“we ignore the wider world at our peril”

Yrsa Sigurdardottir makes her first contribution to a group blog with an international flavor and charms everyone with her modesty and humor. She says,

If you are wondering what country I do call home, imagine a tiny island way up north where the only banking institution not humiliated and disgraced is the national blood bank. If this does not help, imagine a country obviously named by someone intent on keeping people out. If still at loss, imagine a war with no prisoners and absolutely no opportunity of placing landmines as it was fought at sea, on fishing boats, over cod. There will be no more clues.

But a commenter adds some additional hints:

It’s also a country with the oldest parliamentary system in western europe–and probably the longest continuous one in the world. It’s a country that keeps adding to its territory without war. And it’s a country with one of the most moving collections of epic literature, poetry and prose.

To which she charmingly responds “true, true and thank you for reminding me. Lately it has all been doom and gloom despite this being a great country, I needed the reminder.”
Maxine, at her Petrona blog, has a wonderful blog post about Stieg Larsson, recapping some articles and quoting from an e-mail message that Larsson sent to his publisher in which he said,
I’ve tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn’t have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn’t listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model aeroplanes. He doesn’t have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotype ‘slut’, as he admits himself. I’ve also changed the sex roles on purpose: in many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo”, while Lisbeth Salander has stereotype ‘male’ characteristics and values…..

The article that Maxine links to by Val McDermid is well worth a read. In “The Man Who Died Too Soon,” she concludes,

It’s a tribute to Larsson’s skill that he never allows his political concerns to dominate his desire to tell a cracking good story packed with dramatic incident and brimming with quirky insights. But without his personal commitment to taking a stand in support of what he believed in, I’m convinced these three novels could never have had so powerful an impact among readers.

Forty years ago, with their Martin Beck novels, the Swedish writers Sjöwall and Wahlöö blazed a trail that proved the crime novel provides the perfect vehicle to write stories that shine a critical light on the society we live in. Stieg Larsson demonstrated that this works just as well for present-day concerns, and his example should give aspiring writers the confidence to put their own beliefs at the heart of their work. Books like The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest remind us all that we ignore the wider world at our peril.

Glen Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Gunnar Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death (and promises to say more about the Norwegian television series):

Staalesen shows great skill in keeping a very complex story coherent: characters and events weave in and out, with personal and metaphorical connections among them all along the way. There are some surpises at the end, as well, when Varg finally discovers what’s been going on in the several murders and in Johnny Boy’s life. Staalesen’s novels take on social issues, but there are many passages in this book that are right out of classic noir (though Varg isn’t the usual noir hero, he has too much hope for his clients’ fates). There’s a lot more Varg Veum in Norwegian, and I for one hope for translators and publishers to fill in the gaps in what has been translated.

There’s an article in The Prospect about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon that seems peculiarly off-base in almost every particular. The author says the Sweden portrayed in crime fiction “is the modern equivalent of the library in the country house of classic English detective stories: the conventional stage in which to find corpses surrounded by a selection of intriguing and sinister eccentrics. . . . The crimes are all solved by amateurs, and usually the punishment is dealt out by amateurs too.” Salander is a witch, and Blomqvist is “Philip Marlowe without the failures or the inner life.” He considers Sjowall and Wahloo as part of the same fantasy genre, and refers (quite snidely) to the “domestic Swedish detective novel, which Scandinavia women journalists in their thirties write instead of chicklit.” My favorite comment on this article comes from a friend at the FriendFeed  Crime and Mystery Fiction room, who feels the author was “jumping on a bandwagon and driving it into the nearest vacant column inches.” Really, it’s difficult to compete with the depth of knowledge and the sheer wit of the residents of this online community.

*The country in question is Iceland, if you haven’t guessed.

5 thoughts on ““we ignore the wider world at our peril”

  1. Barbara. I’m quite surprised by your response to Andrew Brown’s piece on Stieg Larsson! I thought it was witty and insightful, making interesting if pointed comments about books we both really like.

    The “jumping on a bandwagon and driving it into the nearest vacant column inches” accusation simply doesn’t wash; Brown lived in Sweden for many years and used this experience for his excellent if uneven account, Fishing in Utopia, which I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding modern Sweden.

    Salander is a strong character but no-one could argue that she isn’t rather implausible; ‘witch’ captures this quite neatly. And the crack about Blomqvist’s only super power was sharp and funny…

    Likewise pointing to the Beck episode where a man who has lent his sporting rifle to a policeman so that he can save the hero’s life is immediately afterwards arrested because he hasn’t got a licence, helps us to an acute analysis of the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series.

    Read it again, and I think you will find a piece by an intelligent writer who knows – and loves – his subject.

  2. I did reread it – and still find myself disagreeing largely with the analysis, though I will look up Fishing in Utopia.

    Yes, Salander is implausible and yes, she has many of the characteristics of the superhero of the Batman variety (the lonely hero who has to do the dirty work in the shadows, the heroic type that Andrew Klavan so oddly linked to George Bush) but in female form. And yes, the big conspiracies and lurid sex crimes are not realistic. And it is curious how much people enjoy that kind of fantasy.

    But I can’t see that Sjowall and Wahloo were creating a fantasy Sweden, and that they predicted a future that would be more peaceful, rich, egalitarian but less free. They were actually predicting a future in which individualism and a divide between the rich and poor would grow. I guess that final paragraph throws me, as does the idea that Larsson’s works celebrate individualism. The team of journalists working together and even the police (in Girl Who Played With Fire) are largely working as teams and with integrity. What makes Salander so touching isn’t her rugged individualism, it’s her loneliness and that slight and tentative connection that ties her to Blomvquist and others.

    Following on the heels of Hitchen’s article didn’t help my mood, either.

  3. It is definitely easier to argue that Blomqvist celebrates individualism than that Sjöwall and Wahlöö predicted a future that would be more peaceful, rich, egalitarian but less free!

    Perhaps Brown’s use of the word fantasy muddies things but the final paragraph doesn’t necessarily say that S&W predicted a better future; what it does say is that for many people Sweden seeemd offer an enticing model for a better state. Politics apart, Palme was a dull technocrat whose influence, good and bad, can be seen in the cruel to be kind, bulldozers and concrete approach to town planning.

  4. Barbara I am reading Fishing in Utopia in between my crime fiction but am only at page 48.
    What particularly interested me was the Social Democrats building a million new homes in depressing satellite towns whether anyone wanted to live in them or not. It reminded me of how British socialist governments had built housing estates in the 1960s destroying the old communities that had survived the war. Of course I voted for these socialist governments and was enthusiastic about the rehousing schemes at the time, after all the apartments may have been soulless rabbit hatches, but they had inside loos and central heating.
    I also re read the article and agree with you probably because I did not appreciate the witticisms.
    Did Sjowall and Wahloo really borrow from Ed McBain ? I did not think they had read McBain when they started the Beck books.
    Were the police so incompetent before Figuerola sleeps with Blomkvist, and why do these commentators keep emphasizing the sex all the time?
    Larsson celebrating individualism?
    Isn’t much of the plot about the various teams, journalists, the police, the Kalachenko clique within SAPO, all working together to achieve their aims.

    Even Salander, the supposed great individualist, asks her Hacker Nation for assistance.

    The implausibility of real life always astonishes me, and who can say there is not a real life Salander out there hacking at this moment. I would also guess that there are real life plots and conspiracies going on, some of which certainly would make the Zalachenko affair small beer.
    Sweden indeed did seem a blue print for a better state but only because of the combination of factors such as vast space, comparatively empty cities, and a relatively homogeneous population. I suspect that the emigration of large numbers of her population to the Mid West in the 19th century resulted in a labour shortage, a higher standard of living for the workers, and powerful trade unions. But much of this has changed since I visited Sweden in the 1990s.
    Sweden’s news at The Local in English today is indicative of the total collapse of the myth of a utopian society. A teenager gets only three years detention for killing a girl because he was only 16 at the time of the murder [on hashish and alcohol], and one in five children in Malmo lives in poverty.

  5. I made a few comments about the Prospect piece at the magazine’s website over the weekend. I thought the piece superficially reasonable but when you examined the details of the argument, they were often incorrect and I think the thesis was not convincing in light of this. After all, the Millennium trilogy is a work of fiction, not a political history of Sweden. And I found the author’s snobby assertion that thousands of readers could not understand the Millennium trilogy because they did not understand or know the post-war political history of Sweden, rather arrogant as well as wrong. As Norman points out, Brown was also wrong about S/W and McBain (as I said in my comment at Prospect). With so many incorrect examples (there were many more) I fear that Mr Brown had not read the trilogy as thoroughly as he might- though as Philip Young mentions above, there were some apt phrases here and there.
    I bought Fishing in Utopia recently and when I read it I will read it as a work of non-fiction.

    By the way, Mr Brown and others don’t seem to allude to all the very many other Swedish (and other Scandinavian) novels published between S/W and Larsson, that feature many of the political and social aspects of the country as a backdrop, and cast an author’s perspective on them in the context of various crimes – Marklund, A Larsson, Edwardson, Erikssen, Tursten and many others.

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