be reassured – utopia repels invaders! (not)

Slate has an article by Nathanial Rich titled “Scandinavian Crime Wave: Why the Most Peaceful People on Earth Write the Greatest Homicide Thrillers.” After reviewing a few highlights – Nesbo, Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell – the first answer he proposes is that crime sells. But then, thank goodness, he asks the underlying question: why do Scandinavians, who live in the “happiest countries on earth” by some measures, want to read about mayhem and disorder at home when they could continue to read popular English imports?

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell’s corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

Er . . . maybe it’s because I’m reading Roslund-Hellstrom’s 21, which is about as grim as it gets, but I think fundamentally that’s not at all what’s going on. The world that Sjowall and Wahloo and those who followed in their footsteps depict is not sublime. On the surface, it’s relatively orderly and neat, and the social services available are enough to make an American want to pack up and move, but it’s clear that things are not that tranquil, that evil isn’t an abberation that comes to disturb what is otherwise a peaceable kingdom.

Take Karin Fossum, for example. Her small towns are populated by people who carry good and evil in varying measures within them. Criminals aren’t invaders from Planet Nasty and when the crime is solved, things don’t go back to nice and normal. What makes them so creepy and so effective is that nothing is that neat, that you know arresting one confused and unhappy person won’t change the society that leads to people being confused and unhappy. Sjowall and Wahloo were critics of society, not defenders of tranquility. There’s not a whole lot of happiness going on no matter what team the characters are playing on, and solving a crime doesn’t restore order; it merely gives us insight into what makes us all tick.

Where you see the kind of “happiness and tranquility interrupted by violence” theme is in the pure-entertainment thriller in which a monstrous serial killer (clever, twisted, utterly alien) or the corporate Team Evil (nasty developers, businessmen who run sex rings, secret cabals that plan to destroy the world) are pitted against angst-ridden Dudley Dorights, usually in settings that portray “normal” society as wealthy, white, successful, and happy – until the aliens arrive.

There’s no critique of society in these kinds of books because the bad guys are invaders from another planet. Though the tortured heroes have to “enter the mind” of the bad guys so they can give us the full tour, the deluxe set of thrills, there’s no question that law enforcement is good, society is good, and people are good; it’s just the bad guys who are bad. No shades of gray. We only have to be uneasy because, like pod people, the evil characters look just like us – until they are unmasked, at which point we can recoil in satisfied disgust, knowing that we’d never be involved in that kind of nastiness, that we are not implicated in things that go wrong. The reason these books focus on unusual crimes (the more unusual, the better) is that we can enjoy ourselves without ever connecting what we’re reading to our own lives, our own communities, the problems we’d rather not think about. It’s all in good fun, and the good guys always restore order, until the next, regularly-scheduled alien invasion.

I don’t see that tendency in the Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read, and I certainly don’t agree that these books have “reassuringly mechanical, ticktocking plots.” Well, the plot of Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star reminded me too much of the typical American serial killer unified field theory of evil, but I forgave it because the protagonist’s struggle with himself and with his own police organization was so gripping. But even books like Camilla Lackberg’s Ice Princess, which is highly conventional, probed more deeply into the psychology of its messed-up characters (if not of its protagonists) than the typical racing-against-the-clock serial killer story. The bad guys were human, not aliens.  And the place where they lived wasn’t  magically restored to peace and tranquility once they were captured and removed.

The reason I like Scandinavian crime fiction is that it values both character and plot; it doesn’t rely on easy answers; it doesn’t portray evil as an abberation but as part of the human experience, an outcome of our social structures, something in which we are all implicated. And it makes me think.

Save reassuring and mechanical for those who want to think things are basically fine, so long as we can recognize and contain the evil Other. But if that’s what you want, don’t bother picking up Scandinavian crime fiction. It probably won’t be all that reassuring.

9 thoughts on “be reassured – utopia repels invaders! (not)

  1. Very good points. Some Americans have a very strange (almost provincial) view of the rest of the world. Not all, thankfully. As you say, Jo Nesbo writes fairly “US-style” urban thrillers, but there aren’t that many big cities in Scandinavia. Marklund is another one who is urban-based (in the main). To turn it on its head, not all US crime ficiton is the noir genre alluded to in the Slate piece – there are plenty of rural, small-village US crime books and all other subgenres too.
    I thought this is a bit of a lazy article, with this all-too-usual tinge one sees in quite a bit of US journalism that “anywhere in Europe is sort of a munchkin land where people wear pointy green hats”. The author of the piece shoudl get out more.

  2. Also, he makes a point of saying Larsson doesn’t do locked room mysteries, when in fact Girl With the Dragon Tattoo starts out as exactly that (only it’s an island, not a locked room). Oh well.

  3. There’s not much serenity in Kjell Eriksson’s The Princess of Burundi – one of the first Scandinavian novels I read and still floating about in my memory for it’s realistic grim-ness. And you’re right Barbara it’s that realism that is the key difference – I can imagine the stories unfolding in the world I’m living in – that ‘there but for the grace of God…’ type feeling. Whereas more of the American (and UK and even Aussie) style books are more fantastic. I do enjoy those too where the story is well told but I know that there are not huge numbers of psychopathic serial killers with a penchant for clothes made from human skin in my neighbouorhood (although that Mr Trent in number 37 does have very close-set googly eyes and his lawn is unnaturraly neat!) so those books don’t frighten me or make me think much about ‘the human condition’ or … well … the world in general.

  4. I’m with you on this Barbara – Rich may have read “close to 30 Scandinavian crime novels” but he certainly didn’t read them very closely.

    Labelling Ystad as a “quaint fishing village” isn’t a great start… Ystad is a significant town, not all of which is any way quaint. Its location as a Baltic port allows Mankell to introduce trouble from abroad – or at least to suggest its apparent introduction. Ystas can be read as a symbol of change – and of failure. If anything, he underplays the attractions of the Skane countryside, often referring to freezing weather and biting winds.

    Worse, as you highlight, is his complete misreading of Sjowall and Wahloo, who used the crime novel as platform for a savage Marxist critique of 60s and 70s Sweden; to suggest they hopped aboard a passing trend to make money is close to offensive (not least in that Per Wahloo died in 1975).

    I would also suggest that one of the reasons Larsson is an international bestseller is that it isn’t particularly Swedish… The picture of Stockholm painted in The Girl Who Played With Fire is not notably evocative of a city that would be very easy to romanticise and Lisbeth Salander is more William Gibson/ Lara Croft than anyone I have ever met in Sweden (or Northumberland for that matter).

  5. All excellent points – good hits, Philip! Your comment reminds me of Altvegen’s Missing – another urban thriller – hip, cool etc- I can just see the movie being made, set in some faceless US city.

  6. Pingback: The Sunday Salon 2009-07-12: Week in Review « Reactions to Reading

  7. Pingback: “novels of conscience and reflection” – yes!! « Scandinavian Crime Fiction

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