defining genres

Michael Grove writes in the Times that used bookshops can reveal what is really going on in a country. And for Scandinavia and the UK, it’s in the blood. Viking blood, to be precise.

The ability of second-hand bookshops to open a window on to a place’s soul isn’t restricted to England. In Stockholm last week I stumbled into a couple (my wife is convinced that I could find second-hand bookshops in Amazonia or Antarctica) and was surprised by what they revealed. The largest amount of space devoted to a single author – and it was huge in both shops – wasn’t there for Strindberg or some other Scandinavian national hero.

No, the author who seemed to have the greatest purchase on the Swedish soul was Agatha Christie. There were yards of Olde English whodunnitry stretching far further into the recesses of the shop than any collection of bleak Nordic dramaturgy.

Indeed, the deeper I delved, the more Swedish and English literary tastes seemed to intertwine. For both countries the detective novel is the defining national genre. The Swedish authors who succeed abroad, and are devoured most energetically at home, are the crimewriter Henning Mankell and the husband-and-wife detective novelists Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Mankell’s Kurt Wallander and Sjowall/Walloo’s Martin Beck, like P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh, or Miss Marple, Campion, Wimsey or Rebus, are the fictional creations who define a nation.

I must say, my head hurts trying to figure out how Miss Marple currently defines the UK, or how Viking blood might have entered into it, but I digress . . . He goes on to characterize other country’s national genres, sadly missing out on explaining what Fred Vargas tells us about France, only being defeated in his quest when he comes to the US, with a literary output “so rich, so plural, so prodigious that there is no way that even a determined pigeon-holer like me can shrinkwrap it into one package.”

The rest is a scathing critique of a panel of American writers coming to London who are not tough enough on terrorism and too tough of George Bush. Well, he is a conservative MP.

I do think the current flowering of crime fiction in Scandinavia is an intriguing commentary on a particular place and time – just not too comfortable with it being somehow in the genes.

to whet your appetite

Karen Meek has a couple of tasty treats at her Euro Crime blog – first, an excerpt from the next volume of Steig Larsson’s trilogy, this one titled The Girl Who Played With Fire. You can probably tell from the cover art which character has captured most readers’ interest.

And she’s started a list of forthcoming Scandinavian publications, building the list at Amazon UK. In some cases US readers will either have to wait for some of the publications or indulge and order from abroad.

New Reviews – Theorin and Tursten

Two Swedish authors get the nod at Eurocrime. Maxine Clarke (aka Petrona) has good things to say about HEchoes from the DeadeleneTursten’s The Glass Devil, saying it lives up to the high bar set by the previous two novels in the series.

Both she and Norman Price have had their socks blown off by first-time novelist Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, set on the Baltic island of Oland. She says “I can only advise that if you read one crime-fiction novel published this year, make it this one.”

Guess what’s just gone on my “must read” list? (Full disclosure: I’ve already read The Glass Devil.)

Nordic Crime at Harrogate

The inexhaustable Karen Meek published a fine round-up of a panel at the Harrogate Festival on Nordic Crime. It includes some discussion of the debt owed to Sjowall and Waloo’s ground-breaking Marin Beck series as well as the difficulty of translating a book into English that suits both a US and UK audience. (Translations of Mari Jungstedt and Helene Tursten both came in for criticism, though the only specific mentioned was that they were American.) Then there is a round-robin of recommendations from all of the Scandinavian countries. I was pleased to see Jo Nebso and Arnaldur Indridason mentioned, two of my favorites. The comments are well worth a read, too.