irresistable argument hits its target

A terrific post by Michael Carlson at Irresistible Targets hits the bullseye as he analyzes the recent discovery of Scandinavian crime fiction by UK journalists.

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.


oh brave new world

Once again, I’m behind on the buzz. But here are a few links and comments.

The Guardian has been in a list-making mood lately, but they’ve taken time off to discover Scandinavian crime fiction. Two cosmic events – the publication of Stieg Larsson’s second book and the television broadcast of the BBC Wallander series – have lined up. Of course anyone with a passing interest in crime fiction had long ago made the discovery. Bit like Columbus going on and on about something that Lief Erickson had pulled off five hundred years previously. Sheesh.

Still, the author, John Crace, has some good things to say. The English market for books is less receptive to translations (perhaps not just due to insularity, but because there’s such a lot of solid English crime fiction without the need to translate). One main reason for the trend is that “the quality of writing in Scandinavian crime fiction has remained, in general, a notch or two higher than elsewhere.” And he suggests that the foreign settings of the books also makes them more intriguing. “Crime writers can come up with any number of serial killers and paedophiles with ever sicker twists, but as long as they are situated in LA, New York, London and Edinburgh there will inevitably be a sense of familiarity. The Scandinavian locations dislocate British readers and help take them beyond plot and genre to the human condition.” Er, well, they also take them beyond cliches of serial killers. The crimes in the best of Scandinavian crime fiction, by and large, tend to focus more on the effect of crime on communities than on gory, sensationalist murders and the thrill of the chase.

Meanwhile, the Bookwitch is amused that the works of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are being rediscovered. “Never thought these crime novels from my past, read by all my leftish friends, would re-surface. But it’s good.” (As is the resurfacing of many other forgotten leftist things such as due process, freedom of information, and the rule of law . . . whoops, sorry for the post-inaugural digression.)  Translator Reg Keeland has started a blog that launched a thousand comments (well, not really – but the blog post to comment ratio is unusual).  And Euro Crime alerts us to a new book on Scandinavian crime fiction forthcoming from the University of Wales Press.

Steph of Wheredunnit continues a tour of Sweden with a visit to Camilla Lackberg’s Fjällbacka, the setting for The Ice Princess. Reg Keeland, the translator and blogger of a thousand comments leaves a comment himself with a taste of the upcoming book in the series, The Stonecutter.

Mack has captured a copy of The Girl Who Played With Fire and is well chuffed about it. Material Witness considers Elisabeth Salander’s reception and possible connections to other heroines ranging from Pippi Longstocking to Carol O’Connell’s Mallory.

it all goes back to childhood

Thanks to a comment posted here, I discovered DJ’s Krimiblog – which offers commentary on Scandinavian mysteries in both Danish and English translation. There’s a fascinating analysis of the parallels between Larsson’s crusading journalist, Mikael Blomqvist, to Astrid Lindgren’s series about a boy detective, Kalle Blomqvist.

Mikael Blomkvist does not appear in the prologue but on the first page of chapter one it is clear that Stieg Larsson deliberately draws parallels to Astrid Lindgren´s trilogy about the boy detective Kalle Blomkvist (first published 1949-56; Bill Bergson in English), “´Let us have a comment Kalle Blomkvist´ said the journalist from one of the tabloids.” The parallel is elaborated on the following pages where we get a background story telling us how Mikael as a very young journalist exposed a gang of bank robbers almost by accident, and earned immediate fame plus an obvious nickname. Mikael himself is not exactly thrilled, “Never an evil word about Astrid Lindgren – he loved her books, but hated the pet name.”

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is sympathetic to the annoyance of a grown-up journalist being likened to a children’s book hero, saying “Somebody’s get a fat lip if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking.” But there are some intriguing parallels. Pippi is resourceful, independent, a child without adults to supervise or stand in the way. She is incredibly strong and has adventures that go far beyond what children normally experience. But she is, above all, a child who lives alone. That power and independence comes with wrenching loneliness.

It’s telling that, when the journalist examines the cottage where the missing child lived, there are copies of both Kalle Blomqvist and Pippi Longstocking stories among the mix of books there – and Blomqvist smiles in recognition.

while my back was turned . . .

I’ve been tied up at work with one thing and another, so have neglected loads of links that ought to have been posted to this blog earlier. So I shall just do a link-fest.

There has been much buzz about the release of The Girl Who played with Fire.

  • The Rap Sheet notes it scored first place on UK bestseller lists, the first ever translated hardcover to make the top of the list.
  • Elisabeth Salander has won over Uriah (aka Norm); quite the turn-around after he was underwhelmed by her first appearance. “If reading ‘Tattoo’ was like struggling through deep snow reading the last 400 pages of ‘Played With Fire’ is like skating on ice. ” Thinking it over, he believes she is “the investigator for our time.”
  • John Baker liked it, too. “Lisbeth Salander is no ordinary heroine, she is a comic-book super-hero, delinquent and dangerous, a genius computer hacker who tolerates no restrictions imposed by individuals, society or the law. . . . She’s fantastic.”
  • And Material Witness testifies “Fire is Salander’s story. It is brutal, bleak and emotionally bruising, but it is quite brilliantly told and never less than gripping – even when off on one of its many diversions. It emphatically confirms that the Stieg Larsson phenomenon sweeping out Sweden and conquering Europe was no one-off as well as the great sense of loss that the next Larsson book we read will be the last. . . . Fire is nothing less than a triumph and the wait for the third instalment of Millennium will be a long one.”
  • Glenn Harper offers his own analysis, which is, as always, penetrating, finding parallels with Dumas and Sand. “Larsson gives all of us something: a naturalistic crime story with fantasy elements, a morality-and-adventure story that’s entirely contemporary, without (almost) any superpowers, and totally without metaphysics or theology. It’s our world, but with swashbuckling (of a very contemporary sort) and even cliffhangers.”
  • Michael Carlson of CrimeTime agrees and contextualizes it in terms of Scandinavian crime fiction generally.

Larsson has created an interesting trope on the most popular style of Swedish crime books, that established by Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck and taken on by Mankell’s Wallender. These books are valued for their perceptions about Swedish society, and their depressive cops are always about to be overwhelmed by the seamy realities underneath what is supposed to be a state devised rationally for the benefit of all citizens. Larsson’s Blomkvist is more of a Per Wahloo figure (as a left-wing journalist) than a Martin Beck; Blomkvist is a socially well-adjusted journalist committed to righting the wrongs he investigates within that society, where Salander is, on the surface, exactly the kind of person with whom Swedish society cannot cope. This novel reveals much of Salander’s back-story, and with it the roots of her anti-social personality. But as the plot is uncovered, and we, the readers, get deeper into what she already knows but never tells, and what others are trying desperately to either uncover or keep hidden, we discover that not only has she been let down by those who should protect her, but that her abuse has been deliberate, and condoned by powerful forces who control the Swedish state. . . .

Carlson also spoke on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme about Scandinavian crime writers. See a recap of it at his blog, or listen in.

For more about Larsson mania, you can’t do better than read Maxine’s coverage of the blogosphere’s response at Petrona.

In other news, the Eurocrime reviewers top books and authors for 2008 are up – and there are lots of Scandinavian names among them: Stieg Larsson, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Johan Theorin, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo, Helene Tursten, and Sjowall and Wahloo.  This seems an appropriate time to thank Euro Crime’s team (are they Euro Criminals?) for all for their hard work and great skill.

More from Maxine on translations – and also from Bookwitch.

SkandiLit points us toward a new translation of a K.O. Dahl novel, The Last Fix.

And further evidence that Scandinavian crime fiction has made its mark internationally, Karen Alvtegen’s Missing has been nominated for an Edgar for Best Novel of 2008. Should she win it wouldn’t be a first; in 1971 Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s The Laughing Policeman won the Edgar. That said, it has certainly been a while. And it does seem a trifle odd – one of the vagaries of translations and publishing territories – that a book published in 2000 and translated into English in 2003 is just getting a “best of the year” award.

Mari Jungstedt and Kerrie’s best lists

Glen Harper reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Inner Circle (apparently published in the UK under the title A Lonely Place – shades of Dorothy Hughes) finding the setting and the straightforward style to overcome what might be a melodramatic plot. In a comment, Maxine mentions she found it the weakest of the three books in the series because of the cliched plotline. I’ll link to her Euro Crime review here when it’s published.

While I’m at it, I’ll mention that many Scandinavian writers were mentioned by readers who took up Kerrie’s challenge at Mysteries in Paradise to list their top crime fiction reads of 2008. It’s a wonderfully international list of people’s favorites.When Kerrie totted up the results, Stieg Larsson topped the list with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Also mentioned by more than one blogger: Arnaldur Indridason (Arctic Chill and The Draining Lake), Jo Nesbo (The Redbreast, The Devil’s Star, Nemesis), and Karen Fossum (Black Seconds). Also mentioned by readers were Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell, Kjell Eriksson’s Demon of Dakar, Asa Larsson’s Sun Storm / Savage Altar, Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, Yrsa Siggarddottir’s Last Rituals, and Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye.

What strikes me, reading this list, is that though we tend to think of “Scandinavian crime fiction” as if it’s a unitary thing, there’s a great deal of variety.  Perhaps there are gloomy detectives (Erlendur and Wallander qualify) but Van Veeteren isn’t – and though Nesbo’s Harry Hole has his problems and makes a few extra in case he runs short, gloom isn’t part of his character. They are realistic and deal with social issues, but there’s a touch of a Gothic element in Johan Theorin’s work, and some wildly inventive dramatics in that of Asa Larsson – not to mention a greater incidence of ritual murder and bizarre behavior than is generally found in real life. One generalization that I think can be made fairly is that there’s a lot of crime fiction being written, and a lot of it is extraordinarily good. Maybe that’s the only commonality we really need.

review soup

More reviews of Swedish crime fiction. First, the much-awaited publication of Girl Who Played with Fire gets further notice. From the Times

The essential first step to appreciating Stieg Larsson is to rid yourself of any fixed image you have of Swedish crime fiction. Yes, Larsson is a Swede, as is Henning Mankell and any number of other first-class spinners of mysteries. But the adventures of Inspector Kurt Wallander are far away from Larsson’s novels. If Mankell is Swedish gloomy, Larsson is Swedish noir. Very. . . .

[Salander is] unbelievable. All her attributes are exaggerated, at times veering to fantasy; her mental and physical strengths are beyond those of ordinary humans. Yet Larsson’s writing manages to make her intriguing, admirable and even – though this is an effort – sympathetic. . . .

The novel is complex in plot and characterisation, perhaps unnecessarily so. But the urgency of Larsson’s prose prevents boredom in reading a book that would otherwise be regarded as over-long and over-crammed. Somehow, Larsson has managed to write a riveting read.

And a nicely-calibrated review at Euro Crime – where, again, Salander’s major role is given some scrutiny:

There is also a strong element of male wish-fulfilment running through the book. Lisbeth is almost a Modesty Blaise-like figure at times, having her breasts enlarged, living off junk food yet remaining “anorexically thin” (as we are often reminded), and enjoying lusty sex with men and women. The Millennium journalists are similarly idealised, being portrayed as liberal-thinking, high on integrity and very highly sexed. On the other hand, most of the other men in the book are either decent enough yet bland (the police chief) or pure evil – rapists, abductors, child abusers and “men who hate women” to name but a few of the types in the pages. Most of these aspects add to the overall excitement, but they also create a slightly comic-book atmosphere.

Nevertheless, despite these flaws (some of which the author might have revised before publication had he lived) this book is truly powerful. The criminal investigation turns out to be directly related to the events in Lisbeth’s horrific past, and the way in which old events are gradually revealed in order to explain how the crimes occurred is very cleverly done, with a stunning, emotionally draining climax.

Sounds like the first installment – not without some outsized flaws and even more outsized virtues.

Meanwhile, over at Reviewing the Evidence I review Johan Theorin’s Echoes of the Dead and Sarah Dudley finds favor with Henning Mankell’s The Pyramid. And the Wheredunnit blog finds Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill a “compelling police procedural.” Steph Davies (the genius behind the Wheredunnit enterprise) also has this interesting news:

The next Erlendur novel, Harðskafi, promises much. It apparently takes the detective back to his childhood home (see below) deep into his soul and the defining trauma of his youth, the loss of his younger brother. Released in Iceland in 2007, it is due to be published in English in the Autumn of 2009 under the provisional title Hypothermia.

Ali Karim on The Girl Who Played With Fire

Ali Karim has posted a thorough appreciation of the second book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy over at The Rap Sheet. Clearly, the second book develops the main characters further and delves into even darker territory. For those who want to approach the book as a clean slate, you might want to avoid his detailed review. Suffice it to say he thinks it’s worth reading – enormously so.

I can say quite confidently that this second book is one of the greatest works of fiction, not just crime fiction. . . .

By the end of The Girl Who Played with Fire, I found myself practically tearing through the pages, as if hidden in the story were something as important as the secret to eternity. I’ve fallen so deeply in love with Stieg Larsson’s characters, that reading about their world seems far more true than what I see around me in these weird economic times.

I warn you, this story is not pretty. Not in the least. But it does pulse with insight and compassion, and it will haunt you for many weeks after you’ve put it down. If I read a finer book this year than The Girl Who Played with Fire, I shall consider myself extraordinarily lucky. American fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo might have a hard time waiting until the U.S. edition of Played with Fire comes out from Alfred A. Knopf/Borzoi in July. If you would like a taste of what’s to come, click here.