Meatballs, Volvos, Abba and the blackest, bleakest crime stories, Sweden is known for many things.
But if bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith has his way, the dark detective genre known as Scandi Noir is about to get a little bit sunnier.
His new novel, The Department Of Sensitive Crimes, is intended as the first in a series the popular novelist is calling Scandi Blanc.
The Edinburgh-based writer says his latest offering, out next month, is not only an antidote to the visceral, violent crime novels Scandinavia has become known for but also the sometimes terrifying realities of modern life.
The former professor of medical law – whose phenomenal writing career took off with the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which is now being turned into a musical with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s Graham Weir – said: “I thought it would be rather fun to have the total opposite of Scandi Noir, with no bodies and nothing too nasty happening.
“Why not Scandi Blanc where the problems are relatively minor and things work out?”
“So I invented this Swedish detective, Ulf Varg – Ulf meaning ‘wolf’ in Danish and Varg meaning ‘wolf’ in Swedish. I found that I really enjoyed his company and that of his rather eccentric colleagues. He has a dog who is deaf who can lip read in Swedish – ridiculous but great fun!
“We should always be aware that there are two sides to the picture.
“There is a bleak, sad, depressing and sometimes a downright frightening side to life. But we needn’t think that is the whole story. It is possible to be more optimistic about life and it’s also possible to believe in goodness.
“If we don’t have a positive outlook, what’s the alternative?
“We worry ourselves into an early grave. There is no point in worrying. Worrying excessively doesn’t make anything any better.
“That’s not to say one should run away from problems. One mustn’t bury one’s head in the sand, but at the same time one must realise that if you just surround yourself with gloom and doom that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; you will get gloom and doom.”
Despite the author’s new Malmo-based detective bringing a little light relief, dark dramas still abound in the far north.
Last night, saw the launch of another bleak Icelandic crime thriller Trapped – dubbed Nordic Noir – with a double bill on BBC4. It features brooding Reykjavic cop Andri Olafsson, played by Olafur Darri Olafsson.
And Netflix have released a trailer of their next original series, Quicksand.
Adapted by The Bridge’s Camilla Ahlgren, the Scandi Noir tale tells the story of an ordinary Stockholm high school pupil who finds herself on a murder charge after a killing in a wealthy suburb.
Sandy, as he is known to his friends, is only just back from India where he took part in the Jaipur Literary Festival, followed by a trip to Nepal where he spent some time with former Gurkha soldiers through his involvement with the Gurkha Welfare Trust.
He topped that with a four-day trek in the Himalayas.
“It was relatively easy trekking,” he says. “Three hours one day, six the next. We were just on the edge of the Annapurna Range. It was absolutely lovely; gorgeous great mountains and little villages along the hillside.”
Fitness, then, clearly isn’t an issue for the man who reveals he has just become a grandfather for the fourth time.
“I do an hour on the exercise bike every day. You can put your iPad on it and watch Netflix, otherwise I would get bored stiff.
“I like a good series. I have been watching Peaky Blinders. It is very odd and a bit dark. I also did a series about the Mafia in Montreal, Canada, called Bad Blood. That was exciting.”
In real life, he says, we must “tread carefully”. Referring to Brexit, he reveals: “What worries me is division and unwillingness to compromise and to listen to other people’s views. We have to continue to have faith in our democratic institutions.
“But by far the biggest challenges that face us are environmental.
“We have to revise our attitudes towards the planet because at the moment we are exhausting it. In the Far East, in large cities the pollution is absolutely awful. People can hardly breathe.
“Delhi is really bad. I particularly noticed that the air is dangerous. It’s like smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. All of these are major problems that put many others in the shade. That is our priority number one; to preserve the planet.
“Literature is important in so many different respects. It is a way of reflecting on one’s situation and how people deal with being in the world, and it helps one develop one’s moral imagination.
“Through reading books, children are enabled to develop their moral imagination, so that they can understand and sympathise with the other person.
“Education in literature is of immense importance, as is musical education. It is very sad to see music tuition (in schools) squeezed. It is such a pity that kids are being denied such an important opportunity to become fully rounded human beings.”
The writer has a new children’s book out this summer in the School Ship Tobermory series. There is also a standalone novel for grown-ups, The Second Worst Restaurant In France, out in May.
Another Scotland Street book publishes in July, and Volume 20 of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency hits bookshops in September, with a separate collection of short stories out in November.
In April, he is taking part in a BBC Symphony Orchestra event to be broadcast on Radio 3. It will bring to life his much-loved fictional characters wrapped in an eclectic array of his favourite music. It’s a hectic time.
“I love it,” he said. “Most of us like a new challenge. I find it energising.”
From Botswana to Broadway? NYC buzzing for Mma musical
Plans to turn tales from the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency into a stage musical have taken a significant step forward.
Creator Alexander McCall Smith, who has penned the lyrics to music written by Edinburgh-based Graham Weir, a former member of Orchestral Manoueuvres in the Dark, revealed: “He’s a fantastic composer and the nicest man.
“And he has written some beautiful tunes for the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
“So we are currently talking to agents in New York.
“It is being pushed along and we’re hoping that something comes of that.”
The work – first announced at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2017 – features the “traditionally built” African detective Mma Precious Ramotswe, and is set in Botswana.
It’s thought to involve Mma Ramotswe having a confrontation with a witch doctor.
It follows the successful BBC and HBO TV series based on the books that starred Grammy award-winning singer and actress Jill Scott.
The pilot episode was co-written by Richard Curtis, the man behind smash hit films Four Weddings And A Funeral and Love Actually.
It ran for just one series despite having positive reviews and being sold around the world.
There was also a hit BBC Radio 4 series that ran for over 30 episodes.
The books themselves have sold over five million copies.
But the new stage show is not the only musical enterprise for the author-turned-lyricist – who also writes with another of the capital’s composers, Tom Cunningham.
Last year’s operetta, The Tumbling Lassie, based on the poignant true story of a child acrobat enslaved by a 17th Century showman in Scotland, was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in addition to a charity performance in aid of anti-trafficking initiative.
It takes to the Edinburgh stage again in April for the same cause.
His brand new operetta based on Sir Walter Scott’s Dandie Dinmont is due to be premiered in June at the Borders Book Festival.