Review of The Ravens by Vidar Sundstøl

The Ravens is the conclusion of Vidar Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, following Land of Dreams and Only the Dead. Unlike many mystery series, these books really must be read together and in order, because they all concern the same crimes which are only resolved in this final volume. And for that reason, I need to include here a . . .

SPOILER ALERT!

It’s not really possible to discuss this book without inadvertently revealing some of the surprises in the previous two.

Just so you know.

You’ve been warned.

Okay, then. In The Ravens, “forest cop” Lance Hansen continues his obsessive quest to find out whether his brother Andy is responsible for the murder of a Norwegian tourist who was camping on the shore of Lake Superior. As a forest ranger, Lance has no responsibility for investigating this crime, rumored to be the first murder in Cook County, a wooded tract of land in the northeastern tip of the state, framed by Lake Superior, the Boundary Waters, and the Canadian border. Lance’s only involvement is that he discovered the body, close to Baraga’s Cross, a local historical landmark marking the place where a Catholic missionary landed in a storm on his way to minister to an Ojibwe community stricken with an epidemic.

Because the crime occurred on federal land, it is handled by the local FBI office with the help of a Norwegian detective. An Ojibwe man whose fingerprints are on the bat used to bludgeon the Norwegian to death and who can’t or won’t provide an alibi has been arrested and is awaiting trial. Blood evidence also suggests that the killer was an Indian, not a white descendant of European immigrants. But Lance, a local historian who is more comfortable in the past than in the present, has uncovered a family secret. He and his brother have Ojibwe ancestry. He also finds a second murder victim – an Ojibwe medicine man who disappeared in 1892, just as Lance’s ancestor stumbled ashore after walking across the frozen lake, delirious and half-dead. As Lance thinks to himself “his family had spent a century perfecting the art of forgetting.”

The RavensBecause he saw his brother’s truck close to the scene of the crime, and because he knows Andy is probably gay (as were the Norwegian tourists) but ashamed of his sexual identity and has a history of committing extreme violence, Lance becomes convinced his brother may be a killer. In the second book of the trilogy, that suspicion makes a hunting expedition take a threatening turn as Lance and Andy stalk one another. Layered in this narrative is the story of their ancestor, a young Norwegian immigrant who has crossed the frozen lake and who is terrified by the Indian medicine man who is trying to help him. It’s an intense and disorienting book that leaves us hanging.

In The Ravens, the hunt resumes. Lance continues the family tradition of lying by hiding out in Canada for weeks, convincing his family he is vacationing in Norway. On his return to Minnesota, he continues to lie about his activities while gathering information, particularly from Andy’s daughter, who has been dabbling in drugs and feels oppressed by her father’s protectiveness, which has become physically abusive. Lance reconnects with a woman who he loved many years ago and wonders if it’s too late to love again. He also visits his mother in a Duluth nursing home, where she’s beginning to lose her grip on reality but still seems saner than anyone else in the family. Throughout this concluding volume, Lance is suffers from the same condition as Hamlet. He feels compelled to act, but is paralyzed by introspection.

Though in some ways this final volume has more elements of a mystery than the previous two volumes, it fuses stylistic elements of both: the deep psychological conflicts within a man who seeks the truth but feels the pressures of convention, a mixing of past and present in the figure of Swamper Caribou and what Lance has learned about his murder, moments of visionary hallucinations, and inchoate tension as two brothers circle each other, full of fury and twisted family loyalty.

Throughout the three books, the landscape plays a major role, particularly the vast frozen lake that’s always there, that seems to be without boundaries, a frozen world where figures hover in the distance and large shadows move beneath the ice.

Lake Superior - Grand Marais Lighthouse in the fog

image of the Grand Marais lighthouse in the fog courtesy of Sharon Mollerus.

All in all, I found this an intriguing, poetic, and really unusual crime fiction trilogy, well worth trying. The translation is by the always reliable Tiina Nunnally, who has done a great job. If you’re in Minneapolis tomorrow evening (April 21st) you can meet the author at Once Upon a Crime at 7 pm where I’ll have a chance to interview him. I hope to report back here.

review roundup

At Crime Scraps, Norm reviews Liza Marklund’s latest Annika Bengtzon thriller, Borderline which involves international intrigue and a hostage situation. Does it make me a bad person to be pleased that Annika’s annoying ex is a hostage? It sounds very good (and not just because Thomas is in trouble.)

At Petrona Remembered, there’s a fascinating email exchange/converation between Neil Smith and Liza Marklund about The Long Shadow and its translation and possible reception by English readers. Fascinating! And it ends on a cliffhanger . . .

The Guardian credits the popularity of Scandinavian crime for a boom in translated fiction in the UK.

Crime Fiction Lover provides a lovely tribute and overview of the Martin Beck Series written by Jeremy McGraw

At Crime Review, Tracy Johnson reviews Aren Dahl’s To the Top of the Mountain, who feels the humanity of the characters adds to their appeal.

At Reviewing the Evidence, Yvonne Klein unpacks the multiple plot strands and global locations for Jussi Alder-Olsen’s latest entry in the Carl Mørckseries, The Marco Effect, making it sound very well worth reading.

She makes a reference to an interview with the author in the Huffington Post, which is also worth a read. The author mentions that in addition to a Danish film version of the first in the series, there’s talk of a U.S. television adaptation of the characters, possibly s Hmm…

Ms. Wordopolis reviews an earlier book in Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, Voices. She finds it’s not the best in the bunch, but it’s still a favorite series. “It’s a reminder to me to spend less time on new releases and catch up on older books.” I’m so glad you feel that way!

Ms. Wordopolis also thinks the second volume of the Minnesota Trilogy, Vidar Sundstol’s Only the Dead, is a much tighter, very different sort of book from the first. I agree with her that it will be interesting to see what the third and final volume is like.

Laura Root also reviews the book at Euro Crime, finding it both unexpected and gripping. (Ditto.)

Staci Alesi (“the Book Bitch”) also reviews that book for Booklist and says though it is short – almost a novella – it’s dark, beautifully written, and suspenseful.

Jose Ignacio Esrcribano reviews (in two languages!) Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, which finishes the Erlunder series (chronologically, at least). He enjoyed it very much, as did I.

At International Noir Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Jo Nesbo’s Police, in which Harry Hole is off stage for a good bit of the action, and speculates whether the end is really the end – or not.

Sarah Ward reviews Black Noise by Pekka Hiltunen at Crimepieces and wonders whether it qualifies as Scaninavian crime, given it’s set in London. She finds it has a promising story about social media that unfortunately goes awry, becoming quite implausible. She hopes for better next time.

She also reviews Elsebeth Egholm’s Three Dog Night, a Danish novel about a recently-released convict who moves to a remote community only to meet a prison mate who is, unfortunately, dead. She says it has a well-constructed plot with a good ending though some of the characters in the fraying community can be hard to keep straight. She’s looking forward to the sequel, coming out in the UK soon.

Karen Meek reports on hearing two Danish authors interviewed by Peter Guttridge – Elsebeth Eghholm, Lene Kaaberbol, at the Manchester Literature Festival. Lots of insight into the authors and being translated, here.

Mrs. Peabody investigates a French thriller set in Norway, Olivier Truc’s Forty Days Without Shadow, likening it to M. J.McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series set in the Canadian artic. It’s a “cracking debut” that illuminates nomadic Sami culture in a world with borders.  It sounds like a strong nominee for the Petrona Award. Mrs. P. links to an interesting  interview with the author.

Gary Jacobson reviews Karin Fossum’s I Can See in the Dark and finds it creepy, chilling, and effective at portraying the inner life of a very unpleasant man who is guilty of many crimes except for the one he’s accused of.

At Euro Crime, Lynn Harvey reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the fourth in the Finland-set series, but the first she read.  She says it stands on its own, but she’s ready to go back and read the rest. She concludes, “if you love the mystery of character as much as the mystery of crime – set in a wintry Scandinavian landscape – then I think you will savour [it] as much as I did.

Finns in Minnesota – the Report

It could be a record – three Finnish crime fiction authors together at a single event in North America. It was also a lot of fun. I had a chance to meet the authors – Antti Tuomainen, Jari Tervo, and Jarkko Sipila – at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, and then used the excuse of delivering a book needed for display purposes to hear the authors speak at FinnFest without actually registering for the event. (There seemed to be quite a lot of registrants, so I didn’t feel too guilty.)  I also enjoyed finally meeting Juokko Sipila, publisher of Ice Cold Crime, which is doing a lot to bring translated Finnish literature to American readers.

While it will take me a while yet to post reviews of Tervo’s Among the Saints and Sipila’s latest Helsinki Homicide entry, Darling, I wanted to write about the authors’ appearance before I can’t make out the scribbled notes I took.  I won’t be able to review Antti Tuomainen’s next book until it comes out later this year or in 2015, but I will.

Finnish Authors in MN

Jari Tervo, Antti Tuomainen, Jarkko Sipila, and a short person; photo courtesy of Juoko Sipila

One thing that interested me is that, while people often speak of Scandinavian crime fiction as if it’s all somehow similar, these three writers are very different in style. Jarkko Sipila, who works as a television crime reporter in Helsinki in addition to writing 19 crime novels to date, writes in a style that would be familiar to fans of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. It’s an ensemble police procedural with an emphasis on representing crime and cops as realistically as possible. Jari Tervo is a huge celebrity in FInland, hosting a talk show that is wildly popular in addition to having published 23 books, three of which are crime stories. The only one to be translated is Among the Saints, just released, Like Sipila’s approach to urban crime, he’s interested in capturing the strange reality of life in northern Finland, through a raucous multi-voiced story about a murder, There are 35 narrators, with the first being the hapless victim, who starts the book with “I was killed the first week of May. It wasn’t even ten o’clock in the morning.” Where Sipila’s reality is gritty, Tervo’s is Rabelaisian. Tuomainen’s novel is about yet another kind of reality – the one we face as our planet’s climate changes. He imagines a world where refugees have fled north, the wealthy have retreated into guarded compounds, and a man tries to figure out where love and poetry belong in a time of chaos.

So, three completely different approaches to crime fiction – but a lovely trio when it came to talking about their writing.

Jari Tervo grew up in Rovaniemi, capital of Finland’s northernmost province and a center for tourists who want to see norther lights and learn about Saami culture. He wants to portray what life in this part of Finland is llike, and among the many voices in Among the Saints, we meet some really goofy characters. I asked how his portrayal of the north is recieved by northerners and he said they love it because they feel it truly captures their experience. He also, speaking at FinnFest, commented that light is a factor – living in darkness in the winter and constant light in summer tends to a certain amount of craziness. Tervo’s publisher has described his style as “Quentin Tarantino meets William Faulkner.” If we borrow zaninesss and a bit crime from Tarantino and the almost ethnographic community ensemble from Faulkner, this makes sense – but Tervo himself settled for “brilliant, yet cheap.” (He’s much funnier than Tarantino or Faulkner.) When he writes, he comes up with the first sentence and the last. “Then all I have to do is write the 300 pages in between.” Rather than have a detailed outline, he likes to see where things go: “writing is discovering.” He also talked about how difficult it is to translate a novel into film because you have to trim so much out. “A novel inhales a huge amount of information,” he said.

Jarkko Sipila’s first name in pronounced “YARK-ko” but when he was a small boy, he lived in Columbus, Ohio while his father attended graduate school at Ohio State. He was used to Americans mispronouncing his name and was quite excited about his fame when ads for Jarkko filters ran on television (since he was used to people calling him “charcoal”). He started to study engineering, but decided “Finland would be better off without bridges designed by me” so instead studied to become a journalist (which is also Tervo’s background). He grew frustrated reading about police in fiction who had floridly dysfunctional personal lives, yet were able to solve crimes singlehandedly with their brilliance. In reality, police officers suffering from alcoholism and traumatic stress wouldn’t be working, they’d be hospitalized. His police officers work as a team under the leadership of Kari Takamäki, a character who he says he has made deliberately a bit unexciting. When I asked about the experience of writing for Finns but having a much wider audience, he said that police have something in common worldwide. They want to catch the bad guys. In a sense that makes the police proedural an easily exported genre. A member of the audience asked whether it was problematic writing about crime in a country where there was so little of it. Sipila pointed out that while Finland has half the crime rate of the U.S., it has twice as many homicides as Sweden and four teimes as many as Norway. One contrast to the U.S., though, is that while gun ownership is quite high in Finland, guns are rarely used in homicides. Knives are a more common weapon. “We like to get in close,” he joked. He also mentioned that crime fiction became popular in Finland in the mid-1990s and he felt it was a response to the recession the country was going through at the time, that people were particularly receptive to the idea of violence having a reason behind it, of justice being served in fiction if not in daily life.

Antti Tuomainen is newer to publishing books (and the other two made a lot out of his having merely published five as opposed to 19 and 23!) Perhaps because his early writing career was in advertising, he came up with a catchy conept for The Healer: since it is a crime story, a romance, and a futurisitic dystopia, you get three books for the price of one! I asked him if he had any theories about why dystopia is suddenly so much a part of our popular culture and he wasn’t sure, other than that the impact of global warming is inescapably evident. He also pointed out that his dystopian novel predates The Hunger Games and all the ensuing imitations, so he was in the distrous future ahead of the pack. Unlike Sipila, who writes an outline, drafts a book in about two months, then does several revisions that take another couple of months, Tuomainen’s stories take longer to come together. “I can write a synopsis,” he said. “I just can’t stick to it.” He discovers things as he goes along, and he also senses when something isn’t right. He described it as being “out of tune,” something that is just discordant in the narrative and has to come out. One of his books was recently optioned for film. When he was asked if he would like to write the script, and he immediately said no. A script requires so many rewrites and so many changes demanded by others that he would find it a frustrating and time-consuming venture. His next book to be translated is titled Dark as My Heart, about a man who wants to find out what happened to his birth mother who disappeared when he was a child. It will be out in the UK from Harvill Secker next year; he told me there may be an ebook version available as soon as October. I look forward to it.

Thanks to Juoko Sipila, FinnFest, and Once Upon a Crime for hosting such an enjoyable encounter with these three fine – and very different – Finnish writers.

books

My book haul for the day.

Mark Your Calendars: Finns in Minnesota, Crime in Iceland

Three Finnish crime authors will be in Minneapolis in August to participate in Finnfest USA an annual national gathering for all things Finnish.

They are participating in FinnFest USA, an annual event that is being held in Minneapolis this year (fittingly, since the first Finnish communities were established in the US 150 years ago by Finns who arrived in Red Wing with the intent to settle and retain their Finnish Finnish flagcultural identities in an area that was being settled by many Nordic immigrants).

For those who aren’t registering for the entire Finn-o-palooza, you will have an opportunity to meet the Finnish authors at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore, where they will be meeting readers and signing books between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm on Saturday, August 9th. The authors are:

  • Antti Tuomainen (author of the dystopian-romantic-noirish novel The Healer)
  • Jarkko Sipila (author of the Helsinki Homicide police procedural series, the latest of which, Darling, is about to be released)
  •  Jari Tervo (author of a number of novels, the first of which is just being published in English – Among the Saints; thanks to the publisher, Ice Cold Crime, I hope to have a review here soon)

This may be the only time three Finnish crime authors have appeared together in the US. They picked a wonderful store as their host.

I hope to attend the event and report back. Meanwhile, here are my previous reviews of Tuomainen’s The Healer and Sipila’s Against the Wall, Vengeance, Nothing But the Truth, and Cold Trail.

In November, you can travel to Iceland for the second Iceland Noir festival of crime fiction. Along with a great many Icelandic authors and authors who set their books in Iceland, you can meet writers from as far away as South Africa. Johan Theorin of Sweden and Vidar Sundstol of Norway will also be on the program. There will also be a Snæfellsnes Mystery Tour with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir to the remote and Iceland flagsrugged setting of her ghost story, My Soul to Take

At this event, the first award for crime fiction translated into Icelandic (the “Icepick”) will be announced. Here is the shortlist, hot off the press release:

  • Joël Dicker: La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair] – Icelandic translation: Friðrik Rafnsson
  • Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl – Icelandic translation: Bjarni Jónsson
  • Jo Nesbø: Panserhjerte [The Leopard] – Icelandic translation: Bjarni Gunnarsson
  • Håkan Nesser: Människa utan hund [Man Without Dog] – Icelandic translation: Ævar Örn Jósepsson
  • Antti Tuomainen: Veljeni vartija [My Brother’s Keeper] – Icelandic translation: Sigurður Karlsson

A Visit with Jan Arnald / Arne Dahl

This past week Jan Arnald was in town as part of a visiting writers program hosted by our Scandinavian Studies department. Jan Arnald is, of course, known to many of us as Arne Dahl, a rearrangement of letters that he used to write crime fiction in secrecy for many years. I enjoyed having him over to our house for lunch last Thursday and hearing his Jan Arnaldlecture that evening, with a packed audience – quite an accomplishment considering how close the students are to their final exams. What follows is a combination of my memory of our conversation and his evening talk.

Arnald finds this part of the United states strangely familiar, partly because so many Swedish immigrants settled in this part of the upper Midwest, partly because of the weather that feels a bit like home. (It was cold and gray and blustery.) His talk opened with a series of “what ifs” in a Tristram Shandy-ish mode. Intriguingly, his parents emigrated to the US in the mid-1920s and adopted the name Arnald, but returned home in 1929, so he became a native-born Stockholmer (which is, like New York or LA, a place largely populated by people who grew up somewhere else).

After talking about many ways he could have been someone else, born in a different place and time or under even slightly different circumstances, he said “that is the vertigo of literature, of fiction.” Even in an era of information overload, we need these “what ifs.” Without the ability to tell stories, to imagine the world through the eyes of other people leading fictional lives, we become lesser human beings.

Though he isn’t  particularly fond of the question “what defines Swedish crime fiction?” given how much variation there is among writers, he outlined some ways that modern Swedish crime fiction evolved, starting with an insight he gained from a fellow author at the Oxford Literary Festival, Nigerian author Ben Okri, who said it seemed to him to have its roots in Norse mythology and elements of the Icelandic saga. Arnald was surprised because he considers himself more anchored in Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies, but Okri said Nordic crime has “a crude power, a distinctive ethics, few words, lonely people, a lot of weather and not so much food, and a boundless single-mindedness.” Arnaldur Indriðason once told me once that it all goes back to the old sagas, at least for that Icelander, but this was a new perspective for Arnald. He found the idea of old traditions handed down unconsciously quite an appealing notion.

During the 19th century, he told us, Sweden was a monarchy with a strong state church and a farming culture, from which 1.3 million Swedes out of a population of 5 million emigrated to other shores. In the early 20th century, the country began to urbanize and developed a strong union movement and a social democratic government that in the 1930s developed the concept of the folkhemmet – the Swedish idea that all people in the country were part of a family and shared a “people’s home,” a way of fostering solidarity and equality while treading a middle ground between revolutionary socialism and unbridled capitalism. Swedish crime fiction grew out of this tradition, but only when cracks began to appear in the foundations of the people’s home. This is the Sweden that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö described in their ten-volume “story of a crime” in which the crime was the betrayal of social ideals. They set the standard for crime fiction, demonstrating that it could be as good as any other literature, raising readers’ expectations of the genre.

After their series came to an end, however, crime fiction as a genre virtually disappeared from Sweden. It wasn’t a popular genre from the mid 1970s to the 1980s, until the shocking murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. This was a moment that changed the country. “We lost our innocence,” he said, having to face the fact that crime was no longer something that happened in other countries, not in safe, secure Sweden. It gripped the nation, and because the killer was never caught meant it wasn’t a story easily resolved. “The entire nation followed the investigation very closely,” he said. “We all got involved in solving crimes. Everybody became a detective.” This loss of innocence and collective attention to crime set the stage for a crime fiction boom.

Henning Mankell conducted the same sort of social analysis that Sjöwall and Wahlöö did, looking at crime as a way of examining changes in Swedish culture, but he became an international success, far more famous and widely read than Sjöwall and Wahlöö. “We got our first Swedish superstar,” as he put it.

Arnald considers himself part of a third generation of writers, ones who came of age in a Sweden that was part of a globalized world, where the fall of the Berlin Wall made Eastern Europe suddenly much closer. (I was reminded of Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis talking Misteriosoabout how astonishing it was to travel to Eastern Europe and find this strangely preserved culture, separated from the rest of Europe for so long.) In the early 1990s financial speculation almost ruined the country’s economy, which set the stage for Misterioso, the first of his crime novels to be translated into English.

At this point in his life, he knew he wanted to be a writer and had published a serious novel, some short stories, and poetry, but (as he put it) “it proved very difficult to make a living from writing experimental Swedish poetry.” He earned a PhD in literature, taught at a university, and co-founded a critical journal. But he still wanted to write imaginatively, and the interior style of literary fiction didn’t seem to suit the world that was changing around him. He wanted to write about society as it changed, and realized that kind of project might give him back his love for writing.

During a bout of flu, he tried reading Kafka, which turned out not to be the best thing to do when in a high fever, so he stumbled over to his shelves to get something else – which turned out to be Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, It reminded him of his passion for crime fiction as a young reader, and realized that the genre had room for high quality writing. He set out to write ten books in ten years, like Sjowall and Wahloo, but describing a very different Sweden.

He didn’t want to focus too much violence, though facing fear is a powerful motive for reading and writing fiction. He didn’t want to dwell on evil, per se, but understanding the roots of evil acts in the past or in the pursuit of money and power is interesting. He wasn’t particularly interested in crime, but he found the seduction of the forbidden paired with the promise of justice being served compelling. “The transgressions on the borders of society,”Bad Blood he said, “define that society.” When new kinds of crime arise in a society, it says a lot about changes in that society, and those changes, he decided, would be the focus of his series.

Though often crime fiction is faulted for being formulaic, he felt there were many variations to work on that formula. He was particularly interested in avoiding closure, which he called “the enemy of literature.” His challenge was to create endings that left some questions unanswered, to leave readers thinking after closing the book.

He also resisted the cliche of the lonely detective, a middle-aged man carrying the sins of the world on his shoulders. For him, writing about crime was an opportunity to give his art a “social turn,” and he wanted to create a collective protagonist to provide both various perspectives, but also to show how justice isn’t always an individual pursuit, that people can come together and form a team.

He did all this in secret, though, wanting to have his Arne Dahl identity have a fresh start and not be seen as the work of a “learned bastard” who wrote criticism and taught literature. He found his stories influenced (apart from his literary roots in Shakespeare and Greek tragedy) in proletarian literature of the 1930s and in American television – particularly Homicide, which had a similarly collective cast with complicated lives that extended across the series.

Among the attractions of the genre are intensity, catharsis, a problem to solve, the sudden appearance of truth, clarity that life generally lacks, a troubled past put in order, justice being served. Crime writers, he said, don’t love violence and horror. They love justice.

He wanted to portray a Swedish decade through the eyes of a team working together to solve new kinds of international crimes occurring in Sweden, writing stories that tap the core tragedies of life while at times being playful and ironic. And through crime fiction, which he believes is true literature, he found his way back to “the pure pleasure of writing.”

Of course, we English readers are coming to his work very late. I asked him why there was such a long delay in the publication of Misterioso, as I’d been hearing it had been translated for years before it finally came out. Apparently, Random House acquired world English rights but was in no hurry to exploit them, even as his books were selling well in the rest of the world. The publisher wanted changes to Misterioso, particularly to the ending, that neither he nor his translator (the masterful Tiina Nunnally) were happy with. But eventually it was published, and at a bizarrely appropriate moment, when the 2008 financial crisis was fresh in mind and a mystery involving the systematic stalking and murder of wealthy men who had crashed the economy was curiously satisfying. Bad Blood was also uncannily timely, with its Iraq war plot elements easily shifting forward in time for American readers from the first Gulf War into our more recent military adventure in the Middle East.

Though I’m sure it was frustrating for him to wait so long to have an English-speaking audience, he joked about it in his evening talk, calling translation a time machine, one that brought him back to his younger days as a young and promising crime writer, “This is a time machine I don’t mind traveling in.”

I’m rather more impatient – I waited years to read Misterioso! but I’m pleased to see a third book is coming out in the UK soon and look forward to reading it. My reviews of Misterioso and Bad Blood can be found at Reviewing the Evidence. I hope to have a review of the third book, To the Top of the Mountain, joining them soon because I now have a copy of it. Tack så mycket, Jan Arnald.

Photo of the author by Sara Arnald courtesy of Wikipedia

 

p/review of The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Later this month, the Univesity of Minnesota press will release the first volume in the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author who spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams will be followed by Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). After reading the first, I’m impatient to read the rest.

As the novel opens, Lance Hansen, a forest ranger who patrols the national forest that occupies so much of Cook County, a vast wedge of land stretching between the lake and the Canadian border, is on his way to speak with campers who have illegally pitched a tent near the lake not far from Baraga’s Cross. This is the kind of work he does – enforcing rules, preventing people from dumping garbage on public land, organizing search parties when vacationers got lost, occasionally encountering illegal logging or hidden meth labs. Nothing too dramatic. But this morning will be different.

He parked his service vehicle at the end of the road and got out. It was 7:28. In front of him stretched Lake Superior. There was nothing to see but light and water and sky – no opposite shore on which to fix his eyes, just the illusory meeting of sky and the surface of the water far off in the distance.

Baraga's Crossphoto of Baraga’s Cross courtesy of Jeffachen.

As he heads down the path toward the granite marker that marks the spot where a European missonary once erected a wooden cross after surviving a stormy crossing in 1846, he finds a shoe and a handprint marking where someone fell. Then, as he gets closer to the cross, he sees a bare leg sticking out. A naked man is sitting against the cross, covered in blood and muttering something inaudible. The intonation seems familiar and Hansen realizes he’s speaking Norwegian. Only one word is audible: kjærlighet. Love.

Hansen finds another man not far away, bludgeoned to death. Soon the county’s sheriff arrives. Homicide isn’t a crime they’ve handled much. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder in Cook County in the 25 years he’s been its sheriff. Because the crime occured on federal land, an FBI agent is summoned fom the St. Paul field office, and he is soon joined by a Norwegian detective. Hansen’s involvement in the investigation is over – though there is one thing he’s holding back. He’d seen a familiar truck near the cross, one belonging to his brother Andy, who he understand less than his immigrant ancestors, whose history is stored in binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves in Hansen’s home office.

As the unofficial county historian, Hansen feels more comfortable in the past, and as the FBI agent and his Norwegian colleague try to discover whether a tourist killed his companion or whether someone else was responsible, Hansen becomes fascinated by old news accounts of a body found near the same place in 1892, It could have been the body of an Ojibwe medicine man named Swamper Caribou who’d gone missing earlier, a disappearance that may be connected to an old family story about a fifteen-year-old boy crossing the lake on a winter night – and possibly to Hansen’s dream of walking under the frozen surface of Lake Superior.

The Land of Dreams, beautifully translated by Tiinna Nunnally, is an evocative novel that draws together past and present, the lives of immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the North Shore, American dreams and suppressed violence hidden behind calm exteriors and polite silences. In some ways this sounds like Karin Fossum’s explorations of the squirmy things living under the rocks of peaceful small towns in Norway, but in tone and style it’s far closer to Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet, which combines an atmospheric natural setting with psychologically probing portraits and a very light touch of the supernatural.

I’m not surprised that it was awarded the Riverton Prize. It’s a very good book.  I admit that I particularly enjoyed a setting that is familiar to me – just a few weeks ago we traveled to the places where the story is set. Even if you haven’t been to the North Shore, this book will provide you with an interesting journey. The only problem is that you’ll want to return as soon as possible, as there is obviously more to the story.

If you are in the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Once Upon a Crime, where the author will be speaking on October 17th at 7pm. If you can’t make it, Pat and Gary will save you a signed copy. If you can go, be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet and a heavier bookshelf. It’s a great store full of temptation. But you know you need more books.

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Jarkko Sipila, June 15th

Finnish author Jarkko Sipila will be appearing at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis on June Cold Trail - Siplia15th between noon and 2pm. I’ve read and reviewed three of the four police procedurals by Sipila now available in English, thanks to a small publisher devoted to translations of crime fiction from Finland, Ice Cold Crime. All of the translations by Peter Ylitalo Leppa have been excellent. The series has won awards in Finland and has been made into a television series.

I hope to have a review of the fourth – Cold Trail – up soon, but I have to get it away from my husband first. (He gives it high marks.)

Sipila’s books are characterized by gritty realism, with a group of cops led by Kari Takimaki who we get to know quite well doing their best to maintain the peace in a country where Eastern and Western Europe collide and the criminals are bad guys, but entirely human. I’m looking forward to reading the latest entry and grateful to Ice Cold Crime for bringing them to an English-speaking audience.

If you make it to Once Upon a Crime, hang out and you’ll get to meet Craig Johnson (author of the Walt Longmire series) who will be arriving at 3:30. Once Upon a Crime is a happening place, as Shamus could tell you.

seamus at OUAC

An Interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen

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There was a great turn-out for Jussi Adler-Olsen’s stop at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis this weekend. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and he graciously allowed me to record it all. What follows is a more or less accurate transcript.

You’ve written a lot of books, including two books on Groucho Marx, an encyclopedia of cartoons, and three thrillers, one about two British pilots who landed behind enemy lines in World War II Germany, one about a Dutch character who goes to Indonesia –

Yes, made in 2000, one year before nine-eleven, and the subject was about an airplane falling into a high tower and distributing anthrax letters. [expressions of awe and astonishment from the audience]

And you wrote one about an American president –

Yes, this one – it could be today it was published. It’s very controversial.

So you have a crystal ball. And now you have started the Department Q books. What led you start writing a police procedural series set in Denmark?

Ah, many things. First of all, a Danish film producer called me and asked me if I wrote the best books in Denmark, and I said “certainly, yes, I do.” [audience laughter] He said “I would like you to do the follow-ups to the old Sjowall and Wahloo series. He asked me to do the follow-ups to them because he hated to work with Swedish people, and I understood him so perfectly. [more audience laughter] So I came to this company and he said to me, “I would like you to do police stories.” And I said “I’m not interested. I hope you would make grand thrillers with, you know, supertankers being smashed in the open sea . . . you can’t afford what I’m doing.”  “Well, but I can see you are interested” – but I wasn’t. He didn’t know the difference between a crime story and a thriller. You do, of course. Crime stories, solving a crime and that’s – pfah! – but a thriller, trying to prevent a crime from happening – that’s another thing, then you are turning the pages quicker. I like the old stories, old stories, real stories, the bible: did Abraham kill Isaac? The Red Sea, did he cross it? So these are the real stories, like Victor Hugo and The Count of Monte Cristo – we want to know the end. In Denmark, you have to work with specific regions and specific types of crimes, and I said no. I wanted to be free. I’d had great success with the first three novels, bestsellers all over Europe, so why should I?

Anyway, I wondered “could you do this? Could you be free and still do this? So I invented a police officer who didn’t care, pardon my French, a shit about being fired. So he’s doing whatever he likes, and there’s the story. He sits in the cellar being lazy, smokes cigarettes, everything I would like to do. But I don’t allow him to do that very long because there’s another guy, Assad – well, I guess I answered your question.

Yes. So it took that to get you to stay home in Denmark.

It’s true, because the reviewers, everyone was so annoyed that nothing happened in Denmark and no Danish characters at all in my books. I wanted to go to America. I started film in university and wanted to make a Hollywood movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes in the two parts of the pilots [in his first thriller], I wanted that – but in Hollywood, with CinemaScope, you know, everything. It didn’t happen, but it will, I know it will.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Department Q books in film, too.

They are going to be. The first one will come out in the autumn, [Here we had some top-secret off-the-record discussion of other film possibilities. My lips are sealed.]

Your father worked as a psychiatrist and you and your sisters lived in hospitals around Denmark.

Yes. That’s why . . . [audience laughter]

So how did that influence your career as a writer?

Well . . . in 1955 I was five years old. There psychopharmica [pharmacological treatments for mental illness] hadn’t entered the world. So you could strap down people, you could give them shock treatment and stuff like that. It dropped them totally down, but they couldn’t come back to reality. So therefore they were in cages. In the summertime, the women here, the men over there – screaming and spitting at us. And my father said “you must realize, those people were like you, once.” And that made a big impression on me. I learned a lot about empathy for weird and odd people. You should see my friends, for instance. They are very odd. I had a shop like this with comics – you can imagine. My friends are like you! [audience laughter]

In 1956 we moved to another hospital and there they had psychopharmica. We had a very nice patient there. He wasn’t that nice, actually, because he killed his wife. My father said, to undramatize it, “you know, they fought like dog and cat. He was a dog, and he won in the end.” He wasn’t insane before, but he became insane after the murder, Having psychopharmica after ten years in the hospital, he came sort of back to normal. This person was called “Mørck .” Do you know what “mørck ” means in Danish? Dark. This is a coincidence, but I learned a lot from him because in him I could see good and evil very well combined, and I see that, in fact, in every person. So I learned empathy, i learned every aspect of human beings.

My best friend . . . he was very tall. A very strong man who had killed a man with one blow. I was impressed by that. He was my body guard in one of the hospitals. I was five or six and I could walk around like this [he holds his arm up, as if holding the hand of a giant] and no one would interfere. I learned a lot. I learned to be afraid of authority. I wasn’t afraid of the patients, but the doctors – they were scary. The ones with rubber stuff and pills and could press the button and not all of them in the fifties had empathy at all. My father, he had it, and I learned a lot from him.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Department Q series? There are three now in English. Are there more to come?

Yes, I am writing number six now,  This started as an experiment. First of all, could I find a way to do what he wanted, this producer, without working together with him. (I never saw him again, actually). Then I thought, maybe I should do the longest story ever made in the world, 5,000 pages. I know people here would say “oh, Raymond Chandler, he wrote that many books,” but we’re talking about one story with one plot line for each main character, being well combined and stretched – and we’re not talking about being divorced or having children, Real stories. Those were the first I made, the stories of Carl Mørck, Assad and Rose. Every book is one chapter, every book is part of the dramatic curve, and this one, number three, it’s a little up; the next one is a little down.

You know the first one, that’s a platform, right? Therefore the case must be very simple: the woman in the cage. Number two, there you can show the borderlines of how violent you can be, It must be number two. If you’re going to write [he’s confiding in the audience, now], number two must be the violent one. No splatter – no, no.  Number six is hard, because the stories are coming to an end. Number seven, you have the story of Rose. Rose is two-dimensional, we are not in her head, so we have to wait for number seven, and eight is Assad. [Much audience commotion: “we have to wait until number eight?!”] Oh, you know what’s going to happen! And then number nine, it’s the story of Carl, and then number ten is fireworks. [From the audience: “Are they all going to live through it?”] Shhh! Are you someone who reads the ending first? Okay, I’m not going to tell, and I’m the only person in the world who knows, so if I’m doing a Stieg Larsson . . . [he shrugs; audience laughter] We have the storylines put in a safe in Denmark and I’ve already appointed my successor if something should happen to me, like being shot here in Minneapolis or something.

Also sometimes known as “muderapolis” . . . 

Murderapolis? Oh, it’s only the tenth murder, I think. We can do much better in Denmark.

There’s a lot of Scandinavian heritage here, so –

And they’re the ones killing each other, yeah? You know, this is Viking blood [pointing to himself]; this is a Dane. The Swedes? Phht. The Norwegians? [shakes his head] It’s us! We own all the stuff there. And that’s why we’re such good storytellers. Because we have nothing to do. And that’s the same for Wallander, you know, and Jo Nesbo and all. We had nothing to do, it’s simple. The Vikings, they’re good at murders, they killed people just to keep warm.

Some really terrible things happen to people in your books. When I started the first one I thought, Oh my god, where are we going with this? A woman in captivity, and it’s a very long book – but they’re also very funny.

We are funny in Denmark. That’s the difference between Swedes and Danes. The Swedes, they are so formal on the outside. I am a very big success in Europe, most of all in Germany. And I thought “Germans, that’s a problem.” Because how can you enter that formal society, with Herr Professor and Zie and Doktor, even if they were acquainted for many, many years. But I found out that inside they were like Danes in disguise. That’s not the same with Swedes. You read Henning Mankell, that’s funny?  And the Norwegians, they’re just crazy. Jo Nesbo – nice guy, but crazy. No, he’s sweet.

Hakan Nesser –

He’s Swedish.

I know, but he’s funny.

No. [there is absolutely no room for debate in his voice.] I met him again at Frankfurt last autumn. We had always been sitting down. This time he rose to embrace me. And he rose and rose and rose . . . He’s like [indicates a giant size].

This mix of humor and darkness, how do you combine them? How do you keep it from being violence as entertainment? Is there a way to balance that?

Yes, there’s a way to balance everything. I am a former publisher. I was a publisher at the biggest publishing company in Scandinavia, and I’ve been everything in this business, even a bookseller and a printer, an editor and a publisher. Do you know what I know? Readers. They are wiser than most authors think. They are much cleverer and you have been reading much more than the authors. So you have to respect that you want specific stuff to happen in specific places, but not too much of it. The first mantra of mine is what I call “the missing voice.” If you see a painting, most of them are lousy to be frank, but if you melt into it, then there’s a missing voice. If you listen to music – I love classical music. If you listen to Beethoven, my  god, after two hours you are tired. It’s good, but overproduced. Every line in the composition is there. But Mozart, he took two or three voices out, and he knew which. Those are the voices you hum, and you can listen to him for hours and hours. In stories, in literature, that’s you. That means to treat the fantasy of the reader, to treat certain elements, like being scared, sorrow, laughing, The first goal of an author should be to respect the readers.

I write in a system you all know. WordPerfect 5.1. [audience laughter] It’s quite old. I know every other system, but WordPerfect 5.1, you don’t have to move the mouse, so therefore you don’t lose your concentration, just write, write, write, and ten hours – that’s it. Blue screen and white letters, you can do that forever. In Word, you write and after ten minute it looks marvelous. “This is a book I made, fantastic!” I know mine is shit. I meet with other authors to read from our work, and I can’t be hurt because know mine is shit, but they are hurt because they don’t know theirs is, too. The difference between me and them is that I am changing, changing, changing and they are not. Then I convert it to Word, and suddenly I see it in another way. I throw a lot over the shoulder. The third time I convert it to PDF, and it looks like a book. And I try to imagine you, the reader, lying in bed (because you are) and you are reading, and after five minutes your head is falling down, and I put in such a short sentence you can read it and then you can take one more half page and . . .  you’re doing it again and again. Sometimes its very necessary to use humor and sometimes you just must be scared. I can so clearly see what is necessary when I’m reading it in PDF.

Carl Mørck: why did you choose that person for a hero? He sits around, he puts his feet on the table, he doesn’t want to do any work.

No. He’s totally free to do nothing.

So, he’s liberated?

He’s liberated. He’s liberated from the standards of the police story, right? I didn’t know of cold cases when I wrote this. Later on, I found out there are 2, 450 series about cold cases. I didn’t know, actually. I never read thrillers and crime stories anymore. I haven’t done that for ten years, so I know nothing. I’m just scared of being influenced. I want to feel original. We are making a main character and a sidekick. Do you know who’s Watson and Sherlock Holmes here? [audience laughter] Because they don’t know. Assad is very skilled and has a lot of secrets, and Carl does as well, so the interaction between them can be quite a lot, but it’s not enough. After a few books, every couple like that, they become stereotypical. So therefore I had to place secrets so that they can use different parts of their personalities to be different to each other. But I knew this wasn’t enough. We needed something totally chaotic – and that’s Rose. Rose is pure anarchy. With those three persons, it’s endless, the possibility of interactions between them, and that’s what I wanted. So – and Carl, of course, is a combination  of this insane person and this fantastic writer – me, called Carl Waldemar Jussi Adler- Olsen, this is my real name – very short and clear. The part  of me in Carl is, of course, very obvious. He’s humorous, nice . . . no. [laughter]. He came from William H. Gaines. Do you remember him? Mad magazine? The owner himself? He was a very dear friend of mine, because I published every magazine in Scandinavia including Mad magazine and he said once – well, he said many things. He said once, “do you want to have a really nice and lucky life? Please buy 400 pairs of socks that are the same. Then you don’t have to look for the one that’s missing.” He said to me, “Jussi, please remember ‘the shadow knows.'” It was made by Sergio Aragonas and it was a little comic strip at the side of the pages and [he acts out] “Oh, Barbara, how nice to see you” but the shadow knows [he acts out a crazed attack]. And this Carl. He’s so frank, It’s not very practical for the boss, but he doesn’t care. That’s me. Do you know how I invented Assad, by the way?

No,  I was going to ask.

I knew him, but I knew there was something missing. Who is he, actually, I can give you a tip. If you really want to know a person, have a single sentence that tells everything about him.  I have this sentence from an American translator. His name is Steve Schein. He lives in Denmark and has been there many years. He doesn’t translate my books, but he helps with the translations. I said to him “Steve, I have missed you. I think of you all the time.” And he said (in his San Francisco accent) “What a coincidence. I also am always thinking of me.” [laughter] So, take this sentence and think of Assad. He doesn’t think so much of himself, but he’s quite unexpected. And then Steve said another thing that characterizes Assad quite well. I said “How are you, Steve?” and he said “Actually, I’m quite fine. But that will pass, I’m sure.”

Assad is a very cheerful person, he’s always eager to please –

He makes Carl think he’s eager to please.

Ah. He’s a hard worker, and he’s always cooking odd-smelling food. And he’s from the Middle East –

Maybe.

He’s not Danish born.

Who knows?

He’s a man of mystery.

That’s true.

But he doesn’t appear that way. He seems very, he’s always so pleasant, cooking some food or “I made some tea; here, have some.” But every now and then he comes up with something amazingly intelligent.

He’s not dumb.

No, he isn’t, but in some ways he’s a stereotypical immigrant figure who’s Danish isn’t terribly good, who makes funny mistakes, who drives badly. How do Danes respond to this character as an immigrant? 

They love him completely. They took him so much to heart. Also, the immigrants. “Oh, I’m so much like Assad.” This year in Frankfurt [the international book fair] two tall Egyptians surrounded me like a sandwich. I was a little hesitant about that because being published in Muslim countries can sometimes be a little bit problematic when one of your main characters is named Hafez el Assad. [pause, followed by audience laughter] I said “you know, you don’t know why he’s called that, and you will learn later on, but if you must, you can call him something else in Egypt. And they said “oh, we already have reflected about that, and we’ve decided we are going to call him Mubarak.” I didn’t answer. I escaped.

A lot of people have immigrated to the Scandinavian countries, and there are tensions – 

We have a problem. It’s not like in the United States where anyone can come but they must take care of themselves. In Denmark  we have a health care system – I am playing 68 percent in tax myself – please clap – and that means anyone comes to our country and we will help them in any way. If they are unemployed they will get support and if they are sick, we will get them well again. It’s very, very expensive. Nowadays, I feel so fantastically happy about the immigration because suddenly Denmark is a little more colorful than it used to be. We are the Latinos of Scandinavia in Denmark. We are the ones who can tap dance and do the flamenco. We perhaps didn’t need the color, but . . .

There is a big gap in Denmark now, politically, disagreements. People are shouting over this gap, and I realize – and this is why I use humor so often. You know how when you are discussing with your family and suddenly your finger is raised, right? Then they don’t listen anymore. So I don’t point fingers. I tried to make a little bridge across this gap of laughter. And it worked. Now we can discuss it a little better.

Should we read a bit from your new book?

[Here I read the first paragraphs in English. “This is very close to Fifty Shades, isn’t it?” he joked before picking up the Danish version. “Now you are going to hear a very old language. Lots of words in English are Danish.  It’s a German language, or so they say. I’m very popular in Germany, but I try to explain, “listen here, this is the original German.” He thumped his book. “To prove it to you, it’s without grammar. No grammar in this language at all.”  He began to read, then paused. “Listen to those nice vowels. I’m sorry for you that you don’t have them anymore.” He came to a recognizable word in the passage: “shit!” and added, “a good Danish word.” He asked if anyone in the audience was Danish and had a short conversation with a woman in Danish before saying “then I have to take a little care.” He added, “It’s very important to know that you can be more scary in other languages. If you take the first sentence of the first book . . .” He recited it in Danish. “Now in Norwegian.” He read it again, emphasizing the rising and falling pitch characteristic of Norwegian. “It doesn’t work! But in German . . . ” He recited it, playing up the sinister sibilants. “Now you know why I’m a great success in Germany.”]

A Conspiracy of Faith involves people with fundamentalist religious beliefs, involved in sects and very deeply involved in religion, and I’ve noticed that quite a few writers from Scandinavia have an interest in fundamentalist religion such as Asa Larsson, Anne Holt, Camilla Lackberg’s Preacher; one of the killers in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bible-thumping serial killer. Yet my sense is that Scandinavian countries on the whole are fairly secular societies compared to the United States. Why did you decide to bring religion into this book? 

It’s not. It’s about misuse of power and it is only by coincidence it is this setting, In my opinion, people can believe in what they want. If they aren’t proselytizing me, please do. No, this is about misuse of power. And a funny thing about this, it could have been Microsoft, for instance, Apple. Whatever company we are talking about, having power. Because if you have power in a sect or in a company, then you can use the power in the company itself or in the outside world. But what’s interesting in my book, this guy is using the power of the company against itself. That’s like judo, right? That was what I wanted to describe. Most of the sects in the story doesn’t exist, and I’m so sad I used the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” because I have no problem with them, no problem. So that was a mistake of mine. I admit it. They should have been “the Jehovah’s Funny Guys” or something like that, something different anyway. The Mother Church in this book, it’s actually the Father Church in Denmark – clever choice, you couldn’t recognize that, eh? So I’m not aiming at that specific stuff.

It’s more someone who knows that culture being able to get inside it to do mischief. 

Yes, that’s a theme.

Scandinavian crime fiction, which I gather you have not read – 

No. Not recently.

It’s usually thought of as being gloomy, with glum detectives . . . 

That’s Henning Mankell.

Okay, that’s Swedes. But also serious about social issues. 

Well, we have social issues. Compared to many other countries, we have some. Political and social topics being blended with very fine dialogue and humor we learned from Sjowall and Wahloo. They taught us in the seventies that this combination is usable, very, very fantastic. The fifth book I wrote, it’s called The Marco Effect, the reviewers said “well, it’s gorgeous, this book, but it’s actually Oliver Twist, with Fagin and everyone. This is down the line of literature, what you’re doing, combining The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, he has to know what happened and who’s following him and so forth. It’s the same stuff. Real literature, that’s what you’re reading, not the kind like Hemingway – oh, sorry, sorry! I didn’t say that.

But in a way, this makes sense because what you are saying is that these are the big nineteenth century novels –

Yes, classical novels being converted into WordPerfect 5.1.

Some people have said the social novel of the nineteenth century has become the crime novel of the twentieth century. 

Yes, it’s so true.

So you can do this entertaining engagement with social questions. 

The fantastic thing about a thriller is that you can write about everything. You can do whatever you like, and therefore I prefer it. John Irving is a favorite writer of mine. He wrote The Cider House Rules. It’s a good thriller, yeah? Who raped whom and what is going to happen in the end? Even Forrest Gump, that’s a thriller. [audience laughter]

You were involved in publishing before you started the writing part of your career. Why do you suppose the British and the American titles are so totally different? 

Like always, the British and the American publishers think they are much wiser than the other. The Keeper of Lost Causes – the original title was The Woman in the Cage. It’s a boring title, they said quite openly. Thank you.

And the British title is Mercy. 

Yes, what a swell title. I found more than twenty books with the title Mercy, ten movies, and a lot of lyrics. Did they listen at Penguin? No. They want to have one word titles in Britain these days, and in Germany. Here in America you just want to have literary titles. How can you remember after ten books what is what? The second book in Danish is called The Pheasant Killers.  And what is that? It’s a symbol of the ruling class – killing for fun. Number three – yes, I know there’s a novel called A Message in a Bottle, but mine was called A Message in a Bottle from P. That’s better. But it’s called A Conspiracy of Faith. I think they are good titles, anyway, though I can’t remember what’s what.

I was wondering, since you have this publishing background, what do you think about the current state of publishing, what the future holds? 

Oh, it’s so problematic. I am fighting so much for what it takes to survive a few decades more. I’m fighting mostly for the bookshops in Denmark and Germany. In Denmark, we don’t have fixed prices. That means everyone can compete on prices, and the supermarkets, they love people to come in and buy my books. Even though they lose money on them, they love people to come in, and that means in the end that bookshops in Denmark will disappear. I have fought hard for fixed prices, and I think I am going to lose the battle. Then there’s the e-books. I don’t mind the e-books, it’s okay, but it’s a little problematic for the booksellers to sell e-books and if it hadn’t been for the booksellers, I wouldn’t be here today. My first book, The Alphabet House, the first edition sold 1,800 copies. That’s very good in Danish, but it’s not very good for survival. They hand sold it, mouth by mouth, slowly, and suddenly there was an audience there that I could live from. So we need the booksellers very much. Walking around, I signed a lot of books lately. Barnes and Nobles, they are totally empty. Not here in Minneapolis, but in the other cities. No one. “Oh, you are coming here for signing. Take two copies of this and one of that. That’s all we have.” And I understand they can’t have stock. I fear very much for the chains. It’s good for you, my dear Gary [points to Gary Shulze, who with Pat Frovarp owns Once Upon a Crime], but it’s not good for small authors. I can’t live without reading the small authors. I’m not reading crime and thrillers, but I’m reading a lot of absurd literature, and there is a lot of absurd literature in the world.

And then the publishing houses. They are a little arrogant. They believe that they can survive without the booksellers. But we can survive, we bestselling authors, without the publishers. J. K. Rowling, she did it. She took away a lot of sales from the publisher who helped her up. I’m never deserting the ones who helped me up and I’m fighting very heavily for that, so I’m trying in the different unions in Denmark to let them speak a little better to each other and to find solutions with consensus, and that means totally new solutions. Fixed prices for a period of time. And I tried even to say that there must be a gap between the printed book and the e-book, three or four months, to keep a little space for the booksellers of the printed books. It was in Germany I tried that. I’m selling 1.3 million of each book in Germany and 300,000 e-books, so I took a chance, and within three days I had many, many emails saying “you are disloyal to your readers and we hate you for that. We don’t want to read you anymore. We are not waiting. That’s discrimination.” And they are right, it is discrimination. And then they phoned me from the publishing house to say the book had been scanned and there were 400,000 downloads within four days, so I had to say “okay, I understand the message.” So now it’s like it was before. It’s very, very difficult. But then you are there, you lovely people who buy the books and pass the word.

[A question from the audience: “How do you feel about the people who get the book from the library and then tell everyone to get it?”] 

I love them. Libraries, that’s a blessing. So if we have the libraries, that’s all right.

The interview was followed by some excellent questions from the audience, stories from Alder-Olsen about growing up on hospital grounds and being able to peer through the basement windows with his friend Erling to watch autopsies, his father sending them out to look for a missing patient who was suicidal and his friend finding him by walking into the dangling feet of the hanged man. (“That’s my daddy!”)  In response to a question, Adler-Olsen said that it was a good idea to start the series with the first book, but after that it didn’t matter – until book four. Though it was clear from the questions that many members of the audience were well up on the stories and had filled in some of the gaps about Assad’s background, Adler-Olsen closed by indicating that he has things up his sleeve that will slowly be revealed. His final word on that subject was “Hah!”

All in all, it was a delightful evening with an author who is entertaining and funny and sometimes a bit serious – just like his books.

jussi and me

A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen

I am excited! I will not only get to meet Jussi Adler-Olsen when he makes one of four stops on his U.S. tour at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis tomorrow evening (June 1st at 7:00 pm, to be precise), I get to interview him. Hope to report on that here very soon. Meanwhile, here is a review of his third book in the Department Q series. In Danish the title is Flaskepost fra P; in the UK it will be titled Redemption. But here in the U.S. (perhaps appropriately) religion and conspiracy take the lead.

A review of
A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen
translated by Marin Aitkin
Dutton, May 2013

The prologue of this book is ominous, reminiscent of the woman held captive in the opening pages of The Keeper of Lost Causes. In this case, two boys are chained and gagged in a boat house, terrified and desperate. The older of the two struggles to get his bound hands on a Conspiracy of Faithglass bottle, a splinter of wood, and a bit of paper. Through sheer determination, he manages to write a message written in his own blood rolled up and into the bottle, With the bottle stoppered with a wad of tar, he struggles to get it through a crack in the wooden wall of the boathouse in which they are held chained up before their captor reappears.

And then, as happens with prologues, we’re made to wait. Carl Mørck is annoyed that the office he and his assistant Assad occupy in the basement of police headquarters has to be rid of asbestos, displacing them from their hiding place. Assad has discovered a common thread among a string of arson cases. Their colleague Rose departs for mysterious reasons, but sends her Flaskepost fra Peccentric sister Yrsa to fill in. A young mother is uneasy about her relationship with her controlling, violent husband. All the while, in Scotland, a bottle with a message curled up inside sits on the windowsill of a police station in Scotland, the letters growing faint, only discovered when a computer expert tales a fancy to the bit of glass. Trying to get the paper out, she breaks the bottle and realizes that the nearly unreadable words seem to have been written in blood – and the only word she can clearly make out is HJAELP.

As Department Q tries to decode the decayed message, solve a series of arsons, and avoid Heath and Safety officers, a man goes about his business, seeking out families with deep non-conformist religious beliefs, weaseling his way into their good graces, then kidnapping their children for ransom – and to cause extraordinary anguish.

This all sounds very grim, and in many ways it is. In addition to children at risk and parents Redemptionexperiencing their worst nightmare, there is the plight of a woman trapped in a violent relationship, terrified about what will come next. But as anyone who has read the first book in the series may guess, it’s full of humor and kindness as well. Carl Mørck is a grumpy yet dedicated slacker. Assad is an immigrant whose broken Danish and eagerness to please conceals hidden depths. Yrsa is both bizarre and brilliant.  And bit by bit, the clues come together.

As in Keeper of Lost Causes, the story involves a crime in the past and a desperate need to solve it in the present. It’s a fun, thrilling reading experience that has both enough depth to round out the characters as well as a generosity of spirit that infuses the pages and matches the grimness with hope and an abiding faith in humanity.

For those in the Minneapolis area, perhaps I’ll see you. For those who aren’t . . . I’m sorry you don’t live near this terrific bookstore. It’s a little bit of heaven for mystery readers.

Once Upon a Crime

Read Mary Ann Grossman’s coverage of the book and the event in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 

Notes from Our Beyond the Girl Event

Well, that was fun!  I will try to share some of what I heard from our visiting Scandinavian authors, now that I’ve had a good ten days to recover.

Unfortunately, Kristina Ohlsson was unable to attend, having caught a bad cold. It’s never a good idea to fly overseas when you’re sick, so while we were sorry to miss her, staying home was  the right call. According to Helene Tursten, a lot of Scandinavian authors were coughing and sneezing after mingling with 100,000 people at the Gothenburg Book Fair. (Helene was recovering from a cold, herself.)

Though we were sorry to miss Kristina, we had a wonderful time with Helene Tursten and her husband, Lene Kaaberbol, Agnete Friis, and scholar Kerstin Bergman of Lund University. They visited several classes (a creative writing class, a first term seminar, a gender, women’s, and sexuality studies colloquium, and a class on Scandinavian life and culture). Kerstin gave a fascinating lecture on the rise of women’s crime fiction in Sweden, she and the authors held a great panel discussion for the St. Peter community. On their final day, the authors mingled with members of our library friends group at a wine-and-cheese reception and then gave another wonderful panel discussion at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. The turnout for each public event was terrific. I’m so glad we were able to do this, as there is clearly a lot of interest.

So here are few of my random notes from the classes and events.

Getting Started in the Crime Fiction Genre

Helene Tursten, who has a lovely Lauren Bacall voice (though perhaps her cold played a role in that), told us that she became a writer after working as a nurse and then a dentist. (She met her husband in dental school. He had previously worked as a policeman. How very handy! Though he told me it was not as interesting as being a dentist.) Because she came down with a serious illness, she had to abandon her work as a dentist and, after writing some articles and translating medical articles into Swedish, she got an intriguing idea for a story, and decided to turn her hand to fiction. She also was motivated to write about a woman police detective, and particularly about the kinds of women officers she knew – women who saw awful things on the job, but managed nevertheless to have normal, happy lives. Her stories are hardboiled, but her  protagonist is not as dysfunctional and depressive as many male fictional detectives. She’s a strong person and a very good detective.

Lene Kaaberbol is a very experienced writer, having had her first book accepted by a publisher when she was only 14 years old. Her publisher read a second manuscript and accepted it, too – on the condition that she rewrite the first book. That was not something a 14-ear-old in a hurry was happy to hear, but he reasoned “I’ve read your second book; you’re getting better. You owe it to yourself to make your first book as good as it can be.” As she told our students, “I became a writer when I rewrote my first book” (which, given how often we ask them to revise their papers, is an excellent message to hear). She had published dozens of books – children’s books, fantasy, and YA, before she started a life of crime fiction. She didn’t decide to write in this genre and then come up with a story – she was chosen by the story, or rather “attacked by an image,” as she put it, the image of a boy in a suitcase, unconscious and folded up like a shirt. Clearly, it wasn’t suitable material for a children’s book. Because she hadn’t written in the genre before, she asked a fellow writer to collaborate on the story.

Agnete Friis – who also hadn’t written any crime fiction – hasn’t been writing for as long as Lene, and though she was an experienced journalist who had published some children’s books, she was a bit intimidated about joining forces with a well-known author. But though the two women make a running joke out of their differences of opinion, they clearly have the right chemistry to work together, and it has been a fruitful collaboration that was fascinating to hear about.

The Writing Process

Helene Tursten has published ten books in the Irene Huss series (a fifth will soon be available in English translation) and has been involved in a dozen television adaptations. Her process is fairly straightforward for the books. She gets an idea, figures out the beginning and the end, and then writes a book she would like to read. She does a lot of research, only a small portion of which ends up on the page. But the research gives her an immersion in the world of the story. She writes for herself, in part because she can’t worry about pleasing the audience, given she is published in so many countries. Writing for film is a bit more complicated, but something she has enjoyed thoroughly. She comes up with the story ideas then works with a lot of people, including a scriptwriter, the director, producers, a whole team. The amount of time allowed for telling the story is also a constraint that is much stricter than when writing a novel-length story. She agreed with me that the actress, Angela Kovaks, does a great job portraying Irene Huss.

The process Lene and Agnete use to collaborate is fascinating, and very different than their personal writing processes. They map out the story ahead of time, writing character studies and developing a detailed storyboard. They do a lot of research, including traveling to see the places where things happen (so far, stories taking them to Lithuania, Hungary, and the Ukraine) to absorb the sights and smells and sounds of the places they will write about. In once case (for Invisible Murder) they were a bit worried that their story might over-emphasize prejudice against the Roma, but almost immediately encountered someone who had an experience almost exactly like the one they had invented. (Having read the book, that makes me sad!) They advised young writers that it’s worthwhile asking strangers for help with research, however intimidating that may feel. It’s best to prepare specific questions and scenarios that the specialists can comment on. Surprisingly, people almost always are happy to help. 

When they are ready to start writing, they have already gotten to know the characters and their voices so well that it isn’t hard for them to blend their writing together. It’s actually a great kind of discipline to talk through a book before it is written, far more intense than working with an editor after the fact. It forces them to pay attention to characters’ language and the ways they will experience their part of the story. Once it’s all worked out, they choose which chapters they want to write, and work in whatever order they like. Because of all the advance work, they find the pieces fit together smoothly. Amazing.

Themes and Issues 

We had a terrific three hours with the Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies colloquium (with a lively detour as we discussed the significance of Lisbeth Salander’s boob job) but I didn’t take any notes and can’t say much more than what readers of Tursten and Kaaberbol/Friis already know – that they use their novels to explore social issues and the effect that crime and injustice have on individuals and communities. We also talked about what these stories say about contemporary Scandinavia, including the profound effect that the opening of Eastern Europe has had on countries that for centuries had a shared history (particularly in the case of the Baltic countries), but which had then been separated and isolated for many years, and after taking such different social and economic paths were suddenly slammed back together again. That culture shock has had all kinds of effects, but it was also clear that both Denmark and Sweden are mostly well-functioning, democratic, and all around good places to live. Apparently, though, Denmark scores better than Sweden on the happiness index!

Kerstin Bergman on Swedish women writers 

Sadly, my notes on Kerstin’s lecture are really awful – bits and pieces of sentences, nothing terribly coherent. So let me just recap her topic and put together what I can recall based on my scribbles.

Her title was “The Women Strike Back: The Rise of Women Crime Writers in Sweden, 1997-2012” and she outlined developments from the pioneering status of Helene Tursten’s popular police procedurals and Liza Marklund’s intrepid journalist, Annika Bengtzon, to the present time. She sketched out trends, including the development of  series with strong domestic themes in picturesque rural settings (including Mari Jungstedt’s series and especially the extremely popular series by Camilla Lackberg – “anyone who doesn’t like children is likely to be the villain”), the writers who create psychological studies and focus on individuals going through a crisis (Inger Frimansson and Karin Alvtegen were mentioned particularly), and Kerstin Eckman, who has written a number of mysteries before gaining critical praise for other kinds of novels, earning a literary reputation that sets her apart.

Though women have made varied and significant contributions to the genre, there has been a tendency to lump them together and trivialize them as “queens of crime” rather than take them individually on their own merits.

A newer generation of women writers have created a strong place for women in Swedish crime fiction and have also established a world presence for Swedish women crime writers. The earlier writers gave us strong women protagonists who wrestled with the problems of establishing a work/life balance. More recently, protagonists of the newer women writers are generally more lonely and tormented than in the past. (Kerstin mentioned that Liza Marklund’s heroine is joining this trend, leaving her domestic scenes behind in more recent books, becoming more isolated and eccentric.)

Writers she highlighted include Asa Larsson, whose series features two strong women characters who are in many ways opposites, creating interesting contrasts and questioning expectations about how women should behave. The natural world is important to Larsson, and her works are extremely well-written. The female protagonists in the works of Carin Gerhardsen, Kristina Ohlsson, and the writing team of Grebe and Traff all depart from normative family situations. In The Gingerbread House, Gerhardsen’s female police officer protagonist is drugged and raped and a thread of the first book in the series involves her trying to independently build a case against her assailant while another criminal attacks women with increasing violence. Her second novel is particularly interesting, according to Kerstin, from a feminist perspective. Kristina Ohlsson’s female lead in a procedural ensemble has a relationship with a much older married man, having to sort out her desire to become a mother without a marriage, and Grebe and Traff’s lead character is a psychologically scarred therapist, whose interactions with patients provide a parallel exploration of psychological trauma.

Kerstin mentioned several writers whose works I would love to read in translation, particularly Aino Trosell, whose crime novels (one of which was awarded the prize for best Swedish crime novel in 2000) feature working-class characters in gritty situations. It sounds as if she carries on the Sjowall and Wahloo tradition of social critique. She also mentioned Asa Nilsonne, a professor of psychological medicine at the Karolinska Institute who has written several crime novels, and Katarina Wennstam, whose work has feminist themes exploring violence and intolerance.

We had a lively Q&A following the lecture, and I’m happy to report that Kerstin is working on a book about Swedish crime fiction. You can see more about her scholarship, which is amazingly prolific, at her Lund University profile.

Before I put my messy notes away, I should thank my colleagues in the library and in the Scandinavian Studies department, including particularly Kjerstin Moody, Glenn Kranking, Jeannie Peterson and Jenny Tollefson; the faculty members who opened their classes to our guests, the Embassy of Sweden which supported the program, Sisters in Crime, and the American Swedish Institute, which not only provided the space for our Minneapolis events, but gave us a tour of the mansion, which has its own mysterious stories to tell.