How many murders are committed in Oxford? I haven’t got access to official crime figures, but in the world of Colin Dexter’s Morse, Lewis and Endeavour, they probably run into hundreds. In reality, I doubt that there are too many, otherwise there would be a serious shortage of academics. The same situation applies to one of my favourite writers, Henning Mankell. His creation, Kurt Wallander, finds a disturbing amount of crime in the quiet town of Ystad. It’s a place I know and has just become home to my elder son and his family. The peaceful streets of the small port throng with summer visitors, but they don’t seem too perturbed by the number of serial killers that stalk Mankell’s books.
This made me look a bit closer at my own chosen beat, Malmö. How close are my stories to the real crime that is going on in the southern Swedish city? Before I started writing the books, a Swedish detective friend – who had served in Malmö some years ago – warned me that a lot of crime was committed there. As Malmö seemed such a peaceful place, I took this with a pinch of salt. Now, having got to know Malmö better, I make more of an effort to keep abreast of the criminal climate. However, I still write the stories I want to write even if they don’t really reflect the situation on the streets.
Malmö is a fascinating place. Until it was virtually joined to Copenhagen by the Öresund Bridge (yes, that one from the TV series) in 2000, it was out on a bit of a limb, cut off from the centre of all things Swedish; Stockholm. However, it had always been cosmopolitan and attracted immigrants, originally many of them Jews escaping from persecution in other parts of Europe. Today, out of a population of 300,000, 31% were born abroad and nearly 41% have a foreign background – and 20% of the population is Muslim. This makes for a wonderfully rich mix of cultures. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go down well with some Swedes, as the dramatic rise of the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party (a sort of mix of UKIP and the BNP) has shown. They already have 49 MPs, with a recent poll now putting their support up to 19.4%. As Sweden takes in more immigrants than any other European country bar Germany, it actually shoulders the biggest burden in relation to the size of its population within the Euro Zone.
So, have I tapped into the Swedish crime scene? I’ve certainly not read about Malmö producing that Nordic staple, the psychotic serial killer who commits extremely gory murders. I doubt that Scandinavia has produced too many of those. In fact, Sweden’s most famous “serial killer”, Sture Bergwall, held his hand up to the killing of thirty people. Admitting to his crimes while in a psychiatric prison, he was later convicted of eight of them. The only problem was that he hadn’t actually killed anyone, and it left the Swedish police, psychiatric establishment and judiciary with very red faces. The closest contender I can find in Malmö is lone gunman Peter Mangs, who was dubbed the Laser Man. He was charged with three counts of murder and twelve counts of attempted murder over the period 2009 and 2010. He targeted immigrants. At the time, Malmö’s public prosecutor criticised the media for naming the suspect because it might interfere with their investigation into the 50 or so shooting incidents targeting immigrants in the area over the previous year. I must admit I created a similar character for Murder in Malmö. In the same book I also highlighted the fate of Malmö’s Jewish population, many of whom have been hounded out of the city. But have I addressed much of the latest violence in the city? To be honest, no. Malmö had 25 bomb blasts in the city last year. This year there have already been 30 bombings or grenade attacks. There have also been numerous shootings. One problem controlling the current wave of violence, which police believe is linked with the sentencing of three young men in a Christmas Eve bombing in the ethnic area of Rosengård, is that a third of police officers are away on summer holiday. It’s traditional to take a month off, so the summer is a great time to commit a crime. The root of the problem appears to be gang warfare. A lot of the blame is aimed at people from the Balkan countries. It also comes at a time when the numbers of police recruits from immigrant backgrounds is going down. Another factor is the amount of weaponry coming into the country and the police are demanding tighter controls on the Öresund Bridge.
Of course, there are all sorts of other crimes going on, but none that grabs the national Swedish headlines in the same way. Having painted this rather bleak picture, I have to say that when I used to stay with my son and his family in what is described as an immigrant area, where many of the events mentioned above took place, I never felt worried or in danger. I happily took my grandson out for walks without batting an eyelid. The other day, one resident said in The Local internet newspaper: “I feel safe in Malmö. I have lived here for 11 years and was more afraid getting home late at night in Gothenburg, where I lived before. It has a bad reputation – people need to come here to see for themselves that it is so much more than that. I like it here.”
There is always somewhere else that is worse. Gothenburg obviously! In 2005, according to the UN, Scotland was the most violent country in the developed world, which is good news for Tartan Noir writers. Sweden has its problems. Does the fact that the police carry guns exacerbate the firearms problem? That is another debate. My writing may not completely reflect the crime scene in Malmö, but at least I have chosen a location that has a realistic level of murderous wrongdoing for a police team to investigate. I’m not so sure the coppers in Oxford or Ystad really have.