Nov 132014

CaptureNarcissus by Caravaggio via Wikipedia

In pre-revolutionary Cuba, they used to tell the story of an hidalgo who had emigrated from Spain as a very young man, and who had amassed a huge fortune in the sugarcane industry. Old and ill, he gathered his many children around him in order to give them his final instructions. “If I should die here in Havana,” he told them, “promise me that you will send me back to Spain to be buried there.” One after the other, all of his children swore that they would carry out his will to the letter. “However, if for some reason I should die in Spain,” he added, “I want you to bring me back here to Havana to be buried.” “Of course, Father,” his eldest son assured him, “That too we shall do. But tell me: why do you wish this?” “Oh, I don’t know,” replied the old man, “Just to fuck around.”

It is in such a spirit that I would like to propose a brief meditation on mirror scenes in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction. Gratuitously in other words, in a largely unfettered and fundamentally playful perspective, one not driven by the prospect of immediate utility, but rather by simple (and very nearly idle) curiosity.

The burgeoning of the detective novel in Nordic countries during the last couple of decades is a remarkable phenomenon, comparable in many ways to the Latin American “boom” of the 1960s. Working in the wake of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose ten-volume Martin Beck series (1965-75) set the terms of the trend, an impressive diversity of writers has broadened the genre’s horizon of possibility in significant ways. I’m thinking here of figures such as Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Åsa Larsson, Kristina Ohlsson, Kjell Eriksson, Åke Edwardson, and Håkan Nesser (Sweden); Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø (Norway); Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland); Peter Høeg and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Among the many intriguing features one may find in this body of work, it abounds in mirror scenes, that is, moments when a subject comes face to face with her or his reflection in the mirror.

That the detective novel should deploy a topos such as this one makes a great deal of sense. For that literary genre is all about discovery after all; and perhaps, as much as anything else, it is about the prospect of self-discovery. Think for instance of Oedipus, an excellent example of an early detective, and consider especially the way he solved the riddle of the Sphinx. When asked what creature walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the afternoon, he replied “Man,” and that answer of course did the trick. Yet the real answer to the Sphinx’s question is “Me”—as the rest of Oedipus’s tale clearly demonstrates, to his doom. The moral is clear enough: no riddle can be solved if the subject cannot first come to terms with himself or herself. And in certain cases, the subject need look no further than that. Such is the lesson of the gnothi seauton, the imperative of self-knowledge that has animated Western culture from its very beginnings. And such, too, is the impulse that subtends the mirror scene wherever we may find it these days, in our increasingly specular culture.

CaptureOedipus and the Sphinx (detail) by Gustave Moreau

The other key figure in the tradition of mirror gazing is of course Narcissus. There are many versions of his myth, and the lessons they put on display are varied. The most harrowing among them is the version that Ovid recounts. Asked if Narcissus will live to a ripe old age, a seer remarks, “Yes, if he does not come to know himself.” It’s a sly answer, and a very perverse one, too, cutting across the grain of cultural commonplace as it does. Its moral is more immediate than that of the Oedipus myth, and less equivocal with regard to the gnothi seauton. Both tales, it must be recognized, paint a dark picture of the encounter with the self, one where deliberate, uncompromising introspection leads to catastrophe for the subject. All of this is to say that the mirror scene is a cultural topos more than passingly vexed, and more than usually fraught with contradictory messages. When contemporary literature turns to that topos and puts it to use, even in offhanded ways, its trappings come along with it, which may help to explain why even the most apparently innocent mirror scene typically creates a disturbing moment in a text, a moment of exceptional reflection.

In what follows, I would like to consider the different shapes those moments assume in the Scandinavian detective novel, proposing along the way a loose, heuristic typology that may help us to think about them more efficiently. My own sense is that those scenes are deeply involved with the poetics of the gaze in literature, with the representation of the self, with the way the human subject grapples with his or her humanity, and with what we may hope to find when we look into the mirror of the text.

CaptureKarin Fossum

Before we leap into those moments, it is important to point out what is not a mirror scene; and in doing so it is best to be both draconian and exhaustive. First, it should be noted that the mere mention of the object does not suffice. When Karin Fossum writes, “I got up every morning and went out to the bathroom, and there was his toothbrush below the mirror” (Don’t Look Back 255), there is indeed a mirror in the scene, but the subject fails to encounter herself therein. Fossum is particularly fond of events like that, sometimes wagering upon pure (and from the devotee’s point of view, purely otiose) analogy: “A mirror-like tarn, no bigger than a large pond, lying among the spruce trees like a secret space” (Don’t Look Back 26). One gets the same sense of missed opportunity when the mirror is invoked in a figural, metaphorical manner. “The same questions. Again and again,” complains Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren, as he grapples with a particularly thorny problem, “Over and over again. Reflecting themselves in the mirror” (Mind’s Eye 19). Those questions may reflect themselves till the cows come home; they are not human beings, and their specularity has no psychological or moral depth. More cruelly still, Åsa Larsson insists upon the absence of the mirror, and we benighted readers are left to muse upon what the moment might have been like if only a mirror had been present: “‘What gorgeous clothes,’ smiled Sanna, her cheeks flushed with pleasure. ‘Look at this jumper! Pity there isn’t a mirror in here'” (Sun Storm 26).

One must also dismiss a category that I would like to call the mirror scene manqué. “He was in such a hurry,” remarks Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, “that for once he didn’t stop to admire himself in the little mirror hanging beside the coat rack by the door. If he had, he would have seen that his aura was heavy and dark. Almost black” (My Soul to Take 131). Here, the subject’s encounter with the mirror is conjectural, rather than actual, and thus unsatisfactory. A more literal example of that species presents itself when Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole finds himself nose to nose with a great white shark at the Sydney Aquarium: “At first he thought it was his own reflection he could see, then his eyes became accustomed to the light and he felt his heart register a last pounding beat before it froze. The Great White was beside him, watching him with cold, lifeless eyes” (The Bat 168). Though this is not a mirror scene, it should be noted that there is an ironically specular dimension to it, for as he gazes in horror at the shark Harry Hole realizes that he, too, may have something of the coldblooded predator about him.

Jo nesboJo Nesbø

We must also agree to turn aside from scenes of simple introspection, moments of self-appraisal undertaken without the mediation of the mirror. Consider this passage from Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled: “He sat at his desk, feeling that he could now examine himself at arm’s length: the man staggering around in the West Indies, the miserable trip to Thailand, all those days and nights when everything seemed to have ground to a halt apart from his bodily functions. He was looking at himself, but he realized that that person was somebody he no longer knew. He had been somebody else” (57). Perhaps he was indeed “looking at himself,” but not in the literal sense; and in a rigorous consideration of mirror scenes, we owe it to ourselves to be as literalist as we possibly can.

When one character in Mankell’s The Pyramid asks another, “Have you even seen what you look like?” and that latter individual testily retorts, “I don’t spend my time looking at myself in the mirror” (9-10), the suggestion is that looking at oneself in the mirror is something that vain, lazy people do, something that is unfit for people of a more active, engaged, and robust constitution. And perhaps it is for reasons such as those that Inspector Kurt Wallander upon occasion deliberately eschews the mirror: “He splashed cold water on his face and took a long leak. He avoided looking at his face in the mirror” (Henning Mankell, One Step Behind 333). Other passages in Mankell’s writing are a bit more difficult to dismiss, because while the mirror therein is virtual rather than literal, the subject’s encounter with himself has a great deal of flesh on its bones: “Sometimes he imagined himself as an image in a mirror that was both concave and convex at the same time. No-one had ever seen anything but the surface: the eminent jurist, the respected minister of justice, the kindly retiree strolling along the beach in Skäne. No-one would have guessed his double-sided self” (Sidetracked 14). I realize that I have been relying heavily upon Henning Mankell here. Having read him so attentively, and with so much pleasure, over so many years, I feel now that he is a close personal friend. I’d like to go to IKEA with him. More pertinently, his writing provides a very rich vein of classic mirror scenes, as we shall see in a moment, undoubtedly the mother lode insofar as Scandinavian detective fiction is concerned.

Before we get there however, and having now plucked most of the low-hanging fruit in the non-mirror scene orchard, let me invoke a few examples of passages that hover right on the threshold of mirror scenedom. Consider this passage from Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back: “Each time he looked at the picture of his father, his own old age seemed to advance uncomfortably on him” (35). Clearly, the subject sees something of himself when he gazes at the picture of his father; but to call this a mirror scene is to reach too far. It offers, in a sense, a negative image of a mirror scene, a notion that can be confirmed by comparing it to a positive image of the same topos, such as this passage in Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga: “He examined his face in the mirror and saw that he was getting more and more like his father” (201). Yet when the subject gazes at a photograph of himself, rather than one of his father, the elements of a full-blown mirror scene fall easily into place, as Åke Edwardson understands: “He removed the cloth and stared at a photograph of himself, taken shortly before high school graduation” (Death Angels).

Then there are textual moments when the encounter with the mirror is implicit, rather than actual. “She sat anesthetized at the kitchen table,” writes Åsa Larsson, “and recalled the joy she had felt earlier; the bike ride to the city and back, how she already felt more fit, the feeling of putting on the black skirt and the neat blouse, her new appearance that the hairstyle and her more conscious application of makeup gave her” (Sun Storm 329). Any reasonable person would infer that the subject had put her makeup on while looking in the mirror; yet the narrative elides that moment maddeningly.

As much as it pains me, it must be said that in certain mirror scenes nothing happens—or nothing of real interest. “Gullberg was completely exhausted after all his efforts on Monday,” writes Stieg Larsson. “He did not wake until 9:00 on Tuesday morning, four hours later than usual. He went to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He stood for a long time looking at his face in the mirror before he turned off the light and went to get dressed. He chose the only clean shirt he had left in the brown briefcase and put on a brown-patterned tie” (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest 124). The moment is flatly constative; it provides nothing beyond the simple fact of the encounter; it has no depth. A passage in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists is similar: “They returned to their own base, where there was no one but the chief of the Stockholm Police. He was standing in front of the mirror combing his hair with great care. Then he eyed his tie, which as usual was of plain colored silk. Today it was pale yellow” (226). In both cases, alas, we learn more about the tie than we do about the subject. Certain other passages of this sort set up the encounter with the self, and then shy away from it, as it were: “While she was putting on her coat, Thóra looked at herself in the large mirror. She knew it was important to make a good impression at the first meeting, especially if the client was well-off” (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Last Rituals 12-13).

When the devil holds the candle

Still other instances put mirror substitutes into play, and I think we can agree that they clear the bar when those proxies are functional. Here are two examples of that ilk, the first borrowed from Karin Fossum, the second from Åsa Larsson: “Zipp could see the outline of his own face in the black of the television screen: a cowardly, wavering thing” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 222); “She looked at her reflection in the mirror that the roll of aluminum foil attached to the wall provided and where her face appeared cracked in a thousand wrinkles, before she tore off a sheet and handed it to Johnny” (Sun  Storm 172). Sometimes those proxies are human. Arnaldur Indriðason is especially fond of moments like that: “Looking at Steve, she saw her own anxiety reflected in his face” (Operation Napoleon 237); “Marion Briem’s eyes revealed clear pity and a sad certainty that they were looking at their own reflection” (Jar City 121). Other people’s faces can serve as very efficient mirror substitutes, often reflecting an image of the subject that is no less faithful than one that a more literal mirror might provide, if one is willing to embrace the phenomenon of projection that such scenes put on stage, that is. For this specular relation between the self and the other is patently a matter of projection, as Henning Mankell points out: “Wallander looked at Martinsson’s and Hanson’s tired faces and wondered what his own face must be like” (Firewall 68). In other instances of the same effect, Mankell underscores the fidelity of that projection for our benefit, confirming the information that the other’s gaze conveys by a more literal encounter with the mirror: “‘At your age you shouldn’t stay up all night,’ she said. Wallander looked at her with surprise. ‘Is it so obvious?’ She bent down and got her bag from behind the counter, then fished out a make-up mirror and handed it over to him. She was right. He was pale and had dark circles under his eyes. His hair was a mess” (One Step Behind 239).


As we move beyond these dubious, hybrid, or limit cases toward sturdier and more compelling examples of mirror scenes, it should be noted that their fundamental discursive mode is interrogative. That is, whatever else they may put on offer, mirror scenes portray a questioning subject; and the vector of that questioning points directly toward the subject herself. Gazing at his own reflection, a character in Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of the Night articulates the question that quickens any mirror scene at all, be it overtly or more subtly: “‘Who is Stig Franklin?’ he asked the mirror” (275). We are squarely in the orbit of the gnothi seauton here, of course, and that’s just where we’ll remain as we trace the subject’s fate through three types of encounters with the mirror. The first type involves simple recognition, a moment wherein the subject comes across a mirror and recognizes himself or herself unproblematically. In the second type of scene, such recognition is not immediate, but progressive, and it involves a process that runs the gamut from the mildly difficult to the outright traumatic. In the third type, finally, the subject fails utterly and definitively to recognize himself—and I hereby promise not to dwell upon that morbid eventuality more than is strictly necessary.

Having postulated those categories so very categorically, allow me to temper their terms just a bit. For it must be said that the scenes of simple recognition one finds in contemporary Scandinavian detective fiction are very rarely simple. One does come upon scenes of that sort—”As the coffee was brewing, Wallander went into the bathroom. He noticed with pleasure that he looked healthy and energetic” (Mankell, The Fifth Woman 20)—, but they are few and far between. Most of the time, scenes of this first type involve something beyond the subject’s mere recognition of himself. In The White Lioness, for instance, Wallander’s recognition may be immediate, but it is problematized by the recognition of far broader truths about himself and about his manner of being in the world: “When he got back to his apartment, he stripped and stood naked in front of the hall mirror. ‘Kurt Wallander,’ he said aloud. ‘This is your life'” (182). He reads himself in the mirror in this moment of naked truth—and of course we read him reading himself, recognizing as we do so that what is fundamentally at stake in scenes like this is interpretation itself. Obviously, the principle of self-knowledge is deeply imbricated in scenes such as this one. Yet upon occasion the promise of unique identity that is implicit therein is put into question by the encounter: “He saw himself in the mirror and realized that he looked like thousands of other young people” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Cop Killer 274). In that instance, the subject recognizes himself without difficulty, but he fails to recognize his particularity, and by virtue of that the encounter has gone badly awry.

CaptureSjöwall and Wahlöö

For it is almost always the other who vexes the encounter with the mirror, whether that other be real or virtual. Sometimes, it’s a matter of checking one’s appearance in order to appreciate how other people will see us. That sort of moment can be relatively uncomplicated, like in this passage from Håkan Nesser: “She checked how she looked in the mirror. It’ll do” (Borkmann’s Point 131). Or this one, from Sjöwall and Wahlöo: “It was now eight o’clock on Monday morning and she was standing in front of her large mirror in her bedroom, admiring her suntan and thinking how envious her friends at work would be” (The Fire Engine That Disappeared 144). Alternatively, the moment can be significantly more fraught: “Carl took a step toward the mirror and ran one finger along his temple where the bullet had grazed his head. The wound had healed, but the scar was clearly visible under his hair, if anyone cared to look. But who the hell would want to do that? he thought as he studied his face” (Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Keeper of Lost Causes 3). Who indeed? But that’s just the point, of course, because whoever else may choose to look at Carl, we readers are looking at him, and in that sense we constitute one of the others that lurk on the edges of these scenes.

But we’re not the only ones, I think. For even if there are no other flesh-and-blood witnesses to these events in the fictional world, mirror scenes always suggest a doubling of the subject. That effect can be more or less pronounced. Sometimes it is merely a question of a subject seeing himself in an unexpected way, projecting an image of himself that he had not anticipated: “In the mirror behind her he saw himself sitting with an idiotic grin on his face” (Jo Nesbø, The Bat 80). Other cases suggest a deeper alienation of the subject from himself, as if I really were an other: “The mechanic stands next to me, gazing at his own reflection as if it belonged to some stranger” (Peter Høeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow 213). Who is that stranger one sees in the mirror? Is he merely a pretext, a figment, a convenient and temporary construction enabling us to see ourselves objectively? Or is it really someone else, someone with whom we are largely unacquainted? If it is true, as Peter Høeg’s Smilla argues, that “you see yourself clearly only when you see yourself as a stranger” (Smilla’s Sense of Snow 395), are we to take that assertion literally or figuratively? For if it is indeed the case that mirror scenes put the act of interpretation itself in play, the manner in which we choose to interpret them must be deeply involved in the success or failure of the wager they stake.


Consider for example this passage from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman: “He had looked in the mirror as recently as the evening before and seen a tall, sinister figure with a lean face, wide forehead, heavy jaws and mournful gray-blue eyes” (55). One may choose to read that passage in a literal sense, in which case the moment becomes a very strange one indeed, and in some respects the reading experience is enriched thereby. Or one can read it more figuratively, imagining that the subject is impressed by the alterity of the image he sees, but not duped thereby. Those choices are conditioned by a wide variety of factors—and not least by extremely thorny questions of readerly desire. Like the White Queen, we can easily believe six impossible things before breakfast in the looking-glass world of fiction. And we may well seek the thrill of the uncanny while simultaneously attempting to normalize and rationalize a given narrative event. Faced with a passage such as the one I just quoted, most readers would opt for a figural interpretation, I imagine. And all the more so insofar as they are acquainted with the supremely rational Martin Beck. For he is a man who never forgets who he is, and no matter how unrecognizable his reflection may seem, he is always able to bring himself back to himself: “While he hung up his coat he glanced at his face in the mirror. He was pale and looked sallow and he had dark circles under his eyes. This was no longer due to the flu but to the fact that he had gone without much sleep” (Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Roseanna 61).

Other subjects are not as lucky. Karin Fossum’s Zipp Skorpe, for instance, is a badly broken man: “He stopped in front of a store that sold mirrors and looked at the dozens of tiny Zipps. It suited the way he was feeling: shattered into thousands of pieces” (When the Devil Holds the Candle 175-76). Still other individuals embrace that estrangement effect, putting it to use in an effort to get outside of themselves. Such is the case of a teenager in Henning Mankell’s Sidetracked, who makes himself up as an Indian warrior before committing the first in a series of murders: “The first strokes on his forehead had to be black. It was as if he slicing two deep cuts, opening his brain, and emptying the memories and thoughts that had haunted him all his life, tormenting him and humiliating him. Then the red and white stripes, the circles, the squares, and at last the snake-like designs on his cheeks. None of his white skin should be visible. Then the transformation would be complete. What was inside him would be gone. He would be born again in the guise of an animal, and he would never speak as a human being again” (12). In other cases, the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is a fundamentally unhappy event, because it triggers a sense of self-loathing. “She was 16, and had gone to stay with her mother in Malmö,” writes Henning Mankell. “It was a time of crushing defeats, the kind only a teenager can experience. She hated herself and her body, shunning the image she saw in the mirror while strangely enough also welcoming the changes she was undergoing” (Before the Frost 24). At least this character comes by her self-loathing honestly, for she is none other than Linda Wallander, the daughter of Kurt Wallander. And he is someone who has honed self-loathing to an art: “You flabby piece of shit,” he tells his reflection in the mirror, “Do you really want to look like a pitiful old man?” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 27).

Henning-Mankell-007Henning Mankell

In order not to end my discussion of recognition scenes on that sour note, let me point out a final topos that they commonly exploit. I have argued that the recognition of one’s image in the mirror is typically accompanied by the perception of broad truths about oneself. It is useful to imagine those truths as significantly mobile ones. That is, they shift over time, and that process of shifting leaves perceptible traces upon the face. “When he looked at his face in the rearview mirror, he thought that every scratch, every lump, every discolouration from purple to black was a memento of the week’s events” (Mankell, Faceless Killers 217). The cultural cliché upon which this passage plays is a familiar one, of course, but it bears special scrutiny in the present context. For if the face is indeed a kind of text in which a person’s experience may be read, two considerations follow. First, the situation of a subject gazing at her face in the mirror and reading the story of her experience thereupon is very much like the situation that we are in, as gazers and readers. Second, each of these scenes, whatever else it may seek to put on display, is not simply specular, but rather doubly so: that is, the mirror function is itself mirrored in a reflection upon representation and its possibilities.

Scenes of difficult recognition are fewer in Scandinavian detective fiction than in certain other regional traditions one might name, though I hesitate to draw sweeping cultural conclusions from that fact. As to the shapes they assume, I mentioned a moment ago that difficult recognition scenes run the gamut from incidents that are mildly disturbing for the subject to events that are far more traumatic. On the former end of that horizon, one finds scenes where it is merely a question of momentary hesitation before recognition sets in. By way of example, consider this scene from Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye, where Inspector Van Veeteren gazes absently into a mirror as he makes a phone call: “While he was waiting for a reply he observed the grotesque face glaring at him from the shiny surface above the telephone. It was a few seconds before it dawned on him that he was looking at his own reflection” (68). Those “few seconds” are readily dismissed, and the uncanniness of the moment can easily be rationalized by appealing to Van Veeteren’s distracted state, the fact that the “shiny surface” was not obviously a mirror, and so forth. Yet the face that confronts him is nonetheless “grotesque,” and its expression is “glaring.” Both of those features serve to heighten the strangeness of this encounter, and to broaden the distance between the subject and his image. Moreover, rather than dismissing the incident out of hand, Van Veeteren continues to reflect upon it, gazing upon his face as another person might do, or even as if it belonged to another person. “He was smiling,” he notes. “The corners of his mouth were raised to form a generous curve and gave his face an expression suggesting a touch of lunacy” (68). That coldly phenomenological description of a smile, and the conjecture of lunacy (rather than a more reassuring and conventional interpretation of a smile as a sure sign of happiness) testify to the difficulty Van Veeteren finds in coming to terms with his reflection. That impression of difficulty is further underscored by the comparison that Van Veeteren next invokes. “Like a posturing male gorilla,” he muses (68), and the analogy seems so apt to him that he pursues it: “he stood there glowering at the gorilla” (69). In other terms, what we find in this incident is an apparently trivial scene that opens onto an event far more disturbing, a conversation of self with self wherein the interlocutors stray ever further one from the other. Without wishing to belabor the point, it should be noted that, just as “simple” recognition is never really simple, so “difficult” recognition is actually difficult, in every case.


If time is at issue in that scene from Nesser, it is only a brief moment in time, those “few seconds” that it takes for Van Veeteren to recognize himself. More consequential stretches of time are often at stake in scenes of difficult recognition, however. Most characteristically, these occur when the subject finds it hard to accept that she or he has grown old. These scenes are highly variable, to be sure, but they tend toward the latter end of the spectrum I described, that is, toward trauma. “The face I saw in the mirror terrified me,” remarks Fredrik Welin in the final moments of the story he tells. “I had become old” (Henning Mankell, Italian Shoes 240). On the one hand, Mankell is playing on a cultural commonplace here, the one that holds that as we age, our sense of ourselves does not age at the same rate, so that we are often unconscious of how old we have actually become. On the other hand, when we do come face to face with our aged selves (and whatever the particular vehicle of that encounter may be), it is most often an occasion for mild surprise, rather than outright terror. Yet clearly mild surprise pays fewer dividends than does terror, when it is a matter of storytelling; and just as clearly, Mankell has chosen to accentuate the strangeness of this moment in his novel in order to heighten its narrative effect.

A similar phenomenon can be noted in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Abominable Man, when Lennart Kollberg confronts himself in the mirror after having shot someone in the line of duty: “That person there has killed a man” (108). It is not that Kollberg cannot recognize himself; instead, that recognition is “difficult,” because it entails the acceptance of a harsh truth about himself. The estrangement effect is very pronounced when he designates himself as “That person,” and the effect is further amplified when he muses about other killers he has known: “During his years on the force he’d stood face to face with more murderers that he cared to think about” (108). What distinguishes him now from those others? And, more disturbingly still, what distinguishes the self he has always believed himself to be from the self he has now so unmistakably become? In other words, has he become someone else entirely?

Questions of that ilk can make the encounter with one’s reflection in the mirror a very painful experience indeed. “Every morning he looked into the little mirror on the wall and asked himself if he was staring into the eyes of a madman,” Mankell says of a character in Before the Frost (246). And of course that’s one way to rationalize the estrangement effect: I look unfamiliar to myself and thus I must be going crazy, because otherwise I would recognize myself easily. Yet such a gesture obviously creates a kind of feedback loop whereby alienation is accentuated rather than attenuated, and it thus points tantalizingly toward catastrophe. For pushed relentlessly to their limits—and why would we readers wish it to be any otherwise?—such moments can have only one outcome: the utter failure of the subject to recognize herself.

Throughout my discussion of mirror scenes, I have argued more or less stridently that the way they function is closely bound up in questions of readerly choice and semiotic desire. That is especially true of this third and final type of scene, which puts on offer an I who has in fact become an other. Now, whether we read that metamorphosis in a literal or a figural manner is entirely (or mostly, rather) up to us. For my own part, speaking as a mirror scene fundamentalist, I would argue that we must take mirror gazers at their word whenever possible. I am forced to concede, however, that some cases strain our credulity more than others. Consider the moment when Stieg Larsson places Lisbeth Salander in front of the mirror in The Girl Who Played with Fire: “She studied herself in the mirror and decided that Irene Nesser looked a little bit like Lisbeth Salander, but was still a completely different person” (68). It is very difficult to imagine that Salander fails to recognize herself here. For one thing, she is an exceptionally astute individual. For another (and more compellingly), she has just disguised herself as this “completely different person,” Irene Nesser, and she is checking the effect of her disguise in the mirror. In other terms, she is assessing the effect her disguise will produce when other people look at her. We have already discussed gestures like that one, of course, and I think it is prudent to dismiss this moment, reluctantly, from our catalogue of failed recognition scenes.

CaptureNoomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Another moment, again involving Lisbeth Salander, occurs in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and it is far more difficult to dismiss: “She had a dazzling view of Lake Zürich, which didn’t interest her in the least. But she did spend close to five minutes examining herself in the mirror. She saw a total stranger” (442-43). The encounter is far more uncanny than the one in The Girl Who Played with Fire. The abyss between the self and the reflection of the self yawns more broadly, and the language is more uncompromising. Reason tells us to interpret this figuratively, but desire urges us to read it literally. In this instance, one can really go either way; it is a shining example, I think, of a passage that teeters in precarious equilibrium right on the brink of this third and final type of mirror scene. Sort of like a funambulist, in other words. And what is it about funambulists that fascinates us, other than the possibility that they might fall off the wire? It is the very precariousness of their situation that keeps us breathless, and the danger that awaits them, below. Insofar as mirror scenes are concerned, that danger is defined precisely by the possibility that the subject might fail to recognize herself. It is a fear that haunts many of us, notably including those people who inhabit the worlds of Scandinavian detective novels: “What she feared most of all was to walk down the street and not exist, to step into the elevator at work and discover that the mirror reflected someone else, to exit the elevator and hear the poisonous tongues gabbing behind her back” (Kjell Eriksson, The Cruel Stars of the Night 110).

Jo Nesbo

It is that kind of fear, and the fascination it provokes in us, that fuels our reading of passages such as this one: “Harry went to the lavatory, splashed some cold water over his face and confronted his reflection in the mirror. Beneath his wet, closely cropped fair hair he saw a pair of bloodshot eyes with dark bags under them and drawn, hollow cheeks. He tried a smile. Yellowing teeth grinned back at him. He didn’t recognize himself” (Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star 40). And this one: “Kristín closed the door. A mirror hung in the hall and when she caught sight of her reflection in the glass on her way back to the living room, she did not recognize the figure in it: a gaunt-faced stranger with dark circles under her eyes and dirty hair, matted around her ear which was now red with fresh blood where the wound had reopened. She was wearing the thick snowsuit which was still stained with Steve’s blood. She did not know this woman. Did not know where she had come from. She stared at her, shaking her head with incomprehension” (Arnaldur Indriðason, Operation Napoleon 307-08). And this one, too: “He turned on the cold tap and tried to rinse the blood off his face. He did not recognize his reflection in the broken mirror. His eyes were staring, bloodshot, shifting” (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness 293). Each moment creeps closer to the moment of no return, to the moment of absolute catastrophe. Because if the subject can no longer recognize himself, what in the world will become of him? And what will become of us, granted that we have willingly suspended our disbelief in order to dwell in these fictional worlds?

For it is largely a question of suspense, I think. Moreover, in that very perspective it is we readers who are the funambulists, suspended vertiginously between what we know and what we wish, between experience and imagination, the real and the virtual, recognition and bewilderment. In such a parlous, tensive state, with all of our senses on the alert, we can learn a great deal about who we are and how we read literary texts. For each of these mirror scenes reflects us, too, and the gestures we sketch as we interpret them. They are eminently welcoming, integrationist tropes, in other words, pointing toward the permeability of the boundaries between the fictional world and the phenomenological world. They suggest that even the most committed rationalist among us has a role to play in an imaginary drama, whether that drama be bound up in the struggle of crime and punishment or in the dynamic of writing and reading, whether it be staged on the foggy plains of Skåne or on the comfortable hillocks of one’s own couch.

—Warren Motte


Works Cited

Adler-Olsen, Jussi.  The Keeper of Lost Causes.  Trans. Lisa Hartford.  New York: Plume, 2012.

Edwardson, Åke.  Death Angels.  Trans. Ken Schubert.  New York: Penguin, 2009.

Eriksson, Kjell.  The Cruel Stars of the Night.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.

Fossum, Karin.  Don’t Look Back.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2005.

—.  When the Devil Holds the Candle.  Trans. Felicity David.  New York: Harcourt, 2007.

Høeg, Peter.  Smilla’s Sense of Snow.  Trans. Tiina Nunnally.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993.

Indriðason, Arnaldur.  Jar City.  Trans. Bernard Scudder.  New York: Picador, 2005.

—.  Operation Napoleon.  Trans. Victoria Cribb.  New York: Picador, 2012.

Larsson, Åsa.  Sun Storm.  Trans. Marlaine Delargy.  New York: Delta, 2007.

Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

—.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2009.

—.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Trans. Reg Keeland.  New York: Knopf, 2008.

Mankell, Henning.  Before the Frost.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  The Dogs of Riga.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Faceless Killers.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Fifth Woman.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2004.

—.  Firewall.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  Italian Shoes.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2010.

—.  The Man Who Smiled.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: New Press, 2006.

—.  One Step Behind.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The Pyramid.  Trans. Ebba Segerberg with Laurie Thompson.  New York: Random House, 2009.

—.  Sidetracked.  Trans. Steven Murray.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

—.  The White Lioness.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2003.

Nesbø, Jo.  The Bat.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Vintage, 2013.

—.  The Devil’s Star.  Trans. Don Bartlett.  New York: Harper, 2011.

Nesser, Håkan.  Borkmann’s Point.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2006.

—.  Mind’s Eye.  Trans. Laurie Thompson.  New York: Vintage, 2008.

Ohlsson, Kristina. Unwanted.  Trans. Sarah Death.  New York: Atria, 2012

Sigurðardóttir, Yrsa.  Last Rituals.  Trans. Bernard Scutter.  New York: Harper, 2009.

—.  My Soul to Take.  Trans. Anna Yates.  New York: Harper, 2010.

Sjöwall, Maj, and Per Wahlöö.  The Abominable Man.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Bantam, 1974

—.  Cop Killer.  Trans. Thomas Teal.  New York: Vintage, 1978.

—.  The Fire Engine That Disappeared.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1977.

—.  The Laughing Policeman.  Trans. Alan Blair.  New York: Vintage, 1976.

—. Roseanna.  Trans. Lois Roth.  New York: Bantam, 1971.

—.  The Terrorists.  Trans. Joan Tate.  New York: Vintage, 1978.


Warren Motte

Warren Motte is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary writing, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003) Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), and Mirror Gazing (2014). He lives in Boulder with a wife, two sons, and a couple of dogs, in a house full of books.

  One Response to “Through a Glass Darkly: Mirror Scenes in Contemporary Scandinavian Detective Fiction — Warren Motte”

  1. So exciting to see your work in Numero Cinq!

Leave a Reply