catching up and a backlash of sorts

News from Norway: The Cockroaches (Harry Hole #2) and Headhunters (stand alone) has recently been sold to Harvill Secker in the UK, according to Jo Nesbo’s agency.

Nancy O reviews The Stone Murders by Matti Joensuu published in English by St. Martin’s in 1987. She gives it high marks, particularly as a first in a series.

The Stone Murders is not really a mystery, because the criminals are revealed right away to be young men from extremely dysfunctional families and backgrounds.  It is more of a police procedural, but at the same time, Joensuu interweaves into the story a brief look at the problems of 1980s Helsinki: child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and teen gangs that have no respect for anyone (especially the police, who fear them), to name a few. There’s also a look at the police force itself — the ridiculous bureaucracy, the lack of officers to handle the ongoing crime problems, and the ineptitude of a few who are supposed to be in charge of others. Joensuu also offers a look into Harjunpaa’s personal life, which as things get worse for this particular case, becomes his safe haven. . . . Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this, as will anyone who likes a good police procedural.

Norm (aka Uriah) does some deducting of his own while analyzing the International Dagger winners over past years. Pretty charts included.

“Euroman” complains that Scandinavian crime fiction writing associations – the folks who award prizes and promote the genre – seem to be less excited about the popularity of the success of their compatriots than everyone else and have sadly neglected Websites.

And finally, the Larsson reports:

The National Post is one of a bazillion news outlets reporting that we can soon buy a boxed set of the Millennium Trilogy, a book about the books, and e-mail exchanges between author and editor. What next, Salander-themed towels and sheets?

This week court must be in session; a number of dissenting opinions on Stieg Larsson are being handed down. Two come from the Huffington Post. Ilana Teitelbaum finds it boring, poorly structured, and thinks the violence against women is exploitative thriller business as usual – and suspects the violence itself is what makes it so popular. Lev Raphael agrees, but acknowledges he’s not a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction (“they just haven’t been my beer, as the Germans say in general”) and is skeptical of books that are packaged by publishers and reps as blockbusters. And Tiger Beatdown’s columnist “the rejectionist” takes issue with the level of violence and questions whether Larsson really was a man who hates men who hates women or if he’s just a typical thriller writer making use of violence against women in a tried-and-true way.

Reading Salander as a feminist icon for our times is a pretty challenging endeavor. About the best thing you can say about her is that, unlike Larsson’s other characters, she at least has some depth.

People who write about dead ladies make a shit-ton of money (see: Patterson, James; Cornwell, Patricia; Koontz, Dean; &c ad nauseum). Even more people want to read about dead ladies than want to write about them; which, as a lady, stresses me out. I like murder mysteries and I like thrillers. But I am getting fucking tired of those stories revolving solely around rape and torture. Packaging that nastiness up as feminist is icing on an ugly cake. There are men who hate women: I am aware of this. Anyone who has ever tried living as a woman is aware of this. I don’t need a ten-page explicit rape scene to bring this point home; I need only to leave my house.

I am certainly curious, as I think are many ladies, as to why some men hate women so much; that, I believe, is a question worth exploring. And since ladies have had little success so far in answering it, perhaps it is time for the gentlemen to start doing some of the heavy lifting around here. But here’s a hint, fellows: writing a story about a father-son pair who dismember hundreds of women in a “private torture chamber [contrived] with great care” is not a successful answer to this question . . . The worst thing about this book is that it seems to be saying the only violence against women that counts is the kind that ends up with us dead. The rest of us, I guess, are just complaining.

The Mail has an excerpt from a book, Stieg Larsson, My Friend, by Kurdo Baksi, which includes the claim that Larsson was haunted by an event when he was a teenager: he witnessed a rape by a group of boys he knew, but didn’t intervene and was dogged by guilt. He also writes “Stieg’s global success has changed my life. I am often invited to lecture about him throughout Europe. It feels almost as if, in a most bizarre fashion, I have become an ambassador for Stieg. But I do it willingly and am happy to have him in my orbit in this way.” I’m not sure who is in who’s orbit, but never mind.

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.

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!)

some new reviews, a bit of fun, and a geography challenge

Nora Ephron wrote a hilarious (and not malicious) parody of the Girl in The New Yorker. Warning; there are spoilers, as there are in nearly every review of the second and third books. (Hat tip to Ali Karim.)

Publisher’s Weekly interviews Camilla Lackberg, whom publishers hope will appeal to fans of Lisbeth Salander. Honestly, I think that’s going to backfire with many readers. The romance in the series is highly conventional. The best they can hope is that people will enjoy Lackberg on her own terms. (A word to publicity folks: readers are not stupid – thanks, bye.)

The Ice Princess is reviewed by Verna Suit in the I Love a Mystery newsletter, and Michele Reed reviews Hornet’s Nest in the same issue. Both got thumbs up, though Verna thought The Ice Princess could have been improved if tightened up

Maxine thinks The Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt is the best in the Gotland-based series to date. Though there are a few plot weaknesses, they are overcome by with good characters, a well-developed glimpse into the art world, and an absorbing island setting that reminds her of the work of Johann Theorin and of Ann Cleeve’s Shetland Island quartet.

Karen asks what we think of the various covers of Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room. Interesting conversation follows. The greatest mystery is often – what were they thinking when they chose that cover?

And finally, the debates around what qualifies as Scandinavian crime fiction have heretofore been about whether “Scandinavian” includes only Sweden, Denmark, and Norway or should include Finland and Iceland. Purists would say those are Nordic, but not Scandinavian countries. (The OED doesn’t include those fringe elements in its definition of Scandinavia and points out in the etymology that it’s all based on a mix-up, anyway; Pliny adopted Teutonic words meaning “southern end of Sweden” and “island,” so no wonder we’re confused.)

But now the dilemma is whether to include crime fiction set in Scandinavia but not written by people who are native. Is Tana French an Irish writer? She’s lived there long enough, so I think so. James Thompson, living in Finland, has written crime fiction set there, though he writes in English that has been translated into Finnish, which was how he was first published. Hmmm. And now Michael Ridpath is writing a series about an Icelandic man who emigrated to the US, become a cop, and has to lie low. He hides out in Iceland, where he gets involved in a murder, a missing ancient manuscript, and a gaggle of Lord of the Rings fanatics. Crimeficreader of It’s a Crime! (or a Mystery) finds it’s a ripping good story, enhanced by the author’s enchantment with the island and informative about the state of things since the great bank meltdown. The author’s frank explanation of why he chose to seek new shores is refreshingly honest. I guess I’ll have to call it “crime fiction with a Scandinavian setting.” Or a Nordic setting, if you’re picky.

reviews and EWwwww….

NancyO takes a look at Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess, and find the romance thread and some of the cop shop scenes heavy handed (as did I) but otherwise enjoyed the book, with its enigmatic victim and keen sense of place.

Peter clues us in on some of the writers he considers emerging stars: Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen,  the writing duo Kaaberbøl & Friis, also from Denmark, Swedish writers Kristina Ohlsson and Camilla Ceder, and Øystein Wiig and Thomas Enger from Norway. Ceder will be available in English in the UK soon; Dorte adds in a comment the good news that Kaaberbøl and Friis will be published in the US by Soho. Thanks for the heads-up!

A reviewer at The Bookbag (a wiki-based review site in the UK) thinks Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment is slow and confusing at first, but in the end it all comes together nicely. Sounds as if there’s a fair amount of romance as well. Hmm. Norm will be disgusted to know that the publisher has put a big label on it saying “Move Over, Wallander!” At least it’s not the next Stieg Larsson.

And the Girl made it to the cover of Entertainment Weekly, a popular US magazine. It promises to reveal “the secrets behind the hottest book on the planet” but actually focuses on movie deals. There’s also an article on whether Larsson had a problem with women (the author is especially irritated that Salander had a boob job; the comments are voluminous and some are very interesting). And an article on the Swedish National Library acquiring science fiction stories written by Larsson when he was a teen, basically saying “ooh, gross, I hope nobody reads what I wrote when I was that age” (but since you probably wrote it on Facebook you are SO BUSTED!). I am irritated with the hack who wrote . . .”Magdalena Gram, Sweden’s deputy national librarian (which means when she says shhh, you listen)” . . . that’s such a lazy, tired stereotype.

EW’s coverage is rounded out with yet another article on who will star in the American remake. It quotes Knopf’s publicity director, who describes Larsson as a “global brand” which makes me wonder how differently all this hype would play out if Larsson were here to respond to being treated as a highly successful product line.

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!

conventionally unconventional: a review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Now that the flurry of reviews on the US release of the third volume of the Millennium Trilogy have died down, I’m finally getting around to writing my own review. What can I possibly add? Nothing, really, but the publisher sent me an advanced reader copy, I enjoyed it, and I thought I’d try to explain why. I’m going to do it without spoilers, a magic trick I will perform by not describing the plot at all. (Ta dah!) Instead, I’ll focus on why I think this book, and the entire trilogy, works for so many readers.

A recently-translated interview of the author made it clear that Larsson was very familiar with contemporary crime fiction. He read it, he reviewed it, he had decided personal tastes, citing Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters as particularly praiseworthy–all women writers who don’t aim for trimmed-down, action-driven stories, but who have a fascination with character development or social issues – or both. Though his work has been criticized for violating readers’ expectations – the narrative takes leisurely detours at the expense of sustained suspense, there are more details about what Salander bought to furnish her apartment or what characters ate for dinner than “how to write mysteries” books advise – its flaws didn’t prevent it from getting published and gaining a passionate international audience. What made it such a success?

The obvious answer is the Girl of the English-translation titles, a character who grabs scenes and runs away with them. This tattooed waif, who can solve complex mathematical theorems, hack into banking records and make herself rich while kick-boxing her way out of life-threatening situations, has millions of fans. Yet Lisbeth Salander is in many ways unoriginal. For years the hacker as a form of deus ex machina has been a bit of a cliché in the genre. The lonely woman warrior who overcomes personal adversity and female role models to battle evil with extraordinary martial arts skills has appeared in lots of crime fiction, though I imagine she first served an apprenticeship in comics and movies. The socially tone-deaf but mathematically brilliant autist dates back to Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man, an “idiot savant” version of autism that annoys people with autism who are often expected to be capable of freakishly brilliant parlor tricks. Currently it’s fashionable to think that almost anyone who lacks social graces is “on the spectrum.”

(An aside: Blomqvist speculates that Salander may be autistic, but her behavior doesn’t bear out his theory. Though she doesn’t feel compelled to follow standard social cues and sometimes seems puzzled by other people’s emotional expectations, her independence from convention is a combination of personal choice and a traumatic childhood. She missed the usual early lessons in socialization, growing up in a home defined by extreme domestic violence, then while still quite young was isolated in an abusive mental hospital. Once she achieved her freedom, it was her choice to embrace brutal honesty rather than practice the white lies of social convention, lies that kept people from seeing the abuses she was subject to. She joined a community of outlaw hackers, responded unflinchingly to hypocrisy or injustice, and was guarded about whom to trust. Those are symptoms of a healthy response to abuse, not of autism).

Larsson managed to draw on crime fiction motifs and traditions to take his crusading journalism into a storytelling realm where he could play with the issues and conflicts that were his daily bread as a leftist journalist. In the final volume of the trilogy (one that wasn’t meant to be final, but does feel satisfyingly complete), Larsson adds two more subgenres to his palette.

In the first book, he combined an old-fashioned puzzle inside a family saga that took a sharp turn into a thriller plot, with sexual deviants who could be at home in a James Patterson novel (if they shed their cultural and political referents). In the second volume, the pacing is definitely that of a thriller, in which one of the lead characters is accused of murder and has to uncover a political conspiracy to clear her name, ending with an extended action sequence and a cliffhanger. The third volume combines espionage motifs with the trappings of a legal thriller. Larsson was not only familiar with the various forms the genre could take, he was trying them all out, as scornful of being boxed in by convention as his heroine.

But it’s not just the characters and plot devices that make the pages turn faster. Neither the plot elements nor the main characters are original. It’s Larsson’s earnest playfulness – or is it playful earnestness? – that distinguishes the trilogy. Salander begins as a bundle of clichés, but as her story is revealed and we are allowed to see the world from her point of view, she  becomes a human being, one who may have superpowers, but who is compelling because of her humanity. Blomqvist is equally a pastiche of male wish-fulfillment: studly, driven, professionally accomplished and irresistible to women, but it is the way he clutches his moral compass for guidance as he dashes around the twists of the plot that makes him heroic.

Larsson was blunt about his commercial motives in turning to crime fiction. He thought they would be popular and would provide him with the financial stability that progressive journalism wouldn’t. But rather than study the market to produce something that met consumer expectations, he borrowed from formulas like a magpie, building a massive pastiche of the genre, infusing it with his political and social passions. The books are fun, they are entertaining, and they are bristling with righteousness. It’s a rare combination, but in his unconventionally conventional way, he found what readers seem to crave: heroes who make seeking justice into an adventure.

The third volume concludes on a hopeful note. Evil, it turns out, is not the result of fundamental flaws in social institutions, nor is it the work of unredeemable monsters who live among us and may attack at any time. The wrongs Salander suffered were caused by individuals making bad choices; within the same institutions, other individuals did the right thing, led by a strong woman who refuses to be a victim and a crusading journalist who can turn evil into a great scoop. I think it’s that combination of seriousness and optimism, of adventure and conviction, that innocent faith that ethical people can tell a story that exposes evil and makes things right, is what resonated with readers all over the world.

Review of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

Now that the flurry of reviews after the US release of the third volume of the Millennium Trilogy has already been published, I’m finally getting around to writing my own review. What can I possibly add? Nothing, really, but the publisher sent me an advanced reader copy, I enjoyed it, and I thought I’d try to explain why. I’m going to try and do it without spoilers, a magic trick I will perform by not describing the plot at all. (Ta dah!)

A recently-translated interview of the author made it clear that Larsson was very familiar with contemporary crime fiction. He read it, he reviewed it, he had decided personal tastes, citing Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters as particularly praiseworthy. Though his work has been criticized for violating readers’ expectations—the narrative takes leisurely detours at the expense of sustained suspense, there are more details about what Salander bought to furnish her apartment or what characters ate for dinner than “how to write mysteries” books advise—its flaws didn’t prevent it from gaining a passionate international audience. What made it such a success?

The obvious answer is the Girl of the English-translation titles, a character who grabs scenes and runs away with them. This tattooed waif, who can solve complex mathematical theorems, hack into banking records and make herself rich while kick-boxing her way out of life-threatening situations, has millions of fans. Yet Lisbeth Salander is in many ways unoriginal. For years the hacker as a form of deus ex machina has been a bit of a cliché in the genre. The lonely woman warrior who overcomes personal adversity and female role models to battle evil aided by extraordinary martial arts skills has appeared in lots of crime fiction, though I imagine she first served an apprenticeship in comics and movies. The socially tone-deaf but mathematically brilliant autist dates back to Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man; that “idiot savant” version of autism annoys people with autism who are expected to be capable of freakishly brilliant parlor tricks—and currently almost anyone who lacks social graces is suspected of being “on the spectrum.”

(An aside: Blomqvist speculates that Salander may be autistic, but her behavior doesn’t bear out his theory. Though she doesn’t feel a need to follow standard social cues and sometimes seems puzzled by other people’s emotional expectations, her independence from convention is a combination of personal choice and a traumatic childhood. She missed the usual early lessons in socialization, growing up in a home defined by extreme domestic violence, then while still quite young was isolated in an abusive mental hospital. Once she achieved her freedom, it was her choice to embrace brutal honesty. Rather than practice the white lies of social convention, lies that kept people from seeing the abuses she was subject to, she joined a community of outlaw hackers and responded unflinchingly to hypocrisy or injustice and was guarded about whom to trust. Those are symptoms of a healthy response to abuse, not of autism).

Larsson managed to draw on crime fiction motifs and traditions to take his crusading journalism into a storytelling realm where he could play with the issues and conflicts that were his daily bread as a leftist journalist. In the final volume of the trilogy (one that wasn’t meant to be final, but does wrap up enough ends to feel satisfyingly complete), Larsson adds two more subgenres to his palette. In the first book, he combined an old-fashioned puzzle inside a family saga that took a sharp turn into a thriller plot, with sexual deviants who could be at home in a James Patterson novel (if they shed their cultural and political referents). In the second volume, the pacing is definitely that of a thriller, in which one of the lead characters is accused of murder and has to uncover a political conspiracy to clear her name, ending with an action sequence and a cliffhanger. The third volume combines espionage motifs with the conventions of a legal thriller. Larsson was not only familiar with the various forms the genre could take, he was trying them all out, as scornful of being boxed in by convention as his heroine.

But it’s not just the characters and plot devices that make the pages turn faster. Neither the plot elements nor the main characters are original. It’s Larsson’s earnest playfulness—or is it playful earnestness?—that distinguishes the trilogy. Salander begins as a bundle of clichés, but as her story is revealed and we are allowed to see the world from her point of view, she  becomes a human being who may have superpowers, but who is compelling because of her humanity. Blomqvist is equally a pastiche of male wish-fulfillment: studly, driven, professionally accomplished and irresistible to women, but it is the way he clutches his moral compass for guidance as he dashes around the twists of the plot that makes him heroic.

Larsson was blunt about his commercial motives in turning to crime fiction. He thought they would be popular and would provide him with the financial stability that progressive journalism wouldn’t. But rather than study the market to produce something that met consumer expectations, he borrowed from formulas like a magpie, building a massive pastiche of the genre that’s infused with his political and social passions. The books are fun, they are entertaining, and they are bristling with righteousness. It’s a rare combination, but in his messy, unconventionally conventional way, he found what readers seem to crave: heroes who make seeking justice into an adventure.

The third volume concludes on a hopeful note. Evil, it turns out, is not the result of fundamental flaws in social institutions, nor is it the work of unredeemable monsters who live among us and may attack at any time. The wrongs Salander suffered were caused by individuals making choices; within the same institutions, other individuals did the right thing, led by a powerful woman who refuses to be a victim and a crusading journalist who has to get the story, who has the skill to turn evil into a great scoop. I think it’s that combination of seriousness and optimism, that old-fashioned faith that ethical people can tell a story that exposes evil and makes things right, is what resonated with readers all over the world.

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

Reviews and Nesbo Plus Yet More Larsson

NancyO reviews Hakan Nesser’s Woman With Birthmark and finds it cerebral, subdued, and very good: “What drives the killer is what slowly unravels throughout the story, teased out a little at a time. As in all of his Van Veeteren books, Nesser’s writing, his plotting genius and his characterizations all speak for themselves”

Tulsa People has its take on the “great write north” featuring the usual suspects.

R.T. reviews Kjell Eriksson’s The Demon of Dakar and recommends it.

The Independent reviews Camilla Lackberg’s The Stonecutter and says she’s very good at the job “to make the reader pleasurably uncomfortable.”

New Nesbo Reviews are up at USA Today,The Oregonian, The Washington Post (Patrick Anderson calls it “a big, ambitious, wildly readable story”) and  The New York Times (Marilyn Stasio thinks The Devil’s Star lacks some of the issue-related heft of other books in Harry Hole’s series). Simon Parker at BookGeeks reviews The Snowman. The Dallas Morning News has reviews of The Devil’s Star and Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing.

Peter Rozovsky introduces Nesbo and gives us an interview in two parts, here and here. More interviews at the Globe and Mail, and The New York Times.

And there are lashings of Larsson:

On the radio – The Stieg Larsson Story.

Shots Magazine covers “Crimes of the Millennium,” a conference on the Larsson phenomenon held at the Swedish Embassy in the UK. Maxine was there, too.

Books to the Ceiling reports on an “immersion” experience in the Millennium Trilogy via book club discussions.

In “Obama, Lehman, and ‘The Dragon Tattoo,” Frank Rich, a political columnist for The New York Times, points out how prescient Stieg Larsson was in finding the manipulations of bankers traitorous and malicious. He also suggests that the techno-wizards who created some of the complex computer programs that were used to shift vast amounts of money around in ways that nobody really understood, but seemed to keep beating the odds, are a peculiarly American version of Lisbeth Salander, not interested in justice or revealing the true scope of evil but in hacking the system to make themselves rich without moral (or legal) consequences. Rich (who is on the left side of politics) warns that we’d better take Stieg’s warning and deal with popular anger against rewarding big failures. Readers of popular fiction have spoken.