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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Stieg Trenter (1914-1967) - original name Stig Johansson


Swedish journalist and mystery writer, who published 25 crime novels from 1943 to 1967. Stieg Trenter's hero is the photographer and amateur detective Harry Friberg. His last book was finished by his wife UIla Trenter, who then continued the series. Trenter depicted the idyllic parks, business streets, historical places, and modern milieu of Stockholm so vividly that in 1994 plans were made to name a street in the city after him. Trenter's book have enjoyed popularity decades and reprinted several times.

"I hörnet av Drottninggatan var det som vanligt stockning. Bilarna stod tätt som får in en fålla och otåliga som kapplöpningshästar. Körbanan låg för tillfället tom. Jag gav mig ut på asfalten, men innan jag hunnit över, släpptes kopplet bakom mig fritt. Det var som om en timmerbråte plötsligt kommit loss. Det blev ett kort och rafflande gatlopp mellan anstormande bilar och cyclar. När jag slutligen nådde motsatta trottoaren, tackade jag en mild försyn för all jag fortfarande hade lemmnarna i behåll." (from Tragiskt telegram, 1947)

Stieg Trenter was born Stig Johansson in Brännkyrka, the second son of Karl Ivar  Johansson and Ingegerd Johansson (née Leven). His parents ran a small country store. After intermediate school, Trenter left his studies, and worked among others as a butcher and an aircraft mechanic at the Swedish Air Forces. Trenter's early writings appeared in the magazine Levande livet, which published adventure tales. In the mid-1930s Trenter started his career as a journalist at Stockholm-Tidningen, and served later as a foreign correspondent in Abyssinia. There he met Evelyn Waugh. It has been claimed that Trenter, or Stig Johansson as he was known at that time, was the model for the Swedish  newspaper correspondent in Waugh's novel Scoop (1938), a satire on journalism.  ('The Crime Story in Sweden' by K. Arne Blom, in The Mystery Fancier, edited by Guy M. Townsend, Vol. 7 No. 5, September-October 1983, p. 20) This character, named Erik Olafsen, was "a young man with untidy ginger hair." Moreover, "he was Swedish Vice-Consul, head surgeon at the Swedish Mission Hospital, and proprietor of the combined Tea, Bible and Chemist shop which was the centre of European life in Jacksonburg".  Erik says that he escaped from Sweden after killing his grandmother. 

Trenter made his debut as a mystery writer in 1943 with Ingen kan hejda döden, (No one can hinder death), set outside Stockholm in Ekviken, Varmdö, a popular summer house area. Noteworthy, in the same decade appeared also Vic Suneson's, Maria Lang's (1911-1975) and Dagmar Lange's first mystery books.

Trenter's Farlig fåfänga (1944, Dangerous vanity) marked the birth of the modern Swedish mystery novel. The crime fiction expert Bo Lundin has argued that "there is hardly any modern Swedish crime writer who has not, in one way or another, been influenced by – or reacted to – his [Trenter's] style and the tradition he developed." (The Swedish Crime Story by Bo Lundin, 1981, p. 7) This path breaking book introduced the tall, pleasant and a bit naive photographer Harry Fribeg, the hero of all of his mysteries except two. Harry's model was the world famous Swedish photographer K.W. Gullers, with whom Trenter cooperated in two books, Italien (1949) and Gamla stan (1953). Trenter and Gullers met when they were in active service during the war. His pseudonym Trenter drew from E.C. Bentley's famous detective novel Trent's Last Case (1913).

The other regular character is Inspector Vesper Johnson, who loves food, drink, and logic deduction. Physically and psychologically, he is the opposite of Harry: small and eccentric. Vesper appeared first time in I dag röd (1945, Today red). The friends spend much time in quality restaurants, Oprakällaren, Cattelin, or Stallmästargården. Their discussions are an important part of the stories – Harry uses stylized slang and the inspector comments sarcastically his ideas. Verper's model was Runar Karlströmer, who was not a police officer but a journalist. The colorful inspector was replaced by Viktor Regn when Trenter abandoned Harry's first-person narration in some books. Verper returned again in Narr på nocken. It was awarded the Sherlock statue of the newspaper Expressen.

While Sweden adopted neutrality at the beginning of WWII, it continued to trade with Germany. Many Swedes did not accept the Nazi occupation of Norway. This also reflected in Som man ropar (1944, Cry for it), in which Trenter's sympathy lies on the side of the Norwegian resistance fighters. Noteworthy, the murderer is a Gestapo agent. Trenter set the events in the summer of 1943, after the battle of Stalingrad, when it started to become clear that Germany might lose the war. "It is also a good book about Sweden during World War II, a book which says a lot about moods and fears in a neutral country." ('The Crime Story in Sweden' by K. Arne Blom, in The Mystery Fancier, edited by Guy M. Townsend, Vol. 7 No. 5, September-October 1983, p. 20)

In Tragiskt telegram (1947) a widow, Jana Ritter, is murdered in an apartment by the Centralbadets park of Stockholm. Jana is the daughter of an Italian marquis and has shared the apartment with Lucia Halden, a widow and a marquis' daughter, too. Harry starts his investigation, which takes him through Europe, finally ending his chase with inspector Vesper Johnson in Levanto on the Mediterranean coast of Italy – both Lucia and Jana had grown up in the city. Along the way Harry solves the complicated murder case, but he gets shot in the shoulder. This was not to be Harry's last visit in the country. In Roparen (1954) he already speaks fluently Italian language. Tiga är silver (1955) begins from Lausanne. Harry helps a young woman, Alice Tapper, who is suspected of the murder of a Swedish artist. Together they travel to Florence, where Alice follows a woman to the Pitti Palace, a famous Florence landmark. Trenter himself, who loved Italian football, spent from 1947 part of the year in Italy, first in Florence and Levanto, and then in Rome.

Aldrig näcken (1953) was set on the coast of eastern Sweden. Harry appears relatively late on the scene and solves the puzzle of the death of a jealous husband, found hanged on an empty island. Trenter's idea how the body is moved to the island is not easy to figure out: it is pulled by a two kilometer long rope from mainland to its finding place. The protagonist is Harry's friend Eve, whose holiday adventure during the bright days of late summer includes also swimming, fishing, and bumping into more or less strange local characters.

The locating of the Swedish 17th century warship Wasa, which had sunk in 1628, was weaved into the plot of the Färjkarlen (1961). At the end Harry is saved by a young woman, Kerstin Ahlmark, who has an active role in the story. Tolfte Knappen (1965) combined the history of Charles XII (1697-1718) with a modern murder case. The reader is taken to a guided tour in Stockholm's restaurants and learns much about the king, who was killed in 1718, when was leading the besieging of the Norwegian fortress of Fredrikssten. Charles XII's death is still a mystery

Narr på nocken (1956, Jester on the ridge) received in 1956 the Sherlock-priset, presented by the newspaper Expressen for the year's best Swedish detective novel. In the story, which focuses on the world of horse racing from Italy to Stockholm, the narrator is Harry. Trenter gives for the reader information about the cities, their history and noteworthy places, binding these small details seamlessly into the plot. Horse races are depicted with knowledge and sense of atmosphere, not missing much from the later works of the English jockey-writer Dick Francis.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Trenter sometimes set the climax of the story into a well-known place. The clock tower of the department store NKI becomes part of the narration of Träff i helfigur (1948, Full body hit). From the 1950s Trenter started to focus more on milieu description, such as the Post, Central Station, Kastellholmen, Sturebadet health center, Kungstornen, Söder, the Djurgård Ferry.

Trenter stressed "Swedishness" in crime stories by using names, settings, characters, and food familiar to his readers. His whodunits competed in popularity with those of Lang, who debuted in 1949 with Mördaren ljuger inte ensam (The murderer does not lie alone). Both these writers could sell up to 50,000 copies of their most popular books. From Ingen kan hejda döden, Trenter's publisher was Bonnier, whereas Lang was the top mystery writer at Norstedts.

Several of Trenter's novels have been made for film and television. Roparen and Färjkarlen have been turned into graphic novels, drawn in a pleasant Tintin style by Jakob Nilsson. After Trenter's death in 1967 his wife Ulla continued the series.  Rosenkavaljeren (1967) was based on Trenter's draft, but – Kungens lilla piga (1968) was her first independent work. In her books Harry's life becomes more quiet, he marries Astrid, who works in the advertising world. With Astrid comes a stepdaughter, Lotta. Harry leaves behind the exclusive meals and drinks with Vesper Johnson, which made his readers drool like Pavlov's dogs. Ulla Trenter also had to slow down Harry's aging in her books in the 1970s. Harry, born in 1916 (?), was nearly thirty when he appeared on the scene. In her books Harry is over fifty. 

For further reading: 'Nostalgisesti Tukholmasta' by Kyösti Pienimäki, in Ruumiin kulttuuri (1/2020); På tur med Trenter: en tidsresa med bilperspektiv genom Stieg Trenters Sverige på 1940-, 50- och 60-talen med personliga betraktelser kring mord, mat och framförallt bilar by Claes Rydholm (2015); Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir by Kerstin Bergman (2014); Konsten att lägga pussel: deckaren och besvärjandet av ondskan i folkhemmet by Sara Kärrholm (2005); Stieg Trenters Stockholm, ed. by Bertil R. Wideberg (1987); Författare i vår tid, ed. by Tia Hammarbäck-Lundin & Kerstin Wahlberg (1986); En bok om Stieg Trenter by Bo Lundin, Karl G Fredriksson et al. (1982); The Swedish Crime Story by Bo Lundin (1981); Några deckarbibliografiska anteckningar by Rolf E. du Rietz (Text 1974:4); Spårhundarna by Bo Lundin (1973) - Friberg series continued by Ulla Trenter-Palm: Kungens lilla piga (1968); Påfågeln (1969); Odjuret (1970); Gästen (1971); Skatten (1972); Kedjan (1973); Sov i ro, Tigerhajen, Drakblodet, En gång är ingen gång, De dödas lott, Kartan, Skyddsänglarna, Döda rummet, Rika barn leka häst, Grodmuggen, Som man bäddar, Värsta möjliga tystnad, En död liten stuga, Döden i rikssalen, De röda cirklarna, Sköna juveler (1991).

Selected works:

  • Ingen kan hejda döden, 1943
    - Kukaan ei voi estää kuolemaa (suom. Leo Kuoppala, 1945)
  • Som man ropar... , 1944
    - TV film 1988, prod. STV Drama, dir. by Lars-Göran Pettersson, starring Tomas Norström, Unni Kristin Skagestad and Carl-Olof Alm  
  • Farlig fåfänga, 1944
  • I dag röd..., 1945
    - TV film 1987, prod. STV Drama, dir. by Jonas Cornell, starring Örjan Ramberg (as Harry Friberg), Stig Grybe (as Vesper Johnson) and Marianne Stjernqvist  
  • Lysande landning, 1946
    - TV film 1987, prod. STV Drama, dir. by Jonas Cornell, starring Örjan Ramberg (as Harry Friberg), Stig Grybe (as Vesper Johnson), Marie Richardson 
  • Tragiskt telegram, 1947
  • Det kom en gäst, 1947 (screenplay with Arne Mattson)
    - film prod. by Fribergs Filmbyrå AB, dir. by Arne Mattsson, starring Ivar Kåge, Naima Wifstrand, Elsie Albin, Karl-Arne Holmsten  
  • Träff i helfigur, 1948
    - TV film 1987, prod. STV Drama, dir. by Pelle Seth, starring Örjan Ramberg (as Harry Friberg), Stig Grybe (as Vesper Johnson) and Ewa Fröling  
  • Eld i håg, 1949
  • Italien, 1949 (with K.W. Gullers)
    - Italy (tr. 1960)
  • Lek lilla Louise, 1950
  • Ristat i sten, 1952
  • Aldrig Näcken, 1953
    - Rannalle nousi näkki (suom. S.S. Taula, 1954)
  • Gamla stan, 1953 (with K.W. Gullers)
    - The Old Town of Stockholm (translated by Alan Blair and Anne Bibby, 1953)
  • Roparen, 1954 (also: Stieg Trenter's Roparen by Jakob Nilsson, 2008)
    - Kuka murhasi Suzannen? (suom. Margareta Lausala, T.A. Lausala, 1956)
  • Tiga är silver, 1955
  • Narr på nocken, 1956
    - Narrit eivät pelkää (suom. Satu Repo, 1957)
  • Kalla handen, 1957
  • Springaren, 1958
  • Dockan till Samarkand, 1959
  • Skuggan, 1960
  • Färjkarlen, 1961 (also: Stieg Trenter's Färjkarlen by Jakob Nilsson, 2012) 
  • Flickan som snavade på guldet och andra detektivberättelser, 1962
  • Sturemordet, 1962
  • Dvärgarna, 1963
  • Guldgåsen, 1964
  • Tolfte Knappen, 1965
  • Sjöjungfrun, 1966
  • Rosenkavaljeren, 1967 (with Ulla Trenter)
  • De döda fiskarna och andra spänningsberättelser, 2001 (foreword by Per Olaisen)
  • Minnen för miljoner, 2007

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