daggers, bankers, and science in crime fiction

As anyone who follows crime fiction already knows, Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room won the International Dagger, edging ahead a very strong shortlist with a heavy Nordic accent. In addition to Theorin, Stieg Larsson’s third and final book and Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia were both on the list. There was nothing this time by Fred Vargas, however, so no trifecta for her.

I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, but others whose tastes I trust have and I don’t think anyone is disappointed in this outcome. Congratulations to Karen and other judges who had a pleasantly difficult job of choosing among outstanding books. I gave the book a thumbs-up back in February. Other reviews include

Yrsa Sigurdardottir is interviewed in The Scotsman and is her usual charming self. One thing I didn’t know: she has a day job that sounds very demanding.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir doesn’t live by writing alone: her time isn’t all her own. Oh no: she also builds dams. And not just any damn dams. For her last major project she was technical manager on the Karahnjukar dam in remote east Iceland, the biggest of its kind in Europe and the largest construction project in Iceland’s history.

She is also angry with the bankers who infused so much money (and new class divisions) into their egalitarian society, and then let everyone down so badly in the crash that is called the “kreppa.” She’s so angry, in fact, that she won’t include them in her books, not even as victims.

A poor country until it discovered how to harness its natural resources in the 20th century, and until the Second World War highlighted its strategic importance, pre-kreppa Iceland seemed a relatively classless one too.

That’s how Sigurdardottir – who was born in 1963 – remembers it, anyway. Pharmacists were rich (not doctors or dentists) but that was about it. No particular Reykjavik suburb was more sought-after than anywhere else. “And now, with these bankers – there’s just 20 people, everyone knows who they are – everything’s ruined. Robbing charities, for God’s sake. And Britain using these laws against us like we’re terrorists.

“You see, that used to be the thing about being Icelandic. We don’t have an army, so we’ve never done anything to any other nation . . . We thought we weren’t a corrupt country, but it turns out that we were about the most corrupt one in Europe. Because we’re so tiny, you can’t find anybody who’s not involved so we’ve had to bring in someone from Sweden to investigate the banking collapse. Because they weren’t fools, these bankers: they brought all kinds of people onto the boards, like it was a way of getting themselves immunity.”

Her newest book to be translated into English, Ashes to Dust, has just been published in the UK.

As part of a project to examine the portrayal of science in crime fiction, Kerstin Bergman of Lund University looks at the work of Åsa Nilsonne, (who hasn’t been translated into English) and in the ways the books were promoted and received. She finds that Swedish writers are much less inclined than popular US books and television shows to highlight science, rather paying more attention to social issues as the backdrop and key to crimes.

An aside: as much as I find science fascinating, I am dismayed by the way it is often treated as the ghost in the machine, a deus ex machina that reduces tragic muddles and messes to a matter of clever tests and clear-cut results that are rare in actual criminal investigations (partly because science isn’t always clear in its results and largely because there simply aren’t the resources to spend such a lot of time and technology on cases; just this month Illinois passed a law that all rape kits must be submitted for DNA analysis – after thousands of kits lay on evidence room shelves for years). It leads people to expect certainty in situations where so often there isn’t any, and distracts them from social issues that are all to real.  This is particularly curious in the US, where in nearly every other situation science and scientists are viewed with a rather high level of skepticism. But when it comes to a choice between lab results and intractable social problems, the lab is a relatively clean, well-lighted place.

photo of a double helix made of books courtesy of inkyhack.

thumbs up for two books and an arrgghh

Echoes from the DeadCaite at A Lovely Shore Breeze recommends Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead. Here’s an excerpt from her excellent review:

The story is told in two time frames, the present, with Julia and her father perusing a mystery that has tentacles that reach far back into the history of the island and also with flashbacks to the story of Nils, from the time he was a boy, a creepy, evil little boy, and through the terrible misadventures of his angry, violent life. They are connected, in ways that will surprise the reader and endanger the lives of the characters in the present day searching for the truth.

As a mystery, it is an excellent story. The setting on the island of Oland, a sunny beach resort filled with visitors in the summer, cold and deserted and rather bleak in a beautiful way the rest of the year, is perfect. It seems that the author has, in real life, spent a good deal of time there and it is telling. As the story of a woman trying to heal both herself and her relationship with her father, it is totally believable and ultimately hopeful. Well, not quite as much when the author throws us the last, totally surprising twist at the end.

Jose Ignacio Escribano reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia, which he liked very much.

Although this book has a relatively simple plot it is superbly constructed and it is full of layers . . . I find it very difficult to explain why I like this book so much. Maybe because this is a book about sentiments and emotions. Sentiments and emotions are always very difficult to explain. All in all a fascinating book that makes a fascinating read. For me it is a very strong candidate to win the CWA International Dagger Award this year and, without question, one of the best books that I have also read this year. Indispensable. A must read.

Norm (aka Uriah) has finished the Scandinavian Reading Challenge and kindly posts all of his reviews in one handy place.

Karen held a couple of polls about the International Dagger and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest won both the “think will win” and “want to win” categories. Hypothermia was a close runner-up in the “want” category.

File under “AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH!” Not only are they remaking a perfectly good movie, Variety reports “Sony hopes “Dragon” will launch a new franchise for the studio.” I want to reboot Sony and its franchise right down the stairs.

is this a dagger I see?

The International Dagger shortlist is out and three of the six contenders are from you-know-where.  (And oh! one of the judges is You Know Who! What an inspired choice.) Kerrie has already read the half, and gave two of them top marks. Norm’s handicapping the race at Crime Scraps and thinks two are long shots.

Karen (aka You Know Who!) points out a July 4th interview with Henning Mankell at BBC’s Open Book.

Beth at Murder by Type found that James Thompson’s Snow Angels was violent, disturbing, and includes “the repeated use of a term most Americans shun” – and she couldn’t put it down. The harsh setting and the ways Finns deal with the cold and dark provides a compelling setting, and while she averted her eyes from some bits, she concludes “this is going to be a series well worth following.”

Glenn at International Noir Fiction has a detailed review of Lief G. W. Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, soon to be released in the US by Pantheon, translated from the Swedish by Paul Norlen. It sounds like a cynical and sometimes comical book about cold war politics with a side of misogyny. (I will be reviewing it myself by the end of summer, which is when it’s due for release.)

Steig Larrson’s biographer, Barry Forshaw, reports on a panel at the Swedish ambassador’s residence in which he asked Hakan Nesser and Johann Theorin about Larsson’s picture of modern Sweden as a country riddled with corruption and high-level conspiracies rather than the socially equitable, sexually unfettered, and rather earnest place that most non-Swedes imagined before reading the Millennium Trilogy.

“Larsson’s is not really the Sweden I know,” said Håkan Nesser. ‘But if you dig deep it gets very dark sooner or later. On any soil, in any country.” So is Nesser unsympathetic to Larsson’s paranoid view of Sweden? “No,I’d say that Stieg wrote with a certain poetic licence. On the other hand, he was more deeply involved with clandestine aspects of the Swedish society than I am, where the high and mighty are the worst of crooks…’ He smiles: ‘Well, it’s nice to read about conspiracy theories — it’s the poor man’s justification. It feels good to watch your rich neighbour’s fall from grace, doesn’t it?”

Johan Theorin, a more laid-back personality than Nesser, concedes that “The characters, the sexuality and the violence are, of course, over the top; as to the characters, I’ve met men whose personalities remind me a little of Mikael Blomkvist, though I have never even heard of anyone in Sweden who is similar to the fearsome Lisbeth Salander (another major character, a violent and autistic young woman). . . . We have a free press who are always hungry to expose any kind of government corruption, however small. But Stieg Larsson was an integral part of that press which constantly scrutinised the government, so perhaps he concentrated on the small misdemeanours of politicians instead of seeing that – generally — everything works quite well.’

Though Forshaw feels the critique of Sweden’s society in the trilogy is contentious among his compatriots, the writers’ diplomatic remarks seem anything but – until the end of the essay, in which Nesser says Swedes are proud of Larsson’s international success, but then, they’re also proud of Abba. (Ba da BOOM!)

review round-up

Dorte reviews The Snowman and gives the entire Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo an enthusiastic thumbs-up (and I second the motion).

Maxine likes it too, as she struggles to read the massive list of book eligible for the International Dagger (which is a fairly herculean task – there are 61 titles!) So far the Scandinavians are going for the gold: “of the titles I’ve read, which is my front-runner? So hard to say, as the standard is extremely high. So far, in my mind, it’s between The Snowman by Jo Nesbo and The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, but I expect that will change. (Hypothermia by Arlandur Indridason is my favourite from the titles I’ve read so far for personal reasons, but these Nesbo and Theorin titles are, objectively, better crime novels as they have a broader canvas.)”

She also reviews Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of Night at Euro Crime. She says, “Despite its almost completely depressing subject-matter, the book is appealing and involving – there is something about the imperfection of Ann and her colleagues that seems authentic and attractive. This author’s trademark seems to be to tell the stories of his characters’ lives (new ones in each book) alongside those of his detectives (regular series characters) – in such a way that the detectives, even if they solve all or part of a case, never know the full context that we, the readers, have been allowed to witness – an interesting perspective.”

And she reviews Hakan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark. (I think some of her clever boffin friends must have come up with a solution to wasting several of the 24 hours of the day in sleeping.) She is amazed that the book can be both so grim and so very funny.

Not only is the story of this book, if extremely depressing, very well constructed and told, but the great dry humour and byplay between the detectives is hilarious. I can’t imagine how the author manages to make the reader laugh out loud so often while telling such a ghastly tale, but he does it. It’s also worth noting that no gruesome descriptions of dead bodies or other pathological details are used in creating this excellently compelling, lean novel, very ably translated by the ever-dependable Laurie Thompson.

Clea Simon has mixed feelings about Henning Mankell’s  The Man from Beijing.  She reports he has not lost his ability to create vivid characters, but “a kind of self-righteous didacticism sets in.” She feels his concerns with ethical issues are a strength of his writing, but here he overdoes it, and it overshadows both his gifts and his moral compass.

Andrew Brown of The Guardian is skeptical about Swedish crime fiction (and the general value of the entire country, in fact) but he seems to like The Man from Beijing, saying “it is a considerable achievement to have woven a discussion of Chinese foreign policy into a generally gripping thriller.” The solving of crimes pales in comparison to the audaciously large scope of the book. “But perhaps the point is the general mood of anxiety, modulating into terror, rather than any particular trigger. A lone assassin or a rising superpower: either will do to disrupt the neatly curtained domestic lives of the Swedish bourgeoisie. It is the disruption, the threat and the delicious chill of fear, all safely contained, that is the pleasure of all these books.”

That’s all very well, but I completely disagree with what follows:

There are crime novels that ask how ordinary people can do dreadful things. Nicolas Freeling, Barbara Vine and George Pelecanos all do this. But in Swedish crime fiction the most reassuring fact is that the villain is always very different from the reader. No matter how many bodies are hacked about, it remains a curiously innocent genre in the sense of the I Ching, whose definition of innocence is “misfortune comes from without”.

This seems entirely the opposite of nearly every Scandinavian work of crime fiction that I’ve read. But then Brown also says he can’t understand why this stuff is popular because Sweden is “a largely empty backwater about which the outside world knows little or nothing. Nor are these books laden with local colour (though perhaps this helps, in supplying a blank conventional stage for the drama).” And when he says “most recent Swedish crime novels have been about the breakdown of the old social democratic order” I wonder if he’s ever heard of Sjowall and Wahloo, or if his idea of “recent” includes the 1960s.

All of which makes me think take Clea Simon’s view far more seriously. I suppose I will have to read the book myself to make up my mind.