I’m late catching up with this one, but after a summer of Inspector Montalbano (which I have nothing against but which has been around a little too long), BBC4 have returned to Scandinavia with Crimes of Passion.
It’s the first of a series of six 90 minute films, made and set in Sweden. The stories are based on early novels by the prolific Swedish crime fiction writer, Maria Lang (a pen-name for Dagmar Lange), written in the late forties and early fifties, and centre upon the trio of Puck Ekstadt, a lecturer on murders in literature, her boyfriend (and later husband) Einar Bure, another lecturer, in history, and their friend, Christer Wijke, head of the Murder Squad in Stockholm.
The stories are all set in the early fifties, leading one person to describe them as a cross between Mad Men and The Killing (all background here is being taken, shamelessly, from Wikipedia). The series hasn’t gone down well in Sweden, the pilot film ‘Death of a Loved One’ being poorly received by the critics and the rest of the series has only been available on video-on-subscription service, and never been broadcast, but BBC4 have plumped for this to entertain our Saturday nights for the next six weeks and, what can I say, it’s a decided cut above Salamander (which is our basis for Saturday Eurocrime until BBC4 dredges up something even worse).
As for the comparison, Crimes of Passion lives up to the Mad Men end of the billing but is far from satisfactory on The Killing aspect. In complete contrast to our ScandiCrime highlights, the atmosphere is not dark and washed out, the action doesn’t take place at night and the closest the principals get to the examination of their souls is the slight concern as to whether Christer might interfere with Puck’s inevitable convergence with Einar (who is known as Eje, for some reason that’s probably clear as daylight to somebody who knows anything about Scandinavian culture in the early fifties: I know nowt, I wasn’t even around for English culture at this point).
‘Death of a Loved One’ takes place around Midsummer Night, a day of Swedish celebration that seems to involve parties, lashings of food, drink and games, and tormented passions leading to murder. Puck is invited to Rutger’s island, where Eje will be present, as will Rutger’s wife of less than a year, Ann, and other friends, which include a flirtatious and vivacious actress (and this is a decade where you can use the word ‘vivacious’ and not feel antiquated), a nerve-wracked, blocked writer with a morbid turn of mind and a shag-anything-that-moves lover. All is going drunkenly well, until the party is crashed by two women, Viveka and Marianne.
Which wouldn’t be so bad if Marianne wasn’t Rutger’s former fiancee, who he dumped last year for unspeakable reasons that would drive a man mad.
As the day wears on, Puck (pronounced closer to ‘Pook’) finds herself a bit of an outsider among all the overwrought tensions and Ann’s determined stiff upper lip. Her attempt to let herself get taken off to the woods and be firmly snogged by Eje is frustrated by evidence of illicit passions going on all around her so, having gathered vital evidence to be brought into play the moment we find a body, she goes and sleeps all night.
In the morning, it’s down to the jetty for a nude swim (fifties maybe, but Sweden: besides we see nothing but a bare bum) and on the way back Puck finds the expected body: Marianne, strangled. She and Eje take the island’s only boat to the mainland, ring up Christer and take him back to the island, where firstly the body’s vanished, and secondly the boat promptly conks out, stranding all of them there.
It’s all very Agatha Christie and Ten Little Indians (a book we so do not refer to by its original title), and in case we miss it, the horrendously sensitive writer shouts it out for us. And of course everyone’s lying about something and being terribly terribly witty to the dumb policeman about it.
So far, it’s all very fifties crime novel cliche, even down to the frequent gatherings in the library, so the series is at least living up to its billing a la Mad Men: the colours, the clothing, the incessant drinking, the even more incessant smoking and the classic building blocks. Puck’s very quiet but she’s always around to see and hear things that will help her determine who the murderer really is.
A couple of things do strike me as strange about the plot. The first is that, though Christer Wijk is head of the Murder Squad in Stockholm, the national capitol, he never once displays the slightest suspicion of either Eje or Puck. Admittedly, Eje is his best friend, and he vouches for Puck, despite having known her only a few days (and not at all carnally, Sweden maybe, but fifties), but Christer really ought to be showing a little more professionalism here. The other, and more unusual, is that not once do any of the guests suspect each other. They’re stranded on the island, there’s been two murders (the philanderer is discovered in the bay, covered with seaweed and nursing a bullet hole where it don’t do no good), and yet nobody seems concerned that they’re trapped there with a murderer.
Not even when Viveka goes headlong down the dangerous stairs into the cellar, cracking her head and breaking her foot, and Puck discovers that the stairs are soaped…
As the end approaches, truths start to spill out. Rutger confesses to having still loved Marianne and her being the only one for him, at which Ann, with very English sang-froid – she has been living over here with us for many years – promptly goes indoors and slits her wrists in the washing-up bowl.
Christer comes to a decision. Marianne was killed because she was about to go off to Bastad with the late philanderer Georg. A jealous, rejected lover could not face that and killed her. But he has the wrong man, in all senses of the word. It takes Puck to sense that the rejected lover is not Rutger, but the person who took Marianne from him: Viveka. Who, once her bluff is called, confesses immediately.
The story ends with Puck and Eje finally getting their much-postponed lip-lock, but the moment, which is in keeping with the general light-hearted, lightweight mileu of the story, is lost to an unexpected inner speech, a moment of defiance and pride from Viveka, limping to the police launch, as she recognises that she will be called abnormal (for being a lesbian),but stating that her love, her fear, her passion is not abnormal, that it is no different from how the rest of us feel.
It’s a jarring moment, and badly out of place, but it’s still something that needs saying, and I’m glad the story went out of its way to say it.
So: no The Killing, no The Bridge. It’s light, it’s an effective recreation of a crime and place, all the better for lacking the artificiality that cannot be avoided with Agatha Christie herself. It takes its time, is never too exciting, and is definitely not too dark, though it does have a thing for close-ups of flies on dead bodies that at least reminds us that, half a century later, there will be deeper, darker crimes, and deeper, darker cops to solve them.
And nowhere is it so mutton-headedly stupid as that Belgian one, so that will content me for the next five weeks.
If the Swedish reaction is anything to go by, we’ve already seen the best one. But I’ll be watching developments, and you know that I’ll call it out if it gets too appalling. Maybe we’ll have some snarky fun before this is over.