On Aug. 23, 1973, a man named Jan-Erik Olsson walked into the Kreditbanken bank in Stockholm. He took out a submachine gun, shot at the ceiling and shouted, “The party starts!” What would follow wasn’t just one of the most bizarre bank robberies in Swedish history, it also gave birth to a common phrase: “Stockholm syndrome,” the name given to the behavior of hostages who begin to sympathize with their captors.
In his new book, “Six Days in August,” author David King presents a fascinating history of the Kreditbanken robbery and its aftermath. It’s a book that’s sure to delight both true crime fans and readers with an interest in psychology.
The robbery was an odd one from the jump. Olsson was wearing a woman’s wig and makeup when he entered the bank, and the employees and customers instantly clocked him as unstable: “One minute he was laughing, one minute he was screaming. He seemed to be crazy, high on drugs, or both.”
It only got weirder from there. After shooting a police officer in the hand, Olsson went on to release many of the hostages, keeping only four of them, and demanded that the police bring in one of his old friends from prison, which the authorities did.
As the crisis went on, the hostages turned their anger not to Olsson, but to the police who were trying to negotiate with the robber. “They acted less frightened than resentful, or even angry — and all that sentiment was directed overwhelmingly at the police,” King writes. Olsson, his prison friend and the hostages developed an odd rapport, even playing poker and tic-tac-toe.
The police, desperate to end the situation, turned to the public for suggestions on how to bring the crisis to a close. One person suggested that the vault the robber and hostages were hiding in be filled with soccer balls to impede Olsson’s movements; another urged the police to send in food on an electrified tray.
While the standoff ended with no deaths, it still remains infamous because of the hostages’ odd behavior. King does an excellent job chronicling the bond that developed between Olsson and his victims, as well as the police’s sometimes ham-handed attempts to get the robber to surrender. The book is tightly paced and reads like a thriller novel; King’s writing is electrifying but never lurid.
King also provides some fascinating, crucial context for the robbery — it took place during an economic downturn in Sweden, and coincided with the failing health of the country’s king, Gustaf VI Adolf. This scene-setting gives the reader a clearer portrait of how the robbery influenced Sweden’s national psyche.
“Six Days in August” is a true-crime book that has real appeal to all readers — it’s a thrilling look back at a robbery that remains one of the most bizarre crimes of the 20th century.
Michael Schaub is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Texas.
Six Days in August
By: David King.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 304 pages, $26.95.