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27 December 2016

In Sarah Lund, the writers behind The Killing created a new modern female

By Hanif Kureishi

Long after everyone else, I finally caught up with the pleasures and miseries of the Danish miniseries Forbrydelsen (The Killing). I watched the second series first because it was to hand, before getting down to the first series, which is twice the length: twenty hours. And, like everyone else – my girlfriend in particular – I found the magical elixir of this detective story soon captivated me. The work – a dark and thrilling piece mixing the worlds of crime, politics and the police – is a perfect example for any young writer of suspense and relief, of plotting, rhythm, style and scary music.

The heroine, Sarah Lund, a super-clever, modest and quiet detective, has her work cut out. Clearly Denmark is awash with serial killers, as well as with screenwriters and tall, brooding actors who resemble Karl Ove Knausgaard. And there is something deeply rotten there. It is this that she will fix.

In Sarah, played by Sofie Gråbøl, the authors of The Killing (Søren Sveistrup is its creator and head writer) have created the contemporary female figure. Isolated, detached, ever working, she is almost always anxious. She barely smiles, is hyper-vigilant, and has little time for her son, mother, friends or lover. She dismisses them all, apparently with good reason: she must keep the serial killer from finding more victims. Sarah is always in charge, and always superior to her (mostly male) superiors. She has better instincts when it comes to evil than the men around her. And you could say this is a lesson for feminists. Perhaps it might be. But it is also something else.

Far from being the uninhibited, free-speaking woman we had imagined at the advent of the new feminism in the mid-1960s, Sarah is overburdened with guilt and worry. She is also a slave to the police system that she serves, lacking knowledge of herself and her position. The pleasures of talk, spontaneity and exchange are not for her. Highly moralistic, aloof and determined to keep the world under control, she will always have too much to do. Her life will not truly begin until she identifies and removes the serial killer. She is someone who has an endless series of “important” tasks to perform before she can enjoy any fulfilment or satisfaction.

Until then, she can neglect everyone who needs her, and those who rely on her the most. She is brave, but, without emotion, she is closer to death than she is to life. Even her 12-year-old son sees this when he tells her that she seems to prefer the dead to the living.

The Killing works so well because Sarah Lund is a new figure in detective drama. Maigret and James Bond, while repeatedly saving the world from evil, had their sensual delights. But poor Sarah is alone with herself as so many are today, and we can only pity her even as we admire her – the perfect picture of contemporary female obsession and anxiety. 

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