Before the phenomenal sales of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy with Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, American publishers were already featuring Scandinavian crime writers like Henning Mankell, with his police detective Kurt Wallander, ?sa Larsson, with her prying attorney Rebecka Martinsson, and H?kan Nesser, with his chief inspector Van Veeteren. The Larsson books appeared posthumously, and Mankell has written what is clearly the last of the Wallander series.

Scandinavian crime fiction is distinguished by plots dark and cold, characters twisted and cruel, societies idyllic in form but corrupt at the core. What made Mankell and Larsson so compelling was the determination by their protagonists to master the evil. Without this moral dimension, such tales are merely horrific. Four recently published examples offer compelling evidence.

The Hypnotist, by a Swedish couple writing under the pseudonym Lars Kepler, is a repellent book. Its special nightmare quality is the involvement of children in crimes of murder, kidnapping, rape and mutilation, either as victims or perpetrators. A physician, Erik Marie Bark, who probes the mentally disturbed through hypnotism, becomes the unwitting tool of criminal madness. Each character has a different perversion. Every normative measure has vanished. One police officer radios, “Children have been slaughtered. I don’t know what to do. I’m all alone, and they’re all dead.”

Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, inspires similar dread: someone is abducting and murdering women whose children fit a profile. As with the hunt for any serial killer, the police must first discover this trigger. Without exception, the characters have no standards beyond satisfying their urges, which in the case of detective Harry Hole is to solve crimes. As the chapters proceed, the means of death grow more gruesome, the motives more obscene. A freshly built snowman is the signal, and in their na?ve wisdom, the children know, “We’re going to die.”

A certain antidote comes in the latest from H?kan Nesser’s Van Veeteren series, The Inspector and Silence. At a remote summer retreat, two young girls are found raped and murdered. Because the religious zealot in charge has a sinister past, he is an obvious suspect, especially after he suddenly disappears.

Veeteren treats this case as a sacred mission, believing that the assault of children is “the only deed that could never be forgiven.” Another character adds, “As long as our Good Lord can’t take care of that detail, I shall refuse to believe in him.” Veeteren always relies upon intuition as well as reason, but he has grown old, drinks too much, and for too long fails to perceive the critical clue.

The best of these four, and a truly fine crime novel, is Arne Dahl’s Misterioso. One by one, wealthy Swedish financiers are being murdered, shot dead in their homes by a killer whose ritual includes playing a bootleg tape of Thelonious Monk’s Misterioso as he carefully cleans up any trace evidence. Assigned to an elite task force, “A-Unit,” detective Paul Hjelm uncovers links among the victims: some business, some pleasure, some perverse. They have left behind enemies: a competitor is glad “to dance on his coffin”; a former wife hopes “to eat his liver before they cremate the swine.” One trail leads toward the Russian Mafia, another toward some desperate loner determined to mete out personal vengeance, like the Erinyes of Greek myth. The A-Unit members learn “There’s a very fine line separating chance and fate, but once you’ve crossed that line, it’s irrevocable.”

More novels from Arne Dahl await translation from Swedish. His Paul Hjelm would be an entirely adequate successor to Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.