Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl

Only the Dead 
by Vidar Sundstøl
Translated by Tiina Nunnally
(Minnesota Trilogy #2)
University of Minnesota Press, September 1, 2014

In this second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy, Norwegian author Vidar Sundstøl continues exploring the rift between the past and the present, between European settlers and the native inhabitants of the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, and between two brothers living on the shores of Lake Superior in the present. Though I am not a series-order purist, this is truly a trilogy, not a series of mysteries with recurring characters. This story will make a great deal more sense if you’ve previously read the first volume, The Land of DreamsAnd if you haven’t, you might want to stop reading this review right now, because I can’t avoid serious spoliers for the first book. I’d turn back if I were you.

I'd turn back if I were you

Are we all right then? Ready to carry on? I did warn you.

Okay . . .

We know from the first volume that Lance Hansen, a “forest cop” who patrols Cook County, Minnesota’s national forest lands, discovered the body of a murdered Norwegian tourist. Officials from the state and a Norwegian detective take on the investigation. In parallel, Hansen comes to believe that one of his ancestors who came to Minnesota from Norway may have murdered a native man, Swamper Caribou, in 1892. Hansen is literally haunted by thLand of Dreamse past, since he keeps seeing a man who appears to be from another time. And he’s haunted, too, by his suspicion that his brother Andy may be the man who killed the Norwegian visitor. That seems impossible when the detectives make an arrest, until Hansen uncovers another family secret: DNA evidence that the murderer had Indian ancestry had ruled Andy out as a suspect. But Hansen discovers that he and Andy have Ojibwe ancestry.

The second book is quite different in tone. Though it’s short, it’s packed with a densely threatening atmosphere. The mood is obsessive, claustrophibic, and almost hallucinogenic at times. It opens as Lance and Andy are engaged in a Minnesota tradition: hunting deer. They take turns driving the deer and shooting. But it’s clear from their tense interactions that they’re really hunting each other.

As the men track through the dense woods, we learn what happened in 1892 from the point of view of a young Norwegian immigrant as he crosses the frozen lake, hallucinating as he fights off hypotermia, frightened bOnly the Deady the world he’s in and its savage inhabitants, determined to get his own piece of the new world. His story is interwoven with the hunt, each narrative growing more intense, more disturbing, less connected to what we think of as reality with each turning page. The natural world itself is transformed as an ices storm descends on the North Shore, making the woods beside the vast frozen lake a labyrinthine and disorienting forest of ice. It’s in this weird, frozen world where the past and present touch, where the hunter becomes the hunted, where things are stripped down to their elemental essence.

This is not a comfortable book. Though it doesn’t take gruesomeness to the heights that the average serial killer thriller aspires to, the violence in it is far more real and much more disturbing. And because the story is so disorienting and unresolved, it doesn’t provide the usual resolution that readers expect from the genre, that at least justice is served in the end. Perhaps that will come in the third book, but I wouldn’t count on it.

At one point in the book, as Lance is following his brother into the woods, he thinks to himself:

. . . were the rules still valid after what had happened? Was it even possible to talk about things like rules anymore? Lance had broken the most important rule of all, which said that specific subjects were not to be discussed. Not under any circumstances. The world he knew was a world that was held together by keeping silent about certain things. These things were not clearly defined, but everybody who lived in the same world as Lance recognized them at once whenever they cropped up. As long as no one broke the rule, this world would continue to exist. It had already endured for a very long time.

Though this book is short, it’s packed with strangeness, The rule of silence, once broken, lets all kinds of weird things bubble up. I’m very curious to find out what will happen in the third book of the trilogy.

 

 

Swedish Crime Fiction by Kerstin Bergman: a Review

Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir 
by Kerstin Bergman 
Mimesis/DeGenere, 2014
ISBN 9788857519838

I have met Kerstin Bergman twice, once at a conference about Stieg Larsson at UCLA and again when she came to our campus as we held an event focused on women crime fiction authors from Scandinavia. She struck me as a person who knew a lot about crime fiction and was able to communicate her knowledge clearly. That quality is evident in her new book, a thorough scholarly examination of Swedish crime fiction published in English (by an Italian publisher! truly an international effort). Though Bergman is quite young, she has long established herself as a major scholar, writing many articles and a standard Swedish textbook on the topic, holding a research appointment at Lund University. She is also a member of the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy. So I was not surprised to find her new book an absolutely terrific contribution. 

Bergman begins the book by providing a history of crime fiction in Sweden from the late 19th century to the present, noting the changes it has gone through including the “breakthrough of the police procedural” with Sjowall and Wahloo’s ten-volume “story of a crime” in the vangard, the interest in the genre reignited with Henning Mankell’s success, and finally taking off like a rocket with the worldwide popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.  

She then provides several chapters in which she examines in greater depth the following:

  • the Martin Beck series and later police procedurals (“Sweden’s favorite kind of crime”)
  • Henning Mankell’s treatment of Swedishness and “the other” and how it has played out in other writer’s work
  • women authors, including Liza Marklund, who broke ground for women writers, and the women who have come since
  • the urban scene of crime (from Stieg Trenter to Jens Lapidus, who has done something quite novel with the genre
  • the neo-romantic countryside (from Maria Lang to Mari Jungstedt, with consideration of Camilla Lackberg and other popular writers who focus on the countryside and on a Sweden untarnished by change; these novels are not notably focused on social criticism but rather on local crimes that arise out of family disfunction. 
  • the Stieg Larsson phenomenon and how his mix of playful remixing of genre conventions and social critique became an international success that opened the door for many writers to reach an international audience while also enabling Swedish writers to try different kinds of crime fiction than the police procedural. 
  • the “Europeanization” of Swedish crime fiction in the works of Arne Dahl, who turned his focus from Sweden to Sweden in a more global context. 
  • and finally, a handy review of crime fiction in other Nordic countries, providing both a run-down of major authors but also a comparison of crime fiction traditions in the countries. 

This is a superb book that perfectly balances the interests of scholars and the passions of ordinary readers. Bergman is no slouch when it comes to critical theory, but I’m pleased that she chose to keep her focus firmly on the literature itself rather than on abstrations. Though this doesn’t diminish the scholarship involved, it makes the book accessible. It’s also unusually affordable for a scholarly book – which makes it a tempting purchase for readers who enjoy Swedish crime fiction as well as a gulit-free course adoption. Anyone teaching Scandinvian crime will want to assign this clear, well-organized, insightful book as a text. Those teaching Swedish literature or the crime fiction genre might want to consider it as a supplemental text. It should also find a home on the shelves of every academic library. It’s a very useful, well-done survey of Swedish crime fiction.

 

Finns in Minnesota – the Report

It could be a record – three Finnish crime fiction authors together at a single event in North America. It was also a lot of fun. I had a chance to meet the authors – Antti Tuomainen, Jari Tervo, and Jarkko Sipila – at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, and then used the excuse of delivering a book needed for display purposes to hear the authors speak at FinnFest without actually registering for the event. (There seemed to be quite a lot of registrants, so I didn’t feel too guilty.)  I also enjoyed finally meeting Juokko Sipila, publisher of Ice Cold Crime, which is doing a lot to bring translated Finnish literature to American readers.

While it will take me a while yet to post reviews of Tervo’s Among the Saints and Sipila’s latest Helsinki Homicide entry, Darling, I wanted to write about the authors’ appearance before I can’t make out the scribbled notes I took.  I won’t be able to review Antti Tuomainen’s next book until it comes out later this year or in 2015, but I will.

Finnish Authors in MN

Jari Tervo, Antti Tuomainen, Jarkko Sipila, and a short person; photo courtesy of Juoko Sipila

One thing that interested me is that, while people often speak of Scandinavian crime fiction as if it’s all somehow similar, these three writers are very different in style. Jarkko Sipila, who works as a television crime reporter in Helsinki in addition to writing 19 crime novels to date, writes in a style that would be familiar to fans of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. It’s an ensemble police procedural with an emphasis on representing crime and cops as realistically as possible. Jari Tervo is a huge celebrity in FInland, hosting a talk show that is wildly popular in addition to having published 23 books, three of which are crime stories. The only one to be translated is Among the Saints, just released, Like Sipila’s approach to urban crime, he’s interested in capturing the strange reality of life in northern Finland, through a raucous multi-voiced story about a murder, There are 35 narrators, with the first being the hapless victim, who starts the book with “I was killed the first week of May. It wasn’t even ten o’clock in the morning.” Where Sipila’s reality is gritty, Tervo’s is Rabelaisian. Tuomainen’s novel is about yet another kind of reality – the one we face as our planet’s climate changes. He imagines a world where refugees have fled north, the wealthy have retreated into guarded compounds, and a man tries to figure out where love and poetry belong in a time of chaos.

So, three completely different approaches to crime fiction – but a lovely trio when it came to talking about their writing.

Jari Tervo grew up in Rovaniemi, capital of Finland’s northernmost province and a center for tourists who want to see norther lights and learn about Saami culture. He wants to portray what life in this part of Finland is llike, and among the many voices in Among the Saints, we meet some really goofy characters. I asked how his portrayal of the north is recieved by northerners and he said they love it because they feel it truly captures their experience. He also, speaking at FinnFest, commented that light is a factor – living in darkness in the winter and constant light in summer tends to a certain amount of craziness. Tervo’s publisher has described his style as “Quentin Tarantino meets William Faulkner.” If we borrow zaninesss and a bit crime from Tarantino and the almost ethnographic community ensemble from Faulkner, this makes sense – but Tervo himself settled for “brilliant, yet cheap.” (He’s much funnier than Tarantino or Faulkner.) When he writes, he comes up with the first sentence and the last. “Then all I have to do is write the 300 pages in between.” Rather than have a detailed outline, he likes to see where things go: “writing is discovering.” He also talked about how difficult it is to translate a novel into film because you have to trim so much out. “A novel inhales a huge amount of information,” he said.

Jarkko Sipila’s first name in pronounced “YARK-ko” but when he was a small boy, he lived in Columbus, Ohio while his father attended graduate school at Ohio State. He was used to Americans mispronouncing his name and was quite excited about his fame when ads for Jarkko filters ran on television (since he was used to people calling him “charcoal”). He started to study engineering, but decided “Finland would be better off without bridges designed by me” so instead studied to become a journalist (which is also Tervo’s background). He grew frustrated reading about police in fiction who had floridly dysfunctional personal lives, yet were able to solve crimes singlehandedly with their brilliance. In reality, police officers suffering from alcoholism and traumatic stress wouldn’t be working, they’d be hospitalized. His police officers work as a team under the leadership of Kari Takamäki, a character who he says he has made deliberately a bit unexciting. When I asked about the experience of writing for Finns but having a much wider audience, he said that police have something in common worldwide. They want to catch the bad guys. In a sense that makes the police proedural an easily exported genre. A member of the audience asked whether it was problematic writing about crime in a country where there was so little of it. Sipila pointed out that while Finland has half the crime rate of the U.S., it has twice as many homicides as Sweden and four teimes as many as Norway. One contrast to the U.S., though, is that while gun ownership is quite high in Finland, guns are rarely used in homicides. Knives are a more common weapon. “We like to get in close,” he joked. He also mentioned that crime fiction became popular in Finland in the mid-1990s and he felt it was a response to the recession the country was going through at the time, that people were particularly receptive to the idea of violence having a reason behind it, of justice being served in fiction if not in daily life.

Antti Tuomainen is newer to publishing books (and the other two made a lot out of his having merely published five as opposed to 19 and 23!) Perhaps because his early writing career was in advertising, he came up with a catchy conept for The Healer: since it is a crime story, a romance, and a futurisitic dystopia, you get three books for the price of one! I asked him if he had any theories about why dystopia is suddenly so much a part of our popular culture and he wasn’t sure, other than that the impact of global warming is inescapably evident. He also pointed out that his dystopian novel predates The Hunger Games and all the ensuing imitations, so he was in the distrous future ahead of the pack. Unlike Sipila, who writes an outline, drafts a book in about two months, then does several revisions that take another couple of months, Tuomainen’s stories take longer to come together. “I can write a synopsis,” he said. “I just can’t stick to it.” He discovers things as he goes along, and he also senses when something isn’t right. He described it as being “out of tune,” something that is just discordant in the narrative and has to come out. One of his books was recently optioned for film. When he was asked if he would like to write the script, and he immediately said no. A script requires so many rewrites and so many changes demanded by others that he would find it a frustrating and time-consuming venture. His next book to be translated is titled Dark as My Heart, about a man who wants to find out what happened to his birth mother who disappeared when he was a child. It will be out in the UK from Harvill Secker next year; he told me there may be an ebook version available as soon as October. I look forward to it.

Thanks to Juoko Sipila, FinnFest, and Once Upon a Crime for hosting such an enjoyable encounter with these three fine – and very different – Finnish writers.

books

My book haul for the day.

RIP James Thompson, American-Finnish Author

I was saddened to learn that James Thompson, author of the Kari Vaara series of hardboiled mysteries set in Finland, has died. It was unexpected, and he was too young.

With his first mystery, Snow Angels, I was impressed by his spare, poetic writing style and the way he captured Finnish culture (and its weather). I was impressed by everything in his second novel, Lucifer’s Tears, which introduced me to some of the complexity of recent Finnish history and the traces it has left in what today seems an almost uniquely peaceful and well-tempered country. Though with later books in the series I was sometimes cross that (like Thomas Hardy) he put his characters through so much (I was livid with Hardy when I read Tess and Jude the Obscure), my sense was that the path toward redemption was the thematic arc of the series.

My sympathies to his family. Many readers across the world will be saddened by this news.

Bits and Bobs and a Promise of a Review

There is a new issue of the Journal of Specialized Translation out that’s devoted to crime fiction in translation, and one of the articles, by Kerstin Bergman, analyzes Denise Mina’s adaptation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire into graphic novels. In particular, she focuses on the way Lisbeth Salander is depicted, finding the graphic novel character more sexualized and less feminist, with the overall story more of a crime adventure tale and less a work of critical feminism – partly echoing the visual style of comic book traditions, partly because the entire story is trimmed down, leaving out some of the social and political context. Having read one of these, I concur with her analysis, even though I am a huge Denise Mina fan. (I suspect that when a character is embraced by so many people in very different culltural contexts, we each end up with a slightly different Salander in our imaginations.)

Kerstin Bergman has also just published a terrific book, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir, which I hope to review here very soon. Barry Forshaw praises it at CrimeTime (but wants you to buy his books, too.)

At Stop You’re Killing Me (a fabulously useful website that I fervently help will never stop) Lucinda Serber has a review of Anna Jansson’s Strange Bird, published by Stockholm Text in 2013. As usual, it’s not the first in the series. She calls it a “powerful scientific thriller” about a bird-borne disease that not only makes people sick, it brings out the worst in them. That’s an eerily timely topic.

Lynn Harvey reviews Kjell Ericksson’s newly translated Black Lies, Red Blood, which she finds embodies the social conscience of Scandi crime to an extent that might frustrate those looking for who dunnit or quick thrills. She concludes “these digressions are the result of Eriksson’s urge for realism and social reportage and if that informs the spirit of Scandi-noir for you – then BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD is also the latest in your essential reading.”

Laura Root reviews Karin Fossum’s The Murder of Harriet Krohn at Euro Crime, She finds this seventh in the Konrad Sejer series well-written but not as compelling as other books Fossum has written. It, like others, explores how an ordinary man can do awful things while, at heart, remaining a rather boring person.

I was chuffed to be interviewed a while back via email for a couple of articles about Scandinavian crime fiction in a Brazilian newspaper. I’m afraid I didn’t say anything profound or original, though it appears as if I actually know some Portuguese. (Sadly, I don’t.)

I missed the mainstream reviews, which have been plentiful, of Jo Nesbo’s latest novel, a standalone, which has met with a variety of responses. Val McDermid isn’t impressed by The Son, which she finds implausible, predictable, and too long. “Strip away the platitudes and the interior monologues, spare us the sentimentality and the self-justification, and this could have been a dark and muscular slice of noir that chills to the bone. Instead, it’s overblown and preachy with the kind of faux-nobility with which Hollywood loves to invest its villains.”

I’m afraid I felt rather the same in my review at Reviewing the Evidence, which concludes on this congenial note:

As always with Nesbø, the plot is deviously convoluted and the workings of escapades worked out like fine-tuned machinery. The main characters are full of charm and faults, driven and smart, but tempted by their addictions. The police force is riddled with corruption and crime is highly organized. There are times when the characters wax philosophical and ponder the nature of free will and hard choices between action scenes. It’s entertaining and, as always, full of twists, with a bit more of a morality play included than usual.

What it doesn’t have is any sense that what’s happening in the story owes any resemblance to reality. Nesbø’s books, which once were fresh and startling, offering a good bit of thought-provoking fun, have become a little too burdened with special effects. He owes more to Hollywood than to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the grandparents of contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction and the social critique it is known for. Nesbø doesn’t hold up a mirror to society or probe what ails it. It’s pure entertainment all the way down.

I have piles of reviews to write – eventually. Meanwhile, those of you in the Minneapolis area, don’t forget that on August 9th Once Upon a Crime will be hosting three Finnish crime writers worth meeting. The greatest mystery I’m pondering right now is how it can possibly be August already.

Mark Your Calendars: Finns in Minnesota, Crime in Iceland

Three Finnish crime authors will be in Minneapolis in August to participate in Finnfest USA an annual national gathering for all things Finnish.

They are participating in FinnFest USA, an annual event that is being held in Minneapolis this year (fittingly, since the first Finnish communities were established in the US 150 years ago by Finns who arrived in Red Wing with the intent to settle and retain their Finnish Finnish flagcultural identities in an area that was being settled by many Nordic immigrants).

For those who aren’t registering for the entire Finn-o-palooza, you will have an opportunity to meet the Finnish authors at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore, where they will be meeting readers and signing books between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm on Saturday, August 9th. The authors are:

  • Antti Tuomainen (author of the dystopian-romantic-noirish novel The Healer)
  • Jarkko Sipila (author of the Helsinki Homicide police procedural series, the latest of which, Darling, is about to be released)
  •  Jari Tervo (author of a number of novels, the first of which is just being published in English – Among the Saints; thanks to the publisher, Ice Cold Crime, I hope to have a review here soon)

This may be the only time three Finnish crime authors have appeared together in the US. They picked a wonderful store as their host.

I hope to attend the event and report back. Meanwhile, here are my previous reviews of Tuomainen’s The Healer and Sipila’s Against the Wall, Vengeance, Nothing But the Truth, and Cold Trail.

In November, you can travel to Iceland for the second Iceland Noir festival of crime fiction. Along with a great many Icelandic authors and authors who set their books in Iceland, you can meet writers from as far away as South Africa. Johan Theorin of Sweden and Vidar Sundstol of Norway will also be on the program. There will also be a Snæfellsnes Mystery Tour with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir to the remote and Iceland flagsrugged setting of her ghost story, My Soul to Take

At this event, the first award for crime fiction translated into Icelandic (the “Icepick”) will be announced. Here is the shortlist, hot off the press release:

  • Joël Dicker: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair] – Icelandic translation: Friðrik Rafnsson
  • Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl – Icelandic translation: Bjarni Jónsson
  • Jo Nesbø: Panserhjerte [The Leopard] – Icelandic translation: Bjarni Gunnarsson
  • Håkan Nesser: Människa utan hund [Man Without Dog] – Icelandic translation: Ævar Örn Jósepsson
  • Antti Tuomainen: Veljeni vartija [My Brother’s Keeper] – Icelandic translation: Sigurður Karlsson

CFP: Essays for The Scandinavian Invasion

This just came across the radar and may be of interest to the academically inclined. Oh, and we’re talking Nordic crime fiction, not Vikings.

The Scandinavian Invasion: Perspectives on the Nordic Noir Phenomenon
Edited by William Proctor

The crime genre has a long-established history in the Scandinavian countries: from the ten-part series of novels by Sjöwall and Wahlööfeaturing Inspector Martin Beck to Henning Mankell’s critique of Swedish society through the lens of the Kurt Wallander novels. Since the publication of Stieg Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy in 2005 featuring anti-heroine, Lisbeth Salander, we have seen the birth of a global phenomenon that has spread across multiple media windows including literature, film and, most notably perhaps, television. Authors such as Jo Nesbo (The Snowman), Lars Kepler (The Hypnotist), Lotte and Søren Hammer (The Hanging) and more besides, regularly feature in book store charts and on internet shopping sites.  In the UK, BBC Four continue to champion the genre by airing The Killing, Borgen, and more recently, The Bridge alongside other series, such as Mammon and Arne Dahl. How can we begin to account for the popularity of the so-called Nordic Noir genre in the UK and beyond? How has this impacted other texts outside of the Scandinavian Peninsula? What can audiences and fan cultures teach us about this phenomenon? More simply, why Nordic Noir and why now?

The term itself, Nordic Noir, has also grown beyond its initial ambit to encompass multiple genres rather than restricted to crime or the police procedural. Arrow Films releases Scandinavian drama on the Nordic Noir label which includes crime, but also, other genres, such as history (Anno 1790), for instance. In this way, the genre has expanded in significant ways as a ‘cultural category’ that is discursively constructed rather than confined to a limited and finite designation. Following Jason Mittell, the Nordic Noir genre ‘operates in an ongoing historical process of category formation genres are constantly in flux, and thus their analyses must be historically situated’ (2004: xiv).

This collection aims to offer a varied range of perspectives on the Nordic Noir phenomenon and invites scholars to submit abstracts of 300 – 500 words. I am particularly interested in audiences and fan cultures, but other avenues of exploration may include (but not limited to):

  • Genre analysis.
  • History
  • Society and Culture.
  • Literature, Cinema, Television.
  • Non-Crime texts (such as Akta Manniskor or Anno 1790 and so forth).
  • Reception and Audiences.
  • Gender.
  • Sexuality.
  • Representation.
  • Influence and impact in other cultures.
  • The new wave of literature.
  • Industry.
  • Branding.

All proposals will be considered within the remit of Nordic Noir and its impact. Deadlines for abstracts: October 1st 2014. This will form part of the proposal to Edinburgh University Press who have expressed an interest in the project.

Abstracts to be forwarded to: billyproctor <at> hotmail.co.uk. Please send any queries, ideas etc to the same.