UCLA Larsson Symposium, Day Two

On to the second half of the UCLA symposium, if I can make out my scribbled notes. The first speaker of the day was Andrew Nestingen of the University of Washington, whose talk was titled “Representing and Investigating: Epistemology and Scandinavian Crime Fiction.” He started out sounding rather like Dan Brown in a positivist moment: This is all true! Based on sources! Unimpeachable intelligence! Was this Colin Powell speaking before the UN – or Blomqvist documenting an investigation with Salander’s help? Crime fiction in some ways is the story of research. In some crime fiction, investigators are independent of the system in which they work, but represent an objective fact-finding position; in fact, institutional interference is often a sign that the investigator is on the right track. Karin Fossum takes a different approach; there is no stance for the investigator where he’s totally independent of the people he’s investigating. Sejer reads emotional cues and a lot of what happens is at the interface between public and private life. Kurt Wallander also has an emotional approach to crime. The crimes he investigates are emotionally charged for him with loss and change. Salander does not dwell on the causes of crime; she doesn’t care about that. She just collects the facts and analyzes them, presented in a way that fetishizes thorough research. Legal discourse and journalism both put a great deal of faith in facts and in a positivist view that with enough facts, you can grasp reality. Salander’s positivist approach only gives way to a more nuanced view when she begins to acquire empathy.

Kendra Wilson of UCLA spoke next, on “Solving Crimes in Sagas: Society, Law, and Narrative in Early Iceland.” This talk was a bit different because it was primarily about medieval texts, but many of the sagas were a sort of crime fiction – the original legal thrillers, full of family disputes and vengeance, using familiar formulas to tell stories with room between the lines for the audience to get involved in figuring out what really happened. The legal scenes are not about who is guilty, but who is going to get away with it using the cleverest legal tricks. Confessions often include riddles, which can require a lot of interpretation. She said “In Iceland, a secret is something that everyone knows is a secret.” Because medieval Iceland never had a single, powerful ruler, there was a strong emphasis on consensus. Ultimately, in these legal disputes, the goal wasn’t to find truth, but rather to arrive at a resolution that everyone could live with. (I admit, I kept thinking about Arnaldur Indridason as I listened, since he once told me that his Erlendur series was influenced by sagas. I also was bemused by mention of critic Carol Clover who is a scholar of old Norse literature and also the author of Men, Women, and Chainsaws, an analysis of gender in slasher and rape-revenge films; I wonder what she makes of Lisbeth Salander?)

Our next speaker was Paula Arvas, who teaches at the University of Helsinki and, with Andrew Nestingen, edited Scandinavian Crime Fiction, part of the European Crime Fictions series. She asked, “Is there Room for a Bad Cop? Finnish Crime Fiction and the Demand of Realism.” She spoke about the way that Finnish crime stories strive for realism and tend to depict hard-working police officers and the inner workings of criminal organizations and the reasons why crime is committed. Finnish realism developed in the 1880ss based on British, Russian and French models. The moral aim was to get at truth through observing and recording reality. In the 1970s, Matti Joensuu, a police officer, began writing fiction that was documentary, not glamorous, which established a taste for accurate police procedure and police as heroic figures. In 2010, two authors tried to break the mold. Teemu Kaskinen and Heikki Heiskanen published a novel, The Year of the Elephant, in which the police are indistinguishable from criminals, cutting corners and cutting deals with the mafiya. This was not well received and one of the authors published an unusual essay expressing how painful it was to be misunderstood and to have their satiric and critical approach trashed by critics. (That reaction was a bit surprising to me, given that both the Millennium Trilogy and Roslund and Hellstrom’s popular crime stories are predicated on corruption in the criminal justice system.) Arvas then turned to women crime fiction authors in Finland, saying that their work tends to be dismissed for dealing with middle class characters rather than the underclass. These writers are more likely to be characterized as authors of unimportant, lesser genre fiction; male authors are praised for a kind of “realism” that is not the reality of most readers. All of this made me think Finland needs its own chapter of Sisters in Crime.

Continuing the focus on gender, Nete Schmidt of the University of Wisconsin spoke about femi-krim (“From Periphery to Center: Women in Scandinavian Femi-Crime”).  In the Martin Beck series, women are mostly peripheral figures, in keeping with the political notion that class struggle was more important than gender equity. In more recent work by women, the feminist second wave ideals of equity play a role in the way the characters struggle with balancing professional roles with family needs. Like Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Annika Bengtzon is a professional investigator, but unlike Washawski, she has a husband and children and often struggles to achieve balance in her life. She is constantly fighting with patriarchy. Though Scandinavian countries are supposedly egalitarian and relatively feminized (compared to the US), in fact leadership in the private sector in Sweden is 77% male. Bengtzon’s self-confidence is easily destroyed; though she constantly challenges the patriarchal system, she is unable to change it. (During the subsequent coffee break – in good Scandinavian tradition, we had to pause for fika between talks – we all urged Nete to read Helene Tursten!)

Anne Marit Waade, who teaches at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, was up next to talk about “The Wallander Country: Setting and Landscape in Scandinavian Crime Series.” She has book coming out on this topic. She showed a clip from the BBC television series, pointing out how the producers exploit the look and color of the Swedish location. Rural locations (as opposed to urban landscapes) tend to offer a romantic view of innocence, locales where incursions from the outside world are threatening and make them sites for xenophobia. She cited the work of Slavoj Zizek and his phrase “the guilty landscape” and talked about the ways that culture, the film industry, and the tourism industry are all a part of national branding. The BBC Wallander uses a film technology that deepens depth and saturates color in order to create a specific view of Swedishness, with big skies and endless fields that emphasize mysteriousness. Like the landscape artists of the American West, the effect is to make the viewer feel small in the face of the vastness of nature. The actual center of Ystad was too picturesque and quaint for gritty crime, (“too Stratford upon Avon”), so the filmmakers had to find other locations that fit the bill. I wish I had taken better notes on this talk because it was an intriguing use of concepts from human geography that offer insights into why we are so intrigued by this particular guilty landscape.

The symposium was wrapped up with a lively talk by Ross Shideler of UCLA on “Lisbeth, Violence, and Identity.” He found striking parallels between Lisbeth Salander and Smilla (of Smilla’s Sense of Snow). Both have unusual skills and eccentricities as well as great intelligence, like the highly rational and eccentric detectives created by Poe and Doyle. He talked about Foucault’s history of prisons, Discipline and Punish, and the ways that resistance to torture may lead to freedom and that examination is a ritualized aspect of punishment and control. Lisbeth Salander as a child is punished and controlled. When she is first abused by Bjurman, she resists by refusing to be examined, and is silent and inexpressive – until she is able to reverse their positions and punish Bjurman by branding him; then she’s ready to talk and explain things to him. (All of this punishment, of course, is not because Salander has broken the rules of society; it’s to cover up the fact that agents of the state have broken social rules, and as in Foucault’s analysis of why public torture was abandoned in favor of systematic discipline, her punishment arouses sympathy. We want to take her side rather than the state’s.) In the third volume, during the trial, she finally agrees to participate in the system and to be examined by the state in court, reluctantly recognizing that it might actually work for a change. She, herself, has an unusually powerful panopticon view of society by hacking into the system and using that information in order to be an avenger.

We ended with a marvelous dinner at a family-owned Italian restaurant in Brentwood (getting a bit of a celebrity tour on the way – passing houses of film stars who are a mystery to me, since I pay so little attention to film and television). Kudos to Claus Elholm Andersen for organizing it, and to UCLA for being such warm hosts. And apologies to all the speakers for all the ways I might have garbled what you actually said!

One thought on “UCLA Larsson Symposium, Day Two

  1. Pingback: Scholars Take On Stieg Larsson & Scandinavian Crime Fiction | Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog

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