“novels of conscience and reflection” – yes!!

Larssa Kyzer writes a thoughtful and well-documented response to Nathaniel Rich’s essay in Slate that I reacted to not long ago – in an article in L Magazine titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Fiction.” I think she nails it. In response to Rich’s equating of Scanidavia with Ikea, wholesomeness, and a peaceful society, she documents the stresses and subtle fractures going on in Scandinavian countries as immigration challenges basic assumptions about social identity. She also points out that the current wave of crime fiction is very much in tune with the critical turn Sjöwall and Wahlöö set in their seminal Martin Beck series. It’s a bit disturbing, really, to consider that readers not familiar with Scandinavia (beyond visits to Ikea) have so totally missed the undercurrent of frustration and rage in the Millennium Trilogy that comes directly from Stieg Larsson’s lifelong struggle against racism and the rise of neo-Nazi groups. Kyzer sums it up well:

Scandinavian crime novels are not set apart from similar traditions simply because of the consistent contrast between peaceful settings and “the tawdriness of the crimes,” but rather, that the genre is unique because it tends to hold its society up to itself and take an unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents.

At its heart, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not so very different. It is a book about the failure of Swedish society to effectively respond to social ills at all levels. White-collar criminals are treated like celebrities and the press turns a blind eye. Women suffer inordinately at the hands of men in power — government officials, family members, even lovers — and have no recourse but to become vigilantes, protecting themselves where the social system has been utterly impotent. Larsson isn’t reinventing the genre here, he’s tapping into what really sets Scandinavian crime fiction apart. If his take on these themes has brought anything particularly new to the field, it’s misanthropy and cynicism, where there is usually at least a modicum of hope that welfare societies might face their own shortcomings and eventually, overcome them. “I made a lot of mistakes,” Wallander laments at the end of Faceless Killers, guilt-ridden even after a successful investigation. “You kept at it,” his colleague encourages. “You wanted to catch whoever committed those murders… That’s the important thing.”

By the by, her review, published some time ago, of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is extremely perceptive. There’s no question that Lisabeth Salander is the gripping focus for the book, the chief reason why it has struck such a chord with millions of readers, but she questions the way in which a victim of sexual violence is depicted (or as someone said on a discussion list, how odd that a man who is writing about men who hate women creates a heroine who is essentially a male fantasy).

If, instead of highlighting the fact that “apart from the tears of pure physical pain she shed not a single tear,” Larsson let Salander experience shock and trauma after being assaulted — if Salander overcame, rather than stifled, the myriad emotional consequences that result from sexual abuse — her triumphs would be far greater. As it stands, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo resigns itself to a world in which covert, unpunished sexual crimes are the norm, and vigilantism is a woman’s only possible source of justice.

Wow, that’s exactly what I thought – only I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read this paragraph.

c’est dommage

Hot off the Rap Sheet – Fred Vargas won the International Dagger, facing a field of Scandinavian heavyweights. She was not my front runner, but then I am a bit biased (and a bit less taken with her eccentricity than most, I suspect). Kerrie had predicted Theorin, Alvtegen, and Indridason for win, place, and show, with Vargas bringing up the rear. Stieg Larsson’s Translator, Reg Keeland, is quite hot under the collar about it, since Vargas has won three out of the past four years. (Evidently he deleted the post once he cooled off.)  It certainly doesn’t conform to the “who should win” or “who is likely to win” polls at Euro Crime. C’est la guerre.

Meanwhile, let’s catch up on reviews and news . . .

nancyo (“who never stops reading no matter what”) thinks Hakan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye is brilliant. “I can very highly recommend this one to others who enjoy Scandinavian crime fiction, and to those who have read Nesser’s other books. Mystery readers who want something different than the usual stuff out there will also enjoy this book as well.”

Martin Edwards carries on with his Scandinavian kick, reviewing Missing by Karin Alvtegen, “a tense, atmospheric and extremely readable novel, with a clever and (to the best of my knowledge) original motive. Recommended.”

Kerrie reviews The Girl Who Played with Fire and points to several other reviews and Dorte’s investigation of sources posted to her blog previously.

Peter reviews The Beast by the writing duo Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom, a distrubing book that

. . . looks into a warped abyss of the human psyche and discusses a kind of crime that to most of us is one that we fear (if we have children) and are extremely disgusted by. It also illustrates the potentially serious consequences of letting people take the law in their own hands. This is a good book, but it is tough. It is a book you will either like a lot or not like at all. There is no in between with Roslund & Hellstrom’s The Beast.

I find this very interesting because I’ve just finished their other book, Box 21, soon to be released in the US, which deals with trafficking in women and with the corruption that supports it, and am currently reading Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge, which deals with the same subject, pedophilia that leads to murder, but in a very understated, pscyhologically sophisticated, and thoughtful way. Quite a contrast to Roslund and Hellstrom, though both good in different ways.

Peter also reports that a new Wallander is soon to appear in 2009, Den Orolige Mannen (The Worried Man) which he describes thus:

A winter day in Sweden in 2008, a retired officer from the Swedish Navy, Håkan von Enke, disappears during his daily walk in the Lilljan forest. For Kurt Wallander this is a very personal affair – von Enke is the father in law of his daughter Linda and the grandfather of her little daughter.

And even though the case is handled by the police in Stockholm, Kurt Wallander finds himself unable to stay away from the case. And when von Enke’s widow, Louise, disappears as well, and like her husband without a trace and equally mysteriously, Wallander’s interest in the case increases even further.

As he moves back in time and starts connecting the dots, he finds that there are clues in the direction of the Cold War, political extremists on the far right, and a professional hitman from Eastern Europe. Wallander starts to suspect that he has stumbled upon a secret that lies at the core of the Swedish post World War II history.

Knopf is promoting the US release of  The Girl Who Played With Fire by involving bloggers in a contest. There are apparently dragon temporary tattoos involved. (I gave away dinosaur tattoos at my library’s birthday party for Darwin last February. They were almost as popular as the toy dinosaurs. And the cake; we definitely didn’t have enough cake to go around.) You can also “friend” Lisabeth Salander on Facebook. Somehow, I can’t imagine her wanting to collect facebook friends. And surely Ikea and Apple computers as interests suggests a doppelganger at work . . . with blond hair? Not sure what to make of this, but I think I will stick to friending charcters within their books for now.

be reassured – utopia repels invaders! (not)

Slate has an article by Nathanial Rich titled “Scandinavian Crime Wave: Why the Most Peaceful People on Earth Write the Greatest Homicide Thrillers.” After reviewing a few highlights – Nesbo, Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell – the first answer he proposes is that crime sells. But then, thank goodness, he asks the underlying question: why do Scandinavians, who live in the “happiest countries on earth” by some measures, want to read about mayhem and disorder at home when they could continue to read popular English imports?

What distinguishes these books is not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness. There is a good reason why Mankell’s corpses tend to turn up in serene, bucolic settings—on a country farm, on a bobbing raft, in a secluded meadow, or in the middle of a snow-covered field: A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley.

Er . . . maybe it’s because I’m reading Roslund-Hellstrom’s 21, which is about as grim as it gets, but I think fundamentally that’s not at all what’s going on. The world that Sjowall and Wahloo and those who followed in their footsteps depict is not sublime. On the surface, it’s relatively orderly and neat, and the social services available are enough to make an American want to pack up and move, but it’s clear that things are not that tranquil, that evil isn’t an abberation that comes to disturb what is otherwise a peaceable kingdom.

Take Karin Fossum, for example. Her small towns are populated by people who carry good and evil in varying measures within them. Criminals aren’t invaders from Planet Nasty and when the crime is solved, things don’t go back to nice and normal. What makes them so creepy and so effective is that nothing is that neat, that you know arresting one confused and unhappy person won’t change the society that leads to people being confused and unhappy. Sjowall and Wahloo were critics of society, not defenders of tranquility. There’s not a whole lot of happiness going on no matter what team the characters are playing on, and solving a crime doesn’t restore order; it merely gives us insight into what makes us all tick.

Where you see the kind of “happiness and tranquility interrupted by violence” theme is in the pure-entertainment thriller in which a monstrous serial killer (clever, twisted, utterly alien) or the corporate Team Evil (nasty developers, businessmen who run sex rings, secret cabals that plan to destroy the world) are pitted against angst-ridden Dudley Dorights, usually in settings that portray “normal” society as wealthy, white, successful, and happy – until the aliens arrive.

There’s no critique of society in these kinds of books because the bad guys are invaders from another planet. Though the tortured heroes have to “enter the mind” of the bad guys so they can give us the full tour, the deluxe set of thrills, there’s no question that law enforcement is good, society is good, and people are good; it’s just the bad guys who are bad. No shades of gray. We only have to be uneasy because, like pod people, the evil characters look just like us – until they are unmasked, at which point we can recoil in satisfied disgust, knowing that we’d never be involved in that kind of nastiness, that we are not implicated in things that go wrong. The reason these books focus on unusual crimes (the more unusual, the better) is that we can enjoy ourselves without ever connecting what we’re reading to our own lives, our own communities, the problems we’d rather not think about. It’s all in good fun, and the good guys always restore order, until the next, regularly-scheduled alien invasion.

I don’t see that tendency in the Scandinavian crime fiction I’ve read, and I certainly don’t agree that these books have “reassuringly mechanical, ticktocking plots.” Well, the plot of Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star reminded me too much of the typical American serial killer unified field theory of evil, but I forgave it because the protagonist’s struggle with himself and with his own police organization was so gripping. But even books like Camilla Lackberg’s Ice Princess, which is highly conventional, probed more deeply into the psychology of its messed-up characters (if not of its protagonists) than the typical racing-against-the-clock serial killer story. The bad guys were human, not aliens.  And the place where they lived wasn’t  magically restored to peace and tranquility once they were captured and removed.

The reason I like Scandinavian crime fiction is that it values both character and plot; it doesn’t rely on easy answers; it doesn’t portray evil as an abberation but as part of the human experience, an outcome of our social structures, something in which we are all implicated. And it makes me think.

Save reassuring and mechanical for those who want to think things are basically fine, so long as we can recognize and contain the evil Other. But if that’s what you want, don’t bother picking up Scandinavian crime fiction. It probably won’t be all that reassuring.

out of order

Maxine, aka Petrona, reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer which she finds not perfect, but still top notch. As she puts it, “the Harry Hole books comprise one of the top police-procedural series being written today. Although the books have flaws, they are flaws of ambition – the plots are very clever, and if perhaps they are sometimes a bit too clever, that’s better than the opposite. These novels are thoughtful, intelligent, exciting and above all, have a great central character.” This astute comment comes on the heels of a Nesbo binge. She recommends reading the series in order, which is difficult unless you read Norwegian or have a lot of patience waiting for translations. Which brings me to our next item . . .

In her “Dark Passages” column for the L.A. Times, Sarah Weinman says what we all have been thinking: what is up with publishers issuing translations out of order, often causing appalling spoilers for series fans? She starts by analyzing the Scandinavian scene:

Lately, English-language publishers have developed an unfortunate habit with crime fiction in translation: Instead of starting at the very beginning of a series — as Pantheon did in bringing out the 10-book “Story of Crime” opus by Swedes Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the proper sequence — books appear out of order, in haphazard fashion.

Heads are still being scratched over why “The Man Who Smiled,” the fourth outing of Henning Mankell’s popular detective, Inspector Kurt Wallander, was the last to be published in America. Because Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian sleuth, Harry Hole, first showed up on British soil with “The Devil’s Star” — book five in the series — it spoiled important plot points in “The Redbreast” (book three) and “The Redeemer” (book four), published in subsequent years. And I can’t help but wonder if Stieg Larsson had lived to complete all 10 books he allegedly envisioned for his series characters Lisabeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” would have been published in English long after some mythical fifth or sixth volume took the entire world by storm.

Publishers choose the nonlinear approach for all sorts of reasons, such as commercial viability and what book in a series may grab reader attention best, so they will seek out earlier installments. “Jar City,” for example, was a smart choice to introduce Iceland’s undisputed crime-writing star Arnaldur Indridason because it was a major step forward, creatively and sales-wise, from the first two books featuring Inspector Erlendur (which remain untranslated). But readers who want to commit wholesale to a new series character and follow him or her through all manner of delightful and dangerous adventures are understandably frustrated at the disregard for series order.

Then she goes on to discuss the work of French writer Fred Vargas, also translated out of order, but with less unpleasant results for the reader. “Adamsberg himself is such a bizarre character, so off-the-charts in what he would deem logical deductive reasoning, that it makes perfect sense to meet him at different, random stages of the series.”

Maxine is also rather taken with Vargas, who’s up against a lot of Scandinavians for the International Dagger this year, and now that she’s read all the books on the shortlist she’s having trouble deciding where to place her bets.

And finally, Euro Crime offers an excerpt from Karin Fossum’s new English-language release, The Water’s Edge.

bits and pieces

DJ reviews Hakan Nesser’s Kvinde med Modermaerke aka Woman With Birthmark (and what an interesting Danish cover it has). Though it’s about rather dreary people, and the protagonist can be grumpy at times, DJ points to the humor in the book and considers the entire series, set in a geographically ambiguous country, highly enjoyable.

The Globe and Mail thinks Lackberg’s The Preacher is dandy – it shows why Läckberg is often compared to Ruth Rendell.” I can’t honestly see the connection at all.

Peter Rozovsky reports from CrimeFest in Bristol on an interview with Hakan Nesser. Dour Swedes may be, Nesser said, but not cripplingly so: “We’re not that depressed, but we don’t talk a lot. That’s good for a crime story. You keep things inside for thirty years,” and then they just come out.” Also included are tidbits about his books, both translated and not (yet).

Peter also points to a sad story in the Times about the bitter dispute over Stieg Larsson’s literary estate (and the rather outsized amount of money involved) between his all-but-married partner and his family. She was not included, but has his laptop on which are pages of a fourth novel and outlines for more, so there is speculation that the family’s declaration there will be no further publication of the series might also be disputed.  A Norwegian website has been formed to support Larsson’s partner in the dispute. Donations are scaled using an algorithm that combines how much you enjoyed the books combined with how angry you are about his partner’s situation.

Update: Sarah Weinman’s thoughts on the situation.

all kinds of krimi for alle

Sunnie wonders what’s up in Scandinavia that leads to such a large concentration of crime fiction writers. Is it the long winters that give time for imaginations to churn? Whatever the cause, she recommends Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill. It’s “a very solid police procedural indeed. But he has done much more than that. He also explores the issues of immigration and racism. Indridason also strikes a nice balance between the work of the detectives and their lives outside of their work.”

Peter Guttridge thinks Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s My Soul to Take is a winner – “both frightening and funny – a terrific trick if you can pull it off.”

DJ reviews Anne Holt’s forthcoming (to the US market) crime novel, Death in Oslo which concerns America’s first female president. (Well, we got pretty close, but we have another first instead…) Anyway, she concludes,

This could easily have been a hardboiled thriller about politics and international crime, but Anne Holt has turned it into a story about human beings, especially by virtue of her engaging descriptions of some outstanding women. “We women and our damned secrets, she thought. Why is it like this? Why do we feel shame whether we have a reason or not? Where does it come from, this oppressing feeling of carrying around guilt?”

DJ goes on to say this is a book is one that fits her current “crime for all” project, a fascinating examination of femikrimi and machocrimi (themes at her blog for February and March) and books that are not specifically geared to men or women but appeal across the board (April’s theme). It has been a fascinating discussion – and one that has me thinking in new ways about books I’m reading. Some seem very deliberately pitched to a single sex by either emphasizing lots of action, large trucks, and explosions or by dwelling almost entirely on interpersonal relationships, sometimes with female leads who are either highly vulnerable and unable to protect themselves (as a rather lame ratchet for suspense) or dithering about romantic relationships (leading to book-shaped dents in my walls).

It seems to me that a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction manages to emphasize both relationships and a kind of tough-minded realism, a balance that sees crime itself as a manifestation of social relationships, an emphasis that goes back to Sjowall and Wahloo. And that’s most likely one of the reasons I find it so satisfying.

Crime for all – including the best impulses of the feminist turn in crime fiction from the late 70s – early 80s. Works for me!