Sweden through the looking glass, crime and again

LARSSON is a common name in Sweden. So readers should not mistake Asa Larsson for a relative of another crime-writing Larsson, Stieg.

While she knows Eva Gabrielsson, the partner of the late author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, that's as close as she gets.

Asa Larsson, in town for the Melbourne Writers Festival, acknowledges that, along with Henning Mankell and the co-authors Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, her namesake has been a significant door opener for Swedish crime writers to international markets. But at home she was a published crime writer well before he came on the scene.

She says Swedes have always read British and American crime writers, but when Sjowall and Wahloo started their 10-book series in the mid-1960s they did something new - commented on modern Sweden.

''They wanted to reflect something of society,'' she says. ''The intention was originally not to have one character but a collective, but they kept with Martin Beck. They wanted a reaction to the usual bourgeois perception of society.'' She has written six novels featuring Rebecka Martinnson, a tax lawyer, but it was two years after publication of The Savage Altar in 2003 that anyone noticed the reverential nod towards Beck in her heroine's name.

The most recent of her books to be translated into English is The Black Path, in which Martinnson plunges into a mystery surrounding a body found on the ice and the dark dealings of a mining company.

Larsson's novels are set in the far north of the country, around the town of Kiruna, where she grew up and still considers home, even if now she lives further south.

She says the northern Swedes are sneered at by the southerners and ''constantly feel like underdogs''. It's mining country close to the Arctic circle, where conditions are harsh and the extraction of iron ore has meant a whole town in danger of subsiding.

As a result, it is being moved three kilometres: ''We have always known that without the mine we couldn't exist. It's OK to be sad, even if you accept it, but then you still have to move on.''

Like Martinnson, Larsson was for years a tax lawyer. She turned to crime - in fiction, that is - after the birth of her first child.

''That's when life stops for a while. Every frame of life disappears. Whether you like it or not, it's a time when you're at home and reflect on your life. I longed to do something creative.'' But there's one alleged crime she is reluctant to talk about - that of Julian Assange. She wants to skip discussion of the Australian WikiLeaks founder wanted for questioning in Sweden on possible sexual assault charges.

''Because you're a crime writer you're asked to have a point of view on a lot of things, and I'm uncomfortable having public opinions on things that are not my professional area.

''There are people out there more capable of having opinions, and I should be reading about it.''

The Black Path is reviewed in Life & Style. Asa Larsson appears at the Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend. mwf.com.au. The Age is a festival sponsor.

The story Sweden through the looking glass, crime and again first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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