What We’ve Been Reading

In the Washington Post, Richard Lipez reviews Kaaberbol and Friis’s The Boy in the Suitcase, and finds the interwoven tales of two mothers, both intent on a boy who is drugged and shipped to Denmark in a suitcase, “another winning entry in the emotionally lacerating Scandinavian mystery sweepstakes.”

At Petrona, Maxine reviews the book, finding many of the characters well-drawn, but herself not particularly drawn to Nina Borg. Despite a disappointing denouement, Maxine found the book “exciting and involving” as it sheds light on issues of social injustice.

Ms. Wordopolis thought it was the best of the Scandinavian crime she has read lately, with complex characters and a riveting story that never becomes manipulative.

At Eurocrime, Lynn Harvey reviews the new translation of Liza Marklund’s The Bomber,  which she found a fast-paced thriller with an appealingly strong heroine.

The Daily Beast interviews the authors about the choices they made in the book, including the portrayal of men who carry out violent acts. They find crime fiction that dwells on violence is too often about how crime is committed, not who committed it or why.

At International Crime Fiction, Glenn Harper reviews Johan Theorin’s The Quarry, writing that Theorin continues to combine an interesting plot structure, lots of the flavor of daily life for the characters, including the recurring figure of Gerlof, an elderly resident of the island of Oland, and a folkloric supernatural element – continuing the arc of a series that he feels is about as far from the style of Stieg Larsson as it is possible to get.

He also reviews Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds and compares it to the previously-filmed Swedish television version of the story. He praises Tursten for telling an interesting story with just the right amount of domestic backstory – and Soho Press for restarting their publishing of this seires, which was one of the earliest Swedish translations into English among crime fiction titles.

Jose Egnacio reviews Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, and recommends the Norwegian police procedural highly.  While still in Norway (at least in a literary sense) he offers his comments on K. O. Dahl’s Lethal Investments, which he found enjoyable. Crossing the border into Sweden, he reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s Cop Killer, a late entry into the Martin Beck series which he finds thought-provoking, with “a fine sense of humour.”

At Eurocrime, Laura Root also reviews Lethal Investments, concluding that plot is less the author’s strength than character and being able to poke society with a sharp, satirical stick.

Mrs. Peabody investigates Jan Costin Wagner’s The Winter of the Lions, another entry in a series she admires, writing “the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.” (As an aside – are there many reviewers in the media who write mystery reviews as good as this?)

Sarah at Crimepieces also reviews it, noting that it has a slightly bizarre but not implausible plot, praising the author’s writing and ability to create intriguing characters.

At Petrona, Maxine has mixed feelings about Kristina Ohlsson’s Unwanted. She found it a quick, entertaining read, but short on emotional depth and rather predictable, though the writing was good enough that she hasn’t written off the author yet.

For the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge, Maxine (who has completed two levels of the challenge and is well on her way to completing the expert level) profiles Inger Frimansson and includes Camilla Ceder and Karin Alvtegen among her “writers a bit like Frimansson” list.

Michelle Peckham enjoyed Mons Kallentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice, finding it a slow-burning story with an intriguing lead character.

Beth sums up her thoughts about the Millennium Trilogy as David Fincher’s new film version hits theatres. She writes, “the real genius of the Millennium Trilogy is that Lisbeth Salander is no less an unforgettable character on the page as she is on the screen.”She also reviews Anne Holt’s 1222 which she found atmospheric and evocative. This novel recently made new in the US as it was just nominated for an Edgar “best novel of 2011” award

Keishon raises some excellent questions about “the commercialization of Scandinavian crime fiction” – in particular wondering if the trajectory of the Harry Hole series has been influenced by the demands of the American market for more violence done by armies of serial killers. The comment thread resulting is also well worth a read. She also reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which she found an uneven entry in a strong series – making up for it in Until Thy Wrath Be Past, which she found “unputdownable,” full of strong scenes and unforgettable characters. 

Norm also gives Until Thy Wrath Be Past high marks – “refreshingly different and thought-provoking.”

Shadepoint names Leif G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End the best book of 2011, which was challenging in its scope but in the end memorable and significant.

Kerrie in Paradise finds Jo Nesbo’s standalone Headhunters quite clever and advises readers to stick with it through its slow start.

If you’d like to browse a list of excellent reviews, you’ll find it at Reactions to Reading, where Bernadette lists the books she read for the Nordic Book Challenge of 2011. (She nearly reached Valhalla – as do I, reading her insightful comments on books.)

Some interesting feature articles to add to the review round-up:

Publishing Perspectives profiles Victoria Cribb, who translates Icelandic works into English and scrambles to keep up with Icelandic neologisms that are based on Icelandic roots rather than being merely imported from other languages. (Go, Iceland!) This small country, which publishes more books per capita than any other, was highlighted at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Dennis O’Donnell, book geek, reviews Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold ClimateForshaw himself blogs at Shots about covering the Scandinavian crime beat – and offers aspiring novelists a checklist of how to write a Nordic bestseller, among the tips changing your name to something like Børge Forshawsen.

Dorte contributes a wonderful survey of Danish crime fiction to Martin Edwards’ blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? including writers who are just becoming familiar to English-speaking readers as well as some we haven’t met (yet).

On the “in other news” front, Nick Cohen challenges Stieg Larsson’s claim to feminism, criticizing his (not translated) co-authored book on honor killings which Cohen says suffers from a left-wing abandonment of feminism when race enters the picture, using the issue to accuse leftists in general of waffling on women’s rights when it comes to immigrants.  The smoke is still rising from the comments.

so many books, must make time

Peter, as usual, is ahead of the game and gives us an early glimpse of the fifth book in Camilla Lackberg’s series, The Hidden Child, which takes a look at wartime secrets and makes the pages turn quickly.

He also catches us up with Norwegian author Thomas Enger and his new book, Burned, which he finds fascinating, convoluted, and with a terrific ending.

Ben Martin at the Advocate has some stern things to say about crime fiction that is stooping too low – he’s quite cross about Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist and Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman.

What made Mankell and Larsson so compelling was the determination by their protagonists to master the evil. Without this moral dimension, such tales are merely horrific. . . .

The Hypnotist, by a Swedish couple writing under the pseudonym Lars Kepler, is a repellent book. Its special nightmare quality is the involvement of children in crimes of murder, kidnapping, rape and mutilation, either as victims or perpetrators. . . .

Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, inspires similar dread . . . As the chapters proceed, the means of death grow more gruesome, the motives more obscene.

But he praises Hakan Nesser and especially Arne Dahl, whose Misterioso is finally going to be available in English. He says is “truly fine” and the first translation in a series that is a worthy successor to Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series.

Lucky Bernadette has already read Johann Theorin’s The Quarry, which is set on his favorite island, this time in the spring. She writes:

As has been the case with the previous two novels of this series I was once again enveloped by the atmosphere Theroin, ably aided by his translator Marlaine Delargy, has created here. It didn’t feel like I was just reading about the island’s slow awakening from it’s harsh winter to spring: I lived through the lengthening days, the appearance of the first butterflies, the people getting to know each other and themselves. I loved every moment of this book from its first word to its excellent closing line.

As these are seasonal books, and we’ve had three, I’m afraid we have only one more left.

Keishon, the avid mystery reader/blogger, thinks highly of Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, saying, “I always find myself thoroughly immersed in his stories. To me Johan Theorin is a natural-born storyteller whose novels are often described as “chilling” and “atmospheric.” He has a strong authorial ‘voice.'” She also does her part to combat grade inflation, causing a bit of controversy.

Maxine Clarke reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Outrage at Euro Crime; this ninth volume in the Erlendur series is much more about his colleague, Elinborg, who investigates a murder the old-fashioned way, teasing out every clue and learning as much as possible about the victim. As Maxine points out, procedurals that avoid technical gee-wizardry are less likely to date themselves. All around, a good mystery, though the who dunnit aspect is less successful than the overall depiction of an investigation and the people involved in it.

Peter Rozovsky reviews a dark and violent crime story – Harald’s Saga, one of those early Icelandic thrillers that (along with Ed McBain) influenced Arnaldur Indridason’s style.

In the Wall Street Journal, Tom Nolan reviews The Hypnotist, finding it (appropriately) mesmerizing and (perhaps less appropriately) grisly. Though, he concludes, when you live in the wild north “sometimes you need an ax.”

Norm reviews Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment at Crime Scraps and wonders if mysteries today aren’t indulging in a bit too much backstory. If the review had to be summarized in one syllable, it might be “m’eh.” Meanwhile, update your RSS feeds, as Crime Scraps has finalized its divorce from Blogger.

Elaine Simpson-Long, Opera Lover, also loves Henning Mankell’s elegaic coda for the Kurt Wallander series, The Troubled Man, though she’s sorry it’s the last one.

I find when reading Mankell’s books that the narrative style and flow is very even and balanced, no sharp, short sentences or any breaks.   The reader is gently taken along and after a while it is almost a soothing experience to read this author and this ebb and flow reflects the character of Kurt Wallander himself, it is almost hypnotic . . . A thoughtful quiet read and well worth it.

BBC’s World Book Club offers a lengthy and informative interview with Henning Mankell. Hat tip to Mediations for the link.

The Material Witness reviews Sofi Oksanen’s Purge and gives it high marks for psychological stealth and subtlety. For some reason, I hadn’t realized she’s Finnish, so belongs here (though the setting is Estonia, and there is some dispute over whether this book can properly be called crime fiction).

Barry Forshaw has a lengthy and interesting essay in The Independent  about Norwegian crime writers and their thoughts about the genre, making a brief stop on his way to publishing a book on Scandinavian crime fiction to be titled Death in a Cold Climate. Peter Rozovsky writes about it at his blog with a pun clever enough to cause toothache.

And if you haven’t had your fill of The Girl, Variety has an article about David Fincher’s US remake of the Millennium Trilogy films; all the Swedes interviewed seem to be pleased with it, where apparently Fincher has fans. They are also relieved that it hasn’t been moved from Sweden to a US setting or filmed on location in the nearest Ikea store to Hollywood.

Hang onto your wallets: the tireless sleuth, Karen Meek, has uncovered new publications coming out in August in both the UK and US markets, including some newcomers to English translation: Norwegian Jørn Lier Horst, Swedish Stefan Tegenfalk, and Finnish Monika Fagerholm (who has one other book that has been translated into English previously).

not all Larsson (but nearly)

Salon reviews the second film in the Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire,  and (like the rest of us) begs Hollywood to leave well enough alone.

Speaking of leaving things alone, the AP has a story that stokes speculation about a fourth book. Though Larsson’s partner, Eva Gabrielsson, will not comment, a friend of Larsson’s goes on record about an e-mail he received from the author about the  manuscript. Personally, I’d rather it remain a footnote of history than that it be exploited. There are lots of good books to read; the only reason to bring someone in to write an ending for another book would be to satisfy fans’ curiosity and to make money – neither of which seems to me a valid excuse for publishing something the author has no control over and is unable to finish for himself.

R. Thomas Berner thinks we’re still waiting for a definitive biography of Larsson. He review’s Barry Forshaw’s The Man Who Died Too Soon and finds it a repetitive mishmash of plot summaries and under-edited interviews. (I haven’t read the book, so can’t weigh in with my opinion.)

Crime Segments (which is a criminal subsidiary of the 2010 Year in Books blog) reviews Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room and says it’s “a perfectly-crafted thriller with a slight hint of gothic thrown into the mix . . . simply stellar.”

(And I’m left wondering once again why so many bloggers write more informative and analytical reviews of crime fiction than are typically found in the mainstream media. I’d be delighted to see a review like this in a major daily newspaper, but most of the time all I get is a four-sentence plot summary. Too bad newspaper publishers can’t be convinced that news readers might just be book readers. Wouldn’t it be something if books got as much coverage as sports? But I digress . . . )

The Huffington Post has an interview with Camilla Lackberg, positioning her in the preface as the next Stieg Larsson – not in so many words, but by implication: hey, she’s Swedish, and she’s sold a lot of books! You’d better grab one now!  She, at least, has the good sense to draw a distinction. When asked about “the elephant in the room” she says “I’d already published several books when his novels began to come out. He was something new, something unexpected — especially his intensity. I enjoy him very much, but we’re not doing the same thing.” Wise woman.

reviews and interviews

The three top selling books in April at Abebooks were a Larsson trifecta:

1. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
3. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Ali Karim interviews the author of a new biography of Stieg Larsson at The Rap Sheet. Barry Forshaw, author of The Man Who Left Too Soon, warns that his literary biography contains (as one would expect) spoilers and that he thinks the author’s heavy smoking and generally punishing lifestyle were more likely to blame for his premature death than a conspiracy (though fellow chain smoking writers would have it otherwise…) He also has this interesting thing to say in response to a question about Larsson’s feminism.

There is no question that he was genuinely a feminist who celebrated strong, capable women. But it has to be said that his strong, capable female protagonist [Lisbeth Salander] is also a disturbed sociopath who is psychologically damaged. What do we read into this? Is it simply a novelistic imperative to render his heroine more vulnerable? My own personal jury is still out on the graphic descriptions of sexual abuse in the novels. I can’t see an argument for Larsson describing such things in a discreet, mealy-mouthed fashion–and I would have thought it would be difficult (except for certain individuals) to find these passages erotically exciting. Basically, Larsson provides us with a remarkably high number of male scumbags to function as antagonists for his vengeful heroine. And I think–in the final analysis–he does it in a (largely) responsible fashion. But it’s a difficult call … Sorry if that sounds like fence-sitting.

I have to agree that it’s hard to imagine the sexual violence in these books as titillating; at any rate, if it is, that’s more the reader’s problem than the author’s – which one can’t say for the large number of thrillers that use violence against women in an obviously exploitative manner.

The Guardian takes a break from the election to report on various entertainments, including a Nordic film festival in Edinburgh.

Perhaps it’s the long winter nights, perhaps it’s their excellent road-safty record, perhaps it’s the satanic strains of Roxette, but stereotyping aside, Scandinavian crime fiction seems to have taken over the world – first as books, now as movies. So if Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo whetted your appetite, head for the fresh imports on show here. Norwegian crime writers Karin Fossum and Gunnar Staalesen are represented by adaptations of their noir-tinged novels The Girl By The Lake (which was actually made in Italy) and Varg Veum: Bitre Blomster (Bitter Flowers) respectively. Alternatively, you can compare the Swedish Wallander with the UK version in a double bill, or revisit such overlooked cult gems as Jar City, Just Another Love Story, The Ape and Erik Skjoldbjærg’s original version of Insomnia.

Who said they were allowed to have so much fun!? Then again, the election is so much not fun, I shouldn’t begrudge them a break.

The Viking invasion of India continues to get press coverage; this week brings an interview with Hakan Nesser in the Business Standard. The Swedish writer thinks the boom in Scandinavian crime is caused by Germans reading such a lot of it.

Nesser is sceptical about the existence of any such thing as a “Swedish tradition” in crime writing. “The only thing [Swedish crime writers] have in common is that we write in Swedish,” he says. Fans, however, will point out that the tradition goes back to the 1960s, when the husband-wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote their Martin Beck series. Nesser (whose best-known character is the philosophical detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren) counters with the observation that since Sjöwall-Wahlöö no Swedish crime writer had gained worldwide recognition until Henning Mankell (creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander), Nesser himself and a handful of others shot to fame in the 1990s.

“When critics try to scrutinise the Swedish crime fiction situation,” he says, “they look for patterns… and find, because they want to find it, this or that which is rotten in the state of Sweden, and thus has caused this explosion of crime writing… Since Sweden used to be a kind of model society in the latter part of the 20th century, [they] like to link our literary hype to a fall from grace of the country.” Nesser does not consider his own books to be making any kind of social criticism, though he agrees that some authors do. This is not a Swedish specialty, he insists. “You can hardly write a realistic contemporary story, crime or not, without involving the society where it takes place.” . . .

“Right now,” says Nesser, “we probably have the world’s largest number of good crime fiction writers per capita, but please be aware that we also have the world’s largest number of bad crime fiction writers.”

Maxine points out that Swdish Book Review has just published an issue devoted to Kerstsin Ekman, whose crime novel Under the Snow and Blackwater have been translated into English. It has been a long time since I read them, but I loved the latter and didn’t so much love the former. I look forward to the issue since my library (on Maxine’s advice) has just started a subscription to this publication.

Incidentally, that periodical has published an article based on Selling Ice to Eskimos: Translated Crime Fiction and British Publishing, a dissertation by Paul Engles, who has kindly put it on the web. He looks at the market for translations, particularly in view of the recent popularity of Scandinavian translations, and compares the British market for Italian and for Scandinavian titles.

Maxine reviews Mikkel Birkegaard’s The Library of Shadows, and finds that it’s “fast-paced, exciting and readable, if a somewhat formulaic mixture of Harry Potter, Indiana Jones and Da Vinci Code-type themes,” including a fair amount of supernatural shenanigans, which means it’s not really her sort of book at all.

Rob Kitchen reads Roseanna, the first in the Martin Beck series, and wonder what it is about the book that gives Sjowall and Wahloo the reputation of being transformational. It has a much quieter, more leisurely pace than what we’re used to today.

There is a sense of progression, but it is not driven along at breakneck speed, with an endless succession of cliffhangers. Instead the story meanders along at a relatively sedate pace, detailing how the case is patiently and dogmatically investigated, eventually reaching a relatively understated climax. . . . I find it quite difficult to conceive Roseanna as a book that broke the mould and started a new way of writing crime fiction given the vast quantity of work that follows in their path, some of which advances what they started and branches off in new directions. That said, it is a fine piece of work that reads just as well now as it no doubt did forty years ago.

Bernadette reads The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen and finds it fits the bill very well indeed, giving high marks to both author and translator.

The suspense built in a gradual, quite understated way as the date for Santanda’s visit draws closer and you know that everyone will intersect somehow but are never quite sure how this will happen and what the resolution will be. The flow of the writing appears to have been expertly captured by Scottish born translator Barbara Haveland as the novel was a particularly easy and engaging read and I would recommend it heartily.

Dorte reports that another children’s writer has turned to crime, reviewing a book co-authored by Lene Kaaberbøl and newcomer Agnete Friis, The Boy in the Suitcase. She considers it the best Danish thriller she’s ever read and, while it’s not translated into English as yet, she was kind enough to translate her review.

Photo courtesy of Global X, who had to start reading the trilogy in French because it took so long for the English translation to come out.