more reviews and some thoughts on place

Peter Rozovsky connects the dots between John Connelly, James Lee Burke, and Arnaldur Indridason, then collects some suggestions for writers who evoke a strong sense of place.

Norm (aka Uriah) has some fascinating things to say about Leif G.W. Persson’s massive novel, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End. I am grateful to him for reading and analyzing the  good points and the bad in his review (because I gave up on it, but am still very curious about it -tack så mycket.)

Glenn Harper thinks Ake Edwardson’s The Shadow Woman is a terrific novel. I agree – though it’s slow and circular and I’m not crazy about Winter as a character, I though it was thought-provoking. Glenn does have a plot point quibble, but his overall verdict is positive.

Two books about Stieg Larsson are reviewed in Ireland’s The Post. The reviewer finds Kurdo Baksi’s memoir self-serving and not particularly kind to Larsson; but she gives Afterword, a collection of essays by fellow journalists that is included in the new boxed set of the Millennium Trilogy, high marks.

Captain April reviews The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. One of the things she liked about it was that she wasn’t sure whether it would have a happy ending or not – and she wasn’t sure what sort of ending she would prefer. She also finds Salander fascinating and likes her working partnership with Blomqvist.

And Norm (aka Uriah) is reading Liza Marklund’s Red Wolf and making it sound very tempting indeed. Apparently both this book and to some extent Mankell’s The Man from Beijing deal with the fling that Westerners have had with extreme ideologies. There’s also a bit about the Swedish covers that is interesting. (Is that really the author on the covers? Yes, she is attractive, but appearing as part of your books seems a peculiar mix of postmodernism and merely modern branding.)

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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.

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.

Hornet’s Nest megahit megapost (with some catching up to do as well)

First, let’s deal with the US reception of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. (I can’t help but wonder if there was an editorial/marketing meeting about that apostrophe – or if it was simply misplaced and never questioned.)

As so often happens, the New York Times reviews the book twice. (There’s a different review editor and group of reviewers for the daily paper than for the Sunday Book Review.) While they are both positive, they are very different. Michiko Kakutani thinks the series has matured and improved with each volume.

“Hornet’s Nest” is the last novel in Larsson’s Millennium series that Larsson, the crusading Swedish journalist, completed before his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004. It’s also a thoroughly gripping read that shows off the maturation of the author’s storytelling talents.

The trilogy’s first installment, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” depended solely on the irresistible odd-couple appeal of Salander and Blomkvist as a new age Nick and Nora; its plot devolved into a preposterous mashup of bad serial-killer movies. The second installment, “The Girl Who Played With Fire,” attested to the author’s improved plotting abilities, moving backward into the past even as it accelerated toward a vicious and violent conclusion. Now, in “Hornet’s Nest,” Larsson effortlessly constructs an immensely complicated story line that owes less to the “Silence of the Lambs” horror genre than to something by John le Carré. . . .

The novels’ central appeal, however, remains Salander herself: a heroine who takes on a legal system and evil, cartoony villains with equal ferocity and resourcefulness; a damaged sprite of a girl who becomes a goth-attired avenging angel who can hack into any computer in the world and seemingly defeat any foe in hand-to-hand combat.The narratives of all three books are ultimately explorations of Salander’s past, and it is this past that explains the mysteries of her personality. For that matter, the page-turning suspense of these books has less to do with the pyrotechnics of Larsson’s often contrived plots than with the reader’s eagerness to understand how Salander came to be the way she is — why she is so leery of emotional commitment, why she has a deadly score to settle with her dreaded father, why she values survival above all else. . . .

At one point in “Hornet’s Nest,” a character observes: “when it comes down to it, this story is not primarily about spies and secret government agencies; it’s about violence against women, and the men who enable it.” But while this seems to have been a concept that fascinated Larsson — the original Swedish title of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is “Men Who Hate Women” — these novels actually don’t have any didactic thesis to convey.

David Kamp, whose review is on the coveted front page of the Book Review, finds it didactic and thinks the first book better than the second, which he calls cartoonish. (I’m with Michiko on this one. I found the pacing much better in the second, the characters more developed, the situation more believable and less a mish-mash of locked-room mystery meets sexually depraved deviants. But each to one’s own.) Kamp feels the third works as well as the first and that in spite of preachy moments and too much coffee drinking, it all works very well in the end.

. . . there are plenty of the Larssonian hallmarks they have come to love: the rough justice meted out by Salander to her enemies; the strong, successful female characters, like Blomkvist’s lawyer sister, Annika ­Giannini, and Millennium’s editor in chief, Erika Berger; and the characters’ acutely Swedish, acutely relaxed attitude toward sex and sexuality. . . . Reading Stieg Larsson produces a kind of rush — rather like a strong cup of coffee.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a lengthy article on the dispute over Larsson’s estate.  It reiterates the claim that Larsson had ten books planned and says they were to be his “pension fund.” It’s all very sad. But this bit also interested me:

Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor in chief of Knopf, who bought the books for what he says now seems like a “very modest sum,” even worried that they might not catch on here. “I had nightmares that we would be the only country where the books didn’t work,” he says.

I didn’t think it would work either, not at the bestseller level. I assumed Americans, used to a diet of James Patterson Inc., wouldn’t have such a long attention span, quite frankly. I’m very pleased to find I was wrong.

Online, there’s an interactive feature on Larsson’s life and untimely death.

Last Sunday’s Op/Ed section also had an essay by Pat Ryan on Pippi and Salander.Both character share singular beginnings, an odd appearance, and “awesome skills.” Ryan writes,

An old colleague of Mr. Larsson’s has said they once talked about how certain characters from children’s books would manage and behave if they were older. Mr. Larsson especially liked the idea of a grown-up Pippi, a dysfunctional girl, probably with attention deficit disorder, who would have had a hard time finding a place in society but would nonetheless take a firm hand in directing her own destiny. That musing led to the creation of Lisbeth Salander, the central character in Mr. Larsson’s trilogy. . .

His fictional alter ego, Mikael Blomkvist, is a nod to another Lindgren character, the master detective Kalle Blomkvist. And the nameplate for Lisbeth’s new apartment reads “V. Kulla” — Pippi’s house was called Villa Villekulla. But don’t remind Lisbeth of her sunnier literary ancestor. “Somebody’d get a fat lip,” she says, “if they ever called me Pippi Longstocking.”

The Broad Street Review examines Salander as a feminist heroine and Steig Larsson as “currently the world’s most famous feminist author.” Marge Murray writes

What Ingmar Bergman did for Swedish private life— that is, expose its dark side— Larsson did for Swedish public life. His novels expose corruption and sexism in high places and provide a uniquely believable but heroic female figure to combat them. . . .

It is to Larsson’s credit that he created a heroic female figure— not a caricature, but a real three-dimensional creation. Lisbeth Salander, stranger than fiction, is a woman one can both empathize with and emulate.

Unlike other writers of crime fiction, Larsson overtly seeks to encourage feminist discourse and outrage. In effect Lisbeth is Larsson’s own version of a grown-up Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lingren’s unconventional, assertive and intuitive nine-year-old fictitious character. Where Pippi talks back to and makes fun of adults with alacrity, Lisbeth inflicts bodily harm on the private parts of her male tormentors.

Ellen Key, the Swedish social reformer and philosopher, has written that the emancipation of women was the greatest movement of the 19th Century. Larsson believed that the issue of women’s rights was not solved in that century. He contended that it is today’s biggest problem. His saga gives voice to the struggle of women in so-called emancipated nations like Sweden and, by association, the U.S. and the rest of the European Union. His novels may or may not change society. What can be said with certainty, however, is that Larsson is one hell of a read.

Richard Schickel reviews the book for the Los Angeles Times and isn’t very impressed with the literary quality of the books – he thinks Mankell, Nesbo, and Fossum all superior – and he puts the trilogy’s success down to – who else? – the Girl of the title.

I think Salander represents something new and unique in this genre. She’s a tiny bundle of post-modernist tropes, beginning with her computer skills. I know there are other crime novels featuring similarly gifted people — though I can’t tell from the examples Larsson gives whether her talent is genuine or pure nonsense. But that’s not important; the point is that she has an enviable mastery of a technology that is bound to impress Larsson’s gawking readership.

But that’s only the beginning of her singularity. She does not, for example, use her computer solely for crime-solving. She has also hacked her way into a multimillion-dollar fortune, which she keeps offshore and mainly uses for selfish purposes — like breast enhancement. She dresses badly, refuses to speak when authority figures — psychiatrists, cops — question her about her activities and, despite her tiny size, she is a martial-arts expert and deadly with guns. She’s also bisexual.

Simply put, Salander is a deeply radicalized feminist, portrayed in a manner designed to test the sympathies of a largely liberal-minded audience, the attention of which is diverted by the blur of his books’ nonstop action. Implicitly, Larsson asks us whether the understanding we normally, casually extend to the principles Salander acts upon can also extend to a character who so heedlessly exemplifies them. . . .

On the other hand, this irony keeps straying into one’s mind: In her vengeful, anti-establishment anger and propensity to violence, Lisbeth Salander is — that’s right — a perfect tea party heroine, a minor, accidental avatar of our scary new political climate. One is free to imagine her decent-minded creator shuddering in his grave at this unintended consequence of his venture into sub-literature.

I wish two things about this review: one, that he did not use the phrase “sub-literature,” particularly after praising other crime fiction authors. Second, that if he was going to accuse readers of being so indiscriminate in their understanding of the political and social issues in the book, that he did more than assume it is on the bestseller list because a) readers are too ignorant to understand the feminist subtext and b) the feminism of the books is overwhelmed by a strong heroine’s inherent anti-intellectual fascist tendencies. The more I think about it, the more infuriating I find this review.

(I’d like pause a moment to propose a maxim for reviewers: say what you honestly think about a book, but please, don’t insult its readers. You’re reviewing a BOOK for god’s sake, not evaluating the intelligence of those who enjoy it. That’s just a cheap way to show off. And a suggestion for review editors – don’t give a book to reviewers who despise the genre it’s in. That’s all – thank you.)

A reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle thinks this is the weakest of the three books and found it slow, “droll” (I suspect the writer meant “dull”) and hard to follow. USA Today also finds it not pacey enough and predicts fans will be disappointed.

But though a reviewer for the Herald in Madison County, Mississippi, thinks it could be pacier, he (or she) is willing to slow down, knowing it’s the last, feeling the same pangs as when reading the final installment in the Harry Potter series. “I’m really going to miss Stieg Larsson and his brave band of heroes, just like I miss Harry, Ron and Hermione. Reads like these don’t come around often enough. Savor the prose; cherish the characters.”

And if the US covers have left you scratching your head, Karen Meek has unearthed this explanation from Knopf. I love hearing from designers about their thought process.

Peter [Mendelsund, who has his own blog] chose to use a more abstract, but bold, image.

Knopf’s twist was achieved with the subtle interaction of the Trade Gothic type and a great piece of art in yellow and orange Day-Glo inks. Add a dash of cyan (shades of colors in the blue/green spectrum) to create the green dragon lurking in the background and a tablespoon of black for the title, flap copy, and Stieg’s photo, and voilà!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s jacket colors create an unconscious sense of danger, flashing a warning to readers to proceed with caution, as they may find this story dangerous, seductive, and gripping. Once it has you, there is no exit, no U-turn. The use of the dragon imagery on the jacket might seem incongruous with we know of Sweden, but the dragon cues us to the underlying differences between what we know and the author wants to show us. Larson’s Sweden is not place just filled with coffee shops, cold vistas, and IKEAs. It is a place where women and children are victims of powerful men and the system punishes those who are different or who deviant from the norm. Salander’s tattoo is as jarring as she is within the context of the pseudo-sanitized Swedish setting. The combination of the dragon’s symbolism and the flashy garishness of the neon colors clue us into the dark and spiraling adventure of Larsson’s thriller.

In other news . . .

Powell’s is having a sale on Scandinavian crime fiction.

Maxine offers her third installment on her response to the Swedish Book Review’s special issue on  crime fiction.

Glenn Harper reviews Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing and wishes it lived up to the promise of its opening chapters.

Caite reviews The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum, giving it a thorough analysis and finding it both challenging and rewarding.

Cinema Cafe goes to the source before viewing the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – and is impressed, finding it absorbing and complex and addictive – “like crack on paper.” (I thought that was acid . . . )

Shannon Schwantes reviews the Italian film version of Karin Fossum’s novel Don’t Look Back. It has been retitled The Girl by the Lake (La Ragazza del lago) and the action has shifted to Italy. Since we’re reading this book in my first term seminar next fall, I’m hoping to get a copy of this film; it would be interesting to compare versions.

Spinetingler thinks Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star has a complex plot worthy of its complex hero – and is well-written to boot.

The Weekend Argus (South Africa) has a Reuters story that start out on a snarky note – “Take a fictional female detective who inspects crime scenes in the morning, interrogates her suspects at noon and picks up her three-year-old at daycare after work. Now call it Nordic noir and await the accolades” – but then describes it as “starkly detailed, tightly plotted, often interwoven with social themes” – quoting Jo Nesbo and Jan Guillou on the impact Mankell and Stieg Larsson have had on foreign interest in Scandinavian crime. It sounds as if a criticism of the “femikrimi” that Dorte writes about got grafted onto another story.

And last, but far from least, this excellent article: Nordic Noir has a lengthy and fascinating post on Swedish neutrality during World War II, the neo-Nazi movement, and the uneasy relationship Swedes have with the past. (This is certainly also the case with Norway, which was occupied.) She proposes a thought-provoking and valuable theory:

. . . perhaps one can argue that Swedish noir gains life in part because of a vague, disturbing sense that truly terrible secrets lie just below the surface of everyday, prosperous life.  It’s enough for any sleuth (whether a detective, reporter or fiction writer) to ponder at length.  One wonders if the very hiddenness of it constitutes its own kind of collaboration—and wonders, as well, how it actually affects Swedish culture.  For in the case of Nazism in Sweden, it’s harder to always characterize evil as ‘over there’ in Germany—it’s homegrown, and not yet fully accounted for.

One reason I find this so compelling is that it takes Bill Ott’s idea that post-cold-war immigration has played a role in the rise of crime fiction in Scandinavia and situates it in modern history, linking a past that is hidden with a present that is revealing tensions that could be ignored in a less multicultural society.

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

delayed gratification

Maxine reviews The Vault (which is called Box 21 in Sweden and the US)  by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström and says it’s brutal and very good.  (I liked it very much, too.) She says it is –

a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime-fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism . . . The final pages of the novel leave the reader in no doubt as to the extent of the evil ramifications that can occur when people who should know better take matters into their own hands for their own reasons – but who cannot know the full story or understand (because of their personal involvements and weaknesses) the entire picture.

I thought it odd that no translator was named; Maxine wonders if perhaps the authors themselves translated it. Whoever it is – tack så mycket.

Peter’s Nordic Bookblog reports on Mankell’s new thriller, The Man from Beijing, which he says “shows Henning Mankell at the height of his powers, handling a broad historical canvas and pressing international issues with his exceptional gifts for insight and chilling suspense.” Lucky Peter was able to read it in the original while we wait for the translation.

Speaking of waiting – according to this morning’s Shelf Awareness , the top selling book at AbeBooks last month was The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Given this bookseller’s marketplace is international, it’s quite possible the majority of those sales went to UK buyers. But it just underscores for me the nonsense of territorial rights in a world where reading knows no borders, and neither does shopping. (Incidentally, I notice there’s a copy signed by the translator going for $295. Wowsers.)

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.