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Something wholesome in the state of Denmark?

Recently I’ve been sitting up red-eyed, late into night hooked on something I just can’t kick. The habit just grew me and before I knew it I was blowing large sums of money to feed my addiction.

Don’t worry though, readers, I haven’t  taken up crack cocaine or blown the house on internet poker. Just  belatedly discovered hit Danish crimi The Killing (Forbrydelsen), now being re-run on BBC4, and splashed out on the boxed DVD set to find out whodunnit.

We Brits, it seems, just can’t get enough of Inspector Norse (see BBC4’s excellent documentary Nordic Noir )   who inthis case is austere, self-sufficient,  jumper-wearing obsessive DI Sarah Lund.

There’s a  very strong political sub-plot in the series  as Lund’s investigation of the brtual murder of 19 year old women Nanna Birk Larsen leads ever closer to Copenhagen City Hall and the closely contested mayoral election between Liberal candidate Troels Hartmann and incumbent (Social Democrat?) mayor Bremer. Hartmann is most closely implicated as one of his campaign cars is used to dump the body of the  victim,.

I won’t give the plot away, but what’s interesting from a political science point of view is how well the Danish political system comes out.  Although clearly a political pro accustomed to wheeling and dealing, Hartmann is (with some key exceptions)  basically a rather principled reformer.  He refuses some of the dirtier strategems proposed by his advisors and the pressures to comprise his core beliefs for the sake tactical conveneince or because of pressure from his national party.

The police are subject – and for a while amenable – to political pressure to protect powerful figures from investigation, but in the end they are prove independent enough to go for them.

The municipal public administration perhaps comes out worse, although personal failings rather than institutional failure seem to lie at the heart of the what the ‘tecs uncover.

Power corrupts then, but not that much maybe.

Henning Mankell

A big contrast then with some of the older more established works of Scandi-crime writing, especially that of left-wing Swedish writers like Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and more distantly Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö . Here, behind the facade of a well-governed welfare society something is rotten in the state of Sweden with big businesspeople (sometimes pervvy or psychopathic), right-wing extremists, sinister spooks, blowback from the exploitation of the Third world and (post-1989/91) collusion with East European mafias being some of the favourite themes.

Personal crimes and misdemenours peel back to reveal inner social and political malaise.

The Killing has it the other way round.

Still worth getting to Denmark? (Photo Casey Marshall)

Despite shockingly delivered plot twists, very  dark subject matter and lashings of  human tragegy and personal destruction wreaked on all characters, its underlying image of Denmark’s social and political institutions is, realistically,  a rather positive one. Although individuals crumble and collapse – and issues such integration of migrants, while constantly mentioned, by Hartmann et al  are  basically rather glossed over – the country’s institutions work tolerably fairly and tolerably well.

I don’t know if Francis Fukuyama reads crime fiction – I would guess not – but I think he would like it.  I do.

>You’re nicked – why the UK’s best ever cop show is even better in Czech


Meeting academic colleagues for lunch at Sussex University, the conversation turns from the US elections (McCain’s campaign under-reported and under-estimated), politics in Brighton (would the Tories sweep all three seats at the next election, or could Green leader Caroline Lucas come through the middle in Brighton Pavilion) to life in Lewes (hilly, human and with a rather cool new local currency featuring 18th century revolutionary Tom Paine). Then we move seamlessly to talk about TV cops. One of my colleagues thinks Taggart is the British best TV cop show. It’s certainly the longest running. But sitting up late and switching on the telly after I was unable to face reading through yet another conference paper, I’d downloaded I realized that the best UK cop show surely has to be 1970s classic The Sweeney, which ITV4 was thoughtfully re-running in the small hours. for the benefit of pooped academics.

The series, which centres on Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and sidekick Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad was considered pretty shocking when it came out in early 1975. This was partly because it had a dose of sex and violent, but mainly because it for transferring the (today well worn) stereotype of rough, tough, morally ambiguous cops, who break the rules to beat the crooks to realistic-looking British context. Previous depictions of British cops in TV and film had showed them as stolid, decent and reliable, if not always too quick on the uptake.

These days The Sweeney’s 1970s setting and formula of blags, fags and slags is seen as something of a period piece, well made popular entertainment cum sociological document and nostalgia trip try for anyone old enough the remember the period. I am, just. Sometimes everyday objects and street scenes bring the childhood memories rushing back. Indeed, the Sweeney has been skillfully and ironically pastiched by the hit show Life on Mars in which a modern cop is spookily sent back to 1970s (or thinks he has – he is a coma) and tries to make his way in the less rule-bound politically incorrect, more boozy, violent and corrupt police culture depicted in the Sweeney and similar shows of the period.

While ITV4 shows old episodes, its more high-brow digital cousin BBC4 has even done a documentary, musing over the issues and serious critics have chewed over just how Reganesque the police of 1970s actually were and whether the Sweeney’s focus on old style villains blagging banks was a bit dated even when it was made. Little mention of drugs, terrorism, race, political extremism, strikes etc – as Life on Mars’s lovingly crafted pastiche reminded viewers.

Oddly, however, the re-runs don’t quite match up to Czech language version of The Sweeney I used to watch in the mid-1990 on Prima TV, the country’s second private channel, which packed with old krimis from various West European countries. The series, rendered Inspektor Regan, was well dubbed and the dialogue, as far as I could tell, seemed make a rather easy transition into low colloquial Czech, yielding such lines as “Ten je velkej práskač, šéfe. Bydlí s nějakou kočkou v Epping Forestu” (‘He’s a right grass, ‘guv. Lives with some bird in Epping Forest’). It also produced a few interesting insights into the Regan-Carter relationship at the heart of the show. Carter, the younger and more (relatively speaking) more scrupulous character, invariably calls his boss Regan as ‘Guv’ (or Guv’nor), while the cynical but charismatic Regan calls him ‘George’. The translators in the Czech version captures the distance in their outwardly matey relationship more directly: Regan calls Carter ty, but Carter always address him as vy. For me the dilapidated urban landscapes, corrupt – or at least cynical – cops with little regard for law, armed robberies and organized crime of seventies London also had echo of the Czech Republic of the 1990s, although the Czech internet suggests the show had few Czech fans. In Central Europe, the cardboard-cut out antics of The Professionals (Profíci) – screened on Czech TV even under the communists- are far more popular.

There is though, perhaps one a crucial underlying difference. The cops of the Sweeney, however violent, cynical and obliviously to the rule of law – are still basically, at bottom, the goodies for most British viewers, even now. Czech public, I suspects, regards its own regards the police officer as thick useless, corrupt and not ultimately on their side, an attitude seeping into views about politicians, officials of all kinds. And, of course, they don’t need to be told that in the 1970s, they were living on another planet.