tisdag 14 februari 2012

Jan-Öjvind Swahn: Svenska mord ("Swedish murders")

So, do you like to learn about history and stuff while believing that you're being merely entertained by titillating stories about murder and punishment? Of course you do. Me, too. Which is why I really like ethnologist and folklorist Jan-Öjvind Swahn's Svenska mord. Like the master of the "entertaining historical anecdotes" genre, journalist-historian Jan-Olof Olsson, Swahn keeps his narrative mildly ironic throughout, squeezing humor from events that really shouldn't hold any comic relief, and manages to do so without coming off as facile or tasteless – dry academic wit for the win, in other words. It's a testament to his writing skill that he manages to pull it off (also, I saw quite a bit of him on Swedish television when I was a kid, and I can actually "hear" his voice while reading his text – another testament to his writing skills IMO).

Anyway, the book comprises 23 chapters, all but the first couple of ones detailing a particularly noteworthy murder case, dealing with everything from the mythological murders of the Viking era to concrete criminal cases throughout history. The first semi-historical murders Swahn looks at is supposed 600s local king Ingjald Illråde's clever use of his father's burial feast to lock his neighboring king-colleagues up in the great hall where the feast was held, burn it to the ground, and then take over their lands. (He then repeated the tactic with another eighboring king, and later burned himself and his nasty daughter when a Danish king came up north and took his ill-gotten gains away from him.)

Swahn uses a 1600s murder as example of ancient CSI techniques – bårprov ("slab test", roughly), where the suspect has to touch the dead body, and if the body then starts bleeding, that indicates that the suspect is guilty. He also wheels through a number of famous murders, like Queen Kristina having a traitor executed at her court-without-a-country and thus making herself an embarrassment instead of a triumph for the Pope, the murder of Swedish king Gustaf III, and when Marshal of the Realm Axel von Fersen was murdered by a mob in connection with the funeral of Prince Carl August of Augustenburg, etc. Or when Swedish anarchist Hjalmar Wång wanted to murder the Tsar on his visit to Sweden, but instead shot a similarly-attired Swedish general to death. Etc.

There's 200 pages of enjoyable horrors in this book, which will also teach you a bit about aspects of Swedish history that you probably didn't learn in school. Of course it's recommended… and you're allowed to read it with a frisson of titillation, to boot.

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