daggers, bankers, and science in crime fiction

As anyone who follows crime fiction already knows, Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room won the International Dagger, edging ahead a very strong shortlist with a heavy Nordic accent. In addition to Theorin, Stieg Larsson’s third and final book and Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia were both on the list. There was nothing this time by Fred Vargas, however, so no trifecta for her.

I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, but others whose tastes I trust have and I don’t think anyone is disappointed in this outcome. Congratulations to Karen and other judges who had a pleasantly difficult job of choosing among outstanding books. I gave the book a thumbs-up back in February. Other reviews include

Yrsa Sigurdardottir is interviewed in The Scotsman and is her usual charming self. One thing I didn’t know: she has a day job that sounds very demanding.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir doesn’t live by writing alone: her time isn’t all her own. Oh no: she also builds dams. And not just any damn dams. For her last major project she was technical manager on the Karahnjukar dam in remote east Iceland, the biggest of its kind in Europe and the largest construction project in Iceland’s history.

She is also angry with the bankers who infused so much money (and new class divisions) into their egalitarian society, and then let everyone down so badly in the crash that is called the “kreppa.” She’s so angry, in fact, that she won’t include them in her books, not even as victims.

A poor country until it discovered how to harness its natural resources in the 20th century, and until the Second World War highlighted its strategic importance, pre-kreppa Iceland seemed a relatively classless one too.

That’s how Sigurdardottir – who was born in 1963 – remembers it, anyway. Pharmacists were rich (not doctors or dentists) but that was about it. No particular Reykjavik suburb was more sought-after than anywhere else. “And now, with these bankers – there’s just 20 people, everyone knows who they are – everything’s ruined. Robbing charities, for God’s sake. And Britain using these laws against us like we’re terrorists.

“You see, that used to be the thing about being Icelandic. We don’t have an army, so we’ve never done anything to any other nation . . . We thought we weren’t a corrupt country, but it turns out that we were about the most corrupt one in Europe. Because we’re so tiny, you can’t find anybody who’s not involved so we’ve had to bring in someone from Sweden to investigate the banking collapse. Because they weren’t fools, these bankers: they brought all kinds of people onto the boards, like it was a way of getting themselves immunity.”

Her newest book to be translated into English, Ashes to Dust, has just been published in the UK.

As part of a project to examine the portrayal of science in crime fiction, Kerstin Bergman of Lund University looks at the work of Åsa Nilsonne, (who hasn’t been translated into English) and in the ways the books were promoted and received. She finds that Swedish writers are much less inclined than popular US books and television shows to highlight science, rather paying more attention to social issues as the backdrop and key to crimes.

An aside: as much as I find science fascinating, I am dismayed by the way it is often treated as the ghost in the machine, a deus ex machina that reduces tragic muddles and messes to a matter of clever tests and clear-cut results that are rare in actual criminal investigations (partly because science isn’t always clear in its results and largely because there simply aren’t the resources to spend such a lot of time and technology on cases; just this month Illinois passed a law that all rape kits must be submitted for DNA analysis – after thousands of kits lay on evidence room shelves for years). It leads people to expect certainty in situations where so often there isn’t any, and distracts them from social issues that are all to real.  This is particularly curious in the US, where in nearly every other situation science and scientists are viewed with a rather high level of skepticism. But when it comes to a choice between lab results and intractable social problems, the lab is a relatively clean, well-lighted place.

photo of a double helix made of books courtesy of inkyhack.

6 thoughts on “daggers, bankers, and science in crime fiction

  1. There wasn’t a Vargas published the 2010 qualifying period and still nothing listed for 2011 – yet. Also, due to the credit crunch it seems unlikely a Manotti will appear in the foreseeable future which is a real shame as I’ve waiting for ‘Cop’ for ages!

  2. Well, DNA evidence brings convictions and survivors of abuse (and wrongly-convicted defendants) do want this processed and studied. However, it does not deal with the social issues; that is true. It doesn’t deal with what circumstances contribute to violence, government intervention to prevent violent acts nor social services, programs, crisis centers, shelters to help the survivors. In fact, state-wide budget cuts (as in California) have shut down shelters for victims of domestic violence and rape-crisis centers.
    It would be good if science was part of a nation-wide educational curriculum so children in every state are learning the scientific method of understanding the history of the earth and everyday phenomenon.

    • Yes, DNA has been terrific for the Innocence Project; the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern is somewhat unusual in that it accepts cases without DNA evidence. There’s a good book of first person accounts on this topic edited by Dave Eggers – Surviving Justice. Though depressing, since exoneration is just one step; getting your life back is not easy.

      I still remember in fifth grade at my Catholic school when a tiny nun from a nearby college came and gave this wonderful talk on evolution. I’m not so Catholic these days, but I remember thinking “how cool!” and getting her point that the Bible was a book of stories collected over centuries and it could be true without it being literally true. Made perfect sense to me. Of course a national curriculum would be rejected as Big Government (though NCLB is not).

  3. Yes, I agree. People getting their lives back after false incarceration is probably terrible. Same, too, with survivors of violent acts.
    And if only we had a national science curriculum then pseudo-scientists couldn’t say dinosaurs were here 6,000 years ago and students could understand how the earth developed over millions of years.
    Coming back to books, “Gunshot Road” mentioned a bit about science and the age of geographical formations in Australia. That was interesting, too.

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