Those in search of a gripping read with a chilly atmosphere and a dead body (or two or several) have been turning in increasing numbers in recent years to Scandinavia.
Like a latter-day Viking invasion, the novels of Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg and others have muscled in on the crime sections of book shops and libraries, feeding an appetite for the genre known as Scandinavian – or Nordic – noir.
But not all the books that sit within that genre are crossing the North Sea. Here in a Newcastle cafe is author Torquil MacLeod who was born in Edinburgh, brought up in Durham and now lives in Cumbria.
The first in his series of books set in Malmö, a city in southern Sweden, was largely written in Newcastle’s Lit & Phil library which, in turn, is a stone’s throw from the Journal and Chronicle offices where Torquil worked as an advertising copywriter in the 1980s.
Meet Me In Malmö, the first in the series, is published for the first time this week as a paperback.
Publisher McNidder & Grace saw the potential and are banking on an ebook success story being replicated in traditional print format.
Meet Me in Malmö begins in Newcastle where washed up journalist Ewan Strachan is grinding out a living on a deadbeat magazine called Novo News. He’s the arts and social correspondent but isn’t interested in the arts and isn’t especially sociable.
Things look up, however, when he is promised an interview with film director Mick Roslyn, a “Geordie who has conquered Swedish cinema” and permitted to fly to Malmö – all the time harbouring the hope that he might also get to meet Roslyn’s glamorous wife, Swedish film star Malin Lovgren.
A horrible crime is just around the corner, ushering in the main character in the story, Inspector Anita Sundström, head of the investigating team from Skäne County Police (Malmö being the capital of Skäne County).
Inspector Sundström returns in the subsequent books, Murder in Malmö, Missing in Malmö and Midnight in Malmö, all of which are doing well as ebooks and are likely to follow ‘Meet Me...’ into print.
It is all very gratifying for Torquil – the name, he says, has Norse origins even if his surname puts him firmly in a Scottish clan – who is now making a living out of something that has always given him pleasure.
“Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed doing,” he says.
“I was a copywriter for 36 years. I did scripts for TV and radio commercials – I got to do all the Metrocentre stuff – and then I worked for The Journal, Chronicle and Sunday Sun for five years, from 1982-87. I went from there to work for the Robson Brown agency.”
Previous to that, he followed in his father’s footsteps. The family had moved to Durham because his father taught at Durham School. Torquil went to a teacher training college and ended up teaching drama at an “Evelyn Waugh-type prep school” in the Midlands.
It wasn’t for him. In Birmingham he got into copywriting and had a brief spell in Glasgow before returning to the North East.
He and his wife, Susan, moved to Cumbria in 2000 after he’d gone freelance. The ties with Tyneside weren’t severed, however. Susan was teaching at Newcastle College and Torquil would travel over with her, spending time in the Lit & Phil.
This is also a favourite haunt of another writer, Torquil’s sister, Janet MacLeod Trotter.
This routine continued until Susan’s job went. “Then I gave up the advertising a year ago because the ebooks were selling.”
But why Malmö? “My eldest son, Fraser, has lived in Sweden since 2000 and when we first visited him I was trying to get into films. I was working with a guy called Keith Bell, the producer who did Dog Soldiers and Harry Brown, and we were looking for ideas. We went to Sweden just before Christmas and I thought it was a very atmospheric place.
“Subsequently we were going there two or three times a year. I came up with a couple of ideas for films, but at that time I’d never heard of Scandi-crime (that’s another genre name). The films came to nothing, as films always do, but I had the scripts and I thought I might as well turn one into a book.
“I had the story so it was easy enough to flesh it out. Then for about two years I wrote to every crime fiction agent and was rejected by them all.”
Laughing, he recalls: “One wrote back to say, ‘You write knowledgeably about Malmö but you have obviously never been to Newcastle’.”
Having tried the agents, as most first-time novelists are advised to do, he then went direct to a publisher and one of them was impressed enough to publish Meet Me in Malmö in hardback.
“It was published in 2010 but it was a very small print run and sold out quickly. They wouldn’t reprint it.
“Then they tried to get into this new ebook thing but made it available at a hardback price so no-one was going to buy a Torquil MacLeod when they could get a Stieg Larsson for half the price. In a year they sold about 10.
“I managed to get the rights back and by that time I’d written the second book. It didn’t cost too much to put them both out as ebooks and they have sold incredibly well. I had the covers redesigned by Nick Pugh at The Roundhouse (a Newcastle design agency) because with an ebook you need a good cover as well as the right price.”
So Torquil has entered the Nordic noir or Scandi-crime market with justified optimism and an enduring character.
And while he jovially admits to having played “fast and loose” at first with Sweden’s system of policing, he says Swedish friends and family members have helped him to get it right.
As for Anita Sundström, he says she is based to a degree on a real-life Swedish police officer of his acquaintance.
Despite making it the backdrop for bloody crimes, Torquil says Malmö is a lovely place with interesting architecture, a good cultural mix and the kind of warm and sunny summer climate that would surprise those who glean their information from the BBC’s grey and gloomy Wallander.
Details of all Torquil’s books – including an historical novel, set in Newcastle in the 1750s, called Sweet Smell of Murder – can be found on his website, www.torquilmacleodbooks.com
Meet Me In Malmö (McNidder & Grace) is available at £7.99
If you can't see the Culture Magazine pages (above), CLICK HERE, to open in a new window.