Recently, I opened a cardboard box and it transported me back in time twenty years.
To the world of crime novels as it existed then.
Both my sons were moving out, and we needed more boxes. At the far back of our storage space I saw one. If I emptied it we’d have one more. It happened to be the box where I’d collected newspaper articles back before my dream of becoming a published author became a reality. At the bottom of the box, under books on writing techniques and dictionaries, I found a newspaper supplement, an insert from one of Sweden’s major newspapers. Dated 1998, it was an overview of Swedish literature at the time, the publishing houses, the next generation of writers. On its backside, which I noticed as I was just about to throw it in the garbage, there stood a list of Swedish bestsellers – the top sellers in Sweden that month. I read it and was amazed. There wasn’t a single Swedish crime novel, not a single Scandi noir in the top ten. There was historical fiction, chick lit, contemporary novels, satire. Just two detective novels – one British, one American. That’s what it looked like just twenty years ago. I had completely forgotten – now every month at least half of the bestsellers are Swedish crime.
Twenty years ago the Swedish, Scandinavian crime novel was about suffering a slow death from its own repetition.
Who-done-its were being written over and over again.
And if that had continued, just one dominant approach to writing (which is neither more nor less important, that’s just all that was being published) the bestseller lists in Sweden and around the world today would have looked exactly like the newspaper on the bottom of my cardboard box. There would have been a total absence of Scandinavian crime novels. But something happened around that time. A handful of authors rewrote the rules and breathed new life to a whole genre. I’m extremely proud to say that Roslund & Hellström was one of them.
Around the time I first met Börge, I was given the task of launching a new daily news show for Sveriges Television, which I eventually dubbed Kulturnyheterna (the Cultural News). And as my clever and wonderful editorial team and I built our program, we did it from the same starting point that I approached Roslund & Hellström. Our program’s goal was to make room for new substance in a new form expressed in a new way. Plagiarizing what already existed was an easy road to cancellation. The same was true for Roslund & Hellström. If we were to be worthy of being bought and read, we had to add something new, fresh, repeating what already existed was an easy road to end up forgotten.
For many years I’d carried around preconceived notions of what this genre was. The Swedish crime novel needed to regain its broader base. The who in our books would be supplemented by a what and how and why, plus the when of the thriller. That’s how I reasoned when I – who had always sought to understand and describe the driving forces behind violence – met one of the founders of the newly established, non-profit organization KRIS, which rehabilitated prisoners. Börge and I clicked both as people and storytellers and agreed to write from the platform I introduced:
We would have half fiction and half fact – entertain the reader while at the same time giving them insight into worlds we both knew so much about, but few others had visited.
We would write our books as ensembles – changing perspective frequently, never letting a single detective drive the story from the first chapter to the last, what drove our criminals would be described just as clearly as their investigators. Therefore, each book would have a secondary main character other than the Detective Superintendent (who would be number two in each book) – the actual main character could be the victim or the perpetrator (and often both at the same time), and it would be around this character’s universe that the story spun.
We would use the novel’s ability to function as social critique, which in our country for some unthinkable reason was going to waste – there it lay like an untouched tool on our writing desk and we, along with a few others, were grateful to have it, the crime novel is the perfect place to entertain, while also holding up a mirror to society.
And – we formed a partnership and would write crime novels together, at a time when authors didn’t collaborate, and publishers weren’t looking for duos. It was so unusual that when I suggested that we mark our shared authorship by removing our first names – away with Anders and away with Börge – Sweden’s most dominant online bookseller explained it wasn’t possible, their computer system simply couldn’t manage two surnames with an “&” in between! So “Roslund & Hellström” was standardized on our debut book Pen 33 as “Anders Roslund Börge Hellström”. After it became a success with both critics and readers, won the Glass Key award for best Nordic crime novel, then the online booksellers found a way to accommodate our names for the next book. And nowadays, with so many writing as partners in the crime genre, I’m often asked by both Norwegian and Danish journalists about how we inspired writers all over Scandinavia, and it makes me very happy. For two such thoroughly untrendy people as Roslund & Hellström, there’s a special kind of honor in finally creating one.
Entertainment always comes first.
Story, story, story.
But our vision of half truth, half fiction held fast.
We wrote books as we wanted to write them. Nevertheless, I occasionally felt something was missing: a tool that would let us tell stories about worlds our Detective Superintendent couldn’t reach in any natural or credible way (though of course still fictitiously – no matter how alive he felt to us). Around that time, I was contacted by a very good friend who tracked down the first fragments of that strange piece of information, the Swedish police seemed to be using criminal infiltrators despite it being forbidden. He suggested that Roslund & Hellström might want to research and write about it. That very afternoon I sketched out the beginnings of a character, gave him the working name Hoffmann, who was able to inhabit the widened scope of action that Ewert Grens never could. Hoffmann became Piet Hoffmann, and soon after he brought along Zofia and Hugo and Rasmus, our fictional family grew by four new members.
These slightly adjusted conditions enabled us to write Three Seconds, a novel about modern crime and the two authorities, the police and the criminal world, responsible for it. About how the police used criminals as infiltrators and informers – a cooperation that was denied for years. But only a criminal can play a criminal, so they were recruited by the Swedish police while serving time in prison. In order to provide them with cover and credible backgrounds, the police’s own official records were manipulated. Lies and truth in the same police corridor. Falsifying information essential to the rule of law became their method of working, and the criminal infiltrators turned into the outlaws of our time: when an infiltrator was exposed, law enforcement abandoned him. Police commissioners protected their own jobs, but not their employees and by looking the other way they allowed the infiltrated organizations to solve the problem for themselves (read: kill the infiltrator). During the writing of that book, we collaborated with criminal infiltrators and police officers, with prisoners serving long sentences and prison staff, brave people who gave us the legitimacy to allow Piet Hoffmann to face Ewert Grens in the novel form. And to describe how the work of infiltrators and informers calls into question the very concept of justice in a democracy where we take it for granted. That’s how it worked for a very long time. And – despite the denials of the Swedish police – that’s how it still works (as recently as this morning, I spoke with one of them.) Because the Swedish police, like their colleagues all over the world, are completely dependent on the results they get from their cooperation with criminals. And is that good or bad? You, the reader, will have to decide that for yourself.
After our sixth book together, we decided to dissolve our partnership. We liked each other very much, Börge and I. We had become something beyond friends (Börge could sit opposite me, stare deeply into my eyes, then stand up and shout: I hate when you look straight through me, Anders). We knew each other inside and out. So we knew we were heading in different directions. I, Anders, had the life I’d always wanted, writing full- time, and I had so many more stories to tell, especially now that Piet Hoffmann was part of the cast of characters – the world’s leading infiltrator, able to take us to places and people we never would have met otherwise. And Börge had things he’d like to do. We said goodbye, without drama or nostalgia, we’d spent many wonderful years working together.
Then everything changed again. I had published another book and outlined the structure for two more, and Börge had continued with what lay closest to his heart. When a contact whose confidence we’d worked long and hard to gain, several years without success, suddenly decided to trust us. Got a hold of us. Was ready. A door to the world of the drug cartels opened – and we reconsidered our decision. We decided to write another book together. Three Minutes, on a subject we’d talked about exploring from the very first day, but had abandoned – how would we ever get there? Because: in our six previous books, though dressed-up like thrillers, we had sought to describe the consequences of many different kinds of crime, human trafficking and sex crimes and young people in gangs and… and when your mission is to explore contemporary crime, sooner or later you have to get to the source of so much of it. To what drives it. To the umbrella of crime. Or as our very own Superintendent Detective Ewert Grens puts it to his boss: “Almost everything we investigate in this damn building goes back to drugs. Drugs don’t just drive crime, they drive our whole society! When you think about it, Wilson, do people even want it to end? When there are so many who make their living from the consequences?”
We had Ewert Grens. We had Piet Hoffmann. And we had a real source. Together, they were our novelistic ticket as well as our real ticket into the heart of crime, where everything begins – they took me, then Roslund & Hellström, then our readers on a harrowing journey, and in the process hopefully expanded everyone’s knowledge. I traveled with our contact to the center of the drug cartels, a journey I never could have imagined. Even though I lived through a death threat, both as a journalist and writer – I was the anonymous television reporter in the headlines, threatened with a summary execution, and I had to move into hotels and live under fake addresses, had an armed bodyguard in my living room for a long time. But I’d never been as afraid as I was when I entered the bizarre world where life means nothing if it’s standing in the way of profit. And when I returned from South America, Roslund & Hellström were able to complete the crime novel that would connect Sweden to the outside world, the police station at Kungsholmen to a shed in a jungle where cocaine is extracted.
The book we’d pursued from the start was finished. And we could go our separate ways again. For real this time. This was long before Börge got sick, and now that he’s with us no longer, I’m glad we said goodbye to our partnership on our own terms – not because goddamn death forced us apart.
After we decided together to disband our partnership, I began writing a next book based on the characters I’d lived with for so long, and who had more stories to tell. Three Hours I called it. The book you’re holding. The third in a series within a series I planned for an infiltrator that could take us to worlds a Swedish Detective Superintendent never could. The third book in which Piet Hoffmann meets Ewert Grens. Their paths would cross again for a new reason. In the first book – Three Seconds – they never had a confrontation. Just an absurd dialogue over the phone in the middle of a hostage crisis in a high security prison. The second time they met in Bogotá – Three Minutes – under equally extraordinary circumstances, but no longer two express trains headed straight for each other. Hoffmann needed Grens’s help, and they didn’t fight each other, they fought side by side. In Three Hours it’s the opposite. This time Grens, despite agreeing to never meet again, is the one who seeks out Hoffmann. Grens needs the answers. And it’s Ewert Grens who, if the answer is right, needs Piet Hoffmann’s help. And – of course, they’ll meet again a fourth time. For another reason. For another shared adventure. The title? Well, it’s two words. The first one you’ve probably already guessed.
Stockholm, Spring 2018