The unsolved murder that still haunts Sweden

Olof Palme: More than 130 people falsely confessed to the popular politician’s killing. © Getty

What lies behind our fascination with true crime? It is fear? Swedish police have just called a halt to a long-running murder investigation which drove amateur sleuths to the point of madness.

It was a moment of high drama. At the press conference yesterday, Swedish prosecutors announced that they were closing a case that had obsessed the nation for 34 years: the murder its prime minister, Olof Palme.

They had “reasonable evidence” that his killer was a graphic designer called Stig Endstrom – but, since Endstrom had died in 2000, there was no point in probing further.

Or was there? Palme’s murder took place in 1986, in a busy Stockholm street. The politician was walking home from the cinema when a man came up behind him and shot him in the back. Though bystanders hurried to help him, Palme was already dead. The gunman escaped up a flight of steps.

The crime became one of the greatest real-life murder mysteries of the past 100 years.

Palme, the man largely responsible for Sweden’s system of high taxes and excellent social services, had many admirers, but also enemies. Unanswered questions and police blunders gave rise to a host of conspiracy theories.

How did the killer know that Palme was at the cinema – without his bodyguards – when the outing was an impromptu one? Why did the police fail to make a proper search of nearby streets, or identify all the witnesses, and let the public trample over the crime scene?

Investigators focused first on the PKK (a militant Kurdish group), despite a lack of evidence. Later, an alcoholic ex-prisoner was arrested and convicted, but released on appeal.

Some suspected the South African security services. Others said it was the film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky. People obsessed with the murder became known as “privatspanarna” – private eyes. It spawned books, films, and plays.

Why are human beings so addicted to true crime stories? Does it make any sense to spend years investigating long-standing mysteries we have little chance of solving?

One theory is that they are a way of controlling our own darkest fears

According to criminologist Gemma Flynn, “When we experience heightened levels of fear, we can often seek comfort in facing these issues head on. We have always turned to crime storytelling as a way to better understand the moral limits of our society.”

Is our fascination with true crime driven by fear itself?

Horrible mysteries

Yes, some say. “Safety is always at the forefront of our minds,” argues Rachel Fairburn, co-host of the All Killa No Filla podcast, “and when we read about serial killers, murderers, true crime cases, I think there’s always an element of self-preservation.” For journalist Julia Davis, it is about “your worst possible fear – understanding it, confronting it, knowing everything you can about it”.

No, think others. It is more complex than that. It is partly puzzle-solving: people love to be armchair detectives, above all, with real unsolved cases. It is partly fascination with motive: what leads someone to commit a horrific crime? And it is partly compassion for victims: an emotional connection. Finally, never forget the power of escapism.

You Decide

  1. What is the best crime story you have read?
  2. Should there be a time limit for solving murder cases?

Activities

  1. Design a poster appealing for information about the murder of Olof Palme.
  2. Imagine that you are the Swedish investigator responsible for announcing the closure of the case. Write a speech explaining your decision and deliver it to your family. Get them to ask you questions about it.

Some People Say...

“It’s the very awfulness of [murder] that makes reading about it feel so cosy.”

Louise Doughty, English novelist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries have played a huge part in the current wave of crime writing, both true and fictitious – partly, some believe, because of their obsession with Palme’s murder. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was investigating it at the time of his death. In the UK, ‘Scandinoir’ dramas are very popular, while three true-crime TV channels reach more than five million people a month. The US podcast Serial has been downloaded over 175 million times.
What do we not know?
Whether Stig Endstrom did, in fact, kill Olof Palme. He became the prime suspect thanks to a journalist who discovered that he had worked near the cinema, was an active member of a gun club, and hated Palme’s policies. Endstrom had been at the scene of the murder – though he claimed that he tried to resuscitate Palme – and his personality matched a police profile of the likely killer. But some people consider this evidence insufficient, and one witness has called the dropping of the case “a scandal”.

Word Watch

Stockholm
The capital of Sweden. Set on the edge of the Baltic Sea, it is spread over 14 islands.
Impromptu
Not planned in advance. Palme made a point of behaving like an ordinary citizen.
PKK
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is sworn to create an independent Kurdish state and has been involved in an armed conflict with Turkey since 1994. Palme’s government declared it a terrorist organisation.
South African
Palme was a committed opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and had given financial support to Nelson Mandela’s ANC party.
Andrei Tarkovsky
One of Russia’s leading film directors. His film, The Sacrifice, was released a few months after Palme’s murder, and includes a scene set on the corner where it happened.
Armchair detectives
People who investigate crimes without leaving their homes.

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