Postsecularism in Scandinavian Crime Fiction

By Hansen, Kim Toft | Scandinavian Studies, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Postsecularism in Scandinavian Crime Fiction


Hansen, Kim Toft, Scandinavian Studies


In his 1989 novel Falne engler (Fallen Angels), the Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen integrated an infrequent theological discussion as a predominant element in crime fiction. Basically, the overall plot line is typical of Staalesen's socially sensitive style and narrates a recognizable story about the investigation of a number of murders in Bergen. Very early in the novel, even before the investigation takes off, an old friend of private detective Varg Veum asks him the conspicuous question: "Hvordan har du det med Jesus" (Staalesen 1989, 14) [How do you feel about Jesus?]. Even though Veum does not answer the question at this stage, the mysterious atmosphere of the subject clings to the investigation, and closer to the end of the story--as if he were to answer the question--Veum gets into a lengthy discussion with a local conservative pastor. At this point, Veum turns out to be a critical, however culturally Christian, investigator with a bent toward Franciscan diakonia. This may be the reason why it comes as no surprise that he, in the end, lets the murderer go, in what seems to be a basic act of Christian mercy. Deeply embedded in the discussion, it is suggested by Staalesen that the conservative pastor is looking into a conceivable future for a renewed interest in spirituality in the wake of the new millennium. He predicts that, in the late eighties, we "kan skimte en ny lengsel etter det uforklarlige ... fram mot artusinskiftet" (Staalesen 1989, 245) [can glimpse a new longing for the unexplained ... approaching the turn of the millennium]. In the wake of the increased attention toward religion and spirituality in post-millennial crime fiction, this assertion and assumption appear to be particularly prophetic.

This article considers the postsecular turn in Scandinavian crime fiction. Postsecularism describes a renewed openness toward questions of spirituality, while maintaining the practice of critical scrutiny. John A. McClure defines it as "a mode of being and seeing that is at once critical of secular constructions of reality and of dogmatic religiosity" (McClure 2007, ix). Since 2000, we have seen an intensive increase in the number of titles treating religion and/or spirituality in a way that differs from the genre's usual approach. Firstly, I will frame the traditional attitude toward religion in crime fiction by Scandinavian welfare modernity, outlining the conspicuous absence of religion in the genre. Secondly, I propose a typology of the treatment of religion in crime fiction. My examples are all taken from the vast corpus of contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction, but it would be rather unproblematic to stretch the scope of the theory to an analysis of western crime fiction in general. Within this typology, I will introduce the phenomenon of a religious affirmative openness. Thirdly, I connect the concept of postsecularity with the idea of a quiet reformation throughout Scandinavian cultures at the present time, thus supplying my genre analysis with a cultural explanation. I conclude my article by drawing attention to the philosophical idea of self-constrained modernity and the theological theory of a welfare theodicy as valuable discussions of why we see this spiritual interest in crime fiction.

The publication of Staalesen's novel closed a decade when only very few crime fiction titles had included considerations of religion or spiritual matters. In the eighties, Natanael Frid (pen name for the Swedish pastor Jan Arvid Hellstrom) continued his satirical portrayal of the theological debate about The Church of Sweden in his Pastorn och mordet pa arkebiskopen (1981; The Pastor and the Murder of the Archbishop) while, as Hellstrom, writing Ulven (1984; The Wolf) about mythology and superstition of the past, applied a transitory supernatural explanation. The Swedish author Jan-Olof Ekholm entered the church debate with his novel Dodare kan ingen vara (1982; Nobody Could Be That Dead) with a critique of the church's stance toward female pastors. …

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