A Mixed Bag of Mini-Reviews

Time to blow the dust off and post something here. I’ve been under the weather (hello, endocrine system! I didn’t even know you were there). I’ve been reading a lot – just not up for writing reviews. Rather than try and catch up with full-scale reviews while relieving ARC-guilt, I’ll simply share some quick impressions of some of the books I’ve read. It won’t do them justice, but otherwise I’ll never catch up. I’m putting a * by the ones I enjoyed the most and warning you that there’s a rant ahead.

Dark BranchesDark Branches by Nik Frobenius
This Norwegian novel of psychological suspense is narrated by a writer who has stretched himself to write an autobiographical novel that exposes aspects of his past that previously he’d kept hidden. As soon as the publicity for the new book begins, he gets a newspaper clipping in the mail, unsigned, about the school fire that inspired his novel. Then his daughter’s doll is mutilated and a strange voice on the phone tells his wife the author is having an affair. Things don’t improve from there. The story is moody and dark; the narrator is not a sympathetic character, which makes it even darker, as the past he’s used for material comes back to haunt him. This nicely produced Sandstone Press book was translated by Frank Stewart.

*Open Grave by Kjell Eriksson
This claustrophobic character study may not be the best choice for readers who like action and puzzle-solving, but if you take the time to savor it, it’s very good. An elderly man living in a prestigious neighborhood has just received news that he’s going to receive the Nobel Prize for medicine. We soon learn that he may not actually deserve it, and in any case he’s a mean, demanding, self-important tyrant of his own home. The demands he puts on his loyal elderly housekeeper, the third woman in her family to work for this wealthy family, is reaching the end of her tether. In some ways this is an inside-out mystery. The series detective, Ann Lindell, appears late in the book, and so does the crime. What’s fascinating is to watch this highly traditional household slowly unravel. Translated by Paul Norlen.

The Intruder by Hȧkan Östlund
Though Swedish crime fiction is typically associated with social criticism, there’s quite a lot of it that situates fairly outlandish crimes arising out of family secrets or tortured relationships in picturesque tourist destinations. Sometimes they’re very good – Johann Theorin has written some cracking stories. But often they’re not particularly realistic or insightful and the setting feels very far from contemporary Sweden, a kind of golden age Sweden with home-grown monsters to slay. This second book in a series set in Gotland (after The Viper) involves a family living on an isolated island off Gotland that begins receiving threatening anonymous letters. The investigation exposes a marriage that isn’t ideal. I couldn’t find much to recommend this novel and it relies on breaking faith with the reader in a way that I can’t describe without a spoiler, but it’s been on every “rules for mysteries” list since S. S. Van Dine. I don’t blame the translator, Paul Norlen. He did his job perfectly well.

The Drowning by Camilla Läckberg
As much as I was underwhelmed by the previous book in this list, I actively detested this one. Family secrets and a horrible crime on a scenic island populated by Swedes who lack the diversity and complexity of contemporary Sweden – we’re in the heart of don’t-pay-attention-to-social-issues Swedish crime, which is enormously popular. Every irritating gimmick this author uses is turned on full blast. The backstory told to readers at length, but not known to police. Nearly every terrible thing a human being might do can be traced to bad mothers. Highly traditional gender roles between an earnest copper and his I-just-can’t-help-myself amateur sleuth wife, who has traded post-natal depression for being pregnant with twins. I know, next time let’s go for triplets! The amateur female lead withholds information from her cop husband, both of them withhold information from the reader, and a solution to the mystery is ripped from a 1970s soap opera. For dessert, may we offer you a completely manipulative cliffhanger that has nothing to do with what went before but is a teaser for buying the next book? It may come as no surprise that I won’t be reading any more in this hot mess of a series. To be fair, millions of readers worldwide love this The Treacherous Netstuff. I just found this overlong book (476 pages) had everything I don’t like about this series on display and nothing that I could praise other than the better-than-it-deserves translation by the talented Tiina Nunnally.

*The Treacherous Net by Helene Tursten
Now we’re back on solid ground. This latest in a reliable police procedural series combines a realistically grounded and competent female detective, Irene Huss, working on realistically sordid crimes in Sweden’s second-largest city, Göteborg. In this entry, a young girl who appears to have been lured into the sex trade through internet-based grooming has been murdered, and this murder is the tip of the iceberg. As if that’s not enough to keep the homicide detectives busy, a mummified body is uncovered as a building is being demolished. The two investigations are nicely laid out and we catch up on what’s going on in Irene’s life at home and in the workplace. I enjoy the low-key way this series addresses social issues without too much drama and a non-angsty, non-alcoholic protagonist who resolutely believes that things can be put right by good people doing their jobs well. If Swedish crime has a crowd of gloomy detectives in one corner and a bunch of unlikely crimes in picturesque settings in the other, Tursten plants her flag in the middle: in a place where most of us live. Translator Marlaine Delargy does justice to this author’s straightforward prose style.

*The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
A family in a small Norwegian community experiences a tragedy when their toddler son wonders out of house when his mother’s back is turned and drowns in a nearby pond. As usual, Inspector Sejer investigates the incident with his quiet combination of compassion and penetrating skepticism. For someone who usually finds out that terrible things lurk under Norwegians’ smiling exteriors, he is both relentlessly just and deeply kind. In this case, the question is whether a parent may have wished the boy, who has Down Syndrome, out of their lives. This book doesn’t have the strong ironic fabulism of many of the recent books in this series and it has more of a focus on the often gnomic detective’s feelings than usual, both of which struck me as good things. Fine translation by Kari Dickson.

The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler-Olsen
I’ve enjoyed earlier books in this series, even though the plots involve rather implausibly complicated ways to commit crimes, but this one didn’t hold together at all. A policeman on the island of Bornholm, obsessed by a cold case, uses his retirement party as a stage for his suicide. The familiar Department Q team go to the remote island to solve the case, but the story never comes alive and nobody seems too interested in the girl who is found hanging most implausibly in a tree. There’s over 500 pages of it, too. I don’t see a translator on this advanced reader copy, but I don’t envy him or her the job.

The Girl and the Bomb**The Girl and the Bomb by Jari Järvelä
This book was a great find, and I had never heard of this author until he asked if I would care to read an advanced copy. I’m so glad he did. Though Amazon Crossing is producing a lot of translations, they don’t always get a lot of attention. In this case, the book certainly deserves it. The chapters alternate the point of view of a young black woman who feels alienated in the small port city of Kotka, Finland. Her best mate, a gifted street artist with whom she scales heights and spray-paints (aka bombs) the ugly parts of the city, is killed when a group of security guards go after them both. Metro (the somewhat feral girl of the title and a great character) decides to go after the guard who she thinks is responsible. His point of view is provided in the other chapters, and he’s the least guilty of the guards, the one most disturbed by what happened. As time goes on and Metro finds ways to call out the injustice, the small flicker of remorse and shame he feels is replace by resentment and anger. It’s both a psychological study of a man whose moral fiber is disintegrating and a character sketch of an artistically talented but marginalized teen who feels she owes it to her friend to seek justice her own way. The ending is great. It looks as if there will be a trilogy about Metro, if my Google-foo is working, and a film is being made of this one. I’ll be looking for them. Kristian London can take a bow for her his translation.

Three days ago Amazon announced they’ll be spending $10 million on translations in this imprint over the next five years. Heartening news for those of us who want more.

 

 

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The Beige Man by Helene Tursten – a review

The latest issue of Revewing the Evidence includes some tempting new mysteries. Be sure to check it out. Meanwhile, with the kind permission of RTE’s editor, is a repost of my latest review – a newly translated entry in the Swedish police procedural featuring Irene Huss.

THE BEIGE MAN 
by Helen Tursten and Madeleine Delargy, trans.
Soho, February 2015

Helene Tursten’s police procedural series, set in Göteborg, Sweden’s second-largest city, does a good job of straddling the line between dark, gritty realism and a more lighthearted and hopeful view of the world. That balancing act is featured in the latest of the series to be translated into English, first published in 2007.

The port city of Göteborg is trapped in a particularly nasty winter storm when two delinquents, joy riding in a stolen car, strike and kill a retired policeman. As the police pursue the fleeing pair, they find the car abandoned and follow the trail into the woods with tracker dogs, who alert to a root cellar. When they open the doors, they find something unexpected: the body of a young girl, sexually abused and strangled. She seems to have been a sex trafficking victim who had reached the end of her exploitable life. The two investigations are full of open questions: who stole the car? What was “Muesli,” the retired police officer who’d earned a reputation for being boringly unremarkable, doing on that street in the night without his coat? Who was the girl whose body was accidentally discovered on the same night as Muesli’s hit-and-run, and what is behind her tragic, sordid fate?

As readers have come to expect from Swedish crime fiction, the plot exposes and explores an unsavory aspectThe Beige Man cover of contemporary life in Scandinavia. Detective Irene Huss learns more than she ever wanted to know about a brutal international trade in sex slaves. The girl whose death she investigates (nicknamed by the team “the Little Russian” because she has no other name to go by) appears to have been brought to Sweden by a criminal gang moving girls from one country to another with false passports, never staying in one place long enough to be caught. This particular victim had been suffering from a serious infection and, no longer able to perform, had been disposed of like trash. Irene follows a lead to Tenerife, where she finds it hard to distinguish between criminal gangs and law enforcement authorities. Long-time readers of this series will recall other times when investigations have lead Irene abroad, offering a contrast between societies as well as a chance for Irene to get into real trouble.

As Irene peers into the darker depths of human behavior, she also faces challenges at home. Her daughters are leaving the nest, her elderly mother is unwell, and worst of all, her beloved dog Sammie is nearing the end of his life. These domestic threads are the weft of the series, holding stories about violence together in a reassuring and refreshingly ordinary domestic pattern. This may be drawback for readers looking for a high-tension story arc, but this intricately-plotted mix of light and darkness connects serious social problems to a world that looks very familiar, making those issues more unavoidably real.

review roundup and a new version of Macbeth

Ms. Wordopolis reviews the first book in Mari Jungstedt’s Anders Knutas and Johan Berg series, Unseen, finding the series characters and their stories more interesting than the fairly predictable serial killer storyline. All in all, she reckons it’s time to read something other than police procedurals.

Previously, she reviewed the latest in the Carl Mørck Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen, The Purity of Vengeance, which left her with mixed feelings: “I feel strange saying that the book was written well or that I was interested in the ongoing storylines of Mørck and Assad when the main plot was so horrible to women,” she writes, Like the first novel in the series (The Keeper of Lost Causes, also published under the title Mercy), the plot focuses on people who hate women. How that focus is handled (and for what purpose) is one of the biggest open questions in this genre, in my opinion.

She was also not entirely satisfied by Helene Tursten’s The Fire Dance, but for different reasons. She felt there just wasn’t much in the story to grab her interest and hold it, concluding it was a so-so entry in a series that promises more.

The Indian Feminist, who has written about Scandinavian women detectives in the past, was likewise disappointed in the latest English translation in the Irene Huss series, The Fire Dance,  which she found slow paced and uninvolving.

The Fire DanceNancy O. had a different reading experience with this book, as she explains at The Crime Segments. She counts Tursten’s series as one she deeply enjoys, and a Scandinavian author who stays on her to-be-read list as others disappoint and drop off. Her verdict: “for those who enjoy solid police procedurals with a personal twist.” She still counts The Torso as her favorite in the series, being “edgy and solid.” This entry, while a solid police procedural, has a bit less edge.

Meanwhile, in paradise, Kerrie enjoyed reading the previous book in the series, The Golden Calf, which she felt had a nice balance of action, the personal lives of the series characters, and police procedure. She sums up the series as “basically police procedurals, planted in a modern world, with plenty of human interest.”

Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Leif G. W. Persson’s tome, Free Falling as if in a Dream, part of a series drawn from the unsolved murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. Though it’s very long, he says it’s “gripping all the way through, as well as comic in some sections, through the ironic and simultaneously arrogant and self-deprecating voice of Johannson and the appearance of the ridiculous detective in many of the author’s books, Evert Bäckstrom.” However, he doesn’t hold out much hope for the US television adaptation that’s out next year. In his review, he looks at how this novel and Magdalen Nabb’s The Monster of Florence handle actual unsolved crimes, finding that both propose in their fiction plausible and disturbing solutions.

He also reviews Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, and has a great description of its trajectory: “meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing.” He considers the non-linear, poetic approach a plus, but knows it’s not for everyone: “For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.” This story brings the series’ Turku detective, who is looking into the murder of an unidentified woman, together with Helsinki investigators looking into a series of murders, with several narrative threads that, in the end, are knitted together.

Traveling to yet another Nordic country, Harper reviews Quentin Bates’s Chilled to the Bone, the latest in a series focusing on an Icelandic investigator, Gunna Gisladottir, and it in his opinion the best in the series. Among its virtues, “lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters.” Though he considers it less dark than Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series, it’s both grim and entertaining.

At Euro Crime, Rich Westwood reviews Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House, advising those looking for a new Scandinavian crime series to give it a try. The main plot, about man who endured horrific bullying as a child and the various violent ways in which his former schoolmates are being murdered, seems less compelling to him than a subplot about one of the police team who believes she’s been drugged and raped after a casual encounter and is determined to find justice. Westwood thinks the admixture of personal stories of the investigating officers will remind readers of Camilla Lackberg, mixing violent murder and cozy scenes of domestic life.

Also at Euro Crime, Michelle Peckham praises Arnaldur Indridason’s Strange Shores, the eleventh novel in the Erlendur series. We and Erlendur finally grapple with the detective’s Strange Shorespersonal quest to understand how he survived being lost in a storm that killed his brother. He approaches this quest by investigating another event, the disappearance of a young woman he learned about as a child. He probes the secrets and memories of those still alive who can help him put the pieces together. She calls the book powerful, emotional, and a beautiful exploration of how trauma can shape a life.

Amanda Gillies also uses the term “beautiful” for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, a novel that makes her fall in love with its prickly 82-year-old protagonist. Though it had a slow start for her, she pronounces the story about an American Jew haunted by his wartime experiences and his son’s death in Vietnam who sometimes is confused but manages to evade villains to save a small boy, “quite simply brilliant.” 

Mrs Peabody investigates some dystopian crime fiction, including Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which she finds “a gripping and quietly powerful read” which interrogates (as dystopias do) how people find meaning in situations where social structures have broken down and disaster is impending – in this case a poet searching for his missing wife, a journalist who has been writing about a Finnish eco-warrior who is taking violent action as climate change changes everything. Like Bernadette, she finds it a curiously uplifting read.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Karin Fossum’s The Indian Bride (also published as Calling Out for You), in which a naive Norwegian man impuslively travels to India to find a bride. When she arrives in Norway, she disappears. And Fossum’s quiet menace does the rest. As Jose Ignacio observes, “she is able to develop a particular atmosphere that can become frightening, using only elements taken from our daily lives.” Here, in this small Norwegian town, the well-meaning and wholly wholesome Scandinavians seem all too comfortable seeking silence when the subject of race enters the picture – and Fossum is not willing to leave us content with the knowledge that justice, in the end, will be done.

At the Independent, Barry Forshaw reviews Hans Koppel’s You’re Mine Now, which once again You're Mine Nowfeatures a man who hates women, though this time the woman confronted by a stalker is in a better position to fight back than in his previous novel (which Forshaw puts in a nutshell: “ritual sexual debasement and torture visited upon the luckless heroine, kept captive in a house where she could still see her distraught, unknowing family,” Yes, that’s wny I didn’t read it.) Koppel is apparently very good at ratcheting up tension, not so good at giving us any reason why we shouldn’t just give up on the human race altogether.

Keishon is avid about reading Asa Larsson’s mysteries, but found The Second Deadly Sin disappointing in the end. There are various timeframes and one becomes a bit of a slog. Office politics among the main characters is about as appealing as . . . well, office politics. And the pacing overall, she felt, was off in an over-long novel. She recommends her other books, though.

Norm, at Crime Scraps, reviews Mari Jungstedt’s The Double Silence, a new entry in the Anders Knutas series set on Visby Island. In addition to a crime, the story involves the lives of its ongoing cast of characters. While Norm recommends this series, he felt this story jumped too often from one point of view to another and often left him mystified in ways the author likely didn’t intend.

And now for something completely different, The Wall Street Journal reports that Jo Nebso has been signed on (along with other authors) to write prose versions of Shakespeare’s plays running up the bard’s 400th birthday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he will be taking on Macbeth and, in an interview, ponders whether he’ll make him a man vying for the position of police chief in a throughly corrupt city in the 1970s. That cauldron the weird sisters are stirring? It just might be brewing some kick-ass meth. The story is likely to keep relationships and themes but perhaps not much else. I must say I’m particularly intrigued about what Margaret Atwood might do with The Tempest. 

weird sisters and cauldron

Finally, if you are fortunate enough to be in northern California on February 2, Janet Rudolph invites you to join her and fellow fans for a lecture on Swedish crime fiction by my fellow Minnesotan, Jim Kaplan. He’s very wise to be somewhere other than in the Polar Vortex that keeps on turning the upper Midwest into an arctic knockoff.

Happy Easter Crime!

Påskekrim

creative commons licensed photo courtesy of Rockspilden

The Spectator has a fascinating article about the origins of Påskekrim, Norway’s tradition of reading crime fiction at Easter. It seems a couple of enterprising guerrilla marketers of the late 19th century placed and ad for their novel about a train robbery that looked very like a news headline in Aftenposten. A tradition was born. As Norwegians head to their country cottages for the holidays, they take candy and entertaining books with them. The article goes on to profile worthy Norwegian writers, Anne Holt and Jørn Lier Horst, as well as a selection of Swedish and Danish recommendations.

The Newtown Review of Books, from Sydney, Australia, has a detailed review of Antti Tuomainen’s dystopian futuristic thriller set in Helsinki, The Healer.  Jean Bedford concludes, ” it is the juxtaposition of the rather gallant existentialism of the protagonists with the self-preservation and venality of most of the other characters that adds depth and texture to raise this dystopian crime novel well out of the ordinary.”

I have a copy on its way to me, and I am looking forward to it. In an email to me, critic Paula The HealerArvas wrote “it’s one piece of quality crime writing!” She also recommends Pekka Hiltunen’s Cold Courage which will be out in June. For more from Finland, see the website of the FELT Cooperative.

At Reviewing the Evidence, there are several Scandinavian crime novels reviewed this week. John Cleal finds Mons Kallentoft’s Autumn Killing complex, dark, splendidly written, and a bit of work for the reader – but well worth it.

Yvonne Klein finds some of the plot devices in Silenced, Kristina Ohlsson’s second novel, awfully shopworn, and isn’t taken with the characters, though the book does provide a picture of Swedish approaches to justice.

Anne Corey is enthusiastic about Helsinki Blood, the latest brutal and dark entry in James Thompson’s Kari Vaara series. (Thompson is an American living in Finland, where his books were first published.) Though it focuses on Vaara’s attempts to salvage a what’s left of his life after the violence of the previous book in the series, it ends on a hopeful note and a possible new direction for the series.

In an earlier issue of RTE, I reviewed Tursten’s Golden Calf, which I felt was a strong entry in the series that has interesting things to say about the way wealth distorts people’s values.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Arne Dahl’s Misterioso (apa The Blinded Man) finding it well-written, intelligent, a tad slow in places, and very much in the social critique tradition of SJowall and Wahloo.  The BBC is airing a television series based on Dahl’s Intercrime novels starting in April. (Hat tip to Euro Crime.)

He previously reviewed Last Will by Liza Marklund, which he gives top marks, saying it’s an engrossing story that does a good job of weaving together the investigation and Annika Bengtzon’s personal life.

Margot Kinberg puts Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs in the spotlight – part of her series in which she examines how a particular mystery works in depth. This episode is dedicated to Maxine Clarke, who was one of the first to review this book.

Andalucian Friend - USAt Crimepieces, Sarah Ward reviews Alexander Söderberg’s Andalucian Friend, which she enjoyed – with reservations. The story’s strength is in its well-drawn characters, but the non-stop action and attendant hype left her wondering what all the fuss is about.

More reviews of Söderberg’s novel can be found at The Book Reporter (which finds it an epic powerhouse of a novel), Metro (which is less enamored, finding the female lead lacking and the violence over the top), and Kirkus (which deems it promising but with issues).

Petrona Award and more

It’s official: The Petrona Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel of the year has announced its very first shortlist and judges. The finalist will be announced at Crimefest.  From the press release:

The Petrona Award has been established to celebrate the work of Maxine Clarke, one of the first online crime fiction reviewers and bloggers, who died in December 2012. Maxine, whose online persona and blog was called Petrona, was passionate about translated crime fiction but in particular that from the Scandinavian countries.
The shortlist for the 2013 award, which is based on Maxine’s reviews and ratings is as follows:
PIERCED by Thomas Enger, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Faber and Faber)
BLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason, tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)
LAST WILL by Liza Marklund, tr. Neil Smith (Corgi)
ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif GW Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday)
The judges are an erudite and very well-read group – Barry Forshaw, Kat Hall (aka Mrs. Peabody), and Sarah Ward. Find more about the award at Petrona Remembered.
Sarah Ward reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Locked Room at Crimepieces. It’s the eighth in the series and perhaps not the strongest, but Sarah enjoyed the sly ending. She also reviews Leif G. W. Persson’s Linda, as in the Linda Murder, which features Evert Backstrom, who is “compelling and abhorrent. Sexist, racist, homophobic, facetious, work-shy, dismissive of his team . . . and very, very funny,” making her predict readers will either love or loathe this unusual novel.

Jose Ignacio Escribano offers a bilingual review of Anne Holt’s The Blind Goddess, which was the first in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, though he points out there really are multiple protagonists, rather like the Martin Beck series (a very interesting parallel). Originally published in 1993, this novel won the Riverton prize as best Norwegian crime novel of the year.

Glenn Harper has some good things to say about Lars Kepler’s The Hypnotist, and some criticism, particularly of the flashbacks that bog down the pacing and some cliched characters.

Bernadette reviews Mons Kallentoft’s second seasonally-themed procedural, Summertime Death, and reports that the weather is frightful – hot, muggy, and very well-depicted, as was the cold in the first book. However the novel doesn’t score as well on plot, character development, or plausibility and the inclusion (once again) of voices from beyond the grave doesn’t help.

She fares better with Arnaldur Indridason’s Black Skies, which uses the sidekick Sigurdur Oli as its main character, with Erlendur off somewhere for reasons unclear. Though Sigurdur Oli is a pretty average bloke, he turns out to be quite complex – as does that plot, which appears fairly straightforward until you try to summarize it, at which point the author’s narrative skills in layering lots of material without cluttering things up becomes apparent. (I so want to read this book!)

Col (who has decided to review at least on Scandinavian mystery a month – hurrah) has high praise for an earlier book in the series, The Draining Lake, which does a good job of layering stories from different time periods.  

Col adds Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire to his criminal library and gives it mixed marks, with the action-packed second-half making up for a slow and plodding start. He liked it enough to read the third.

NancyO reviews Helene Tursten’s The Golden Calf, which she felt was a bit disappointing in the end, though the pacing and the character of Sana, a spoilt child-woman who doesn’t help the police figure things out, was well drawn.

Raven Crime Reads also has review of the book, and now plans to catch up on the earlier volumes, having found it a well-crafted procedural that is less gloomy than many Nordic novels.

Harry Hole gets around. There’s a review of The Phantom in the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Ruel S. De Vera, who finds it darkly intoxicating.

Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times was not terribly impressed by Alexander Soderberg’s The Andalusian Friend, which she thinks might have been amusing if written by Donald Westlake rather than treated seriously.

The New York Public Library has a roundup of the usual suspects of Nordic crime fiction, with links to audio pronouncing names that I know I mangle often enough. Especially Sjowall and Wahloo! (Hat tip to Sarah Ward.)

The Guardian reports that a series based on Arne Dahl’s Intercrime series will be broadcast in the UK by the BBC. Let’s hope this will spur on translations. It took years and years for Misterioso to finally appear in English.

Bitch Magazine has an interesting article by Soraya Roberts on the Scandinavian-feminist take on the standard tropes of film noir, including in her analysis the Millennium Trilogy, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Borgen, and Bron/Broen (The Bridge).  She concludes

The importance of noir heroines like Lisbeth Salander, Sarah Lund, Saga Norén, and Birgitte Nyborg Christensen is not only to put women on an equal footing with men—we can be just as work obsessed and as socially inept as you—but, more important, to change the traditional view of women as victims. By updating the women in noir from sex objects and victims to protectors—of both women and men—Nordic noir series are setting a precedent for other genres to accept. If the trench coat fits, a hero is a hero regardless of gender.

An article in Slate by techno-skeptic EvgenyMorozov tipped me off to an intriguing website that eschews algorithms and instead asks various prominent folks for their book recommendations, humanizing curation and perhaps doing it better. FiveBooks asks Jo Nesbo which novels he recommends and the answers are interesting (and not what one might expect. Or perhaps even find particularly rewarding in every case. Rivington, for example, is … well, for example may be exactly how to put it, as an important historical contributor to Norwegian crime whose stories, according to Nesbo, very much reflect the tastes of his time. (NB: quite a few of us use humans as curators. I suspect most readers are far more responsive to and satisfied by “you might also like” statements when they come from friends.)

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.

Scandinavian Writers Coming to Minnesota

beyond the girl

We’re hosting four women writers and a noted critic in Minnesota from October 8-10, and have several free events that are open to the public, some in bucolic St. Peter, Minnesota and some in Minneapolis. I hope some of this blog’s readers can attend!

Our guests are Helene Tursten, Kristina Ohlsson (both from Sweden) and Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (who write the Nina Borg series together and hail from Denmark). The critic is Kerstin Bergman of Lund University, who has written widely on the subject of crime fiction, including essays in Men Who Hate Women and Women Who Kick Their Asses: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy in Feminist Perspective (Vanderbuilt University Press, 2012) and Scandinavian Crime Fiction (University of Wales, 2011).

They will be visiting classes on creative writing, gender studies, and Scandinavian studies and will also make these public appearances:

At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter on Monday, October 8th

“The Women Strike Back: The Rise of Women Crime Writers in the Sweden 1997-2012” a lecture given by Dr. Kerstin Bergman at 4 pm in Confer 127

Author’s Abstract: The history of Swedish crime fiction was dominated by male writers, with only a handful of prominent women writers until the late 1990s. From the end of the 1990s, however, Swedish crime fiction has been characterized by a strong wave of women crime writers and an increasing number of women detectives. Liza Marklund and her first novel, The Bomber (1997) is often regarded a starting point for these developments, and today women writers hold a great share of the Swedish crime fiction market. In my talk I will describe these developments, addressing what brought this change along and what characterizes these women crime writers. Furthermore, I will bring up some of the challenges women crime writers in Sweden have faced and perhaps still face, and I will touch upon the role of feminism in recent Swedish crime fiction.

“Scandinavian Women’s Crime Fiction” Panel Discussion moderated by Barbara Fister and Dr. Glenn Kranking, with Dr. Kerstin Bergman (Lund University) and authors Helene Tursten, Kristina Ohlsson, Lene Kaaberbøl, and Agnete Friis, 7:30 pm in the Linnaeus Arboretum  Interpretive Center

At this event, the authors will discuss their work, how women are represented in Scandinavian crime fiction, what this genre has to offer, and what we can learn (for better or worse) by reading crime fiction from the Nordic countries.

In Minneapolis on Wednesday, October 10th 

Gustavus Library Associates Author Reception, 4:30-6:30 pm, American Swedish Institute (tickets required)

Wine and cheese and conversation with the authors and members of the library’s friends group, who regularly host author events and also raise funds for the library. There is a charge for this event.

“Beyond the Girl” public forum with Helene Tursten, Kristina Ohlsson, Lene Kaaberbøl, and Agnete Friis, 7:00pm, American Swedish Institute (free to the public, but reservations recommended by calling 612-871-4907.

This should be a fun event – a conversation with the authors about their work, their motivation for writing in this genre, the themes that particularly interest them, and how they feel about the way popular crime fiction represents their home countries.

This program is being hosted by the Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library with support from the Embassy of Sweden, the Gustavus Scandinavian Studies Department, and Sisters in Crime. Additional assistance has been provided by Gustavus Library Associates and the American Swedish Institute.