Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Fitting Into Sweden’s Gay Past

(Editor’s note: Today marks the official U.S. release of Down for the Count, by Swedish teacher-turned-author Martin Holmén. It’s the second of his 1930s crime noir yarns starring Harry Kvist, “a former sailor and rogue boxer with a significant weakness for schnapps and young men” (to quote Thriller Books Journal); last year’s much-acclaimed Clinch introduced Kvist, and the concluding entry in this trilogy, Slugger, is set to appear in 2018. The Stockholm of Holmén’s novels is not the neatly ordered, generally peaceful Swedish capital we know nowadays, but rather a place where Nazis roamed the streets, spreading their vile bigotry; bootleggers and whores conducted a busy, if dishonest, trade; and the poor froze to death during winter months. Kvist, being a bisexual male with a bad rep and more dust than dough in his pockets, doesn’t have an easy time of it there. But his struggles make him an intriguing protagonist. Below, Holmén explains why he made Kvist’s sexuality an issue in his books, and how he went about researching Stockholm’s LGBT history.)

In the summer of 1897 two military police were patrolling Gärdet—back then a green area on the outskirts of Stockholm—when they caught two men, literally with their pants down. When asked what they were doing, the first one answered, ”What’s it to you?” and the other one replied, ”We’re about to fuck.”

Lars and Frans were two typical working-class men. They had both moved from the countryside to the Swedish capital where they had tried to survive doing various menial jobs. What is unusual about them is their attitude upon arrest and the details of the subsequent police report which, among other things, show that the couple had been living together as lovers for more than 10 years. They were both sentenced to a few months in Långholmen jail.

My anti-hero, Harry Kvist, has also been in and out of Stockholm’s maximum-security prison, and the second entry in my Stockholm Trilogy, Down for the Count (Pushkin Vertigo), starts when he is being released in November 1935 after 18 months behind bars. Behind him, he leaves his lover, but the young man in question will also be released in seven days, and Harry can’t help but dream of their future together. All he has to do is stay out of trouble for one week. However, he quickly discovers that one of his few friends, laundry owner Beda Johansson, has been murdered. In the first installment of the trilogy, Clinch, Harry promised Beda that he would look after her deaf-mute son if anything ever happened to her. And Harry is a man of his word:
“You can’t get away from a promise,” I remind myself. “It’s always honour and glory all the bloody way, but when you think about it, those are the only things the poor have.”
Harry goes on to investigate Beda’s slaying, and finds evidence of a cover-up and a trail of guilt leading to the highest echelons of Swedish society. It’s clear he will have to face his most powerful enemies so far. Will he solve the crime, honor his promise, and avenge his friend, all within one week? The countdown has begun.

When I started out writing Nordic Noir I was trying to create a flawed anti-hero with some form of weakness. It feels odd to call homo- or bisexuality a weakness today, but back in the 1930s it really was considered as such. Forbidden by law, ”homosexual conduct, crime against nature” was punishable with steep fines or imprisonment, and with industrialization and urbanization, working-class men were prosecuted for homosexuality as never before. One can only speculate about the reasons for this, but many historians believe there were several methods employed to “discipline” this new social group—and perhaps incarceration was one of the strategies used. What we do know is that the working classes are highly over-represented in the statistics on this matter, and imprisonment usually meant that you lost your job as well. In a system with no social security, this must have been devastating.

Noir often employs a “falling from grace” motif, and if you were publicly scandalized, as Harry was at the peak of his boxing career, you fell hard. Stockholm was quite a small town back then and gossip must have stuck. The state-sanctioned stigma pushed people like Harry to the margins; thus, in Down for the Count he is left with no choice but to do what he does best: use his fists, now in the debt-collecting business, and operate in a juridical gray zone filled with pickpockets, prostitutes, and petty thieves.

The story of Lars and Frans (left to right) gave Holmén a starting point from which to research Stockholm’s LGBT past.

When I began my research I found that sources regarding gay working-class men were extremely scarce. Of course, these men lacked a voice of their own, so there really was nothing to go on but police reports, and they didn’t give away much—except for the story of Lars and Frans. In the upper classes, homosexuality was more or less accepted, and Sweden being a class-bound and segregated society, men from that group were hardly ever caught. For instance, in the public baths men in the first-class section could meet without trouble, but there was a police officer in full uniform guarding the men in the third-class sauna.

I immediately understood that here was a story to be told, and the lack of sources actually gave me a lot of creative freedom. I wanted to see what happened if I were to write about a very butch homosexual bloke, challenging the usual stereotype of gay men in entertainment as being slightly effeminate.

I look upon The Stockholm Trilogy as being an overall queer project. “Queer” is often used as an umbrella term for a sexual minority, which certainly fits Harry. But it was originally a term used to describe something strange or contradictory, and Harry sure is somewhat paradoxical—but that is how you make your characters come alive. I wanted this ambivalence to permeate everything in my books, from my style of writing, going high and low like a good boxer, to the experience of reading them. Everyone should dislike something about my books. In the end that is what quality literature is all about—you should never get too comfortable.

People from a sexual minority, or the perceived “wrong” class or gender could certainly not get comfortable in the early 1900s. We don’t know much about what happened to Lars and Frans after they left prison. One can only hope that they were reunited and could continue where they left off, loving and fucking each other. In the end, that’s what’s it all about.

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