Category Archives: issues

What We’ve Been Reading

In the Washington Post, Richard Lipez reviews Kaaberbol and Friis’s The Boy in the Suitcase, and finds the interwoven tales of two mothers, both intent on a boy who is drugged and shipped to Denmark in a suitcase, “another winning entry in the emotionally lacerating Scandinavian mystery sweepstakes.”

At Petrona, Maxine reviews the book, finding many of the characters well-drawn, but herself not particularly drawn to Nina Borg. Despite a disappointing denouement, Maxine found the book “exciting and involving” as it sheds light on issues of social injustice.

Ms. Wordopolis thought it was the best of the Scandinavian crime she has read lately, with complex characters and a riveting story that never becomes manipulative.

At Eurocrime, Lynn Harvey reviews the new translation of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber,  which she found a fast-paced thriller with an appealingly strong heroine.

The Daily Beast interviews the authors about the choices they made in the book, including the portrayal of men who carry out violent acts. They find crime fiction that dwells on violence is too often about how crime is committed, not who committed it or why.

At International Crime Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Johan Theorin’s The Quarry, writing that Theorin continues to combine an interesting plot structure, lots of the flavor of daily life for the characters, including the recurring figure of Gerlof, an elderly resident of the island of Oland, and a folkloric supernatural element – continuing the arc of a series that he feels is about as far from the style of Stieg Larsson as it is possible to get.

He also reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds and compares it to the previously-filmed Swedish television version of the story. He praises Tursten for telling an interesting story with just the right amount of domestic backstory – and Soho Press for restarting their publishing of this seires, which was one of the earliest Swedish translations into English among crime fiction titles.

Jose Egnacio reviews Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, and recommends the Norwegian police procedural highly.  While still in Norway (at least in a literary sense) he offers his comments on K. O. Dahl’s Lethal Investments, which he found enjoyable. Crossing the border into Sweden, he reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Cop Killer, a late entry into the Martin Beck series which he finds thought-provoking, with “a fine sense of humour.”

At Eurocrime, Laura Root also reviews Lethal Investments, concluding that plot is less the author’s strength than character and being able to poke society with a sharp, satirical stick.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Jan Costin Wagner’s The Winter of the Lions, another entry in a series she admires, writing “the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.” (As an aside – are there many reviewers in the media who write mystery reviews as good as this?)

Sarah at Crimepieces also reviews it, noting that it has a slightly bizarre but not implausible plot, praising the author’s writing and ability to create intriguing characters.

At Petrona, Maxine has mixed feelings about Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted. She found it a quick, entertaining read, but short on emotional depth and rather predictable, though the writing was good enough that she hasn’t written off the author yet.

For the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge, Maxine (who has completed two levels of the challenge and is well on her way to completing the expert level) profiles Inger Frimansson and includes Camilla Ceder and Karin Alvtegen among her “writers a bit like Frimansson” list.

Michelle Peckham enjoyed Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, finding it a slow-burning story with an intriguing lead character.

Beth sums up her thoughts about the Millennium Trilogy as David Fincher’s new film version hits theatres. She writes, “the real genius of the Millennium Trilogy is that Lisbeth Salander is no less an unforgettable character on the page as she is on the screen.”She also reviews Anne Holt’s 1222 which she found atmospheric and evocative. This novel recently made new in the US as it was just nominated for an Edgar “best novel of 2011″ award

Keishon raises some excellent questions about “the commercialization of Scandinavian crime fiction” – in particular wondering if the trajectory of the Harry Hole series has been influenced by the demands of the American market for more violence done by armies of serial killers. The comment thread resulting is also well worth a read. She also reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which she found an uneven entry in a strong series – making up for it in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which she found “unputdownable,” full of strong scenes and unforgettable characters. 

Norm also gives Until Thy Wrath Be Past high marks – “refreshingly different and thought-provoking.”

Shadepoint names Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End the best book of 2011, which was challenging in its scope but in the end memorable and significant.

Kerrie in Paradise finds Jo Nesbo’s standalone Headhunters quite clever and advises readers to stick with it through its slow start.

If you’d like to browse a list of excellent reviews, you’ll find it at Reactions to Reading, where Bernadette lists the books she read for the Nordic Book Challenge of 2011. (She nearly reached Valhalla – as do I, reading her insightful comments on books.)

Some interesting feature articles to add to the review round-up:

Publishing Perspectives profiles Victoria Cribb, who translates Icelandic works into English and scrambles to keep up with Icelandic neologisms that are based on Icelandic roots rather than being merely imported from other languages. (Go, Iceland!) This small country, which publishes more books per capita than any other, was highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Dennis O’Donnell, book geek, reviews Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold ClimateForshaw himself blogs at Shots about covering the Scandinavian crime beat – and offers aspiring novelists a checklist of how to write a Nordic bestseller, among the tips changing your name to something like Børge Forshawsen.

Dorte contributes a wonderful survey of Danish crime fiction to Martin Edwards’ blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? including writers who are just becoming familiar to English-speaking readers as well as some we haven’t met (yet).

On the “in other news” front, Nick Cohen challenges Stieg Larsson’s claim to feminism, criticizing his (not translated) co-authored book on honor killings which Cohen says suffers from a left-wing abandonment of feminism when race enters the picture, using the issue to accuse leftists in general of waffling on women’s rights when it comes to immigrants.  The smoke is still rising from the comments.

daggers, bankers, and science in crime fiction

As anyone who follows crime fiction already knows, Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room won the International Dagger, edging ahead a very strong shortlist with a heavy Nordic accent. In addition to Theorin, Stieg Larsson’s third and final book and Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia were both on the list. There was nothing this time by Fred Vargas, however, so no trifecta for her.

I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, but others whose tastes I trust have and I don’t think anyone is disappointed in this outcome. Congratulations to Karen and other judges who had a pleasantly difficult job of choosing among outstanding books. I gave the book a thumbs-up back in February. Other reviews include

Yrsa Sigurdardottir is interviewed in The Scotsman and is her usual charming self. One thing I didn’t know: she has a day job that sounds very demanding.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir doesn’t live by writing alone: her time isn’t all her own. Oh no: she also builds dams. And not just any damn dams. For her last major project she was technical manager on the Karahnjukar dam in remote east Iceland, the biggest of its kind in Europe and the largest construction project in Iceland’s history.

She is also angry with the bankers who infused so much money (and new class divisions) into their egalitarian society, and then let everyone down so badly in the crash that is called the “kreppa.” She’s so angry, in fact, that she won’t include them in her books, not even as victims.

A poor country until it discovered how to harness its natural resources in the 20th century, and until the Second World War highlighted its strategic importance, pre-kreppa Iceland seemed a relatively classless one too.

That’s how Sigurdardottir – who was born in 1963 – remembers it, anyway. Pharmacists were rich (not doctors or dentists) but that was about it. No particular Reykjavik suburb was more sought-after than anywhere else. “And now, with these bankers – there’s just 20 people, everyone knows who they are – everything’s ruined. Robbing charities, for God’s sake. And Britain using these laws against us like we’re terrorists.

“You see, that used to be the thing about being Icelandic. We don’t have an army, so we’ve never done anything to any other nation . . . We thought we weren’t a corrupt country, but it turns out that we were about the most corrupt one in Europe. Because we’re so tiny, you can’t find anybody who’s not involved so we’ve had to bring in someone from Sweden to investigate the banking collapse. Because they weren’t fools, these bankers: they brought all kinds of people onto the boards, like it was a way of getting themselves immunity.”

Her newest book to be translated into English, Ashes to Dust, has just been published in the UK.

As part of a project to examine the portrayal of science in crime fiction, Kerstin Bergman of Lund University looks at the work of Åsa Nilsonne, (who hasn’t been translated into English) and in the ways the books were promoted and received. She finds that Swedish writers are much less inclined than popular US books and television shows to highlight science, rather paying more attention to social issues as the backdrop and key to crimes.

An aside: as much as I find science fascinating, I am dismayed by the way it is often treated as the ghost in the machine, a deus ex machina that reduces tragic muddles and messes to a matter of clever tests and clear-cut results that are rare in actual criminal investigations (partly because science isn’t always clear in its results and largely because there simply aren’t the resources to spend such a lot of time and technology on cases; just this month Illinois passed a law that all rape kits must be submitted for DNA analysis – after thousands of kits lay on evidence room shelves for years). It leads people to expect certainty in situations where so often there isn’t any, and distracts them from social issues that are all to real.  This is particularly curious in the US, where in nearly every other situation science and scientists are viewed with a rather high level of skepticism. But when it comes to a choice between lab results and intractable social problems, the lab is a relatively clean, well-lighted place.

photo of a double helix made of books courtesy of inkyhack.

CFP (or “how can you resist?”)

Three scholars in Sweden and the UK are putting together a very interesting collection of essays on how rape is depicted in contemporary Scandinavian and Anglophone crime fiction. Contributions on four authors well known to readers of this blog are particularly in demand. Here are the details:

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Following our recent call for papers for our collection Rape in Crime Fiction, we are looking for chapters on any of the following Scandinavian writers: Håkan Nesser, Karin Fossum, Liza Marklund and Stieg Larsson.

Please submit an abstract of 500 words and a brief biography before August 1, 2010. Chapters selected for inclusion should be between 4 000 and 6 000 words, and should be submitted by March 2011.

Please submit abstracts to Dr Tanya Horeck or Dr Berit Åström.

mixed metaphors Saturday

The Cricketing Librarian has been reading Scandinavian crime lately – giving an eloquent thumbs-up to Stieg Larsson, Johan Theorin, Arnaldur Indridason, and (not Scandinavian, but also recommended) Colin Cotterill.  Well played, sir.

Placelogohere at Live Journal makes note of the popularity of Scandinavian mysteries, but he (or she?) thinks Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is overrated, not matching Mankell’s subtlety. I prescribe equal parts Fossum, Alvtegen, Arnaldur, and Liffner if you want to increase your subtlety intake.

Bernadette in Oz reacts to Asa Larsson’s The Black Path. Whenever I hear about the death of professional book reviewing, I am comforted that people like Bernadette are the future. You can’t tell me any paid reviewer does a better job than she does. Or if you did, I would assume your logic board needed replacing.

Mike Shatzkin who is bullish on e-books makes some predictions for the near future. The one I agree with is “In the digital world, geographical territories will be found not to make much sense.” That’s already true for the reader and has been for years. My reading communities are without borders, and when I want to buy a book, those borders won’t stop me. (Thank you, Bookdepository!) Unfortunately, what makes sense and what corporations actually do rarely seem to coincide. Where once we had to choose between Beta and VHS, we now have one kind of DVD – but five regional codes to restrict the flow of those DVDs across borders. Somehow globalization gets all local when it comes to making money. So we have millions of workers having to leave home to survive because their local economy has been “globalized,” but unable to do so legally because their work permits have not been globalized. (I’m not sure how this works in the EU, but in the Americas, free trade has made a ginormous mess of things. By the way, I moderate comments so don’t bother going all Lou Dobbs on me.) While readership is increasingly global, and hallelujah for that, the corporations are trying to find ways to induce artificial regional scarcity. Thus doth craven commerce make pirates of us all.

By the way CNN is sounding the alarm on book “piracy”. The odd thing is, when I first started putting together a website on Scandinavian crime fiction, a lot of popular Swedish and Norwegian authors didn’t have websites. Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. People are modest. The first links that would come in a search were torrent sites. This does not appear to have destroyed the market for their books. William Patry challenges the whole rhetoric of this (and points out that both the film industry and the music industry are making plenty of money in spite of missteps and “piracy”) in a really interesting book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which I reviewed elsewhere.

I will now descend from my soapbox. As you were.

photo plucked from the Creative Commons pool at Flickr happens to be (!!) courtesy of swanksalot, a favorite Flickr contact of mine. In fact, one of his photos is going to be on the cover of my next book. How’s that for weird synchronicity?

can’t get no instant gratification

Books to the Ceiling (what a charming image) has a thorough and thoughtful review and appreciation of Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge.

Bernadette reacts to Don’t Look Back, also by Karin Fossum. This is the first in the Sejer and Skarre series, but you don’t have to read them in order. Both books have the same quiet but intense suspense that comes from the slow fuse smoldering in a very believable situation. “Without car chases or guns blazing,” Bernadette says, “the story managed to be suspense-filled and captivating from beginning to end as Sejer and Skarre teased out important details about village life from its inhabitants . . . Don’t Look Back has all the things I love most in crime fiction: interesting, believable characters, a puzzle-like plot, a setting I can get lost in and a tangible credibility that sometime somewhere that exact scenario has played itself out in reality. Or will one day.”

Norm (aka Uriah) has been trying to put off reading the last chapters of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest because, well, they are the last. Period.

And Harvill Secker will release an e-book version of Henning Mankell’s The Man From Beijing before they release the hardcover. The prices will be the same, though – no deep discount  for the e-book as Amazon has been doing.

I find myself wondering about the old practice of expecting people (in the US, at least – not sure what the practice is in the UK) to wait a year for a relatively inexpensive  paperback edition of a book to be published. That once made some kind of sense; it was generally timed to promote a new hardcover title of the same author. If you wouldn’t pop full hardcover price, you could indulge in the mass market younger sibling. But books have a notoriously short shelf life (Michael Korda said it was shorter than yogurt many years ago – it’s certainly no longer now) and inexpensive editions are available online almost immediately because of the ubiquitous used book market. When to release the e-book is a new dilemma – early on, for early adopters? A few weeks later, so traditional booksellers will have a slight edge, briefly? From the reader’s perspective, it would make much more sense to have a choice of formats right away. I know a lot of older readers whose wrists hurt if they have to hold a hardcover. I, on the other hand, don’t much like mass market because I have to wrestle the books to stay open and the type is often too small. Then again, a lot of new books are being released in trade paper only, which annoys people who are serious about buying books. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to have not only a format choice, but a price-point that suits you? Right now?

Telling consumers to wait a year to have a choice of formats seems unlikely to be sustainable in an era of purchasing songs one at a time,  Tivo-ing your television so you aren’t tied to a network’s schedule, and streaming films to your computer just as soon as the popcorn has popped. Maybe it’s time to give readers some control over their timing and preferences, too.  Really, wouldn’t it be wise to make your audience happy? Right now?

the “why” of Scandinavian crime fiction

Spiked has a thoughtful piece on Stieg Larsson, Sweden, and why Swedish crime fiction has so much to say about things going wrong:

…Through the prism of violence, misogyny, murder, perversion and breaches of justice, Swedish crime writers are taking a forensic look at their society, passing a magnifying glass over the calm surface of what to many right-wingers and liberal lefties is still a socialist’s dreamland….

Perhaps it is precisely the strength of the image of Sweden as a civilised, democratic, equal and pacifist society – the nice kid just to the west of the former Eastern block – that gives its crime writers, many of whom have become international bestsellers, their allure. The calmer the surface, the more forceful the revelations of supposed sordidness simmering beneath it. . . .

While Larsson may have wanted to expose some of the illusions of the happy-go-lucky Swedish welfare state, his faith in decent protectors of Swedish ideals and tolerance shines through. The Millennium books depict a clueless police force, inept social services, a sleaze-hungry media industry, and a corrupt secret service, but the book also introduces us to plenty of characters from within these cherished Swedish institutions who live by their employers’ stated ideals. Mostly they are women.

…if this success can help challenge the stereotype that Sweden is a utopian social democratic state filed with buxom blondes and suicidal depressives, that will be a good thing.

Maxine reviews Inger Frimansson’s The Shadow in the Water – a followup to a book she reviewed last month, Good Night My Darling, pronouncing more unsettling than the first, finding it “a very disturbing novel, clouded and obscured by perceptions and suspicions so that nothing is what it seems.”

She also reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer. “I think the Harry Hole books comprise one of the top police-procedural series being written today. Although the books have flaws, they are flaws of ambition – the plots are very clever, and if perhaps they are sometimes a bit too clever, that’s better than the opposite. These novels are thoughtful, intelligent, exciting and above all, have a great central character.”

Karen Meek has a great review of Don Bartlett, translator of many of our favorite Norwegian writers, including Jo Nesbo. Read part one, part two, and part three. In answer to why Scandinavian crime is so popular he calls it a “welcome surprise” – and goes on to say:

The best Scandi crime fiction has a strong sense of place, evocative writing, thinking characters, an interest in the fabric of society and our lives today, the ‘why’ of crime rather than the ‘how’. It has adapted solid models in a relevant, personal way.

Finally, The Register reports that a Norwegian consumer council has found the Kindle in violation of Norwegian law because its warranty is too short (in Norway they should last five years, not one year), there are privacy concerns, and – my favorite – the terms of service themselves are problematic: “the very language used is probably illegal, as Norwegian law requires such contracts to be clearly written.”

reviews and views

Still catching up . . .

Marilyn Stasio reviews Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom and finds it “a movie trapped in a book” – given the drama as a badly abused woman takes hostages in a hospital – but concludes “for all their cinematic hyperbole, the authors don’t contribute to any further degradation of Lydia, who makes a believably tragic model for all the real women exploited by human traffickers.” She seems as puzzled as I was that no credit is given for the translator.

Michael Carlson’s irresistible target is The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo, not flawless but very good indeed:

Nesbo has created one of the great detectives in Harry Hole, and what is most impressive is the way he’s able to make Hole seem like a different person as he’s reflected in the actions and vision of various characters. He is a sympathetic character who rarely asks for sympathy, a Wallander with a touch of Marlowe’s idealism, and a hidden resevoir of white knight charm. And Nesbo is very happy to work on complicated plots and old-fashioned, if un-traditional clues.

Maxine reviews Inger Frimansson’s Good Night, My Darling at Euro Crime – which she finds atmospheric, gripping, and haunting. She also, in her Petrona incarnation, finds Gunnar Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death, very good indeed. “As with the best of PI and other crime fiction, the appeal of the Varg Veum books is not only their plots and the gradual development through the protagonist’s life and times, but their sadness at the human condition, a strong sense of social justice, and their wonderful sense of place.” The review in the Independent would seem to agree.

The Guardian thinks Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer is too long. I think the review is too short – barely over 100 words. What’s the point? Why not just tweet your feelings? No wonder book reviewing the “proper” way is going to the dogs.

The Economist reads the Millennium Trilogy and advises that we “don’t mess with her” – the “her,” of course, being Lisbeth Salander, a character who is the “most original heroine in many years.”

The trilogy’s success shows that complex characters, a fast-paced narrative and a dazzling mosaic of challenging plots and sub-plots can keep readers hooked. The books are long and profoundly political. The sinister conspiracy being played out in the dark reaches of the Swedish security services is an important ingredient in the alchemy that has made the books so successful. Swedish writers have extensively explored the frail heart of the Scandinavian social-democratic dream; Stieg Larsson’s cynical realpolitik carries him from the cold war to the present-day murder of inconvenient witnesses. . . .

Larsson’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Swedish police, intelligence service and private security companies bring an extra layer of texture and verisimilitude. There are occasional lapses into didacticism: Blomkvist probes the murky world of female sex-trafficking which readers already know is an evil and sordid business. There are also some wildly dramatic incidents—at the end of the second volume and the start of the third, for instance—that stretch credibility to the limit. But Larsson’s vivid characters, the depth of detail across the three books, the powerfully imaginative plot and the sheer verve of the writing make “The Millennium Trilogy” a masterpiece of its genre.

Glenn Harper of International Noir Fiction on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – “I’d still argue that the 10-volume Sjöwall/Wahlöö opus remains the pinnacle of Swedish crime, but Larsson puts his very individual stamp on the genre and also brings the form into the 21st century’s criminal, information, and political environment.”

Brought to you by the Letter D: Maxine highlights Danish author Lief Davidsen in her “alphabet in crime fiction.”

And now on to various opinions and thoughts about the genre….

Lots of kerfuffle about Jessica Mann’s decision as a reviewer to avoid misogynistic paint-by-numbers violence, peculiarly reported in the press as a decision to abandon book reviewing altogether or as an indictment of the entire genre – none of which is true, if you actually read her essay.  The F-Word, a British Feminist publication offers a lengthy discussion of why Stieg Larsson, professions of being a feminist notwithstanding, is actually a mysogynist because of “his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.” I’ll grant you the babe-magnet Blomqvist being a bit of wishful projection, perhaps, but writing about violence against women doesn’t mean you actually enjoy it. I think Melanie Newman is off-base to compare the (admittedly somewhat over-the-top) gruesome sex abuse uncovered in the first book with James Patterson’s enormously popular if artless serial killer entertainments. Steve Mosby has a thoughtful (and yes, somewhat irritated) response to Newman’s article, as well as a longer examination of the wider issues which picked up quite a bit of traffic from readers of the New Yorker.

Paul Ames finds that “Sweden has Murder on its Brain.”

Within the 27 nations of the European Union, only Germany, Austria, Malta and Slovenia have lower murder rates than Sweden. In 2006 there were 91 murders registered in Sweden. In the same year, 84 crime novels were published in the country.

Peter Wahlqvist, a Goteborg-based lecturer in crime fiction, said the international success of Swedish thrillers results from a combination of good writing, a taste for the exotic and the contrast between the make-believe mayhem and common foreign perceptions of Sweden as a blond, healthy, welfare state utopia.

“It’s for real, psychologically about real people and about real life, real society,” said Wahlqvist.

Books to the Ceiling, in a series on “mysteries going global,” considers the popularity of Scandinavian crime.

And Glenn, via Petunia, has found a statue of Varg Veum leaning against the wall outside the office in Bergen where the fictional PI hung out his shingle.

remember the Battle of Maldon!

Mike Ripley, who faults Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room for its unsympathetic characters and “sheer bloody glumness” also makes time to criticize publishers for jumping aboard the bandwagon and readers of the “chattering classes” who embrace translations-  and translators who don’t embrace the genre they’re translating. Not one to hide his feelings, he also admits to being still a bit sore about the Battle or Maldon (back in 991 – how time flies). But now Maxine, bristling at the one-two punch of criticism of Euro Crime’s editing (not censoring) of a previous Ripster review and that “chattering classes” tag, strikes back in an open letter at Petrona.

I confess that I am one of those who in recent years have discovered novels by authors such as Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo, Johan Theorin, Helene Tursten, Liza Marklund, Asa Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Anne Holt, Kjell Ericksson, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Ake Edwardson, Inger Frimansson, Camilla Lackberg, Karin Fossum, Hakan Nesser, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and others from the Scandinavian region. Before then, I had thought these countries’ entire crime-fiction output was written by Henning Mankell. While many (but not all) of these books are admittedly not primarily exciting, action-packed thrillers, most are either variants on the traditional police-procedural, or rely on a combination of character dynamics, atmosphere and a sense of place to hold reader interest. Some are even funny.

She goes on to describe how much she enjoys crime fiction from other parts of the world – including the US and UK – and defends her own independence as a reader: “I’m a reasonably well-read, old and broadly educated person, so while my enthusiasm for Nordic noir may certainly be considered strange, it isn’t copy-cat, vacuous or jejune.” Though as she signs off as “Confessed reading addict – with a confessed current bias towards Scandinavia” and “Confessed admirer of Mike Ripley” it’s a good bet that those maces and pikes with which they’re going at it are tipped with a coating of irritable humor.

Norm (aka Uriah) reviews Theorin’s The Darkest Room and doesn’t not find it glum.

This brilliant novel is part ghost story, part detective story, and a really gripping thriller. The book reads as if written in English so translator Marlaine Delargy has done a very good job. The human characters are all well drawn but the island of Oland and its folklore are the dominating characters . . . This is a beautifully constructed story with all the various threads and layers interwoven so cleverly, but as with most good crime fiction nothing is quite as it seems and there are some unseen and unexpected twists at the end. This is without doubt one of the best crime fiction books I have read in 2009.

Margaret Cannon reviews The Girl Who Played With Fire for the Globe and Mail, adding to the enthusiasm.

Tim Cornwell in The Scotsman interviews Henning Mankell who is in Edinburgh to talk about Italian Shoes (which isn’t a mystery) but he’s much more interested in the upcoming publication of The Troubled Man, billed as the final Wallander mystery.

More on Wallander on the Tube – Glenn Harper at International Crime Fiction discusses The Tricksters (far from perfect but “enjoyable enough TV-crime-show fare”) and Norm reviews The Photographer and hopes we see other television as well, such as the Irene Huss series. (Yes, please!)

And Norm also has a nice tribute to humor as it is used in Scandinavian crime.

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.


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 . . .