Friday was a big day for Scandinavian Crime in the broadsheet arts sections, with the Independent featuring this piece by Boyd Tonkin on Stieg Larsson’s success and the Guardian running ‘Move Over Ian Rankin’ by John Crace here.
I confess that when I read the slug for Tonkin’s piece – “A Swedish Punk Tops Our Charts” – I assumed he was referring to Larsson, as in the American usage: “Hey, you. Yeah, you, blondie. Think you can top our bestseller list with a stinking translation? Bet you don’t even speak good English, ya punk.” But no, it’s a cultural reference: “spiky and sassy Lisbeth Salander – punkish wild child, traumatised survivor of the ‘care’ system, sexual adventurer and computer hacker of genius – Larsson created the most original heroine to emerge in crime fiction for many years.” An original who can only be described in terms of an aesthetic movement that was thriving in the 1970s – but hey, I’m okay with that.
Carlson goes on to uncover the traveling theory behind contemporary crime fiction – Ed McBain’s influence on Sjowall and Wahloo, Sjowall and Wahloo’s influence on John Harvey and Mark Billingham and Michael Connelly – braiding and extending the hardboiled elements of US traditions with the British penchant for documentarian attention to social organizations and the Scandinavian insistence on social justice, finding a modern expression of Chandler’s belief that crime fiction can, indeed, be a critical tool for revealing the world we live in, warts and all.
Carlson adds a good analysis of the narrative elements that make Larsson’s trilogy work so well – being able to be complex and electrifying at the same time. And he comments on the whole issue of translations in the English-language market.
Of course one reason so many fewer translations are published here is that the English-language market is so large, and books written by Americans don’t require extensive translation. [Sidebar - snort!] The predominance of Scandinavian crime is partly because Mankell is so good, partly because Scandinavian society has many of the same reserves and divisions as British, and partly because Scandinavian prose translates so well into English. Remember too that there are lots of good writers because the Nordic countries are the world’s great readers: proportionately selling many times what books sell here, and keeping far more newspapers and magazines alive.
Their discovery is largely a feature of publishing’s practice of trying to clone success. Mankell found readers, and publishers went looking for more just-like-Mankells.
The final paragraph is a gem.
It’s great to see such good fiction being translated into English, and ever better that it is attracting so much attention. But it remains puzzling to me why, when contemporary British crime writers have done so much to move their genre into more challenging territory, it takes two Swedes to get British critics to notice.
Or one Swede published by a canny Brit and one very good British actor playing a Swede.
I’d like to add that Carlson is an old-school journo as well as a zeitgeist-snaring blogger. He has credentials with The Guardian, Financial Times, and the International Herald Tribune, among others. He is not one to set up a simplistic print/blog dialectic. But as the cultural hole (if that’s what a news hole is when it’s covering culture) shrinks, too often the remaining critics are covering too little, too late, too simplistically. There’s nothing very new in the news they’re publishing.
As Declan Burke has pointed out before, crime fiction has gotten short shrift in both the main stream media and in academic criticism, and those of us who share our thoughts online will have to do our best to fill in the gaps. As Dec says:
I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work. . . . crime / mystery fiction is the most popular genre on the planet, it is inarguably the most relevant and important fiction out there, and that’s why I believe it deserves more. It deserves more from me, certainly, than reviews that run along the lines of, “This is a great book because I liked it and I liked it because it’s a great book.” It deserves the kind of dynamic, rigorous, extensive and constantly evolving critical work that the interweb is perfectly placed to provide, and it deserves to be critiqued, justified and praised not by the kind of commentator who will suggest that a particular novel has (koff) ‘transcended the genre’, but by those who understand that good crime / mystery fiction is simultaneously scourge and balm, panacea and drug, a fiction for the world we live in that is also its truth.
So on those days when you wonder why you’re talking to your computer about crime fiction when you could be doing real work, or at least washing the dishes, remember: Dec says its okay. We have to devote some thought to what matters to us because . . . well, it matters. And we really can’t just leave it to the professionals, because they aren’t taking very good care of it.
photo courtesy of shimgray.