Swedish Crime Fiction by Kerstin Bergman: a Review

Swedish Crime Fiction by BergmanSwedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir 
by Kerstin Bergman
Mimesis/DeGenere, 2014
ISBN 9788857519838

I have met Kerstin Bergman twice, once at a conference about Stieg Larsson at UCLA and again when she came to our campus as we held an event focused on women crime fiction authors from Scandinavia. She struck me as a person who knew a lot about crime fiction and was able to communicate her knowledge clearly. That quality is evident in her new book, a thorough scholarly examination of Swedish crime fiction published in English (by an Italian publisher! truly an international effort). Though Bergman is quite young, she has long established herself as a major scholar, writing many articles and a standard Swedish textbook on the topic, holding a research appointment at Lund University. She is also a member of the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy. So I was not surprised to find her new book an absolutely terrific contribution.

Bergman begins the book by providing a history of crime fiction in Sweden from the late 19th century to the present, noting the changes it has gone through including the “breakthrough of the police procedural” with Sjowall and Wahloo’s ten-volume “story of a crime” in the vangard, the interest in the genre reignited with Henning Mankell’s success, and finally taking off like a rocket with the worldwide popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

She then provides several chapters in which she examines in greater depth the following:

  • the Martin Beck series and later police procedurals (“Sweden’s favorite kind of crime”)
  • Henning Mankell’s treatment of Swedishness and “the other” and how it has played out in other writer’s work
  • women authors, including Liza Marklund, who broke ground for women writers, and the women who have come since
  • the urban scene of crime (from Stieg Trenter to Jens Lapidus, who has done something quite novel with the genre).
  • the neo-romantic countryside (from Maria Lang to Mari Jungstedt, with consideration of Camilla Lackberg and other popular writers who focus on the countryside and on a Sweden untarnished by change; these novels are not notably focused on social criticism but rather on local crimes that arise out of family disfunction.)
  • the Stieg Larsson phenomenon and how his mix of playful remixing of genre conventions and social critique became an international success that opened the door for many writers to reach an international audience while also enabling Swedish writers to try different kinds of crime fiction than the police procedural.
  • the “Europeanization” of Swedish crime fiction in the works of Arne Dahl, who turned his focus from Sweden to Sweden in a more global context.
  • and finally, a handy review of crime fiction in other Nordic countries, providing both a run-down of major authors but also a comparison of crime fiction traditions in the countries.

This is a superb book that perfectly balances the interests of scholars and the passions of ordinary readers. Bergman is no slouch when it comes to critical theory, but I’m pleased that she chose to keep her focus firmly on the literature itself rather than on abstrations. Though this doesn’t diminish the scholarship involved, it makes the book accessible. It’s also unusually affordable for a scholarly book – which makes it a tempting purchase for readers who enjoy Swedish crime fiction as well as a gulit-free course adoption. Anyone teaching Scandinvian crime will want to assign this clear, well-organized, insightful book as a text. Those teaching Swedish literature or the crime fiction genre might want to consider it as a supplemental text. It should also find a home on the shelves of every academic library. It’s a very useful, well-done survey of Swedish crime fiction.

Bits and Bobs and a Promise of a Review

There is a new issue of the Journal of Specialized Translation out that’s devoted to crime fiction in translation, and one of the articles, by Kerstin Bergman, analyzes Denise Mina’s adaptation of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire into graphic novels. In particular, she focuses on the way Lisbeth Salander is depicted, finding the graphic novel character more sexualized and less feminist, with the overall story more of a crime adventure tale and less a work of critical feminism – partly echoing the visual style of comic book traditions, partly because the entire story is trimmed down, leaving out some of the social and political context. Having read one of these, I concur with her analysis, even though I am a huge Denise Mina fan. (I suspect that when a character is embraced by so many people in very different culltural contexts, we each end up with a slightly different Salander in our imaginations.)

Kerstin Bergman has also just published a terrific book, Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir, which I hope to review here very soon. Barry Forshaw praises it at CrimeTime (but wants you to buy his books, too.)

At Stop You’re Killing Me (a fabulously useful website that I fervently help will never stop) Lucinda Serber has a review of Anna Jansson’s Strange Bird, published by Stockholm Text in 2013. As usual, it’s not the first in the series. She calls it a “powerful scientific thriller” about a bird-borne disease that not only makes people sick, it brings out the worst in them. That’s an eerily timely topic.

Lynn Harvey reviews Kjell Ericksson’s newly translated Black Lies, Red Blood, which she finds embodies the social conscience of Scandi crime to an extent that might frustrate those looking for who dunnit or quick thrills. She concludes “these digressions are the result of Eriksson’s urge for realism and social reportage and if that informs the spirit of Scandi-noir for you – then BLACK LIES, RED BLOOD is also the latest in your essential reading.”

Laura Root reviews Karin Fossum’s The Murder of Harriet Krohn at Euro Crime, She finds this seventh in the Konrad Sejer series well-written but not as compelling as other books Fossum has written. It, like others, explores how an ordinary man can do awful things while, at heart, remaining a rather boring person.

I was chuffed to be interviewed a while back via email for a couple of articles about Scandinavian crime fiction in a Brazilian newspaper. I’m afraid I didn’t say anything profound or original, though it appears as if I actually know some Portuguese. (Sadly, I don’t.)

I missed the mainstream reviews, which have been plentiful, of Jo Nesbo’s latest novel, a standalone, which has met with a variety of responses. Val McDermid isn’t impressed by The Son, which she finds implausible, predictable, and too long. “Strip away the platitudes and the interior monologues, spare us the sentimentality and the self-justification, and this could have been a dark and muscular slice of noir that chills to the bone. Instead, it’s overblown and preachy with the kind of faux-nobility with which Hollywood loves to invest its villains.”

I’m afraid I felt rather the same in my review at Reviewing the Evidence, which concludes on this congenial note:

As always with Nesbø, the plot is deviously convoluted and the workings of escapades worked out like fine-tuned machinery. The main characters are full of charm and faults, driven and smart, but tempted by their addictions. The police force is riddled with corruption and crime is highly organized. There are times when the characters wax philosophical and ponder the nature of free will and hard choices between action scenes. It’s entertaining and, as always, full of twists, with a bit more of a morality play included than usual.

What it doesn’t have is any sense that what’s happening in the story owes any resemblance to reality. Nesbø’s books, which once were fresh and startling, offering a good bit of thought-provoking fun, have become a little too burdened with special effects. He owes more to Hollywood than to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the grandparents of contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction and the social critique it is known for. Nesbø doesn’t hold up a mirror to society or probe what ails it. It’s pure entertainment all the way down.

I have piles of reviews to write – eventually. Meanwhile, those of you in the Minneapolis area, don’t forget that on August 9th Once Upon a Crime will be hosting three Finnish crime writers worth meeting. The greatest mystery I’m pondering right now is how it can possibly be August already.