts diagnosing and dissecting the Swedish society's scorching problems in the contemporary times, the Intercrime Series won international praise and earned the author a reputation as a distinctive voice in crime fiction, his writing style being more elaborate and refined than the vast majority of his peers. 2011 marked the beginning of a brand new series, titled Opcop, which retained the core of the main characters featured in the Intercrime novels while transferring the action to the international terrain of intertwining interests and conflicts. What succeeded the Opcop saga (comprised of 4 novels in total), was the popular Berger & Blom series, that signaled the author's switch to a style that is most commonly associated with the classic thriller format. The fifth volume in the series (original title: Islossning) is due to be published on February 23, 2023 here in Greece -under the title "Τρία στην Πέμπτη"- by Metaixmio Publishing House in a translation by Grigoris Kondylis. Dahl has also been a close and longtime collaborator of the daily Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter which has featured many of his articles/writings, while he has also been a recipient of several prestigious awards such as the Palle Rosenkrantz prize (for Europa Blues) and the The Best Swedish Crime Novel Award for Viskleken (Opcop #1). In 2007, Dahl was chosen by Reader's Digest as Europe's best crime novelist. The beloved author, a personal favorite of mine since time immemorial, was kind enough to accept my invitation to answer a few questions and I feel so grateful for that. Enjoy!

1) What prompts an author to use a nom de plume? In your case, why was it necessary that Jan Arnald had to "die" in order for Arne Dahl to be born?

A.D.: I don’t think Jan Arnald died, he was just split and reborn. I had written a couple of books as Jan Arnald – and was also a literary critic and scholar – when I had a bit of a writer’s block. My ambitions may have been too high for my age and experience, I had lost the lust and joy of writing. I had to give myself a second chance as an author – I returned to my old love crime fiction and created a nom de plume – and out of the ruins of Arnald arose Arne Dahl. Who stayed secret for five books, and also managed to give new life to Jan Arnald.

2) In one of your past interviews, you have stated that great literature and great crime fiction share a fundamental resemblance: they both "ask the acute questions of our contemporary existence". Taking as a given that William Shakespeare has been a major influence for your work, according to your own admission, do you believe that the iconic English playwright inspired you to select the diachronic main themes that pervade your novels and expanded the scope of your oeuvre?

A.D.: I believe that all good literature speaks about premises for the contemporary existence – but I do believe that Shakespeare did it best. He also took an important step by bringing the sophisticated literature to the masses. But I suppose his major influence on me is the emotional energy of crime, injustice, violence, power. When Lady Macbeth can’t wash her hands clean from blood, the scene summarizes what crime fiction is really about.

3) How do you feel about the term "literary crime fiction"? Do you think that it is a pretentious label born of sheer vanity or does it reflect the existence of a distinct category? If it is the latter, would you place yourself among the crowd of authors who serve that particular genre?

A.D.: I never use that term myself, I think it may scare off certain readers that tend to underestimate themselves. Still, if there was such a genre, I suppose I would be a part of it.

4) You lended your name to a popular show which adapted the novels of the "A-Unit" ("A-Gruppen") series into television. How involved were you in the filming process and how difficult do you think it is for a movie or a television series to do justice to a work of literature?

A.D.: I was involved in two main ways: as a script supervisor (to check so they didn’t mess up my world) and with the casting (so that the group dynamic worked). Still, it is difficult to make a fair interpretation of a novel (or in my case 10 novels). The art forms are pretty different to each other, and the complexities tend to be simplified. If one, as an author, can swallow that, and accept that a book will always be a stronger, more memorable experience – I think they did it really good. I am very happy about the tv series “Arne Dahl”, after all.

5) The transition from the "A-Unit" saga, all novels brimming with social awareness and a subtle -yet penetrating- critique of the ills of contemporary Swedish society, to the "Opcop" series felt as a natural extension, the main difference being that the setting of the latter moved at an international level. However, you chose to keep certain characters from the "A-Unit" series such as Paul Hjelm and Arto Söderstedt while others like Gunnar Nyberg (a personal favorite of mine) were exiled from your new project. What was the reasoning behind these decisions pertaining to the maintaining or rejecting your, impeccably outlined, characters?

A.D.: The crew had to be international, working in an EU environment, so I had to sacrifice some of my old heroes. (I did, however, miss Gunnar so much that he plays a crucial role in the third Opcop book (not yet translated into Greek) – a book which also, to a certain extent, is set in Greece. There is also a Greek cop active in the new Europol group called Opcop, Angelos Sifakis. In a way, I suppose this was my way of slowly saying goodbye to my old favorite characters. While expanding crime fiction in a kind of political-thriller-way, I knew that in the long run I had to do something completely different in order to renew my energies as a writer. The Opcop quartet is a really powerful series, in my eyes, and the very logical end to a long phase of collective storytelling.

6) The "Berger & Blom" series clearly indicated your change of tack both in terms of themes and narrative style that were now oriented towards the purebred thriller. What made you take this leap and which thriller authors acted as guides for this new series?

A.D.: I did develop the traditional kind of Swedish crime fiction in the direction of hugeness and global reach, but it was still based in the tradition of police procedurals with a social/political center. Behind me were old Swedish classics in the Nordic Noir tradition (like Sjöwall/Wahlöö, Henning Mankell, Håkan Nesser). This time I wanted to do something without guides, without role models. I was looking for some kind of not-yet-used crime fiction form, combining psycho thriller and spy novel with investigative work. It came to revolve around Sam Berger and Molly Blom, who both had to defect from the police to solve the first case – a bit like I myself had to defect from the mainstream Nordic Noir to solve the problem of keeping and expanding my creative energy.

7) The fifth installment of the renowned "Berger & Blom" series is due to be published here in Greece on February 23, 2023. Can you tell us, in brief, something regarding the story and what to expect from the duo of protagonists? More importantly, will this be the final novel in the saga?

A.D.: Sam and Molly have finally overcome all their personal problems to establish a functioning “security firm”. The tasks are, however, pretty unrewarding, like upper-class infidelity spying. At least Sam is secretly hoping for something different. And it comes from an unexpected direction. In book 4, their friend and contact within the police, Deer, was badly injured and is now in a slow rehab process, full of pain and agony. When Deer returns to the police, she is mistreated by her boss and realizes that what she has just found – three dead bodies on three beaches in the Stockholm archipelago that seem to belong together – will not be investigated, unless she hides the investigation from her boss. So she rolls in her wheelchair to Sam and Molly, who are deep in her dept, with the case. And they can’t refuse. It turns out to lead in very strange and very unexpected directions. Towards the quest for eternal life…

8) The Greek translations of your works by Grigoris Kondylis are immaculate and they succeed in conveying the essence as well as the spirit of your prose to the native readership. Are you happy with the translations of your books so far? Were there times that you felt that a particular rendition of your novel devaluated its overall quality?

A.D.: They do indeed seem to be immaculate. I know Grigoris Kondylis and trust him completely. He does not hesitate to ask me if something is badly thought or badly presented. He usually has a better suggestion…

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