Representations of an Assassination: Olof Palme's Murder in Nordic Crime/True Crime Literature and Media

Jan 16, 2020
Dimitris Passas

The assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, on the evening of February 28, 1986, was a cornerstone event for the Swedish people that marked the transition from the idyllic Sweden of equality, Welfare State, freedom for all utopia to a country that watched with gaping mouths through their television the news of the murder. Palme was shot at the intersection of the Sveavägen and the Tunnelgatan in central Stockholm as he was returning home, along with his wife, Lisbet, after watching the movie The Brothers Mozart (in Swedish: Bröderna Mozart) in Grand Cinema. The perpetrator followed Palme from the cinema as the Prime Minister and his wife were walking in a relaxing tempo, and when he reached the point-blank range, he shot Palme in the back. The Swedish leader of Social Democrats was dead even before his body hit the pavement. Right after the murder, the assailant walked away from the scene fled up the stairs in Brunkeberg Ridge. Lisbet was also shot but she was lucky as the bullet went through her coat and resulted in nothing more than superficial injury. His funeral took place on March 15, 1986, and over half a million Swedes attended the service. P. Neroth writes that "it was a funeral not just for a man, but for a particular idea of Sweden". Every Swede remembers where he or she was when the news of Palme's assassination broke out. Many parallel this case with the assassination of J.F.K. in the U.S., as far as the impact and the repercussions are concerned. It should be mentioned that the previous assassination with a political motive in Sweden dates back to 1792 when King Gustav III was shot at a masked ball. Unfortunately, 17 years later another prominent Swedish politician, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Anna Lindh, would get murdered on September 10, 2003. The event took place in a shopping mall in central Stockholm and the perpetrator was a Serbian thug, Mijailo Mijailović who was sentenced to life imprisonment on December 2, 2004. There are some common characteristics in the cases of Palme and Lindh, the most striking being the fact that they both got out without a hint of security or bodyguards. Nevertheless, we should consider that Sweden was one of the most peaceful countries in Europe and even the idea of a political crime would seem nearly impossible for the eyes of most Swedish citizens. In an article written in The Economist, we read: "Much of the international comment on the assassination in Stockholm on February 28th dwelt on Sweden's peaceful peculiarity. True, until last week, Stockholm was one of the few capital cities where it was still imaginable that a Prime Minister and his wife would walk home through the streets late at night and unescorted". On the other hand, Ron Eyerman argues that there is a fundamental difference between the two murders: "If the murder of Anna Lindh marked the end of Swedish innocence, the murder of Palme marked the closing of an era". Sweden would never be the same again after February 28, 1986. The subsequent investigation by the Swedish Police would make the Swedes prone to conspiracy theories as the time passed and the authorities remained empty-handed. It is worth mentioning that "130 people have confessed to the murder, about 12.000 have been accused, and 450 possible murder weapons have been tested". As anyone can imagine this was the largest investigation in the history of the Swedish police force and the case's archive is the largest active murder investigation archive in the world. An unsolved murder of this scale was destined to create multitudes of self-proclaimed investigators who set out to find the truth about the assassination entirely on their own. This frenzy gave birth to a new term, the "Palme Sickness" ("Palmessjukdom"), a phenomenon that boomed in Sweden for the years after the actual event. I will later cite the most interesting and plausible conspiracy theories that were introduced in the previous years, but you should keep in mind that they are nothing more than theories, thus mental structures based on very thin actual evidence. Jan Bondeson summarizes wonderfully this collective madness as follows: "The Phantom, the Shadow, the Grandman, the Dekorima man and other real and imaginary murder suspects hover round the Tunnelgatan stairs in an endless dance macabre".

Palme was a politician who stood apart from other Prime Ministers as he chose to follow the "Middle Way" in his foreign policy, meaning that he tried to maintain equal distance from the two superpowers of the era, the Soviet Union and the United States of America. His untimely death marked the end of an era that lasted for more than 20 years, a period in time in which Sweden established its self-image and adopted its self-narrative in a way that influenced and -in a major part- shaped the perception of non-Swedes for the country. As P. Neroth mentions: "For some, the death of Palme marked the beginning of the end of Sweden's geopolitical independence". Sweden was standing in the middle between American capitalism and Soviet communism by promoting a strong, centralized state apparatus that eased the conflict between the capital and the labor. R. Eyerman writes: "One of the most fundamental conflicts in modern society, the one between capital and labor, was well formalized through centralized collective bargaining". Palme favored high-tax rates that would empower the Swedish ideal of the Welfare State (in Swedish: Folkhemmet), a parental-like power that would take care of everyone, especially the weakest members of the Swedish society. The establishment of a forceful Welfare State was not Palme's idea and it was refined and polished during the 1950s and 1960s, before Palme became the leader of the Social-Democratic party and Prime Minister for the first time in 1969, succeeding Tage Erlander. Palme was Erlander's protégé and the latter has famously characterized Palme as: "the greatest political talent Sweden has seen this century". Palme was a strong-willed individual who attained the charisma of public speech and rhetoric, something for which his most fierce critics chastened him as he was considered as an upper-class snob. The truth was that Palme was born into an upper-crust family, nevertheless, he embraced the socialist ideas from a young age, after he traveled to the U.S. and India in the early 1940s where he understood the deep roots of social and economic inequalities. Throughout his political career, Palme made friends and many enemies, especially inside Sweden where he was mistruster by the far-right extremists who labeled him as a Soviet spy. Nevertheless, there were few supporters of the exact opposite argument, that Palme was a secret agent for the American Intelligence Services. Those contradicting beliefs manifest Palme's controversial political portrait and stem from his firm stance in favor of Sweden's neutrality in the Cold War era. Palme was outspoken in his criticism against certain international policies promoted by many countries, either geopolitically significant or not. For example, he was boldly against the American intervention in Vietnam, condemned dictatorships in other European or African countries, criticized the politics of Apartheid in South Africa (this fact fed a certain group of conspiracy theorists as we will see below in the text), while he was the UN-mediator in the Iran-Iraq war, an honorable achievement for a politician.

Hans Holmér, the police commissioner for the county of Stockholm, was put in charge of the Palme investigation. He maintained a good reputation as a hard but effective police officer and his overall credentials were impressive: in 1970, he became head of the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO) while six years later he promoted to Stockholm's police commissioner. In the year to come, Holmér would become one of the most familiar faces for the Swedes as he gave numerous press conferences even when the investigation seemed to be into a stalemate. Jan Bondeson in his highly detailed account of Palme's murder and subsequent investigation titled Blood on the Snow, writes: "Holmér became a national figure through the event, the virtual representative of Swedish justice, a role he shouldered with great enthusiasm". He always appeared optimistic in front of the cameras, while at the same time promoting a hard-boiled self-image that earned him the nickname "Sweden's Clint Eastwood". Already from the early stages of the investigation, Holmér was certain that Palme's assassination was a product of a well-organized plan, invented by a group of people who hated Palme's political views and policies. He also believed that this group cannot consist of Swedish citizens, thus he blamed minorities who had good reason to eradicate the Swedish Prime Minister. More specifically, Holmér became obsessed with the theory that the Kurds of the Kurdish Liberation movement (PKK) were responsible for the crime, in such a degree that he focused all the available resources accordingly, dismissing several other lines of inquiry. The result was a series of unsuccessful raids in Kurdish houses and arrests of Kurds without sufficient evidence support those actions. After being a full year in charge of the Palme Investigation, Holmér resigned in February 1987 and spent the rest of his days writing crime fiction novels and his personal account of the investigation in a 274-page book, titled Olof Palme has been shot! (in Swedish: Olof Palme är skjuten!) in which he describes his experiences from this tense year. He was succeeded by Ulf Karlsson who was put in charge of the Palme Investigation.

Holmér's resignation had a profound effect on the direction of the authorities. The idea of a conspiracy by a group of people to kill Palme was rejected and the investigators were turned to the theory of the "lone gunman" or "lone madman", that claimed that the Swedish Prime Minister was shot by one person who hasn't planned beforehand the murder and he probably was mentally ill. The result of this shift in the direction of the police was the arrest of the one and only man who was officially charged with the assassination, a man named Christer Pettersson. Pettersson was a low-life drug abuser who had already killed once in the past, in 1970, when he stabbed a man to death in a Stockholm street. The Swedish press dubbed the crime "The Bayonet Murder" and Pettersson has been called "The Bayonet Killer". In the trial that followed the arrest, Pettersson was found guilty and was sentenced in life imprisonment despite the total lack of any hard evidence supporting his guilt. The prosecutors could not find the motive for the murder while they were unable to link Pettersson with the murder weapon, a Magnum .357. The only incriminating evidence against him was given to the police by Olof Palme's widow, Lisbet, who recognized Pettersson as the man who shot her husband when she watched a video-lineup of the police with possible suspects. Her testimony though would be questioned during the trial and Pettersson's attorney, Arne Liljeros, stated that Lisbet Palme's "arrogance, self-sufficiency, and lack of respect for established legal practice disqualifies her as a witness". His statement would be strengthened by the erratic behavior that Palme's widow exhibited during the trial and her outrageous demands that were rejected by the court. The image of an unrestrained, borderline hysterical woman who was still in a shock due to her experience of the traumatic event of the murder discredited Lisbet in the eyes of many Swedes. Nevertheless, Pettersson was finally found guilty, but his sentence was overturned in the appeal court where he was acquitted unanimously by the jury. Moreover, he got compensated for false imprisonment with a respectable sum of money. In the following years, Pettersson would become a cult icon in Sweden until his death on September 29, 2004.

Death of a Pilgrim (original title: En pilgrims död) is a 4-part television mini-series based on Leif G. W. Persson's famous "Fall of the Welfare State" trilogy, and more specifically on the last installment, titled Falling Freely As If in a Dream. Persson is one of the top criminologists in Sweden and is also considered to be one of the Grand Masters of Scandinavian crime fiction. In his novel, he offers an alternate explanation of the Palme assassination that hinges on the author's supposition that the Swedish prime minister was killed by a conspiracy led by the head of Swedish Security Service, a disturbed, sociopathic individual named Claes Waltin, played brilliantly by Jonas Karlsson. The story is narrated in two timelines, the present and the past which is set in 1985, one year before the Palme execution. The 1985 timeline's story and plot are based on the first chapter in Persson's "Fall of the Welfare State" trilogy, titled Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, in which we are introduced to a younger version of the main characters. Superintendent Lars Martin Johannson (Rolf Lassgård) is the head of a small team of senior police investigators who are called to secretly reopen the Palme case in search for the truth. Persson, who quickly dismissed Christer Pettersson as a possible perpetrator, is a supporter of the, commonly named, "police track" theory that argues that far-right-wing extremists inside the Swedish police and Secret Services. This theory has proved stronger and more resistant than the majority of the speculations that were introduced during the last 34 years. It also explained the tragic mistakes and blunders that were made during the course of the investigation. Jan Bondeson writes: "It is sad but true that some Stockholm cops celebrated openly when they learned that the hated Olof Palme was dead". The supporters of the "police track" invoked the testimonies of certain witnesses that were either neglected or even dismissed as irrelevant by the authorities. Those people saw things that happened in or near the scene of the crime which directly or indirectly implicated the police to the murder. Kari and Pertti Poutainen wrote a book, Inside the Labyrinth (2004), where they imply that high-ranking members of the Swedish police force, as well as the prosecutor of the case, tried to cover-up the truth about the assassination.

A different path is followed in another fictional account of Palme's murder, the film titled The Last Contract (original title: Sista Kontraktet), directed by Kjell Sundvall and starring Mikael Persbrandt in the role of Roger Nyman, an agent of the Swedish secret police. Nyman becomes aware of a conspiracy involving a Swedish tycoon in the banking business who hires a mercenary to murder Palme because the latter has announced his intention to nationalize banks, a plan that would wreck the banker's interests. The hired assassin hires another mercenary, living in Norway, to help him carry out the killing and they make two unsuccessful attempts before they finally manage to complete their mission. The film is based on a novel written by an author using a pseudonym, John M. Grow, titled Kontraktet: Mordet på en Statsminister.

Jan Stocklaasa is a former Swedish diplomat and businessman who wrote, in 2018, a true crime book under the title The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson's Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin. The author was able to gain access to Stieg Larsson's, the famous author of the legendary "Millenium" trilogy, archive which went back to Stieg's early years as publisher of the Expo magazine that attempted to monitor the activity of far-right and neo-nazi extremists in Sweden. In his book, Stocklaasa presents the major points of Larsson's private investigation on the murder and also attempts to illuminate the personality of the late "Millenium" trilogy author. The period during which Palme was killed, Stieg worked as an illustrator in one of Sweden's biggest news agencies, TT. He immediately began his own vigorous research and he soon embraced a theory that put the South African intelligence services on the spotlight, as Palme was outspoken against apartheid, the policy that dictated that people should inhabit specific areas depending on the color of their skin, and his overall attitude towards this matter made him many enemies. Though this is a book that would certainly be categorized in the true crime genre, the flow of the narration is reminiscent of a quality crime -or spy- novel. It is divided into many short chapters, thus unraveling in a fast tempo and you will find it hard to put down after reading the first few pages. It doesn't matter if you are familiar with the facts and trivia around Palme's murder, this book is so much more.

Below I'm citing a shortlist with some of the most important titles around Olof Palme's assassination, either biographies, true crime accounts, or fictional representations of the murder.


Bondeson, J., "Blood On the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme".

Neroth, P., "The Life and Death of Olof Palme".

Jenkins, P., "The Assassination of Olof Palme: Evidence and Ideology".

Dammegard, O., "Coup D'Etat in Slow Motion".

Poutainen, Kari& Pertti., "Inuti Labyrinten".

Derfler, L., "The Fall and Rise of Political Leaders: Olof Palme, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Indira Gandhi".

Holmér, H., "Olof Palme är skjuten!".

Persson, L. G. W., "Falling Freely, As If in a Dream".

Douglas-Grey, J., "The Novak Legacy".

Eyerman, R., "The Cultural Sociology of Political Assassination: From MLK and RFK to Fortuyn and Van Gogh".

Stocklaasa, J., "The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson's Lost Files

and the Hunt for an Assassin".

Grow, J. M., "Kontraktet: Mordet på en Statsminister".


- "The Last Contract" (1998).

-"Palme" (2012).

- "Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Played With Fire" (2018).

- "Olof Palme- A Life in Politics" (DOCUMENTARY).

- "Who Killed Olof Palme?" (DOC.).

- "Olof Palme- The Forbidden Trail" (DOC.).


- "Death of a Pilgrim" (2013).

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