Monthly Archives: July 2009

sheer bloody glumness

Mike Stotter’s Mike Ripley’s piece “Viking Raid”in the new edition of Shots Magazine’s “Getting Away With Murder” column praises Sjowall and Wahloo but warns of “me-too”ism in English publishers’ rush to find some Scandinavian to publish; he also scolds fans for assuming if they’re Nordic, they must be serious, gloomy, and up-market. (Is he talking about me?)  He reports that he made a dutiful plod through Johann Theorin’s new book, The Darkest Room, because it won the Glass Key award. He does confess it is intriguing it – though “teeters on the edge of being a ghost story rather than a crime novel.” And there aren’t many laughs. The female characters are interesting, but a major male character is not someone you’d invite to the party.

Joakim Westin, who is widowed early on in the story and who shows a distinctly chilly and uncaring attitude to his two children (particularly his infant son who hardly gets a look in throughout the book), leaving them out in storms, in blizzards or alone in a haunted house during a gunfight! I am afraid the total lack of sympathy engendered for Westin (even his late wife didn’t confide in him) is one of the main weaknesses of the book. I simply didn’t care what happened to him; in fact I wanted to slap him for his remoteness and emotionless attitude to his kids, his lack of humanity and his sheer bloody glumness.

Gee, I wonder what Mike really thinks?

Norm writes about watching the Swedish Wallander series playing on BBC and reckons the storyline for Overdose could have been imagined by Stieg Larsson. I recently watched a dubbed version of Den vita lejoninnan (The White Lioness), which frankly didn’t make a whole lot of sense but was well-acted and fairly entertaining in spite of itself. The actor who played Wallander looked totally different than the one in the series currently playing on BBC – big, burly, blond, and a fine actor. It’s just a little jarring to have so many different faces – none of which look like my Wallander.

the popularity perplex

It’s taking me a while to figure out how to respond to these two blog posts from Nordic Voices, a group blog “devoted to the English translation of the literatures of the Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. And also Estonia.” This is following on the heels of a Swedish article that I read in a bizarrely garbled translation by Google (yes, I confess: I do not read any Nordic languages. That’s why God made so many talented translators.) It seems to say that there are no influential literary critics in Sweden because, unlike in Denmark, there is a polarization between the dominant and confident bestseller culture and marginalized avant-garde literature. The article also seems to say (though in Googleese it’s hard to tell) that Danish literature is more focused on the personal rather than the social and that serious literature is read widely enough that arguments can break out over it.

So now these posts from Nordic Voices. The first is “Detective Story” from last March, and in it David McDuff says the fad for Scandinavian crime has made it impossible for more serious literature to be translated.

It’s in contemporary Swedish fiction that the results of this trend have been most marked. In the crime novels of authors like Henning Mankell – whose Wallander series is now a BBC television show – “serious” concerns are blended with entertainment in a formula that is now almost standard for Swedish authors who want to be taken seriously at an international level. As John Crace noted recently about the novels of Mankell and others,

Their leading characters tend to be depressed melancholics with or without a drinking problem, while having a strong sense of Guardianista political correctness.This combination of crime plots and “leftish” sermonizing appears to be the new orthodoxy on the Nordic literary scene. And it’s the one that translators are liable to become involved in, willingly or not, as – to put it crudely – that is where the jobs are. It seems a pity that so much interesting and experimental writing from Sweden and the other Nordic countries is going relatively unnoticed as a result . . . one must hope that the present developments are merely a passing fad or fashion, and that in time the balance in translated Nordic fiction between entertainment and the vital concerns of new writing will be restored to something of the status it enjoyed in the early 1980s once again.

So the problem is that social issues are the stuff crude entertainment; if people will just get over it, we can get on with the more vital concerns of new writing. I’m not totally sure what those vital concerns are, but I suspect they are nothing to do with social critique and are more artistic. (Mr. McDuff confesses he translated a Vag Veum novel in the 1980s and it was well-received, so he was part of the problem.)

In his follow-up, posted today, he reacts to articles by Nathaniel Rich and Larissa Kyzer that I posted about earlier and says

The most striking feature of the whole debate, however, is that it reveals an essential characteristic of the kind of writing that’s involved: ultimately the main concern of the Nordic authors who produce these books is not with writing itself, with the creation of literary art, but is focused instead on a form of fictionalized sociology. It’s really a continuation of the “radical” movement that produced the socially-committed novels and poetry of the 1970s, and it shows that this tendency has not died out in Nordic fiction, but is being reinforced and re-tuned to suit the trends and exigencies of the new century.

Damn those Marxists and their tiresome tirades! Literature should be so above that, and he wishes it returned to its more significant roots, beginning to find a hold in Scandinavia: the “formally innovative and metaphysical tradition that had characterized the writing of the immediate post-war period, with its roots in the writing of authors like Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Camus, the long legacy of Kierkegaard and the myth-oriented humanism of Karen Blixen.” He ends with this apocalyptic vision:

I see the increasing dominance of crime fiction and its related genres in Scandinavian writing today as a problem that has the potential to become a tragedy whose consequences it will take several generations to overcome. For some of the best Nordic writing talent is being diverted into these sub- and semi-literary channels, from which it may never return.

Serious crime fiction readers, of course, will take exception to the idea that the genre is “sub- and semi-literary” or that it’s a sad, degraded form of culture that erodes a nation’s cultural authority. Many of us read literary fiction as well as genre fiction and appreciate both. The sniping that goes on is often defensive (as in “you’re popular because anybody can read your simplistic twaddle without having to use their brains” and “people actually want to read my stuff because it’s entertaining, it’s not your boring high-brow navel gazing.” Money and the competition for attention plays more of a role in those squabbles than actual disputes over what the writing is trying to accomplish or how well it does what it sets out to do. Literary complexity and popularity are poised as necessarily inverse characteristics when they really are a separate issue. I don’t sense that any of the crime fiction writers I’ve read are writing in the genre simply because it’s a way to make a living, or that they’re writing to formula; that given a different set of financial rewards Johan Theorin and Jo Nesbo would be much more happy writing metaphysical or experimental literature. And I don’t think the popularity of crime fiction is coming at the expense of literary fiction that would be translated if this fad would finally end. I think blame is being laid unfairly at the door of a genre simply because it has found an avid audience.

Oddly enough, I recall when picking up the first Henning Mankell novel to be translated into English noting that it was published by the non-profit New Press and some support for the publication had been provided by a cultural arm of the Swedish government. Should that funding have gone to a more “deserving” and less popular book? Perhaps. But I doubt there would be nearly so many Americans as interested in Sweden and its culture if that funding had gone to a more artistic and less accessible novel.

I only review books on the condition that I can decide not to review a book that I find painful to read. I certainly don’t make my living at it, nor is writing mysteries my major source of income. Luckily, I have a day job doing something I love, so I don’t have to read or write anything I don’t want to because my life depends upon it. I imagine full-time translators feel a bit more at the mercy of the marketplace, and it must be dispiriting to find the work on offer trending toward a type of book you don’t like much. But is this really a tragedy? And is genre fiction to blame? I don’t buy it.


pictures, articles, and reviews

Are you behind on the Wallander series on the telly? Check out these photo sets from “One Step Behind” for a bit of a “you are there” feeling.

Thanks also to Philip Young for pointing out this article on Swedish society which says it is both happy and focused on equality on the one hand, but not particularly welcoming to strangers with different ideas on the other. Having just read two books with plots that focus on the evils of sex trafficking and the way men exert power over women (Box 21 and The Girl Who Played With Fire) this article is a bit jarring in contrast:

Christina Ramberg, a top commercial lawyer from Gothenburg and someone who always votes right, was the most articulate of all the people I talked to. She argued that, “Sweden is a wonderful place for women and children. Swedes are more economically productive than anyone else because at work we work. We work very hard even without the boss being on our backs. That’s why we have a high national income and can take the longest holidays of any industrialised nation. Moreover, we don’t see the state as an opponent, but as a friend. I find it hard, having travelled and worked all over the world, to come up with any negatives about Sweden.”

Then again, I’m often jarred, when reading Scandinavian crime fiction, by criticsm of a social system that’s corrupt or complacent – but incredibly enlightened compared to social services in the US. Though I recognize some of cultural traits cited in this article at play in Minnesota (an unspoken pressure to conform to social norms, using “that’s different” as a kind of passive-aggressive form of criticism) the Swedes’ sensible attitudes toward sex, religion, and pitching in for the common good sound pretty enviable to me.

Irresistible Targets has some new reviews up. First, Arnaldur Indridason’s The Draining Lake, which Michael Carlson thinks is his favorite of the series so far. He writes:

There are distinct echoes in this novel of Halldor Laxness’ The Atom Station, with the echoes of geopolitics rebounding on the narrow world-view of Icelanders, and Indridason, while not revealing who the corpse is, tells its back story convincingly, the tale of committed Icelandic communists studying in East Germany in the mid-fifties, of naiveté in both politics and love, and ultimate disillusionment. That story is portrayed convincingly, with young Tomas’ idealism tinting the narrative, and we, the audience, knowing better.

This is something that I think Arnaldur does extraordinarily well – layering his narratives so that you see two periods of time simultaneously and informing each other, like a legible palimpsest. I thought that was the most amazing accomplishment of Silence of the Grave – the way the sections of the book played off each other and gradually the reader could draw them together. Absolutely masterful.

He also takes a look at Henning Mankell’s collection of short stories, The Pyramid, in which in an introduction Mankell provides a tag line for the Wallander series: Novels about the Swedish anxiety. At times that theme is a tad overplayed in these stories, but on the whole the collection works very well indeed. He concludes:

In his shorter stories, Mankell is often making a character point. This is signalled particularly strongly by the original title of ‘The Man With The Mask’, which was called ‘The Divide’ and emphases not only the relationship between Wallander and the man who holds him hostage in a convenience store robbery, but also between Mona and him, she being the outsider who can never understand what he has gone through. A couple of stories end in suicides, which is a particularly Swedish way of dealing with things (Americans tend to prefer taking people with them) and a couple require epilogues to explain the complications of plots that are creaky, but which Mankell is not taking too seriously; less police procedural than Swedish psychological. It’s a riveting book, that to anyone familiar with Wallander hangs together like an episodic novel, doing exactly what Mankell planned.

and still more from the smorgasbord

There’s an interesting article on Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo by Jack Bumsted in the lastest newsletter from the Whodunit bookstore in Winnepeg, Canada. He points out the social critique that the couple deliberately wove into their Martin Beck series and the similarities between their work and that of both the American hardboiled tradition and current Swedish crime fiction (especially some parallels between Wahloo’s life and Stieg Larsson’s).

Glenn Harper reflects on a new television version of Norwegian author Gunnar Stalessen’s hero Varg Veum which some lucky people are able to watch on an enlightened and worldly cable channel (not available in my neighborhood, harrumph).  It sounds good, and as Glenn points out is a reminder that Scandinavian crime fiction didn’t take a long nap between Sjowall and Wahloo and Mankell. He considers this “an excellent and unique series that should not be forgotten in our appreciation of Scandinavian crime fiction’s current worldwide popularity.” He also kindly helped me learn how to pronounce the hero’s name. Tusen takk.

What can I do in the face of Sarah Weinmann’s astonishing industry but steal her stuff? She reports: “so much THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE! Which is wholly deserved, because it’s an amazing thriller, but there’s Dennis Drabelle in the Washington Post, Alan Cheuse in the SF Chronicle, Daniel Mallory in the LA Times, Brian Bethune’s Stieg Larsson profile in Maclean’s, Vanessa Thorpe’s assessment of Larsson-mania in the Observer, and the National Post’s Larsson-themed travel guide.” She also unearths another story about the new Wallander.  I think I will go take a nap now.

more bits and bobs

A travel feature on visiting Stockholm while on a Stieg Larsson pilgrimage appeared in The Mail.  Apparently Larsson’s local geography is spot-on. Sadly, his financial/family affairs are still in muddle, as reported in the Guardian. Bookwitch also has some thoughts on the sad mess.

Peter tiptoes up to The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum and concludes it is “a well written, sober book dealing with a very difficult subject in a sensitive and enlightening fashion.” The subject is pedophilia and she does a phenomenal job of handling that dynamite with care. It’s a brilliant book that I expect will be on my top ten of the year.  (I am reviewing it for Mystery Scene.)

The Bookseller has a little bit more about the next Wallander book (as well as three more BBC adaptations coming next year). Hat tip to Euro Crime.

The Troubled Man tells the story of a retired naval officer who disappears during his daily walk in a forest near Stockholm. It is described as a “deeply personal” case for Wallander, because the missing man is the father-in-law of Wallander’s daughter Linda. Clues point back to the Cold War, and to right-wing extremist groups, said the publisher.

Mankell said: “I really thought that I had written my last novel about Wallander, but then I had this distinct feeling that there was one more story to be told.”

The Bookseller is also reporting the upcoming publication of a new financial thriller by Quentin Bates set in Iceland by a UK journalist who has just finished a masters in creative writing and reports on deep sea fishing.  Creative writing and journalism: how do you keep them sorted? Oh, never mind.

Martin Edwards has good things to say about the Swedish television version of the Wallander books recently run on UK television, as does Norm aka Uriah. Sigh . . . ooooh, wait, my library has one of the episodes . . .

“novels of conscience and reflection” – yes!!

Larssa Kyzer writes a thoughtful and well-documented response to Nathaniel Rich’s essay in Slate that I reacted to not long ago – in an article in L Magazine titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Fiction.” I think she nails it. In response to Rich’s equating of Scanidavia with Ikea, wholesomeness, and a peaceful society, she documents the stresses and subtle fractures going on in Scandinavian countries as immigration challenges basic assumptions about social identity. She also points out that the current wave of crime fiction is very much in tune with the critical turn Sjöwall and Wahlöö set in their seminal Martin Beck series. It’s a bit disturbing, really, to consider that readers not familiar with Scandinavia (beyond visits to Ikea) have so totally missed the undercurrent of frustration and rage in the Millennium Trilogy that comes directly from Stieg Larsson’s lifelong struggle against racism and the rise of neo-Nazi groups. Kyzer sums it up well:

Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn’t reinventing the genre here, he’s tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it’s misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. “You kept at it,” his colleague encourages. “You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders… That’s the important thing.”

By the by, her review, published some time ago, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is extremely perceptive. There’s no question that Lisabeth Salander is the gripping focus for the book, the chief reason why it has struck such a chord with millions of readers, but she questions the way in which a victim of sexual violence is depicted (or as someone said on a discussion list, how odd that a man who is writing about men who hate women creates a heroine who is essentially a male fantasy).

If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.

Wow, that’s exactly what I thought – only I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this paragraph.

reviews and reactions

Peter gives us a preview of Johan Theorin’s next book, The Darkest Room (or, as they say in Sweden, Nattfåk, which means something quite different, but then so it was for the title of his first book, Echoes from the Dead; I like his Swedish titles better). Peter recommends it highly, concluding

The Darkest Room is well written, full of mysteries, and told in a style that evokes a feeling of that there is something mystical, perhaps super-natural, going on. The plot is rich and has lots of neat features, and Theorin very skillfully shows his cards one at a build while gradually build more and more suspense. As well, this is book which displays a deep understanding of human vulnerability and grief.

Maxine thinks The Preacher is a ripper of a yarn, and an exellent followup to Camilla Lackberg’s Ice Princess. Word on FriendFeed is that Patrick is less of a drip, causing relief all around. She concludes:

The Preacher is a good mystery story, very well translated. Although there are too few characters to make the ending a complete surprise, Camilla Lackberg (pictured) keeps all the balls juggling in the air to keep the reader guessing as to the details almost right to the finish. Although the ending of the book is exciting, it is also very bleak, and I found the details of the motivation of the criminal not all that convincing. These are minor disappointments, though. In the main, the book is a great read: as well as tight plotting, the author is particularly strong on her depictions of small-town dynamics, the interactions among the police, and the domestic story of Patrick and Erica, which is left nicely balanced for the next novel in the series.

What she says about the ending is intriguing; our copy just arrived in my library, so I may have to pick it up, particularly if the drip-factor is ameliorated.

Bernadette reacts very well indeed to reading Karin Alvtegen’s Missing and finds the heroine, a resourceful but troubled young woman who is homeless in a semi-voluntary way (and the layered timeframe of the narration explains why).

One of the things that struck me was that, unlike so many books these days, it didn’t delve deeply into every minute detail of Sybilla’s life and in fact left quite a few things up to the reader’s imagination. This is such a contrast from some of the detail-laden books the size of house bricks that I’ve read lately that I had almost forgotten that great stories can be told in less than 600 pages and that blood and gore aren’t necessary to create atmosphere . . . Missing is wonderfully sparse, genuinely exciting (I don’t stay up into the wee hours for just any old yarn) and quite thought provoking at the same time in the way it dealt with the issue of life’s outsiders.

I must say that while I felt the same way about Missing, I found Alvtegen’s Shadow, which I have just finished, to be entirely too detail-laden and without enough action at the front end  to make me care much about the unhappy and deeply introspective characters. My imagination twiddled its thumbs wondering when the gripping opening scene would pay off. While the theme of the novel – that the desire for acceptance and for recognition can drive people to squander their creativity and their humanity and creates competition and jealousy that devours writers and those around them – I think I’m much more interested in life’s outsiders, especially when they involve murders before page 10,000. (Well, that’s how it felt . . . sorry.) It does pick up toward the end, but I’m afraid I’d already taken a deep dislike to all of the characters and had repeated urges to smack them silly. All except for the patient social worker who, once again, makes me think moving to Sweden would be a very good plan. Like anyone official in the US would take the trouble to arrange a nice memorial service and look for friends and family when an elderly person dies alone. If we can’t find someone to make arrangements and pay the bills, we have a few square feet in a potter’s field for you. You’re welcome.

I will adopt the Australian mob’s excellent practice of linking to other reviews here, especially since I am a minority of one on this book. Everyone else found it brilliant. So look for more appreciative reviews from Maxine at Euro Crime (who found it compelling and brilliant)  kimbofo (who says “psychological crime thrillers don’t come much better than this”) and Kerrie (who likens it to a orchestral concerto and says she’s “staggered by the power of this book”). Not to mention the CWA panel that nominated it for an International Dagger. So don’t mind me. Just not much for psychological thrillers with quite this pyschology-to-thrill ratio. I’m shallow that way.