reviews, recipes, and tours

After being too busy at work to post, I have lots of links backed up to share …

Barry Forshaw reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman for The Independent and calls it his most ambitious book.

What sort of issues do you expect your crime fiction to cover? If you feel that personal responsibility, cracks in the welfare state and the problems of parenthood are fair game for the crime novel, then Jo Nesbø is your man. All of these (and many more) are crammed into his weighty latest book, The Snowman.

If, however, your taste is for tough and gritty narratives with a relentlessly page-turning quality, well… Jo Nesbø is still your man. That he is able to combine the urgency of the best storytellers with a keen and intelligent engagement with social issues may well be the reason why Nesbø is shaping up to be the next big name in Scandinavian crime fiction, now that Mankell is on the point of retiring Kurt Wallander and Stieg Larsson is hors de combat.

NancyO, who blogs at The Year in Books, Reviews Box 21 and finds it a great read, but nothing like Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (as it is being marketed in the US) – rather it’s “a dark book all the way through to the last page, which actually made my blood run cold. There are no feel-good or warm fuzzy moments here, no happy endings, and you will definitely have food for thought after you’ve finished.”

The Globe and Mail has a review of Henning Mankell’s Man from Beijing. The crimes that open the book turn out to be less important to the story than “the history of Chinese enslavement in America, the course of communism in China and, in the grand scheme of things, the relationship between East and West. And in those terms, it’s a great read.”

Mack captures Camilla Lackberg’s Ice Princess and pronounces it gripping and written in a style that he enjoys.

Peter reviews Liza Marklund’s Paradise and recommends it highly. He also finds The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg very entertaining. And at another blog (Peter gets around) he also has some words of praise for Kirsten Ekman’s Blackwater.

Camilla Lackberg names her five favorite mysteries by Scandinavian writers.

Norman (aka Uriah) is intrigued by the regional accents that define differences in Scandinavian mysteries. He also has a handy list of Harry Hole videos.  And announces an award for The Leopard which, one hopes, will be translated into English eventually.

Cathy of Kittling Books is underwhelmed by Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Last Rituals but likes the lead character.

Skye isn’t reading much lately, but she enjoyed the Branagh version of Wallander is looking forward (a bit nervously) to the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She writes of the BBC series

…the three mysteries that make up the mini-series all take place around midsummer, so instead of suffering from a lack of light like so much Swedish crime fiction, they suffer from an, assumedly, intentional overabundance. The films seems hyper-saturated with light, and the irony, that even at the height of midsummer with light radiating from every crack, crime still abounds, is not lost.

Nicholas Wroe profiles Henning Mankell in The Guardian.

WETA has an interview with him.

J. Sydney Jones interviews Norwegian author K. O. Dahl at the “Scene of the Crime.”

At Euro Crime, Maxine reviews Lackberg’s The Stonecutter;  she also reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s The Locked Room, and Michelle Peckham reviews Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled.

As she nears the end of the “alphabet of crime fiction,” Maxine discusses James Thompson’s Snow Angels finding things to like, but a denouement that didn’t hold up.

The Hypercrime blog rounds up several stories about Scandinavian crime fiction.

Ian MacDougal writes a lengthy review and analysis of the Millennium Trilogy for n+1, “The Man Who Blew Up the Welfare State,” (prompting the FriendFeed room to wonder when the fascination with Larsson will blow over). He writes that the trilogy has two themes: “the failure of the welfare state to do right by its people and the failure of men to do right by women.” And he tackles them with a kind of optimistic idealism.

The typical Swedish detective solves the crime but leaves intact what facilitates it—the broken institutions of the welfare state. The castle in the air, the delusion of a perfect progressive utopia, persists after the case is closed. For Larsson the story’s not over until the state’s blown up, if only in the reader’s mind.

Although there is an obvious analogy to recent American forays into the crime genre, like the HBO series The Wire, this only points to what sets Larsson apart—a particularly Scandinavian optimism that insists it’s never too late to effect real change. Larsson, unlike David Simon, doesn’t see institutional dysfunction as a tragic wheel driven around by some essential human flaw. Larsson the idealist believes that an opposing force, if applied strongly enough, can slow that wheel, if not bring it to a grinding halt.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel suggests some enticing recipes to go with Scandinavian crime fiction, in which too many of its heroes live on a diet of pizza.

The Times takes a Larssonized view of Stockholm. A Swedish website offers a crime-flavored tour of Sweden. And this link dates back to the blizzards that have long since melted away. A writer for the Washington Post took the Millennium Trilogy tour of Stockholm, had to buy boots for a bit of snow. Then returned home to a blizzard.

reviews and resolutions

Karen reviews Death in Oslo by Anne Holt at that magnificent site, Euro Crime. It sounds good, in spite of a somewhat annoying lead character and one plot-driven bit of mind-lapse. “My enjoyment of this series increases with every book and I hope the fourth book, now out in Norwegian, will reach us in English soon” Karen writes. “Also the intriguing character of Hanne Wilhelmsen has a fairly large role in this book and it would be lovely if the other books featuring her were to be translated into English at some point.” I’ll second that. She sounds much more interesting than another (yawn) profiler.

Bernadette points out an article in the mainstream press on 2009’s “bumper crop of crime fiction.” The author has good taste and highlights both Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer and Larsson’s The Girl Who Played With Fire. However his taste, sadly, is not matched by a grasp of geography. Back to the fourth grade for you.

Melanie whose blog is titled “It’s a Mystery … What I Should Read Next” knows one book she’s going to read as soon as possible: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. She may be standing in line a la Harry Potter the day of the release in the US. Maybe she’ll have company outside the bookstore.

The Independent takes a look at the television versions of the Wallander books and their appeal – as well as the differences between the Swedish and BBC productions.

BBC4’s decision to broadcast several episodes of the hit Swedish Wallander series has given British audiences the chance to compare and contrast Wallanders. How does the original, local, Swedish series stand up to the award-winning detective dramas starring Kenneth Branagh?

“They are quite different,” the series’ Swedish producer Ole Sondberg says. “Where they’re really different is that Branagh really focused on the dark side of the character, whereas if you see the Swedish series, we are trying to achieve more humour, more lightness, We were very afraid that the character would be too dark.”

So the Swedes are not so gloomy after all! Yet in spite of different approaches, theses popular crime stories transcend borders.

Audiences in Sweden, Britain and elsewhere, respond to Wallander because he does seem such a vulnerable and grounded figure. He is a middle-aged man whose life is always at risk of falling apart. The detective is estranged from his wife and has a tempestuous relationship with both his daughter and his elderly father.

In the wake of the success of the Wallander TV dramas and of the Stieg Larsson film adaptation, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (made by the same production company), there has been much speculation about why the world is currently so obsessed with Scandinavian crime fiction. Is it the light? Is it the long winters, or the tendency toward introspection? Is it the interior design?

The irony, as far as Ole Sondberg is concerned, is that, in the Swedish Wallander, there has been a self-conscious attempt to introduce more humour and to escape from the stereotype of gloomy Swedes. He suggests that the two series work best in very different markets. For example, the US has no interest in the Swedish Wallander whereas the much darker Branagh version has done extremely well with American audiences.

Arguably, the success of the Mankell and Larsson books isn’t really to do with Sweden at all. The themes and characters have a universality of appeal.

Though a small correction: some cable channels are running the Swedish version, as Glenn Harper can attest – he’s been reviewing Norwegian and Swedish television adaptations at International Crime Fiction. Jut not my cable provider. (Sniff.)

Finally, have you made you new year’s resolutions yet? No fear, it’s not too late to join Dorte’s Global Reading Challenge.

more tidbits from the snowy midwest

The Girl has fans in India, too.

Glenn has further dispatches from the land of Wallander television adaptations, this time of Blodsband (The Black King) – original to the small screen, not from a book. Norm (aka Uriah) also writes about the Swedish television series, saying it had a better balance of ensemble characters than the BBC version.  The Guardian has an article on the actress who played Linda Wallander and how her suicide affected the writer and the series, suggesting that the new female heroine in The Man from Beijing was created because Mankell had to stop writing about the character Johanna Sallstrom played. It’s very sad.

the man with the snake tattoo

BookPage has a review of James Thompson’s Snow Angels, saying he is a “major new talent.” Well, technically speaking, Snow Angels was his second book – just the first for this American writer to be published in the US rather than in Finnish translation at his current home in Helsinki, where three of his books have been published by Johnny Kniga. (What an intriguing name for a publisher – “kniga” is Russian for book. Johnny is … not.) I’ve just started a review copy of this book. So far, so cold. No, I meant good. But it does take place in the winter and it is very, very cold and dark. No wonder they kill each other.

More evidence that I need to learn Swedish: the Bookwitch points out an article in the  Vi (a culture magazine, part of which is available online) with a photo of the high-literary couple who have created a bestselling thriller, revealing their identities when the marketing moment was ripe. In the previous post here, Steve aka Reg Keeland (Stieg Larsson’s translator) takes issue with a claim that The Hypnotist will seize readers’ imaginations the way that the Millennium Trilogy has.  Though he reports it is a “page turner” with plenty of action, it’s “lacking in the major appeal of Stieg Larsson: a moral view.” Which is, of course, the whole point.

a snow-covered god jul post

Having gotten distracted by work, here’s a catch-up post of things that have accumulated over the past few weeks…

A blogger who “never stops reading – no matter what” has added Kjell Eriksson’s The Cruel Stars of Night to her Year in Books blog. She says “I love the way Eriksson writes and I love the slow and methodical pacing of this novel” though she takes issue with a plot turn that required the protagonist to be momentarily dimwitted. But she forgives the lapse and says she can “definitely recommend Cruel Stars of the Night to those who enjoy a really good police procedural, and to those who also enjoy psychological suspense.”

She also reviews a book from Finland written by an American who lives there (and first was published in Finnish) –James Thompson’s Snow Angels. There are some coincidences in the plot, she feels, and some of the characters are not as fleshed-out as she would like, but it has its strong points. “I was drawn in by the author’s ability to set the tone of the bleakness of life above the Arctic Circle in Finland, where it’s dark and cold and to pass the time, people have little to do other than drink. The atmosphere was so well laid out for the reader that for a time you can imagine yourself there.” This one is in my TBR so I will be reporting my reaction here before long.

Peter broods over the meaning of the brooding detective while recommending Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlendur series at Detectives Beyond Borders. As always, his blog is really a salon with many interesting comments on Scandinavians, Italians, families, and more.

The Nekkidblogger (brrrr!) predicts that The Hypnotist by “Lars Keppler” will be the next Stieg Larsson-like sensation even though Lars Keppler is actually a collaboration of two literary authors.

Lars Kepler does not exist. Huge sensation. Lars Kepler turned out to be a pseudonym for two literary authors, husband-and-wife Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril, now writing under the pseudonym Lars Kepler. They have so far barely been able to sustain themselves economically by their writing. Now they wanted to make money. And in Sweden, crime fiction writers make big money. And, of course, when in Sweden, do as the Swedes. So they decided to write crime fiction, using a cool name.

The Nordic Book Blog reviews Ake Edwardson’s Death Angels which he finds a “well constructed police procedural” though less polished than the later books in the series. This was the first, though the most recent to be translated into English.

Naomi of The Drowning Machine reviews Asa Larsson’s The Black Path which she feels suffers from excessive exposition and draggy pacing. “The Black Path has atmosphere to spare, a hallmark of Swedish crime fic, and the characters are thoroughly developed. When I say thoroughly I mean to the point that the details of every character’s life, past and present, drag the pace down to NASCAR (National Association of Snail Crawling and Roundaboutation) speed. . . . An unlikely blood bath as the climax combined with what seemed a brief and pointless interjection of romance at novel’s end, all left me unmoved.” In the comment thread that follows she points out that others who read the book felt differently, but I had many of the same reservations though I was not quite so … em, expressive.

Several bloggers participating in the ABC of crime fiction meme have highlighted Scandinavian crime fiction including

I have not been playing along, but I might propose A is for Alvtegen, B for Burman, C for Camilla LackbergD for K.O. Dahl, and E for Edwardson … maybe I’ll have enough time to play in the new year. Or maybe not.

Maxine at Petrona points out that Ake Edwardson’s Sun and Shadow, Arnaldur Indridason’s Voices, and Liza Marklund’s The Bomber qualifies for Christmas Crime. Kerrie, who started both memes at her Mysteries in Paradise, scored both with Voices, using it for both the letter I and for Christmas Crime.

More BBC Wallander is on the way.

Those in the UK NZ get to see the Girl on film starting on boxing day, or so this site claims (when I read it properly). Ali has already gotten a sneak peek as well he should, being the world number one fan (GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO GiRl WiTh ThE dRaGoN tAtToO). So did Craig Sisterton in New Zealand. Those of us in the US can twiddle our thumbs. We’re used to it.

Americans, however, will be resposible for a remake. This is not a very good form of revenge.

A Danish film journal has an analysis of the gender roles in the films which, fortunately for us unschooled yanks, is in English. The authors contrast the treatment of gender in the books with the depiction in the films.

Our main argument is that the adaptation from novel to film involves an alteration of the gender representations in the two main characters, and that this alteration corresponds to the genre-specific and media-specific conditions associated respectively with the genre thriller versus crime fiction and with the format of the film versus that of the novel. In examining these differences in relation to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we draw on the fact that gender is a central issue in Nordic crime fiction as bestseller and cultural commodity.

Basically, the authors argue that the gender relationships are simplified in the film as it is condensed for the shorter storytelling format. When I finally get a chance to see the films, I’ll see if I agree.

Finally, glædelig jul, Hyvää joulua ja onnellista uutta vuotta, gleðileg jól og farsælt komandi ár, god jul og godt nytt år, and god jul och gott nytt år! I leave you with a photo from Minnesota of King Gustav Adolph enjoying our white Christmas….

"... I seem to have something in my eye..."

The Girl Who Made Friends Around the World

I have not yet come up with a theory that accounts for the popularity of Lisbeth Salander – given that very few people publicly indentify themselves as feminists these days (thinking for some reason that’s all over and done with) and given that bixsexuality, hacking, and anti-social behavior are not on the Approved List of popular plot developments, not to mention that leftist crusading these days tends to be seen through a glass ironically – but she has done something that, if she actually existed, would astonish the hell out of her. She has had an incredible number of people in a great many countries fall in love with her.

Maxine sums up her reviews of the three books in one spoiler-free blog post.

Kerrie reviews Hornets’ Nest at  Mysteries in Paradise, and won’t say much for fear of spoilers (other than read them all in order) but does point out:

For me, Larsson’s women’s rights agenda was stronger in this novel than in the other two. Right from the beginning we have an image of Salander as some sort of warrior. The opening paragraphs tell us about the six hundred women who served in the American Civil War, and then later we are reminded of the Amazons, and then the women’s army that existed among the Fon of Dahomey. It is hard not to see Advokat Annika Giannini, Salander’s lawyer in this role too. She turns out to be a courtroom lion whom the proecutors severely underestimate.

The other theme that comes through strong and clear is the power of the press to make or break a government, and even more the role/duty of a journalist to seacrh out the truth.

Other assessments of the third in the trilogy:

Bernadette’s Reactions to Reading – “The book is brimming with positive female characters who can look after themselves as well as many men who go out of their way to right the wrongs they have seen done around them. . . . a complex, unpredictable book that wears its liberal heart proudly on its sleeve.”

DJ’s Krimiblog – “Larsson does not try to hide his agenda: he wants to do more than write a crime story, this time by adding short sections about amazons, women who voluntarily leave the kitchen in order to fight.”

Norm’s (aka Uriah’s) posts his final assessment at Crime Scraps, describing the complexity and sophistication of the third volume and his own journey from “skeptic to fanatic.”

At the Guardian, Roy Greenslade says that journalists love the trilogy because they are about the excitement (and the challenges) of getting the news; they’d all secretly like to be the crusading Mikael Blomqvist.

And finally, an Australian appreciation by Brian Toohey that compares the book to Henry Porter’s The Dying Light, saying both authors kick the hornets’ nest (while Toohey takes the opportunity to kick a few Australian politicians in the process). Toohey thinks there’s some truth in Larsson’s ficiton . . . and perhaps some fantasy:

Larsson, who died in 2004 before the novels were published, spent many years as a journalist observing Swedish politics at close quarters. Of course, as works of fiction the books don’t necessarily reflect political reality in Sweden. Nevertheless, some aspects of the latest novel are based on fact.

Just as in the novel, Cold War–era prime ministers allowed the Swedish intelligence services to conceal an unofficial unit that violated the civil liberties of innocent citizens in the name of national security. . . . [but considering his treatment of present-day events] it is difficult for the outsider to judge the plausibility or otherwise of Larsson’s portrayal of a prime minister and his justice minister who genuinely want to unearth wrongdoing in the security services. Similar considerations apply to the depiction of a unit that really does exist within the Security Police – the Directorate of Constitutional Protection. In Larsson’s account the unit’s staff work with unswerving dedication to ensure that their colleagues in another section are arrested on criminal charges. It is even less clear to an outsider whether Larsson is being impossibly romantic when he predicts that a huge public scandal would erupt if the prime minister failed to nail those who mistreated a fractious thirteen-year-old.

That’s an unusual perspective: that Larsson may have been too kind to public officials and been too ready to believe some of them would want to do the right thing.

Obviously I’ll have to read this book myself and see what I think.


“we ignore the wider world at our peril”

Yrsa Sigurdardottir makes her first contribution to a group blog with an international flavor and charms everyone with her modesty and humor. She says,

If you are wondering what country I do call home, imagine a tiny island way up north where the only banking institution not humiliated and disgraced is the national blood bank. If this does not help, imagine a country obviously named by someone intent on keeping people out. If still at loss, imagine a war with no prisoners and absolutely no opportunity of placing landmines as it was fought at sea, on fishing boats, over cod. There will be no more clues.

But a commenter adds some additional hints:

It’s also a country with the oldest parliamentary system in western europe–and probably the longest continuous one in the world. It’s a country that keeps adding to its territory without war. And it’s a country with one of the most moving collections of epic literature, poetry and prose.

To which she charmingly responds “true, true and thank you for reminding me. Lately it has all been doom and gloom despite this being a great country, I needed the reminder.”
Maxine, at her Petrona blog, has a wonderful blog post about Stieg Larsson, recapping some articles and quoting from an e-mail message that Larsson sent to his publisher in which he said,
I’ve tried to create main characters who are drastically different from the types who generally appear in crime novels. Mikael Blomkvist, for instance, doesn’t have ulcers, or booze problems or an anxiety complex. He doesn’t listen to operas, nor does he have an oddball hobby such as making model aeroplanes. He doesn’t have any real problems, and his main characteristic is that he acts like a stereotype ‘slut’, as he admits himself. I’ve also changed the sex roles on purpose: in many ways Blomkvist acts like a typical “bimbo”, while Lisbeth Salander has stereotype ‘male’ characteristics and values…..

The article that Maxine links to by Val McDermid is well worth a read. In “The Man Who Died Too Soon,” she concludes,

It’s a tribute to Larsson’s skill that he never allows his political concerns to dominate his desire to tell a cracking good story packed with dramatic incident and brimming with quirky insights. But without his personal commitment to taking a stand in support of what he believed in, I’m convinced these three novels could never have had so powerful an impact among readers.

Forty years ago, with their Martin Beck novels, the Swedish writers Sjöwall and Wahlöö blazed a trail that proved the crime novel provides the perfect vehicle to write stories that shine a critical light on the society we live in. Stieg Larsson demonstrated that this works just as well for present-day concerns, and his example should give aspiring writers the confidence to put their own beliefs at the heart of their work. Books like The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest remind us all that we ignore the wider world at our peril.

Glen Harper at International Noir Fiction reviews Gunnar Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death (and promises to say more about the Norwegian television series):

Staalesen shows great skill in keeping a very complex story coherent: characters and events weave in and out, with personal and metaphorical connections among them all along the way. There are some surpises at the end, as well, when Varg finally discovers what’s been going on in the several murders and in Johnny Boy’s life. Staalesen’s novels take on social issues, but there are many passages in this book that are right out of classic noir (though Varg isn’t the usual noir hero, he has too much hope for his clients’ fates). There’s a lot more Varg Veum in Norwegian, and I for one hope for translators and publishers to fill in the gaps in what has been translated.

There’s an article in The Prospect about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon that seems peculiarly off-base in almost every particular. The author says the Sweden portrayed in crime fiction “is the modern equivalent of the library in the country house of classic English detective stories: the conventional stage in which to find corpses surrounded by a selection of intriguing and sinister eccentrics. . . . The crimes are all solved by amateurs, and usually the punishment is dealt out by amateurs too.” Salander is a witch, and Blomqvist is “Philip Marlowe without the failures or the inner life.” He considers Sjowall and Wahloo as part of the same fantasy genre, and refers (quite snidely) to the “domestic Swedish detective novel, which Scandinavia women journalists in their thirties write instead of chicklit.” My favorite comment on this article comes from a friend at the FriendFeed  Crime and Mystery Fiction room, who feels the author was “jumping on a bandwagon and driving it into the nearest vacant column inches.” Really, it’s difficult to compete with the depth of knowledge and the sheer wit of the residents of this online community.

*The country in question is Iceland, if you haven’t guessed.

reviews and Hitchens on Larsson

Rhapsody in Books reviews The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and gives it high marks as the best of the trilogy – and gives it a thematic tag: women warriors (which struck me as interesting right after reading a recent installment of Unshelved which is about a book of women warriors who are kind of scary but can provide a leadership lesson of sorts …)

Peter reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia, which he considers “the best novel so far in one of the best modern crime fiction series. A lovely book.”

Maxine’s review of Gunnar Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death has appeared at Eurocrime and says that, though most of the books in the series have not been translated and there are huge gaps between the volumes available in English, this is a fitting introduction to the main character, Varg Veum, since it provides his back story.

Norm has finished reading Hornets’ Nest and has plenty to say about the book and the entire trilogy.

And just as Stieg Larsson’s books are cropping up on “best of” lists, Christopher Hitchens offers a substantial appreciation (if that’s what it is … you can never quite tell with Hitchens) of Stieg Larsson’s Millennnium Trilogy, its author, and the neo-fascist movement in Sweden in the page of Vanity Fair. No, this Sweden is not the pacific and “herbivore” nation we imagine. And these stories are not heroic sagas, but modern and bleak.

Larsson is very much of our own time, setting himself to confront questions such as immigration, “gender,” white-collar crime, and, above all, the Internet. The plot of his first volume does involve a sort of excursion into antiquity—into the book of Leviticus, to be exact—but this is only for the purpose of encrypting a “Bible code.” And he is quite deliberately unromantic, giving us shopping lists, street directions, menus, and other details—often with their Swedish names—in full. The villains are evil, all right, but very stupid and self-thwartingly prone to spend more time (this always irritates me) telling their victims what they will do to them than actually doing it. There is much sex but absolutely no love, a great deal of violence but zero heroism. . . .  Bleakness is all. That could even be the secret—the emotionless efficiency of Swedish technology, paradoxically combined with the wicked allure of the pitiless elfin avenger, plus a dash of paranoia surrounding the author’s demise. If Larsson had died as a brave martyr to a cause, it would have been strangely out of keeping; it’s actually more satisfying that he succumbed to the natural causes that are symptoms of modern life.

the “why” of Scandinavian crime fiction

Spiked has a thoughtful piece on Stieg Larsson, Sweden, and why Swedish crime fiction has so much to say about things going wrong:

…Through the prism of violence, misogyny, murder, perversion and breaches of justice, Swedish crime writers are taking a forensic look at their society, passing a magnifying glass over the calm surface of what to many right-wingers and liberal lefties is still a socialist’s dreamland….

Perhaps it is precisely the strength of the image of Sweden as a civilised, democratic, equal and pacifist society – the nice kid just to the west of the former Eastern block – that gives its crime writers, many of whom have become international bestsellers, their allure. The calmer the surface, the more forceful the revelations of supposed sordidness simmering beneath it. . . .

While Larsson may have wanted to expose some of the illusions of the happy-go-lucky Swedish welfare state, his faith in decent protectors of Swedish ideals and tolerance shines through. The Millennium books depict a clueless police force, inept social services, a sleaze-hungry media industry, and a corrupt secret service, but the book also introduces us to plenty of characters from within these cherished Swedish institutions who live by their employers’ stated ideals. Mostly they are women.

…if this success can help challenge the stereotype that Sweden is a utopian social democratic state filed with buxom blondes and suicidal depressives, that will be a good thing.

Maxine reviews Inger Frimansson’s The Shadow in the Water – a followup to a book she reviewed last month, Good Night My Darling, pronouncing more unsettling than the first, finding it “a very disturbing novel, clouded and obscured by perceptions and suspicions so that nothing is what it seems.”

She also reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer. “I think the Harry Hole books comprise one of the top police-procedural series being written today. Although the books have flaws, they are flaws of ambition – the plots are very clever, and if perhaps they are sometimes a bit too clever, that’s better than the opposite. These novels are thoughtful, intelligent, exciting and above all, have a great central character.”

Karen Meek has a great review of Don Bartlett, translator of many of our favorite Norwegian writers, including Jo Nesbo. Read part one, part two, and part three. In answer to why Scandinavian crime is so popular he calls it a “welcome surprise” – and goes on to say:

The best Scandi crime fiction has a strong sense of place, evocative writing, thinking characters, an interest in the fabric of society and our lives today, the ‘why’ of crime rather than the ‘how’. It has adapted solid models in a relevant, personal way.

Finally, The Register reports that a Norwegian consumer council has found the Kindle in violation of Norwegian law because its warranty is too short (in Norway they should last five years, not one year), there are privacy concerns, and – my favorite – the terms of service themselves are problematic: “the very language used is probably illegal, as Norwegian law requires such contracts to be clearly written.”

reviews and views

Still catching up . . .

Marilyn Stasio reviews Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom and finds it “a movie trapped in a book” – given the drama as a badly abused woman takes hostages in a hospital – but concludes “for all their cinematic hyperbole, the authors don’t contribute to any further degradation of Lydia, who makes a believably tragic model for all the real women exploited by human traffickers.” She seems as puzzled as I was that no credit is given for the translator.

Michael Carlson’s irresistible target is The Devil’s Star by Jo Nesbo, not flawless but very good indeed:

Nesbo has created one of the great detectives in Harry Hole, and what is most impressive is the way he’s able to make Hole seem like a different person as he’s reflected in the actions and vision of various characters. He is a sympathetic character who rarely asks for sympathy, a Wallander with a touch of Marlowe’s idealism, and a hidden resevoir of white knight charm. And Nesbo is very happy to work on complicated plots and old-fashioned, if un-traditional clues.

Maxine reviews Inger Frimansson’s Good Night, My Darling at Euro Crime – which she finds atmospheric, gripping, and haunting. She also, in her Petrona incarnation, finds Gunnar Staalesen’s The Consorts of Death, very good indeed. “As with the best of PI and other crime fiction, the appeal of the Varg Veum books is not only their plots and the gradual development through the protagonist’s life and times, but their sadness at the human condition, a strong sense of social justice, and their wonderful sense of place.” The review in the Independent would seem to agree.

The Guardian thinks Jo Nesbo’s The Redeemer is too long. I think the review is too short – barely over 100 words. What’s the point? Why not just tweet your feelings? No wonder book reviewing the “proper” way is going to the dogs.

The Economist reads the Millennium Trilogy and advises that we “don’t mess with her” – the “her,” of course, being Lisbeth Salander, a character who is the “most original heroine in many years.”

The trilogy’s success shows that complex characters, a fast-paced narrative and a dazzling mosaic of challenging plots and sub-plots can keep readers hooked. The books are long and profoundly political. The sinister conspiracy being played out in the dark reaches of the Swedish security services is an important ingredient in the alchemy that has made the books so successful. Swedish writers have extensively explored the frail heart of the Scandinavian social-democratic dream; Stieg Larsson’s cynical realpolitik carries him from the cold war to the present-day murder of inconvenient witnesses. . . .

Larsson’s knowledge of the inner workings of the Swedish police, intelligence service and private security companies bring an extra layer of texture and verisimilitude. There are occasional lapses into didacticism: Blomkvist probes the murky world of female sex-trafficking which readers already know is an evil and sordid business. There are also some wildly dramatic incidents—at the end of the second volume and the start of the third, for instance—that stretch credibility to the limit. But Larsson’s vivid characters, the depth of detail across the three books, the powerfully imaginative plot and the sheer verve of the writing make “The Millennium Trilogy” a masterpiece of its genre.

Glenn Harper of International Noir Fiction on The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – “I’d still argue that the 10-volume Sjöwall/Wahlöö opus remains the pinnacle of Swedish crime, but Larsson puts his very individual stamp on the genre and also brings the form into the 21st century’s criminal, information, and political environment.”

Brought to you by the Letter D: Maxine highlights Danish author Lief Davidsen in her “alphabet in crime fiction.”

And now on to various opinions and thoughts about the genre….

Lots of kerfuffle about Jessica Mann’s decision as a reviewer to avoid misogynistic paint-by-numbers violence, peculiarly reported in the press as a decision to abandon book reviewing altogether or as an indictment of the entire genre – none of which is true, if you actually read her essay.  The F-Word, a British Feminist publication offers a lengthy discussion of why Stieg Larsson, professions of being a feminist notwithstanding, is actually a mysogynist because of “his explicit descriptions of sexual violence, his breast-obsessed heroine and babe-magnet hero.” I’ll grant you the babe-magnet Blomqvist being a bit of wishful projection, perhaps, but writing about violence against women doesn’t mean you actually enjoy it. I think Melanie Newman is off-base to compare the (admittedly somewhat over-the-top) gruesome sex abuse uncovered in the first book with James Patterson’s enormously popular if artless serial killer entertainments. Steve Mosby has a thoughtful (and yes, somewhat irritated) response to Newman’s article, as well as a longer examination of the wider issues which picked up quite a bit of traffic from readers of the New Yorker.

Paul Ames finds that “Sweden has Murder on its Brain.”

Within the 27 nations of the European Union, only Germany, Austria, Malta and Slovenia have lower murder rates than Sweden. In 2006 there were 91 murders registered in Sweden. In the same year, 84 crime novels were published in the country.

Peter Wahlqvist, a Goteborg-based lecturer in crime fiction, said the international success of Swedish thrillers results from a combination of good writing, a taste for the exotic and the contrast between the make-believe mayhem and common foreign perceptions of Sweden as a blond, healthy, welfare state utopia.

“It’s for real, psychologically about real people and about real life, real society,” said Wahlqvist.

Books to the Ceiling, in a series on “mysteries going global,” considers the popularity of Scandinavian crime.

And Glenn, via Petunia, has found a statue of Varg Veum leaning against the wall outside the office in Bergen where the fictional PI hung out his shingle.

at the Finnish line – and more

Glenn Harper reviews Matti Joensuu’s To Steal Her Love at International Noir Fiction, pointing out that the vagaries of translation have really hampered access to this Finnish writer’s work: “of Joensuu’s 10 novels, we have only the ones written at 10-year intervals.” But he looks on the bright side: “However unfortunate it is that we have to wait, and that there are 7 of Joensuu’s novels featuring Helsinki detective Timo Harjunpää still untranslated, we are lucky to now have To Steal Her Love, which succeeds on every level.” It features the p.o.v. of an unusual criminal who sees the colors of tumblers as he pickes locks and animates everything in his environment. “He names everything that is important to him: each of his feet has a name, his flashlight and knife have names, and he gives his own names to the women whose apartments he enters when they are asleep.” He concludes: “This is a book that deserves a wide audience, much wider than Joensuu has up to now received in the English-speaking world.” I’m sold.

Speaking of Finnish writers, an English translation of Jarkko Sipila’s Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall has just come on the market from a small publishing start up in my home state of Minnesota. Since the publisher shares the same last name, it’s quite possibly a family affair. In any case, Finland has a lively crime fiction scene, so more translations are always welcome.

If you’re in a betting mood, you can predict who you think will win the international dagger at Euro Crime – or vote for the book you wish would win – or take a poll on which ones you’ve read at Kerrie’s Mysteries in Paradise (on the right-hand side of the page). Norm (aka Uriah) calculates the odds based on translators and their past credits (fascinating!) while wondering where all the German and Dutch books are.

Sunnie has a review of Camilla Lackberg’s The Preacher up on her blog. She found it full of good twists and turns and seamlessly translated.

Ed Siegel reviews Henning Mankell’s Italian Shoes for the Boston Globe and finds it both almost comically morose (the main character has a dreary life and even his cat is on the verge of death) but also a surprisingly good read, and better than other of Mankell’s standalones.

And finally,Mike Goodridge at Screen Daily opines that the success of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy may predict a new sort of pan-European blockbuster based on the appeal of Lizabeth Salander.

So what makes Millennium special? It is, after all, 152 minutes long and in Swedish. Perhaps the 14 million readers around the globe of the late Stieg Larsson’s three novels know the secret – principally the title character, a twentysomething sociopath called Lisbeth Salander who is also a brilliant computer hacker.

In Salander, audiences have found a thoroughly original heroine or anti-heroine. Prone to violence and anti-social behaviour, she is pierced, tattooed and bisexual. Played in the film by newcomer Noomi Rapace, she is also a crusader trying to clear her name and a righteous defender of women against the abuses of men.

The character is not too distant from Jason Bourne or Daniel Craig’s James Bond – ruthless, homicidal kind-of-good guys out for blood.

Only female. Bisexual. Wounded. Quite a variation on the theme, but the most popular figure in a whole crop of kick-ass outsider women who have cropped up in the genre lately (and for the most part written by male authors such as Tim Maleeny and Greg Rucka), an interesting development in the gendering of crime fiction.