“no crime is an island”

Material Witness has high praise for James Thompson’s Snow Angels, saying it’s a cracking mystery with a vivid Finnish setting. Marilyn Stasio, who normally could conduct workshops on generosity to staffers at Kirkus, disagrees in an unusually dyspeptic New York Times review, giving him points for vignettes that bring the stark setting to life, but concluding, “Thompson’s skills desert him when he ventures beyond these realistic set pieces, and there’s nothing remotely believable about his outlandish plot.”

At the Telegraph, Mark Sanderson vents his spleen in a review of The Man from Beijing, calling it “a tiresomely didactic thriller . . . heartfelt but bloated.” And besides, the hero isn’t Wallander.

Boyd Tonkin in The Independent takes a very different view in a wide-ranging article. He begins with the news that the latest BBC Wallander episode scored over five million viewers, almost twice as many as Celebrity Big Brother. (Pleasing, but really – should I be surprised? I guess so. How sad.) It goes on to say quite a lot about the interest in crime fiction, the response of translators, the good news that Kirsten Ekman has  a new book coming out that “re-interprets one of the most famous dubious deaths in all Scandinavian literature, from Hjlamar Söderberg’s 1905 classic Doctor Glas.” The article ends with a lengthy discussion of Henning Mankell’s new global thriller, The Man from Beijing, after making a claim that the local appeal of Scandinavian settings is coupled with a sense of social responsibility that knows no borders.

Many readers relish Scandinaviancrime in part because of its densely realised local backdrops. In compact, often lonely communities, grim deeds suddenly erupt: the small islands of Mari Jungstedt and Johan Theorin; the fishing backwater of Camilla Läckberg; and, of course, Kurt Wallander’s own deeply provincial but now world-renowned town of Ystad.

Yet attentive readers will spot that the masters of this game often take pains to trace hidden links that bind cosy corners of the wealthy North with a bigger, and poorer, world. Cross-border trafficking of people, body-parts and drugs; neo-Nazi networks that stretch across Europe and beyond; migrants and asylum-seekers from Asia or Africa who risk violence from new neighbours or vengeance from old ones: Nordic crime at its boldest tends to act locally, but think globally. It gives a mighty voice to that deep-seated Scandinavian sense of a conscientious connection with the plight of humankind. This self-imposed duty has inspired initatives from the Nobel prizes through the Nansen refugee passport to peace missions in combat zones in the Middle East, Asia and South America.

Increasingly, I suspect, Nordic mysteries will travel as far as the region’s peacekeepers and aid workers.

He feels that The Man from Beijing is a natural development for the genre that may upset those who want their Scandinavian crime fiction to stick to its geographic limits.

To Mankell’s credit, all this wide-angle geopolitical debate somehow meshes with the slow unveiling of a motive for mass murder that lies deep in the past. A hectic plot that scoots from Copenhagen to Harare to Beijing finally reaches its climax in London’s Chinatown, among proud buildings that – to some Chinese ears at least – still echo to “the screams and pains of slaves”. Scandinavian crime writing has seldom shouldered the burdens of world history with such upfront ambition.

Some readers, for whom Nordic nastiness should unravel amid picturesque backwaters thanks to the deductions of endearingly flawed cops, will turn away in alarm at the big political picture Mankell presents here. But the international dimension has always been a factor in his work, as with Stieg Larsson and many of their peers. No man, and no crime, is an island – however charming the woods and coasts in the background of the murder scene.

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6 thoughts on ““no crime is an island”

  1. All good points, but I don’t concur with the author that the “global connection” is limited to Scandinavia. Camilleri focuses on similar issues, as did Peter James’s latest. And lots of others – the “global social conscience” is a staple of crime fiction from wherever it is written.

  2. Wow.

    How appropriately Howard Zinn-ish, given the man’s recent passing.

    In the days when people regularly called mysteries, thrillers, and the like “junk,” Graham Greene used to apologize for his best work not being “real novels” by humbly conceding to the pompous critics that they were mere “entertainments.”

    Think “Brighton Rock.”

    GG was apologizing to finger-wagging, stuffed shirt critics for writing thrillers.

    Are these people apologizing to some PC goddess, perhaps only an internalized one, for reading them?

    Global social consciousness, of course, is something quite different from so-called “global social conscience.”

    The former trait of an author can make itself known in settings, plots, characters, and many other ways that are actually integral to, and much enrich, the work.

    Especially so when we are considering the noir world of police procedurals, thrillers, and mysteries.

    The latter is much more likely to look like intrusive and essentially irrelevant editorializing.

    Especially if it has too much the look of the mandatory sex scene.

    So which is it you find in these Scandinavian policiers, eh?

    Global social consciousness, potentially a strong authorial virtue when it shows in the work, or global social conscience, potentially irksome and tendentious pontificating, finger-wagging, and editorializing when it shows there?

  3. Good question – and I haven’t read The Man from Beijing, so I can’t comment on that book – but I think every work of crime fiction has some sense of conscience, even if it’s a nihilistic choice (Highsmith, some of the darkest noir) or a hedonistic choice (monsters come out from under the bed or simple conspiracies are exposed that solve all the world’s problems).

    I agree that tendentiousness and tediousness are close cousins, and any author who pauses for a lecture is in trouble, but that goes for travelogues as well as jeremiads.

    Perhaps the oldest chestnut in Creative Writing 101 is a useful guide: show, don’t tell. And don’t let the reader feel you’ve got his or her head gripped tightly to turn it toward one thing or another.

  4. Too, just how far is this really characteristic of scandinavian crime fiction in general and how much is it a feature of particular books or authors?

    I just finished reading “Roseanna” for the first time.

    Of course, I wasn’t looking for it, but I saw no sign of global social conscience.

    Or, for that matter, global social consciousness, particularly.

  5. Well, I just read “The Locked Room” by Sjowall and Wahloo and there’s a lot of social consciousness in it. I don’t know how “global” it is as it deals with the Swedish state and society, although many observations could be universalized.

    But they’re talking about Sweden.

    • I agree, and I think the point of the article was that Scandinavian crime fiction has long had a conscience but was not typically examining parts of the world beyond its own settings; a new development is that authors are taking the show on the road, so to speak, and telling stories with a more global, interconnected world view. I haven’t yet read that book, Kathy, but aim to work my way through all ten eventually.

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