Monday, July 11, 2016

Destroying Reality and Rebuilding It as Fiction -- Stefan Thunberg & Anders Roslund

Today we have a return of one of the favorite themes on Mystery Fanfare: Partners in Crime. Not only was The Father a collaborative novel, but this guest post is by both authors. The Father is the fictionalized story of Sweden’s most notorious bank robbers who terrorized the country in the early 1990s. It is written by the brother of the three bank robbers, Stefan Thunberg, and Anders Roslund, under the name Anton Svensson. The Father is an amazing novel, and as Macleans (Canada) wrote, "an extraordinary book that works on every level for which it aims, as a fast-paced thriller, as a psychological portrait of the brilliant and charismatic older brother becoming the father he loathed, and as an exploration of the damage violence wreaks on victims even when they are not physically harmed.” Thanks to Sue Trowbridge for translating this great post from Swedish for Mystery Fanfare. And thanks to Stefan and Anders for taking the time to write this--and to write their novel.

Destroying Reality and Rebuilding It as Fiction 


When I was in my twenties, I attended an art school in Stockholm. I wanted to become a painter. At the same time, the people who meant the most to me — my three brothers and two of my best friends — devoted themselves to something completely different. They robbed banks. I never knew when or where the next robbery would take place, but the fact that it would happen was always present, constantly on my mind. I was one of the family. The brother. The second oldest in a close-knit quartet of siblings, in which my eldest brother obviously played the role of “big brother.”

The door to his house was always open to me, and therefore I could, when I least expected, step into his apartment just as they were planning a robbery, or dealing with the aftermath of one.

I particularly remember one evening when I entered my big brother's living room. The television was on and there were reports of a robbery of an armored truck. All five of them, my three brothers and two friends, sat on the couch and spoke with frantic voices. The mood was palpable; the adrenaline had not left their bodies, even as they discussed what had happened that evening. How, for a few intense minutes, they had robbed the very armored truck that I was watching on TV. How, with automatic weapons, they had helped themselves to the spoils. They told me about the robbery, described it in short, disjointed scenes. It was like listening to several people who had all watched a movie I had not seen. A movie that I wanted to watch.

I remember feeling like an outsider. They had crossed a border together. They took out an empty goldfish bowl and filled it with all the money they had taken, and someone commented that a million doesn’t take up a lot of space. And in that moment, I could feel their disappointment that they had not gotten away with as much as they had expected. They had left several million behind the doors of the armored truck, along with two traumatized guards. At that moment, it became obvious to me that they would continue until they made a huge score worth many millions, or until it all went straight to hell.

And continue they did. A spate of armed robberies and a constant search after new objectives, new escape routes from the police. It became routine. The abnormal became normal. And not once did my brother say to me, "You can’t talk about this." In my family, between us brothers, that was completely obvious. It was as though we had been trained by our dad. Never, under any circumstances, betray a family member.

That peculiar but obvious confidence became extremely clear one day when I was walking home from the art school I attended. I would take the commuter train from Stockholm’s Central Station to return home to my big brother, but on this day, it was impossible. All routes had been closed, and there were cordons and police everywhere. I remember being annoyed when I heard the reason: some idiot had put a bomb in a locker at the station. I was still blissfully unaware that it had been my brothers who had placed it there.


In that chaos at Stockholm’s Central Station, amidst frightened and shaking people on their way home — but on the other side of the barricades, those high metal fences — there I was.

At the same time.

Holding a microphone in my hand.

At the time, I was working for Sweden's biggest news program, the 7:30 PM Report. I was there to report on a bombing, an event which much later would prove to be a mere diversion to lure Stockholm’s police force to the Central Station, right in the middle of the capital city. In the meantime, the gang that the police were desperately searching for were in a completely different location, and therefore were of course completely uninterrupted as they carried out yet another brutal bank robbery.

This was a time when Sweden, for a few, intense years, was faced with an entirely new type of crime, as well as a type of criminal we had never seen before, and were now forced to confront. And my job was to report on the consequences of criminality; on the forces driving the offenders; and what became of the victims. It was an attempt to get closer to understanding, to increase knowledge, and make sure it never happened again — resulting in even more victims.

That was why I followed the tracks of the faceless criminals who detonated that bomb in order to be undisturbed as they robbed a bank in a different location. A group which came to be known as the Military League, unlike anything we'd ever seen before.

They began by blowing their way into a military armory, committing northern Europe's largest weapons coup, stealing 221 automatic weapons in one night, and doing it so skillfully that it was only discovered six months later.

And then, with their very own weapons cache, they committed bank robbery after bank robbery without ever having to use the same weapons and risk that their robbery methods would be forensically coupled.

After armored vehicle robberies, postal robberies and bank robberies, they committed the first double robbery: two adjacent banks, in the same amount of time they previously spent robbing a single bank.

Then they committed the first triple robbery, three banks in the same place at the same time. That was their philosophy: in 180 seconds, regardless of how many banks were robbed, it was just as likely that the police would get there in time to stop them.

They exhibited extreme madness, extreme ruthlessness, but also, in a very particular blend, extreme brilliance and extreme ingenuity.

Eventually, I stopped reporting on crime on TV. I found a format I thought was so much better: I started writing suspense fiction, crime novels, thrillers with Börge Hellström. Roslund & Hellström.

Entertainment first and foremost, but blended with knowledge about the other reality.

A kind of reality most have not yet faced or waded into. I had sought to know this reality all my life, the consequences of violence that informs and pursues. That was why I became a sort of monitor, that is, someone wearing layman's clothes outside the prison walls who will be there for the person who stayed in the cell on the inside. That was why I, as a journalist, tried to describe the continued violence. What I now, in novel form, continue to search for.

But after fourteen intense years of writing — with books like Three Seconds, Box 21, Cell 8 and The Beast — we decided that the duo of Roslund & Hellström should take a break. We had worked so closely together for so long that our irritations had become increasingly clear, our discussions louder, and we did not want to destroy what we had created. I had already started to sketch out and write three books as a separate series, just Roslund, and I was in the middle of one of them during this break when I met Stefan. And something happened that made me lay my own book aside. Love. A love of writing. It wasn’t just that Stefan was an incredibly gifted screenwriter of box office hits, and not just that he was the fourth brother who had never joined the bank robber gang I had reported on and long been curious about. We had found each other as two storytellers. And we slowly began to approach what Stefan had been a part of, what he had carried around, for so long.


I never became an artist. I became a screenwriter and now I'm an author and when I went into this project, I knew that I would never write a documentary novel about my brothers. I wanted to destroy reality and piece it back together again. Not because the truth is difficult, but because I simply had to find the heartbeat of this story.

When I met Anders, I discovered that we had the same view on fiction. Another thing I discovered was that Anders is always working. I have never met anyone with Anders’ work ethic. He writes like a marathon runner who loves every step he takes. Anders has, with his routine, his experience and talent, brought so much to this story. And I have learned a lot from him. I have shared this story with him and we have made it our own. Another thing I appreciate is that we are very synchronized in our pursuit of those situations, the kind that will not let go of the reader ... like the story that has haunted me for twenty years.

Because on December 23, 1993, they said on the news that three robbers were fleeing in a blizzard after driving into a ditch. Three robbers, one of whom was in his fifties.

Slowly it dawned on me that the third robber was my dad.

The night before Christmas Eve, I watched every single newscast. They all reported on the hunt for the robbers who had fled into a wooded area, and about how the police’s elite unit was slowly closing in on them. The circle was centered around a summer cottage they had broken into in order to escape the blizzard.

My brother would never give up; of that, I was convinced. And the father who so many times during my childhood had solved so many problems with violence, how would he react? The two of them, armed with automatic weapons, under extreme circumstances. I remember my final thought before exhaustion and turmoil drove me to sleep: tonight, they will die.

What happened when my big brother and my father found each other after years of conflict and decided to carry out a robbery together, the gang’s last robbery and this event? How did they land in the summer cottage outside Heby, surrounded by the police’s elite force? What did they say to each other that night? How did they relate to each other during those hours before police fired tear gas grenades? Were there moments of reconciliation? Did they make up? What did their conflict look like when everything was put to the test?

As I told Anders my thoughts around this incident, we suddenly realized that what happened in that cottage on the night before Christmas Eve was the heart of this novel.


A novel. Absolutely. A story. Obviously. It became our mantra throughout the writing process: "destroy reality and rebuild it as fiction." But sometimes, it became clear that we had to leave fiction behind in order to seek the reality that our story was based on.

At one point, we needed to access the report on the entire investigation. Or, rather, the reports. There were several: one for each robbery of an armored vehicle, one for each bank robbery, and one for the bombing at the Central Station — public endangerment — and even one criminal offense I had never seen before — attempted aggravated extortion against the police. Six thousand pages of police reports. It would become the skeleton we could surround with the body of our fictional parts, the base we would build our fictional story upon. 

But a long time had passed, making the documents difficult to trace. Until the day we discovered a well-preserved set of copies in a corner at the back of Stefan's youngest brother's basement storage area.

There they were — in a large, black garbage bag.

We returned to my writers’ lair at Reimersholme where for more than two years we shut ourselves in to write. I carried the black garbage bag in my arms up the stairs to the fourth floor and it was like carrying a body, ponderous, heavy, and when I opened the front door of the apartment, I spread the entire contents over the hardwood floors of the room.

And right there, right then, it happened.

What we should have expected, but had turned away from, hoping we would not have to deal with.

Reality suddenly clawed its way out.

The black garbage bag, which served as a reminder of what it was like to carry a body, became exactly that — the moment I emptied out report after report, it was as though I had released the smell of a corpse that had been trapped for over twenty years. A smell that sought out Stefan as he sat in his usual spot on the lair’s small leather sofa.

The reality he had chosen never to be part of.

But there it was, letter by letter, page after page. And he was strongly affected, frightened, suffered severe anxiety, disappeared from me and from the story for quite a long time.

Until we realized together just how he could return.

Once again, we had to destroy reality and rebuild it as fiction; again, we had to approach it as a new story. Now it lay there on the floor, in fragments, ready to be pieced together. It has been a privilege to work with the fourth brother. To witness some of the strongest sibling bonds I've ever seen, for evil and for good.

It has been a long, earth-shaking, staggering and sometimes just a wonderful trip to write about what on the surface appears to be a series of bank robberies — but at its core is a violent father-son showdown.

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