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> Please send any queries, ideas etc to the same.

Into a Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman, a Review

Translated by Ian Giles
Quercus, 2014 (originally published as EN RASANDE ELD in Sweden in 2013)

To be honest, I nearly put this book aside more than once. It starts in active mode – a “target” (we don’t learn his name) is followed by professionals (we aren’t sure who they are) who manage, very efficiently, to kill him.

But then we switch to a Swedish diplomatic office, where we meet Carina Dymek, a dedicated, hard-working, always slightly anxious, very ambitious bureaucrat who loves her job which is, frankly, awfully boring. At least, it sounds boring, and we learn a lot about career snakes and ladders in the diplomatic service and what it’s like to work in the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Not only does the job seem stiflingly bureaucratic, Carina is sonorman earnest and obedient and such a hard worker – though this is all told; we aren’t really shown why this work appeals to her. (Where’s the rage? Where’s the blaze??) Then she goes to Brussels, and I learned more than I wanted to know about how EU meetings go. (The author is, himself, a Swedish diplomat with a lot of experience abroad; somehow I imagined his life to be much more interesting than Carina’s.)

We do, however, finally get to catch a glimpse of who Carina is when she speaks up for human rights during a discussion of immigration and border security. (Strangely, we are told about this, too – after the fact. It felt like I was being cheated of the first bit of excitement.) But that is a pivotal moment. A man who was at the meeting as an observer catches up with her, asks her to share a meal. He warns her that a new proposal is coming before the EU to create a centralized anti-terrorism intelligence service, and he’s concerned. He gives her a flash drive with some documents on it that he asks her to pass along. She makes no promises, but passes it along to people who she thinks should see it at the Swedish Ministry of Jusitce.

It takes her by surprise when she gets in trouble for leaking a sensitive document, and soon after she’s suspended from work she finds herself in real danger, She can’t understand why the Swedish government is furious that she shared a document with another branch of the Swedish government. Her friend Greger, a computer technician, comforts her and encourages her to find the man who gave her the flash drive and clear her name. Her boyfriend, also a diplomat, is more cautious. Though Jamal is Swedish, his parents left Egypt because of the political situation.

In fact, Jamal soon becomes a concern for Swedish security services and secret service agent Bente Jensen begins to dig into his backgound. British intelligence has information that suggests he’s in touch with a radical Muslim uncle and may be using Carina to set up something truly dangerous. Bente is a bit like Carina – dedicated, hardworking, rather staid – but principled. When Carina becomes the target of unknown agents, she invites Carina to turn herself in to sort things out. By the time that invitaiton comes, however, Carina no longer knows who to trust. The document she hadn’t even bothered to read at first is radioactive, and powerful players don’t want anyone to know that a billion-Euro intelligence service is being secretly launched, driven by hawkish elements in the British government.

What started out slowly becomes a real rocket-ride of a reading experience, and though Carina seems frustratingly naive at first, she soon finds she has to do what she can to get the truth out.  Carina’s situation seems all too real, even if she doesn’t have the spycraft or technology skills of an Edward Snowden.

My recommendation: if you find the opening chapters a bit of a slog, stick with it. It’s a timely, thought-provoking and ultimately exciting experience.

For another opinion (from a reader who enjoyed the first chapters as much as the rest) see Ann Giles’ review of the Swedish original at Petrona Remembered. Thanks to Quercus for letting me have access to a pre-publication copy via Netgalley.

Some Criminally Good Scholarship

Infinite Earths, an online journal that unpacks popular culture in a variety of ways, has published a special issue on Nordic Noir and the Scandinavian Invasion, focused on the impact Nordic crime dramas has had on Anglophone culture and what makes Nordic noir tick. There are four articles in the issue:

My thanks to Brownen Thomas of the Digital Reading Network who pointed the issue out to me.

Second, Taylor & Francis, one of the giant commercial publishers of scholarly work provided freely by scholars in exchange for organizing the free labor of peer reviewing, adding some copyediting and layout, then distributing to the academic libraries that can afford it and who promise not to let it travel beyond the library’s digital walled garden, has given a collection of articles on crime fiction a temporary release. They will return to serve out their life sentence at the end of the year, so read them while you can.*

Routledge Crime Fiction Collection

Articles address craft, genre, gender, historical crime fiction, and world crime fiction. Though not focused on Scandinavia, it’s very interesting stuff. I was particularly blown away by Margie Orford’s essay, “The Grammar of Violence: Writing Crime as Fiction.

*Sorry if I sound ungrateful. but I get frustrated when all of this valuable work is generally available to so few in order to support T&F’s 35% profit margin.


Interview, Reviews, and What-Not

I’m quite behind on crime in the Nordic countries, having three or four new books read but not yet reviewed. Meanwhile here are some links to reviews and interviews of interest.

Craig Sisterson, New Zealand’s chronicler of crime, has an informative interview with Camilla Lackberg in The New Zealand Listener, catching up with her while visiting the Aukland Writer’s Festival.

Camilla LackbergLackberg also makes a guest appearance at Mystery Fanfare, Janet Rudolph’s blog. It does not, howeve, address they mystery of how Janet does it all.

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin, which he felt was not the strongest in a very strong series. (I will be reviewing it soonish.) He recommends reading the series in order to get the best effect.

Sarah at Crimepieces reviews the latest translation in Jørn Lier Horst’s police procedural series, The Hunting Dogs. She feels it’s the best of his books yet, and she’s not the only one to think so; it won the 2013 Glass Key prize for best Nordic crime novel of the year. It’s a good thing for us English-speakers that Sandstone Press has put out these translations even before this entry won the big prize. There are five previous volumes in the series that haven’t been transtlated (yet).

She also reviews Mons Kallentoft’s new mystery, The Fifth Season (an appropriate title, now that he’s exhausted all four seasons). Sarah thinks it’s a good addiion to the series, with the detective having made changes in her life that make her more appealing, and it intrguingly ties up a loose end from Midwinter Sacrifice. 

Norm reports on the dearth of SwedesLinda, as in the Linda Murder in the shortlist for the International Dagger. Since it was launched in 2006 (when people got cross that an Icelandic author, Arnaldur Indridason, won the Gold Daggar) the International Daggar has always had at least one Swedish enty.  This time there’s only one Nordic author included – and he’s an old lag. However, a French author, Olivier Truc, has a book set in Finmark with Reindeer police (!), which almost counts.

However, a Swede has won the second annual Petrona Award – Leif G. W. Persson, for Linda, as in the Linda Murder. I keep meaning to try this series again as it keeps getting such high marks (including from Maxine Clarke, who inspired the Petrona Award and is still sorely missed). More on the award from the Euro Crime blog and from Bernadette’s Reactions to Reading.

Quoth the raven of Raven Crime Reads, Derrick Miller’s Norwegian by Night  has picked up a couple of awards at Crimefest. I enjoyed this novel about an elderly New Yorker in Norway very much.

Kerrie who reads mysteries in Paradise reviews Jussi Alder-Olsen’s Redemption, which has an involved plot that nevertheless made the pages fly by. (In the US this book was pubished under the title A Conspiracy of Faith.) 

Bernadette reacts to Light in Dark House by Jan Costin”  Wagner, a German author whose books are set in FInland. This one gestures at crime fiction but is really more of a moody love story. She concludes “I suspect the book is not for everyone but I will admit to being very taken with it indeed.”

Ms Wordopolis reviews Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals, the first in the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series and finds it much more entertaining than its blurb led her to expect. Yes, there’s witchcraft and a gruesome murder, but it’s not a Dan Brown thriller. She thinks readers of Elly Griffiths will enjoy it.


A Visit with Jan Arnald / Arne Dahl

This past week Jan Arnald was in town as part of a visiting writers program hosted by our Scandinavian Studies department. Jan Arnald is, of course, known to many of us as Arne Dahl, a rearrangement of letters that he used to write crime fiction in secrecy for many years. I enjoyed having him over to our house for lunch last Thursday and hearing his Jan Arnaldlecture that evening, with a packed audience – quite an accomplishment considering how close the students are to their final exams. What follows is a combination of my memory of our conversation and his evening talk.

Arnald finds this part of the United states strangely familiar, partly because so many Swedish immigrants settled in this part of the upper Midwest, partly because of the weather that feels a bit like home. (It was cold and gray and blustery.) His talk opened with a series of “what ifs” in a Tristram Shandy-ish mode. Intriguingly, his parents emigrated to the US in the mid-1920s and adopted the name Arnald, but returned home in 1929, so he became a native-born Stockholmer (which is, like New York or LA, a place largely populated by people who grew up somewhere else).

After talking about many ways he could have been someone else, born in a different place and time or under even slightly different circumstances, he said “that is the vertigo of literature, of fiction.” Even in an era of information overload, we need these “what ifs.” Without the ability to tell stories, to imagine the world through the eyes of other people leading fictional lives, we become lesser human beings.

Though he isn’t  particularly fond of the question “what defines Swedish crime fiction?” given how much variation there is among writers, he outlined some ways that modern Swedish crime fiction evolved, starting with an insight he gained from a fellow author at the Oxford Literary Festival, Nigerian author Ben Okri, who said it seemed to him to have its roots in Norse mythology and elements of the Icelandic saga. Arnald was surprised because he considers himself more anchored in Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies, but Okri said Nordic crime has “a crude power, a distinctive ethics, few words, lonely people, a lot of weather and not so much food, and a boundless single-mindedness.” Arnaldur Indriðason once told me once that it all goes back to the old sagas, at least for that Icelander, but this was a new perspective for Arnald. He found the idea of old traditions handed down unconsciously quite an appealing notion.

During the 19th century, he told us, Sweden was a monarchy with a strong state church and a farming culture, from which 1.3 million Swedes out of a population of 5 million emigrated to other shores. In the early 20th century, the country began to urbanize and developed a strong union movement and a social democratic government that in the 1930s developed the concept of the folkhemmet – the Swedish idea that all people in the country were part of a family and shared a “people’s home,” a way of fostering solidarity and equality while treading a middle ground between revolutionary socialism and unbridled capitalism. Swedish crime fiction grew out of this tradition, but only when cracks began to appear in the foundations of the people’s home. This is the Sweden that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö described in their ten-volume “story of a crime” in which the crime was the betrayal of social ideals. They set the standard for crime fiction, demonstrating that it could be as good as any other literature, raising readers’ expectations of the genre.

After their series came to an end, however, crime fiction as a genre virtually disappeared from Sweden. It wasn’t a popular genre from the mid 1970s to the 1980s, until the shocking murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. This was a moment that changed the country. “We lost our innocence,” he said, having to face the fact that crime was no longer something that happened in other countries, not in safe, secure Sweden. It gripped the nation, and because the killer was never caught meant it wasn’t a story easily resolved. “The entire nation followed the investigation very closely,” he said. “We all got involved in solving crimes. Everybody became a detective.” This loss of innocence and collective attention to crime set the stage for a crime fiction boom.

Henning Mankell conducted the same sort of social analysis that Sjöwall and Wahlöö did, looking at crime as a way of examining changes in Swedish culture, but he became an international success, far more famous and widely read than Sjöwall and Wahlöö. “We got our first Swedish superstar,” as he put it.

Arnald considers himself part of a third generation of writers, ones who came of age in a Sweden that was part of a globalized world, where the fall of the Berlin Wall made Eastern Europe suddenly much closer. (I was reminded of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis talking Misteriosoabout how astonishing it was to travel to Eastern Europe and find this strangely preserved culture, separated from the rest of Europe for so long.) In the early 1990s financial speculation almost ruined the country’s economy, which set the stage for Misterioso, the first of his crime novels to be translated into English.

At this point in his life, he knew he wanted to be a writer and had published a serious novel, some short stories, and poetry, but (as he put it) “it proved very difficult to make a living from writing experimental Swedish poetry.” He earned a PhD in literature, taught at a university, and co-founded a critical journal. But he still wanted to write imaginatively, and the interior style of literary fiction didn’t seem to suit the world that was changing around him. He wanted to write about society as it changed, and realized that kind of project might give him back his love for writing.

During a bout of flu, he tried reading Kafka, which turned out not to be the best thing to do when in a high fever, so he stumbled over to his shelves to get something else – which turned out to be Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, It reminded him of his passion for crime fiction as a young reader, and realized that the genre had room for high quality writing. He set out to write ten books in ten years, like Sjowall and Wahloo, but describing a very different Sweden.

He didn’t want to focus too much violence, though facing fear is a powerful motive for reading and writing fiction. He didn’t want to dwell on evil, per se, but understanding the roots of evil acts in the past or in the pursuit of money and power is interesting. He wasn’t particularly interested in crime, but he found the seduction of the forbidden paired with the promise of justice being served compelling. “The transgressions on the borders of society,”Bad Blood he said, “define that society.” When new kinds of crime arise in a society, it says a lot about changes in that society, and those changes, he decided, would be the focus of his series.

Though often crime fiction is faulted for being formulaic, he felt there were many variations to work on that formula. He was particularly interested in avoiding closure, which he called “the enemy of literature.” His challenge was to create endings that left some questions unanswered, to leave readers thinking after closing the book.

He also resisted the cliche of the lonely detective, a middle-aged man carrying the sins of the world on his shoulders. For him, writing about crime was an opportunity to give his art a “social turn,” and he wanted to create a collective protagonist to provide both various perspectives, but also to show how justice isn’t always an individual pursuit, that people can come together and form a team.

He did all this in secret, though, wanting to have his Arne Dahl identity have a fresh start and not be seen as the work of a “learned bastard” who wrote criticism and taught literature. He found his stories influenced (apart from his literary roots in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy) in proletarian literature of the 1930s and in American television – particularly Homicide, which had a similarly collective cast with complicated lives that extended across the series.

Among the attractions of the genre are intensity, catharsis, a problem to solve, the sudden appearance of truth, clarity that life generally lacks, a troubled past put in order, justice being served. Crime writers, he said, don’t love violence and horror. They love justice.

He wanted to portray a Swedish decade through the eyes of a team working together to solve new kinds of international crimes occurring in Sweden, writing stories that tap the core tragedies of life while at times being playful and ironic. And through crime fiction, which he believes is true literature, he found his way back to “the pure pleasure of writing.”

Of course, we English readers are coming to his work very late. I asked him why there was such a long delay in the publication of Misterioso, as I’d been hearing it had been translated for years before it finally came out. Apparently, Random House acquired world English rights but was in no hurry to exploit them, even as his books were selling well in the rest of the world. The publisher wanted changes to Misterioso, particularly to the ending, that neither he nor his translator (the masterful Tiina Nunnally) were happy with. But eventually it was published, and at a bizarrely appropriate moment, when the 2008 financial crisis was fresh in mind and a mystery involving the systematic stalking and murder of wealthy men who had crashed the economy was curiously satisfying. Bad Blood was also uncannily timely, with its Iraq war plot elements easily shifting forward in time for American readers from the first Gulf War into our more recent military adventure in the Middle East.

Though I’m sure it was frustrating for him to wait so long to have an English-speaking audience, he joked about it in his evening talk, calling translation a time machine, one that brought him back to his younger days as a young and promising crime writer, “This is a time machine I don’t mind traveling in.”

I’m rather more impatient – I waited years to read Misterioso! but I’m pleased to see a third book is coming out in the UK soon and look forward to reading it. My reviews of Misterioso and Bad Blood can be found at Reviewing the Evidence. I hope to have a review of the third book, To the Top of the Mountain, joining them soon because I now have a copy of it. Tack så mycket, Jan Arnald.

Photo of the author by Sara Arnald courtesy of Wikipedia


Reviewing the Evidence: Marklund’s The Long Shadow

Congratulations to Reviewing the Evidence, which in this issue posts its 10,000th review! I’m pleased that I have had a chance to contribute reviews to a site that has been taking mysteries seriously for a dozen years. I’m also pleased that the site has an editor who not only keeps it all running, but catches my mistakes (like forgetting to include the translators credit when I send her my draft.) When I hear that saw about the Internet allowing us to “do big things for love,” this is the kind of project that comes to my mind.

Yvonne Klein, the site’s eagle-eyed editor, recently said that it was okay to repost reviews so long as RTE is credited and not scooped – so here is my latest. Go to the site to read about other books – or search for reviews of more than 10,000 of them.

by Liza Marklund and Neil Smith, trans 
Emily Bestler/Atria Books, April 2014 
520 pages 
ISBN: 1451607032

Annika Bengstzon has been battling her bosses, struggling to balance her demanding career as a journalist and motherhood, and dealing with a troubled marriage through a series that started in 1998 with THE BOMBER. This eighth entry takes on those issues and more in story that follows closely on LIFETIME. Since it involves some of the same characters and conflicts, it may be a bit baffling to readers coming to the series for the first time. But for veterans, this entry will be a pleasure.

As the book opens, a ruthless band of criminals led by women prepare to use gas to rob a house in Spain belonging to a former sports star and his family, a method of robbery that is popular on the Costa del Sol, where many wealthy Swedes have settled. The sports star, his wife, and two small children are killed. The thieves make off with a safe and number of valuables, and Annika Bengtzon picks up the story from Stockholm, where another story is unfolding. A man imprisoned for murder in a case she previously reported is being released from prison after his conviction is overturned. Annika has a feeling that story isn’t over.

When she travels to Spain to learn more about the murders, she meets a handsome undercover detective who is investigating drugs that travel through Spain on their way to Scandinavia, has to deal with a newspaper photographer who is more interested in art than in photojournalism, and copes with mixed messages from her ex-husband. As usual, she pieces together things about that nobody else has uncovered. We get a close up look at how a journalist who has both an itch to get to the bottom of things and a competitive streak does her work in a stressed and commercialized newsroom as she tries to find time for her children.

These issues have always been part of the series, but Spain seems to suit Annika, who sometimes comes across as whiney and self-centered. Here, she is self-critical, but also professional and capable and the leisurely pace of the story seems to have taken the series on a refreshing holiday. It’s a long book, full of detours and rambles, and the heroine seems improved by them. The tension picks up toward the end as several threads tie together in a knot that needs to be sliced through with dramatic action. While perhaps not the best place to start the series, this is a book that series fans will enjoy, both for the way it plays variations on two previous books in the series and to see Annika come to terms with herself without losing any of her prickliness.