“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.

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.