defining genres

Michael Grove writes in the Times that used bookshops can reveal what is really going on in a country. And for Scandinavia and the UK, it’s in the blood. Viking blood, to be precise.

The ability of second-hand bookshops to open a window on to a place’s soul isn’t restricted to England. In Stockholm last week I stumbled into a couple (my wife is convinced that I could find second-hand bookshops in Amazonia or Antarctica) and was surprised by what they revealed. The largest amount of space devoted to a single author – and it was huge in both shops – wasn’t there for Strindberg or some other Scandinavian national hero.

No, the author who seemed to have the greatest purchase on the Swedish soul was Agatha Christie. There were yards of Olde English whodunnitry stretching far further into the recesses of the shop than any collection of bleak Nordic dramaturgy.

Indeed, the deeper I delved, the more Swedish and English literary tastes seemed to intertwine. For both countries the detective novel is the defining national genre. The Swedish authors who succeed abroad, and are devoured most energetically at home, are the crimewriter Henning Mankell and the husband-and-wife detective novelists Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Sjowall/Walloo’s Martin Beck, like P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, or Miss Marple, Campion, Wimsey or Rebus, are the fictional creations who define a nation.

I must say, my head hurts trying to figure out how Miss Marple currently defines the UK, or how Viking blood might have entered into it, but I digress . . . He goes on to characterize other country’s national genres, sadly missing out on explaining what Fred Vargas tells us about France, only being defeated in his quest when he comes to the US, with a literary output “so rich, so plural, so prodigious that there is no way that even a determined pigeon-holer like me can shrinkwrap it into one package.”

The rest is a scathing critique of a panel of American writers coming to London who are not tough enough on terrorism and too tough of George Bush. Well, he is a conservative MP.

I do think the current flowering of crime fiction in Scandinavia is an intriguing commentary on a particular place and time – just not too comfortable with it being somehow in the genes.

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