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!)

the next Stieg Larsson

Norm (aka Uriah) gets annoyed when the only criterion used for predicting the “next Stieg Larsson” is that the author is Swedish. Harrumph. But he does have some female authors to recommend.

There’s likely to be a lot of marketing that hinges on “the next Stieg Larsson” given that the original Stieg Larsson has had such an impact on the book industry. The Washington Post points out there are already many incredibly popular writers from Sweden and Norway, though most of them are arriving late to US shores. The feature starts out with a nice hook:

So you know about the insanely popular Scandinavian crime novelist, right, the author who has sold 3 million books in Sweden (pop. 9 million)? The one published in 40 languages? The crime-writing legend with more than 30 million books in print worldwide?

If you said the late Stieg Larsson, the publishing phenom who has sold more than 500,000 copies of his latest book, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” in the month since it was released, who currently has the No. 1 book in hardcover fiction, trade paperback and mass-market paperback — well, get a clue.

Camilla Läckberg is the Swedish crime writer whose seven books have dominated Stockholm bestseller lists (she makes her American debut this week). Norwegian Jo Nesbø is the guy published in 40 languages. And Sweden’s Henning Mankell, the godfather of the Swedish crime thriller genre, has been moving millions of books the world over since creating police detective Kurt Wallander nearly two decades ago.

The New York Times also comments on the “what should I read / publish / get excited about next?” question when readers have finished Hornet’s / Hornets’ Nest.

“We call them ‘The Girl Who’s Paying Our Salaries for the Next Few Months,’ ” said Gerry Donaghy, the new-book purchasing supervisor [at Powell’s].

But other customers are walking through the door, finished with all three books and pleading for something similar.

Which has given some booksellers pause. Mr. Larsson’s books have caught on because of their ambitious scope, complex characters, strong writing and quick storytelling, said Cathy Langer, the lead buyer for the Tattered Cover stores in Denver — maybe not because of their Scandinavian setting.

“It’s a tricky line to walk,” Ms. Langer said. “I’d probably ask them if they’d read any Henning Mankell. But if you try to duplicate the experience, you’re likely to disappoint the customer.”

Good call, Ms. Langer! Norm would approve.

The Book Maven writes about the impact the Washington Post article was already having on book buyers (as well as “How could they not have mentioned Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo?” – an omission mentioned also by Roberta at Books to the Ceiling) and how she enjoyed Camilla Lackberg’s first foray in the US (with The Ice Princess) with some reservations.

Maureen Corrigan at NPR says “let’s take a brief mental health break from those gloomy Swedes with their hard-to-pronounce-names” and recommends non-Scandinavian mysteries – but then breaks down and puts Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing on the list, because “no roundup of recent standout mysteries would be complete without Henning Mankell’s masterpiece of moral complexity.”

Mankell’s latest tale roams from a remote Swedish village turned necropolis to the American West of the 19th century, where Chinese indentured servants hacked through mountains to clear the way for the Transcontinental Railroad. In between are stops in modern-day Beijing and London, as well as Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The thread connecting these disparate narratives is red, drenched in the blood of historical crimes and baroque retribution.

At The Australian, book reviewer Graeme Blundell takes a longer view, using Stieg Larsson’s success as a hook. Crime fiction has gained enormous popularity since he started reviewing, but there’s “mayhem in the mainstream” as public tastes turn to new favorites that can’t be predicted in advance. He traces the rise of the genre (along lines very similar to Patrick Anderson’s book The Triumph of the Thriller) as it stormed the bestseller lists.

A generation ago, crime writing was a minority taste, for many a puritan pleasure, not always admitted to in public; reading mysteries was a sabbatical for the serious-minded. The blockbusters of the ’60s and ’70s, for example, the novels of Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, John O’Hara, Jacqueline Susann and Herman Wouk, preferred to deal with sex, movie stars, religion and exotic foreign places rather than crime. Robert Crichton, Mary Renault, James Clavell were among those who followed and still no big time crime. Best-seller lists were subjugated by literary writers and masters of sex and junk. . . .

Crime novels were still largely written for the entertainment of the reader rather than for the sake of what the writer had to say or any social commentary. The best were about puzzle, riddle or place. Few novels threatened our complacency by deliberately exploiting anxiety in the reader and tapping into familiar criminal concerns the way the genre as a whole does now. “Even a decade ago people were apprehensive about publishing crime fiction,” Hachette Australia publisher Bernadette Foley says. “While crime fiction is based on well-knitted plots, astute storytelling and interesting ideas, they simply weren’t as prestigious as literary fiction. In the past, if you published crime you pretended you didn’t.”

Then it changed. Genres split in all directions as the world rapidly shrank with the process of globalisation, the movement of capital and the spread of technological innovations and ever-faster communications. . . .

And the rest is history. Peter Temple has just won Australia’s Miles Franklin award, the most prestigious award for fiction. Fiction, full stop. Well done, Australia!

If you’re wondering what to read next, you could read Temple’s Truth; otherwise, here are a few reviews to pique your interest:

Happy reading!

Belated Backlog of Blogging Bits

There’s a fascinating interview by Lasse Winkler of Stieg Larsson translated in the The Telegraph. It’s apparently the only interview Larsson gave before his untimely death.  I found this bit especially interesting:

What, I asked, was the source of his inspiration? The basic idea had been knocking around for a while, he said. He’d been toying with it back in his days at the Swedish TT news agency where he worked as a graphic designer and occasional writer, from 1977 to 1999. At some point in the early to mid-Nineties, he and a fellow journalist, Kenneth Ahlborn, were working on an article about the classic detective stories that were popular with young readers in Sweden in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.

“We were kidding around, talking about how you could write about those characters in their forties, when they were facing one last mystery,” he said. “That planted the seed, but nothing materialised back then.”

It was not until 2001 that Larsson stumbled upon the spark that would bring the Millennium trilogy into being. “I considered Pippi Longstocking,” he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, a girl so strong she could carry a horse. “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.” That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.

But he felt Salander needed a counterweight if his story was to be a success. Once again he turned to one of Lindgren’s characters, this time to Kalle Blomkvist, boy detective. “Only now he’s 45 years old and a journalist [called Mikael Blomkvist]. An altruistic know-it-all who publishes a magazine called Millennium. The story will revolve around the people who work there.”

Larsson was well-versed in the mechanics of crime fiction. Every spring and autumn, back when he worked for the news agency, he was assigned to write reviews that summed up the season’s releases of translated crime fiction. “I’d include the top five crime novels at that particular time,” he said. “Some of the writers I’ve praised are Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters. Strangely enough, almost all are women.”

(I had to share that last comment with my colleagues at Sisters in Crime.)

Another interesting factoid in the interview is that Larsson hadn’t planned a particular number of books for the series (though it’s often said he had planned to write 10) but that he’d continue to write them so long as people wanted to read them. They were to be his retirement fund, since activist journalism wasn’t a secure income. How sad that he never got to enjoy the books’ success; it would have been fascinating to see how he responded to it.

Elsewhere, Peter points out that the CWA International Dagger shortlist is long on Nordic authors – Arnaldur Indridason (Hypothermia), Stieg Larsson (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest), and Johann Theorin (The Darkest Room).  Personally, I’m guessing of the non-Nordic half of contestants,  Deon Meyer has a pretty good shot.  But I’m almost always surprised by awards, so it’s a good thing I’m not a gambler.

And I’m used to Henning Mankell being in the news – but not this kind of news.  Mankell related his experience in The Daily Beast. More from Salon and The Guardian.

Lots of reviews to catch up on:

Kerrie reviews the audio version of Mankell’s The Fifth Woman from her perch in paradise; she gives it top marks.

Peter reviews Henning Mankell’s Before the Frost, which he considers good, if not the best in the series.

Pat Gray, who blogs under the moniker of Excitable Rat (the RATS are a group of librarians on a Reader’s Advisory Team) recommends Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room and says something I agree with: “I find the subtle, quiet tone of this book a delightful change from some of the American mysteries and thrillers with unending, screaming-level action from start to finish.”  She adds that this isn’t to say there isn’t action – it’s just not the main attraction.

Crime and Publishing reviews Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul To Take and likes the main character, though she somewhat overshadows her male counterpart. He concludes “a fine mixture of sombre landscapes, gruesomely inventive violence and sharp wit. A highly enjoyable read.”

A woman who reads a lot – and then reads some more – has some entertaining things to say about Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. A sample: “things start to get scary. They also get implausible.” On the whole she finds the book a mix of entertaining and tedious, but just the job when it’s handy on the library display shelf and “even tilting my head to read book spines on a shelf means I’m distracted enough to have my devil child run straight out of the library and into the road, and we don’t want that, do we.”

Dorte reviews the Swedish-language thriller Jeg ser dig (I See You) by Camilla Grebe and Asa Traff and and says it’s “well-written and absorbing from the first page . . . a convincing debut” and predicts it will be translated into English.

She also reviews Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl´s thriller Drengen i Kufferten and says it’s the best Danish thriller she’s ever read. (These Danes must be very peaceable people to have so many writing collaborations.)

And she reports on a Faroese novel (what a novel idea!) by Jogvan Isaksen, Kormesse, which deals with environmentalists clashing with islanders trying to preserve a way of life.

She was busy during the month of May with the Scandinavian Reading Challenge (though she points out that what I’ve been calling Scandinavian is more properly called Nordic in her part of the world; Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are the purist’s Scandinavia.  The Scandinavian Reading Challenge continues – and it’s not too late to join.

Glenn Harper is disappointed in several books, including Christian Jungersen’s The Exception. Though he thinks the premise is brilliant, he found it hard to stick with the characters and the way they rub up against each other in the workplace.

Martin Edwards watches an episode of the Swedish Wallander series and uses it as an opportunity to ponder the balance that needs to be struck between plotting and preaching.

Zee who blogs at Notes from the North weighs in on the frequency of coffee-drinking in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy and points out it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Swedes, who use fika – a coffee break – as a way to socialize and relax momentarily during the word day.  Sounds very civilized.

Sara, a journalism student in Helsinki, hasn’t generally been much of a reader of crime fiction, but was blown away by Jo Nesbo’s Panserhjerte (The Leopard) and is happily diving into the rest of the series.

Jane Sullivan of the Brisbane Times suggests what to read when you’ve run out of Larsson and haven’t read any other Swedish crime fiction.  I keep forgetting there are people who have read no Scandinavian crime other than what’s currently on the bestseller list.

At last, with the semester over and the workshop I gave this week in Chicago in the past, I hope I can begin blogging more regularly. My equally belated review of Hornet’s Nest should be online before too long, but long after everyone else has reviewed it.

reviews, favorites, and editorial suggestions

Michael Carlson has a thorough review of Johann Theorin’s The Darkest Room up at Irresistible Targets, which he considers “an incredible mix of ghost story, thriller, and very subtle whodunit.” The sense of place also plays an important role.

Like his exceptional debut novel, Echoes From The Dead, Johan Theorin’s story is deeply woven into the landscape of the Baltic island of Oland (in Swedish literally, Island Land), one which is considered unique by the island’s residents (which included my grandmother), and by Swedes in general. It’s not just a sense of setting, as it is in Mari Jungstedt’s novels set on Gotland, the next island to the east. It’s more a sense that the land itself is a force, if not a character, in the story. In his first novel, it was the bleak Alvar, and now it is the equally bleak eastern coast, and the dangerous blizzards, which in the flatness of the island, can take away one’s sense of location, sense of being, with fatal consequences.

James Thompson, American resident of Finland and author of Snow Angels, speculates about American roots of Scandinavian crime fiction in his blog, Jimland. He writes that he was not particularly aware of the Scandinavian wave until his work, first published in Finnish translation, was picked up in English. He’s more interested in American noir than Scandinavian crime fiction, which has a setting that to him is ordinary. (Oddly, the  evocative setting and the way Finns in a small northern community interact was what interested me most about Snow Angels; the plot . . . m’eh. Call me jaded.)

Anne Cleeves picks her favorite Scandinavian crime fiction, and so does Jo Nesbo, who discusses five Norwegian crime writers–including Stein Riverton, who published mysteries over a century ago.

Dorte reviews Ake Edwardson’s Nearly Dead Man, which hasn’t been translated into English yet. She reckons it could benefit from some pruning of the personal life histories and philosophy.

Maxine reviews The Woman from Bratislava by Lief Davidsen at Euro Crime and recommends it with some reservations. The bits others might prune, she feels, do pay off for the committed reader, though some parts of the book are stronger than others.

Laura Miller thinks Stieg Larsson should have pruned things, too, and is pretty snarky about it, but somehow manages to let admiration leak out in spite of her annoyance at lists and details.

What keeps Salander from turning into a cartoon like the Bride from “Kill Bill” is the unedited-documentary-footage texture of the novel’s narration. It’s this integration of the mundane and the mythic that enables the trilogy to hold its readers in thrall.

The antagonists in the first novel were corporate; in the second they were organized criminals and their accomplices. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” beards the ultimate villains in their den: abusers of legitimate state authority, specifically the Swedish Security Service, or Säpo, the national police. “I don’t believe in collective guilt,” says Blomkvist, that authorial sock puppet, and so Larsson takes great care to illustrate that the “system” isn’t inherently to blame, but rather individuals who warp it for their own ends.

The climax of “Hornet’s Nest” is, naturally, a trial. Salander, who long ago (and with good cause) lost any faith in institutions or official authority, is vendetta personified, confronting the Enlightenment institution of the rule of law. One side is so satisfying, so charismatic, so immediately appealing to our instinctive sense of right and wrong; the other, as Larsson himself was no doubt aware, is the only thing keeping us from descending back into the bloody world of the Icelandic sagas. It’s a contest that still captivates us because we all feel those warring impulses within ourselves. The story may be ancient, but somehow it never gets old.

image courtesy of johany

The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin

As in his first book, characters come first for Theorin, setting second, and then there’s a plot, but it’s happy to modestly hang about in the background, occasionally brushing past you with a touch that raises goosebumps.

A man getting ready for a new life in a big old ‘fixer-upper’ house on the island of Oland gets horrible news when he’s running some final errands in Stockholm: his wife and two children have been busy getting the house ready, and one of them has drowned. The rest of the book is about past inhabitants of the ill-fated house, the main character’s halting and inept adjustment to loss, the memories he pushes away of his junkie sister who has died but keeps reminding him of his abdication of responsibility. There’s also a young female cop starting to work on the island, her relationship with her elderly relative Gerlof (from Echoes from the Dead), a trio of young burglars headed for trouble, and lots of nasty weather, all nicely layered together in a leisurely-paced but engrossing read.

In many ways each character is trying to figure out the past and what it means to events happening now. As Gerlof says ‘I neither believe nor don’t believe . . . I do collect ghost stories, but not in order to prove anything.’ Then he tells the one time he really did have an encounter with a ghost – a story he (intriguingly) never wrote down.

Though I’m woo-woo averse, after hearing Arnaldur Indridason say in a most level-headed way that Icelandic engineers will reroute roads to avoid bothering the trolls, I take a certain amount of lightly-handled stuff like this as part of the landscape and enjoy it.

I wish the English titles were as evocative as the originals, though. I always have to look them up because I can’t remember them.

mixed metaphors Saturday

The Cricketing Librarian has been reading Scandinavian crime lately – giving an eloquent thumbs-up to Stieg Larsson, Johan Theorin, Arnaldur Indridason, and (not Scandinavian, but also recommended) Colin Cotterill.  Well played, sir.

Placelogohere at Live Journal makes note of the popularity of Scandinavian mysteries, but he (or she?) thinks Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is overrated, not matching Mankell’s subtlety. I prescribe equal parts Fossum, Alvtegen, Arnaldur, and Liffner if you want to increase your subtlety intake.

Bernadette in Oz reacts to Asa Larsson’s The Black Path. Whenever I hear about the death of professional book reviewing, I am comforted that people like Bernadette are the future. You can’t tell me any paid reviewer does a better job than she does. Or if you did, I would assume your logic board needed replacing.

Mike Shatzkin who is bullish on e-books makes some predictions for the near future. The one I agree with is “In the digital world, geographical territories will be found not to make much sense.” That’s already true for the reader and has been for years. My reading communities are without borders, and when I want to buy a book, those borders won’t stop me. (Thank you, Bookdepository!) Unfortunately, what makes sense and what corporations actually do rarely seem to coincide. Where once we had to choose between Beta and VHS, we now have one kind of DVD – but five regional codes to restrict the flow of those DVDs across borders. Somehow globalization gets all local when it comes to making money. So we have millions of workers having to leave home to survive because their local economy has been “globalized,” but unable to do so legally because their work permits have not been globalized. (I’m not sure how this works in the EU, but in the Americas, free trade has made a ginormous mess of things. By the way, I moderate comments so don’t bother going all Lou Dobbs on me.) While readership is increasingly global, and hallelujah for that, the corporations are trying to find ways to induce artificial regional scarcity. Thus doth craven commerce make pirates of us all.

By the way CNN is sounding the alarm on book “piracy”. The odd thing is, when I first started putting together a website on Scandinavian crime fiction, a lot of popular Swedish and Norwegian authors didn’t have websites. Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. People are modest. The first links that would come in a search were torrent sites. This does not appear to have destroyed the market for their books. William Patry challenges the whole rhetoric of this (and points out that both the film industry and the music industry are making plenty of money in spite of missteps and “piracy”) in a really interesting book, Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars, which I reviewed elsewhere.

I will now descend from my soapbox. As you were.

photo plucked from the Creative Commons pool at Flickr happens to be (!!) courtesy of swanksalot, a favorite Flickr contact of mine. In fact, one of his photos is going to be on the cover of my next book. How’s that for weird synchronicity?

post-vacation review round-up

Martin Edwards has a lovely quote from Hakan Nesser on the essence of crime fiction, at his blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Go read it.

Bernadette finds much to like about Camilla Lackberg’s Ice Princess.

I reviewed Inger Frimansson’s Island of the Naked Women for Reviewing the Evidence. The author delves deep into psychological suspense in a hardscrabble setting. The title sounds like a hedonistic ClubMed destination but shows a different side of traditional Scandinavian attitudes toward sex: in the old days, unmarried women who became pregnant or otherwise offended public morals were abandoned there to die of exposure.

Euro Crime finds an interesting trend – many first books in series are getting published (though maddeningly out of order) and this time it’s Ake Edwardsson’s Erik Winter series.

Crimeficreader reads Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room. Though she isn’t planning a winter visit to Oland anytime soon, she thought the book was original and compelling.

The wonderfully original aspect of The Darkest Room is that the suspense comes from finding out what really happened from a myriad of obscure routes, with the reader not fully comprehending the extent of issues to be resolved at the outset.  The wonderfully brilliant aspect of reading The Darkest Room is the feeling of satisfaction on reaching the end and the sense of time well-spent with an author who knows how to entertain, whilst exploring the darker recesses of the mind; for The Darkest Room in Theorin’s novel is in the mind.

Rob Kitchen reviews Yrsa Sigurdarsdottir’s Last Rituals and, after weighing its strengths and weaknesses concludes it’s a “mildly enjoyable first novel, but nothing startling.”

Bookwitch takes a look at Jo Nesbo’s writing for children which sounds rather fun but nothing like the Harry Hole books.

And of course The Girl (which scored #1 on the New York Times bestseller list)  is getting a lot of attention. Here are some of the reviews:

  • January Magazine – “oddly epic love story, ultra-violent crime thriller and classic buddy novel all at once”
  • Entertainment Weekly – “another gripping, stay-up-all-night read, but it’s also a bit sloppy”
  • Philly Enquirer – “What Larsson has done is akin to enlisting two huge, enticing stars, then keeping them separated for much of the action, united only through e-mail.”
  • San Francisco Chronicle (Alan Cheuse) – “The books are so good, in fact, that I have to keep reminding myself that they are genre novels, not mainstream fiction” (ouch!)
  • Seattle Times – “The troubled, brilliant Lisbeth is unforgettable.”
  • USA Today – “Larsson makes the reader love and worry about his heroine as though she were real.”
  • Washington Post – “Here is a writer with two skills useful in entertaining readers royally: creating characters who are complex, believable and appealing even when they act against their own best interest; and parceling out information in a consistently enthralling way.”

The Seattle Times also reviews Karin Fossum’s The Water’s Edge

The book has several sterling qualities, including a concise, crisp translation and a terrifying portrait of the fragmenting couple that discovers the body — especially the husband and his creepy fixation with the case.

AND – for bonus points – interview Reg Keeland, the Girl’s translator, who explains how “Reg” was born and how he keeps up with current Swedish slang.