I presented this paper at the Noir in the North, University of Iceland crime fiction conference in Reykajvik in 2016.

Many wonderful experiences during this visit. Iceland is amazing. It was so cold, but what a beautiful cold. The scenery was incredible. a fabulous experience all round! I think i enjoyed the trip most because my youngest son came with me and while I was at conferences he visited some of the extraordinary museums of the city, including of course the Penis Museum. Don’t ask!


Last February I was sitting watching Trapped on BBC 4. On my TV, the sky above Seyðisfjörður was emptying snow and the wind was howling. It was dark and oppressive. I felt the cold whipping through my television screen into our once warm lounge and I suddenly couldn’t wait to come to Iceland. My whole body tingled with anticipation even though I still had nine months to go before my journey. which seemed quite appropriate as it gave me just the right time to gestate my paper on Irene Huss.

Following in the footsteps of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo we are invited into the world of a detective and through them discover what life is like in Sweden. There is so much more in the Irene Huss novels than a simple crime and discovery and that is how it should be. That is the true delight of the stories.

In brief to introduce the main characters, Irene Huss is around forty years of age and is a police inspector working in Göteborg with the Violent Crimes Unit. She is happily married to a chef, Krister.

She has twin girls Kristina and Jenny and a dog, Sammie. Many years ago she was European champion at jujitsu.

Work colleague Tommy Persson is her best and oldest friend. They have known each other since the police academy. Indeed, Irene feels the pull of family in the police force as she says:

“We’re just like an old married couple… though she’d never said so out loud.” [1]

Tommy later in the series separates from his wife Agneta; who was a good friend of Irene.

Her boss, Commissioner Sven Andersson is actually too old for his job and should retire, but he does not want to. He regularly has high blood pressure and worries Irene.

Jonny Blom is the most unsympathetic of her work colleagues, always on the edge with a spiteful selfish nature. He seems to represent the old fashioned machismo side of the police.

Jonny Blom is a corrosive influence within the group. If this was real life, he would have been formally reprimanded for his misogynistic behaviour and I see his character as a weakness in the series. It is all well and good having a defective character, but it has to be true to life. He is an embarrassment and disciplinary proceedings would have been started against him. Blom may be married, but his womanising and drinking as well as his sexism and intolerance would not be acceptable in a modern police force. To say that his boss has old fashioned values so doesn’t really understand Blom’s faults is a little naïve and doesn’t confront him as it should. He is tolerated more as a dramatic device, but I feel in real life he would have been ostracised by his work colleagues, especially after his sexual assault on Birgitta, and sanctioned by his bosses for his intemperate and inappropriate behaviour.

Helene Tursten told me however that:

“No, I am sorry to say that his behaviour can be seen in the police force. Of course he is not politically correct, but he is stupid enough to say what he is thinking. But remember that the first three books where published in Sweden in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Today his colleagues would react more to what he is saying.”[2]

Fredrik Stridh, Hannu Rauhala, Birgitta Moberg and Svante Malm are more sympathetic and we can warm to them all.

The final main character is Professor Doctor Yvonne Stridner who is the forensics specialist. Brilliant at her job she seems to intimidate everyone in the office, especially Andersson.

The Irene Huss series by Helen Tursten is unique in Scandinavian crime fiction in that as well as being a contemporary story about a Göteborg Detective who has made it to the top, the stories also show that she’s happily married with two daughters and lives a normal family life as a contrast to the seedy unpleasant and often violent work she is involved in.

It is the everyday ordinariness of Swedish life that is pivotal here and so the awful murders that do occur stand out in their savagery compared to the day to day actions at home.

Personally, I love to read and write. As a writer I can escape into my own world and describe a place that fits my characters whilst still mirroring the real world. It becomes my world. As a writer you interpret this world as you will, but know that once it is read it becomes a different world altogether, subject to the reader’s predications and bias. As a writer I can make sense of my world, but I cannot deny the reader to make their own sense of it and this is what I have done with the Irene Huss novels. I won’t go as far as the UCLA class who told Ray Bradbury what his novel Fahrenheit 451 was about and upset him to such a degree that he walked out, but I do have my own interpretation of the novels.

I felt everything was rooted in Family. Unfortunately, Helene Tursten told me when I pressed her on the issue of family:

“No. Policeman and -women have to trust each other, because their lives can depend on that in tough situations. But they do not feel like a family. Trust me; I am married to an ex-cop.” [3]

But I will forge on with my theory, that in her novels, the centre of everything is Family. Helene Tursten told me that:

“The Huss family is a conventional family. Today a family can look in so many ways. But I wanted Irene to have a conventional family in contrast to her dangerous job. And Irene was the first policewoman in Swedish crime literature. Before that most female heroines were lesbians, in books translated from Anglo-Saxon countries. Of course there are lesbian policewoman, but not that many as it was in that day’s literature.” [4]

Swedish parents are among the EU’s most successful in balancing work and family responsibilities. Female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, and child poverty is among the lowest. The country’s family policy is aimed at supporting the dual-earner family model and ensuring the same rights and obligations regarding family and work for both women and men. Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are the main factors for success. The aim of the Swedish financial family policy is to contribute to improved conditions for good living standards for all families with children, increased freedom of choice and empowerment of parents.[5]

The hard work Irene Huss puts into each family is reflected by her efforts at police work and the success she has in both areas and is a reflexion of Swedish society.

The Huss family personify the modern Swedish family: They shared child care and worked the shifts to accommodate this in the early years.

“Krister was Irene’s anchor, and without him, Irene knew she would never have been able to combine family and police work so well. Many of her married male colleagues had reached a similar balance at home. Like them, Irene rarely thought about it.” [6]

Krister now works part-time to support his wife’s efforts. They enjoy a satisfying sex life and this is often alluded to, though not graphically. They live within their budget, going on holidays and trips when finances allow. They buy second hand cars as and when the old one dies on them They shop at Ikea, don’t all Swedes?

There is no real social commentary a la Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö as regards the family, that is, the focus is on the police world and the ills of the world are seen through the eyes of the police.

The daughters, Jenny and Katrina, change tastes and habits as they grow older, but not to the extent that we cannot recognise their individual qualities novel to novel. They have their moments, but are as ‘normal’ as any other kids of their age. One might rebel, another become a vegan, take up with fascists or an animal liberation group, but they are both natural and down to earth. Products of their parents. They may push the boundaries, but are open to reason and persuasion, albeit with a bit of huffing and puffing. All the time however, they have the unconditional love of Irene and Krister.

It doesn’t stop them being blunt or forceful however as when one catches her parents talking about murder at the breakfast table:

“’What a horrible job you have, Mamma,’ was Jenny’s comment.

That really hurt. Irene loved her job and had never wanted to become anything other than a police officer.” [7]

Helene Tursten wanted to write about real people. A real policewoman:

“I wanted a cop who leads a normal life. A woman with whom one can identify, which is in the midst of life. No young thing, as they occur in crime series. A good investigator… with a lot of experience. Irene Huss has intuition and a keen mind.”[8]

The cast in her novels make up various families. Her family at home and the one at work. Then the more devious families, the mafia, the bikers and the flawed families of the victims in each crime she faces.

The theme of family is key to all novels in the Irene Huss series. The perpetrators of each murder is rooted in a disconnected or dysfunctional family. A family that goes against the norm. This of course contrasts sharply with the Huss family at one extreme and the Police family at the other.

We are introduced to Irene Huss in “Detective Inspector Huss” To sum up Irene Huss according to Tursten:

“…she is working fulltime. She is also very serious about her job; she is strong and training to stay in shape. And she loves her job! But she has the modern women problem; always short of time for her family.” [9]

Every night, she returns home to her family. If in time they will talk about their days. Krister will prepare meals. They argue, laugh, squabble with neighbours and each other, but are a family. Irene Huss is also a different kind of police officer. Tursten again:

“I did not write about drinking a whiskey loner. I really do not like it when female heroes perform as well as their male predecessors in thrillers – quaffing, cursing … ” [10]

The terrible life of Tanya in “The Beige Man” is magnified because she has no one to love and support her as she is passed around the sex markets of Europe. Her murderer, Torfaen Sanders, betrays his police family roots after marrying out of pity and does not know how to live a normal family life. He descended into paedophilia and child pornography. His adopted son Stefan disowned him and his wife divorced him.

“The Glass Devil” again shows us child abuse and paedophilia, but on a larger scale. The perversion of the family is clear here as is the revenge that is taken. The Schyelius family betray their religion, their family and society as a whole by their action and the wife’s inaction. As abuse is perpetuated in the home and abroad for many years. Rebecca may have found a new family with Andrew St Clair, but he ends up avenging her by killing her parents and brother, then taking her life before committing suicide. An almost Greek tragedy. Rebecca could never live a normal life after her abuse. Her depression proof of that. The perverted family the cause. But what is a normal family?

In “The Golden Calf” we find a fourth family. The Mafia family and we know all about the stereotypes associated with them. Revenge, loyalty, murder are all actions associated with la Cosa Nostra and we are not disappointed in this novel as revenge is not so subtle. The mafia family may have lost a few million kroner, but the perpetrators all die, even though one by marriage is a member of the family.

The Hells Angel family is a recurrent theme. Violence and loyalty are their coda. They lack the subtlety of the Mafia as fire bombs, grenades and other explosives are their preferred tool of destruction. They go to violent extremes to enforce their rule and every Hells Angel knows what to say and who not to speak to.

Though a theme throughout the novels, the Hells Angels as well as the Mafia are families as we know them and impact upon the stories.

“Night Rounds” again sees a dysfunctional family at the centre of murder and adultery. Meanwhile Irene is also finding the skill of balancing the demands of home and job difficult and is far from immune to the stresses involved. In this novel, she is worried about her fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, who becomes involved with a radical animal-rights group and who certainly has become vegan, to the distress of her father the chef.

We also meet people without families who are alienated from society. Here it is homeless Mama Bird who has taken herself away from the norms of society.

“The Torso” sees Irene searching for a neighbour’s daughter in Copenhagen. The theme of dysfunctional families again at the fore front as she has been working as a prostitute unknown to her mother and is murdered by a son from a one parent family that is not as it should be. It is ironic when Beate, the Copenhagen mother and cop says of her son Emil, unbeknown to her, one of the murderers:

“He lives his own life.” [11]

“The Fire Dance” introduces us to perhaps the most dysfunctional family of the lot. The Malmborgs. As Helene Tursten says:

“The thing is that it is more interesting to write about dysfunctional families.” [12]

Sophie Malmborg knows her brother is an arsonist and a murderer. She was eleven at the time and is naturally traumatised for the rest of her life by this knowledge and also seems to suffer from a form of autism. Her twice divorced mother, Angelika, sleeps around and is jealous of her daughters dancing and choreography talents, whilst the brother, Frej, goes on to kill again. Sophie dies horribly, the various fathers have problems and all comes to a climax in more fire and death. It is a disturbing picture of what some families can be like.

“Unfortunate circumstances. Unhappy people in an unhappy family.” [13]

Irene also has problems with her daughter Katarina who becomes involved with dancers at Sophie’s studio and doesn’t like it when Irene uses this to her advantage when searching for answers at a party she attends. Katarina is not convinced by Irene’s explanation that she is trying to find a murderer:

“Oh God! The investigation! You always have to be super cop! You can never relax and be just like any other human being! Good God. How embarrassing it must be…” [14]

My theory that the police are a family still stands. In “The Beige Man” we see Irene’s mothering nature at work:

“’Just make sure you don’t get caught in the snow,’ Irene said before she could stop herself. As if Fredrik needs a mother she thought crossly…” [15]

This is an amusing encapsulation of how Irene feels. She is exasperated by Jonny’s behaviour, feels feminine loyalty and is protective towards Birgitta, worries about her Boss in a motherly fashion and I have already stated what she feels about Tommy. She doesn’t like to see arguments and wishes for peace and quiet in the squad room. Rather a typical mothers view, even when she knows some behaviours have gone too far.

Irene Huss is very aware of her position of mother in the Huss family. Helene Tursten told me that Irene:

“loves her husband and her daughters, but she always has a bad conscience because she does not have time enough for them.” [16]

When Irene had to work one weekend, Katarina:

“…looked at Irene accusingly. Irene knew full well that she worked too much.” [17]

The work life balance is precarious and is brought home to Irene when Krister has an attack and has to stop work for a while. She sees how stress can affect someone and vows to herself to make life easier for her husband and to look after herself as well. But of course the job takes over and soon:

“The family’s reaction to the news of Irene’s weekend trip to the Canaries could best be described as resigned acceptance.” [18]

Irene feels her influence on daughters is fading as they grow older and become women in their own right:

“Irene realised it was too late. The girls were already grown. She couldn’t really influence them any longer… she knew she wouldn’t say anything. If the girls made a bad decision, they would learn from it because people only learn from the mistakes they make themselves.”  [19]

We have seen the twin girls grow up through the novels and see this is true. The whole issue of coming of age is handled really well. We see the twin’s foibles and are happy for them as they enter adulthood and get ready to leave home and enter the real world.

Her husband Krister is her rock. Without him she would be much reduced and she knows she owes him so much:

“Irene sighed. She always had a guilty conscience about Krister having to stay home most of the time.” [20]

Finally, I will write what Helene Tursten told me when I said I felt her novels were all about Family:

“No, this sounds a bit odd, I think. The Huss family is a family, but the other groups are people united by different reasons. As I said above, the police force is not a family.

Families of victims are very hard for me to see as a family, because anyone can be a victim, so the families are very different. But not anyone can be a perpetrator, but still the families are very different.

One are talking about Mafia families, and often they are related; they are family! But not all of them, so they are still a bunch of criminals.

And the same goes for Hells Angles, I think.” [21]

One could say that you can’t argue with that, but I will! The family surrounds Irene and her family values filter into her work. She is a mother figure who people look to for support. She is held in high esteem by her boss and most of her colleagues. She keeps motherly eyes on the younger embers giving advice when and where it is appropriate. She cares about them, not as a mother hen, but as a figurehead. Her work involves working with families that have met with catastrophe in each of her novels. Here family seems to be central to the plots and the events that occur are more often than not caused by dysfunction in these families and the contrast between Irene’s home life and that of the victims is explicit. The family groups of the police, Mafia and Hells Angels all impact on the plot as they should do, but they are not families as we understand them, but have familial loyalties that in their case overcome their opponents. Last word must go to Helene Tursten on Irene Huss:

“…she loves her family: her husband and the twins have the highest priority. Just as her dog Sammie.” [22]

It’s all about her family.


[1] The Golden Calf p28

[2] Email interview 16.8.16

[3] Email interview 16.8.16

[4] Email interview 16.8.16

[5] EUROPA European Platform for Investing in Children http://europa.eu/epic/countries/sweden/index_en.htm

[6] The Golden Calf p134

[7] The Torso p7

[8] https://images-eu.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/G/03/books/PDF/leseproben/Portrait_Helene_Tursten.pdf

[9] Email interview 16.8.16

[10] Interview with Anne Johansson: “Deckarna föds på promenades”. In: Göteborgs-Posten, 19.09.1999, p.52.

[11] The Torso p163

[12] Email interview 16.8.16

[13] The Fire Dance p302

[14] The Fire Dance p236

[15] The Beige Man p96

[16] Email interview 16.8.16

[17] The Glass Devil p224

[18] The Beige Man p169

[19] The Fire Dance p173

[20] Detective Inspector Huss p65

[21] Email interview 16.8.16

[22] http://www.daserste.de/unterhaltung/film/irene-huss-kripo-goeteborg/die-autorin/interview-helene-tursten100.html

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