criminal conversations

A new website, The Crime House, offers English-language readers a peek into Scandinavian and international crime. In its “about” section it describes itself as “a spinoff to the Swedish website Deckarhuset.se.” Fair warning: this site may induce longing for books that are not yet in English translation.

There’s a thoughtful review and interesting discussion at Open Letters Monthly, where Rohan Maitzen examines her not-impressed reaction to Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers. She argues that genre writers shouldn’t be let off the hook if their prose is clunky. I agree – I think, though I might not agree on how to define “good prose” in genre fiction, which is often good because it fades away and lets the characters and plot take center stage. (I was caught short when she called Ian Rankin’s last three novels are “‘condition of England’ novels” given they are not set in England, but I see that she is referring to a type of 19th century social novel.) As a reader I am not personally a huge fan of the Wallander series, but I wouldn’t hold up P.D. James and Elizabeth George as better examples of the genre if only because I find James a bit reactionary and Victorian in her attitudes and George as long-winded and completely inauthentic. Rankin – yes, I think he offers an apt comparison and is a writer I enjoy reading more than Mankell, probably because of his prose style and the glints of humor.

Heads up: This new book, part of a European Crime Fictions series, is now available. I happen to have a copy and plan to review it here before long. As an aside, I think the press release deserves a “bad pun” award. Here’s a bit of description:

Focusing on Scandinavian crime fiction’s snowballing prominence since the 1990s, articles home in on the transformation of the genre’s social criticism, study the significance of cultural and geographical place in the tradition, and analyze the cultural politics of crime fiction, including struggles over gender equity, sexuality, ethnicity, history, and the fate of the welfare state. The text maps out the contribution of Scandinavian crime writers to contemporary European culture and society, making the volume valuable to scholars and the interested public.

Kerrie reviews Ake Edwardson’s Frozen Tracks from her perch in paradise, a complex double-barreled serial killer investigation that doesn’t quite come together in the end. Being the busy reviewer she is, she also gives her take on Roslund and Hellstrom’s Three Seconds and, like me, found the beginning a bit difficult to get into but the second half gripping. Final verdict: clever, authentic, and credible.

She also reviews Arnaldur Indridason’s 1999 stand-alone thriller, Operation Napoleon. Not as good as the Erlendur series and a bit old-fashioned, but with a strong female lead and interesting commentary on the US military presence in Iceland.

Speaking of Iceland, Yrsa Sigurdardottir will be the guest at the next Nordic Noir Book Club event, March 17th. She is utterly charming, so it’s not to be missed. Unless, like me, you’re not going to be in London that day. Bummer.

At International Noir, Glenn Harper reviews The Inspector and Silence, another recommended novel in Hakan Nesser’s offbeat and accomplished Van Veeteren series.

Ignacio Escribano reviews Liza Marklund’s Red Wolf, finding the plot hard to swallow and the heroine’s personal life hard to take.

And for this post’s final note, Eva Gabrielsson has written a book and wants to finish another one. Slate offers a review of her memoir which will be published in English translation by Seven Stories in June with the title “There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me. I will reserve judgment for now about how much I actually want to know. If anything.

notes from the “stormakstiden”

The dust is just starting to settle on the whirlwind that is the semester’s start, so am taking a deep breath and combing through my alerts and blog feeds to see what I’ve been missing . . .

Quite a lot!

Ali Karim has a two part interview with Swedish authors Anders Rosland and Börge Hellström at The Rap Sheet – part one and part two. They have this to say about the climate for the genre:

Swedish publishers have for many years nurtured and treated crime fiction as a strong, independent genre … We share this ethos that the crime-fiction genre is not just “pulp.” The best crime fiction’s duty is to entertain and tell a good story, but [it should also be] imbued with knowledge and question what we see around us.

Writing crime fiction is something that we take very seriously and put our whole hearts into; it is, and should be, just as difficult and demanding as writing any other kind of novel … And when you see it like that, and those around you recognize that genre fiction is as relevant (and important) as literary fiction, then good results are entirely possible. And of course it helps that as Scandinavians, we have so much darkness, so many long dark nights, snow and cold, lack of daylight, that actually the environment is conducive to crime fiction.

In Publishing Perpectives, Lasse Winkler offers an appreciation of how Stieg Larsson’s success has provided entree to US markets for Swedish genre writers and mentions how much Swedish publishers are culling their lists, publishing more domestic crime fiction and less in translation.

Norm (aka Uriah) reckons this might just be a “stormakstiden” – a golden age for crime fiction that we might in future find dominated by Scandinavian authors.

The British version of Wallander is running in its second season on PBS in the US, and I am woefully late in letting folks know. Janet Rudolph was not so tardy in her appreciation. Kenneth Branagh speaks about his role in an interview.  Keep watching Sunday evenings between October 3 – October 17.

Bernadette has finished the Scandinavian crime fiction challenge launched by Black Sheep Dancing, and has a handy set of links to her reviews, the most recent of which is of Jo Nesbo’s The Redbreast.

Geoffrey McNab interviews Henning Mankell for the Dublin Herald.

An interview with Camilla Lackberg is available at the Explore West Sweden blog. (And oh, yes, I would like to explore west Sweden.)

Glenn Harper reviews the television version of the Irene Huss series by Helene Tursten – and in the comments, there is the very good news that Soho will be publishing more of the series – yippee!

And on to reviews:

Maxine reviews Silence by Jan Costin Wagner, a German writer who lives and writes about Finland. She finds it “quietly compelling” and helpfully links to reviews by Karen Meek at Euro Crime and Norm at Crime Scraps.

Bookaholic of the Boston Book Bums reviews Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Last Rituals, “a quick read that blended the macabre with the academic.”

Martin Shaw, a bookseller in Australia, reviews Anders Rosland and Börge Hellström’s Three Seconds and calls it “stellar.”

Karen Meek reviews Postcard Killers, the collaboration between James Patterson and Liza Marklund, which has the trademarked pace uninterrupted by social commentary or much about Sweden that couldn’t fit on a . . . well, a postcard.

Carly Waito has good things to say about Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series and has a lovely photo of them, too.

Karen Russell of How Mysterious! reviews Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, which she decided would be the first of many Fossums she would like to read.

Peter reviews Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment, which he thinks shows promise.

Now I feel a bit caught up; if I can just find a moment to read . . .

reviews and what-not

Peter finds Leif GW Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End “deliciously told, with lots of humor and with live, fallible and flawed characters.” I admit that I was completely unable to read the advanced reader copy I was sent. The translation by Paul Norlen seemed quite good, but the total absence of sympathetic characters and the piecemeal structure (no chapters, but lots of short passages from a multitude of points of view) coupled with an extremely cynical view of police work kept making me find excuses to put it down, even though it is a fictional account based on the investigation of Olof Palme’s assassination and the investigation that never went anywhere. Peter felt differently.

Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End is at the same time fascinating and shocking. We embark on a journey deep into the underbelly of the Swedish police force, and meet lazy, incompetent and perverse police officers concerned mostly with position, power, pay, comradeship, drinking and sex. We meet cynical politicians and spin masters in controlling positions.

It’s a dark novel and a dark journey which not only seems very realistic but also masterfully recreates the blanket of uncertainty, the multiple ways insights get lost in huge and complex organizational environments where most actors have their own agendas. Fortunately there is also sarcasm, black satire, dark humor, mind boggling insights, and dialogues that make you laugh out loud. It is a wonderful novel, a riveting anti-procedure police procedural, a psychological drama, and an adventurous journey into a murky landscape we can perhaps only hope doesn’t exist but most likely does. The publication of Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End by Leif GW Persson is one of the major crime fiction events of 2010!

The World Socialist Web Site has an article on the Stieg Larsson phenomenon and criticizes the trilogy for feeding vengeance fantasies and treating right and wrong in the same dualistic way that right-wing demagogues do, concluding that (in contrast to Sjowall and Wahloo’s more complex view) Larsson is guilty of “middle class ‘leftism’.” Whether you agree or not with the author’s conclusions, the appeal that the trilogy has for people who more typically enjoy books in which representatives of the law and/or libertarian crusaders triumph through responding to violence with violence is thought-provoking.

The Times of Johannesburg (I think – it’s hard to tell from the site, but it has a South African URL) offers reviews of three thrillers, including Jo Nebso’s The Snowman (“Scandinavian crime fiction at its best – nutritious dollops of social introspection skilfully intertwined with sheer terror.”) and Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing (“a political discourse on colonial exploitation in Zimbabwe and the tensions inherent in the modern Chinese Communist elite. Yawn.”)

Xanthe Galanis gives Camilla Lackberg’s The Stonecutter high marks and calls it “great entertainment.”

The Boston Book Bums think Yrsa Siguradottir’s Last Rituals is fun to read, “a quick read that blended the macabre with the academic. Smart and engaging, while not pace set by violent action, Last Rituals moves along with rapidity because Sigurdardottir shows patient skills with characters and setting.”

Larissa Kyser likes Ake Edwardson’s Sun and Shadow a great deal, even though he does things she usually doesn’t like. A substantial and very thoughtful review by someone who thinks deeply about what she’s reading.

The Guardian has a fascinating look at the far right in Sweden and its current position in national politics – fascinating background for some of the themes encountered in crime fiction from Sweden.

Another newspaper article expresses astonishment that there is life after Wallander, though illustrating the point with a photo of Kenneth Branagh.

Norm (aka Uriah) thinks the two Swedish films of the Larsson books are terrific and he can barely contain his impatience to see the final film in the trilogy. He takes a brief break to take issue with a Beatrice article that  calls Larsson’s trilogy “exploitive trash” (The essay is titled: “Stieg Larsson Was a Bad, Bad Writer.” Two bads in one headline.)

Dorte reviews Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s My Soul to Take and thinks it’s a good, good book. Though she is far more eloquent than that as she explains why it worked so well for her.

Karen posts a newsflash to the crime and mystery fiction room at FriendFeed: “Waterstones Picadilly reports sightings of two women foisting The Redbreast instead of The Snowman on unsuspecting purchasers of Jo Nesbo’s books.” Who could that be?

Janet Rudolph reports that Sweden is putting its popular crime fiction writers on stamps. How novel.

film and fiction in review

A quick round-up before the craziness of the fall semester starts up . . .

A graduate student in computational linguistics named Joshua points out that there is too much variety among Swedish crime writers to consider Swedish crime fiction a genre, and he offers this comparison as evidence: “in the schoolyard of Swedish crime fiction, Theorin is the studious nerd and Mankell and Larsson are the big kids.” He thinks Theorin’s books are not nearly as engaged or challenging as those that offer more social critique and are more or less harmless entertainments. (Or, to put it bluntly, “beach reads.” While I like social critique, I think Theorin’s just dandy without that element, myself.)

In a previous blog post, the blogger has very positive things to say about the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  And they’re smart and thoughtful comments well worth reading.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (”Men Who Hate Women” in the original) is basically the perfect movie at this point in time. It’s socially conscious without being PC, it’s atmospheric but not artsy, it’s an intelligent thriller that’s neither ironic, nor overly reliant on plot twists. It’s a genre film that’s about more than genre commentary. I loved it.

I loved it because it’s slow. It doesn’t seem like it will be just at first: you’re plunged down into the middle of a libel suit with a helpful reporter narrating the setup on the evening news. But from there we see a bunch of seemingly unconnected scenes, so it’s alright. We trust they’ll get around to having all these people meet each other – and they do.

I loved it because it’s fun. The protagonist (erm, one of them) basically gets hired to solve a locked room mystery involving a bunch of rich people who live on an island. Why not? Why should we be above these things?

I loved it because it has a fetish chick. Tough bisexual biker girl hacker with nose rings and spiked collars and Black no. 1 hair. Which of us born in 1975 hasn’t wanted one of those?

I loved it because it’s graphic without being indulgent. All together now: the violence we see is realistic and in the service of a theme, not there merely for shock value.

I loved it because the characters are believable stereotypes . . . [here follows an intriguing discussion of how plausible and how enlightened – or not – the romantic relationship between Blomqvist and Salander is, and then] . . .

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo succeeds because it’s politically aware only to the extent of wanting to do the right thing, and metafictionally aware only to the extent of picking out the workable formulas and giving credit to their sources. It’s a film that shouldn’t be too hard to deconstruct, and I’m sure that’s just around the corner. But now, while it’s fresh, I’m enjoying just having enjoyed it.

Well, I must say I enjoyed the review.

Carla McKay reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman for the Daily Mail and points out he’s not the next Stieg Larsson. (We knew that.) She apparently liked the book, though most of the review is a synopsis.

Keishon also reviews Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman and, while she’s an admirer of the series, feels this one is not the strongest.

Ben Hunt reviews Camilla Ceder’s Frozen Moment and says it’s a very good debut, though he advises readers to take the hype on the book jacket with a grain of salt. It’s an ably plotted story with a vivid setting and characters that are somewhat typical, but well-drawn. He also proposes a theory:

If anything defines the extraordinary and apparently relentless rise of Scandinavian fiction, for me it is these three qualities, and in particular the plotting.

It would be easy to draw cheap stereotypical conclusions about ordered minds and ordered societies producing writers with organized minds who produce impeccably plotted and well executed novels. Cheap maybe, but the more Scandinavian fiction I read the more I am drawn to this idea.

Bernadette reviews Sjowall and Wahloo’s first book in the Martin Beck series, Roseanna, and is interested to find in it so many of the elements that have become part of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Martin Beck too is realistic, perhaps a little too much so. If the phrase ‘dour Swede’ has been over-used since Scandinavian crime fiction has become flavour of the month then surely the blame must lie mostly at the feet of the rarely smiling, crowd hating, always ill, never wanting to go home Martin Beck. As a characterisation I think he’s marvelous but as a human being I’d rather not be stuck in an elevator for any great length of time with him . . .

In Roseanna the authors tackled the nature of bureaucracy, the rise of consumerism and even used the nature of the crime itself in a country that prided itself on being the kind of place where such things did not happen with a subtlety that I would dearly love to see more of in modern fiction.

Margot Kinberg also puts Roseanna “in the spotlight.”

Peter explores the “bloodthirsty femmes” of Scandinavian crime fiction: Swedish writers Karin Alvtegen, Kerstin Ekman, Inger Frimansson, Mari Jungstedt, Camilla Läckberg, Asa Larsson, Liza Marklund, and Helene Tursten; Norway’s Anne Holt and Karin Fossum; Tove Jansson (Finland) and Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland).  He looks at their protagonists and finds a great deal of variety. He promises more on the subject anon . . .

CrimeFic Reader reviews Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Ashes to Dust, which (how very topical) involves a volcanic eruption, though in this case it’s to do with bodies buried for decades in ash from a massive 1970 eruption. She likes the book, but wishes the translation weren’t so Americanized.


daggers, bankers, and science in crime fiction

As anyone who follows crime fiction already knows, Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room won the International Dagger, edging ahead a very strong shortlist with a heavy Nordic accent. In addition to Theorin, Stieg Larsson’s third and final book and Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia were both on the list. There was nothing this time by Fred Vargas, however, so no trifecta for her.

I haven’t read all the books on the shortlist, but others whose tastes I trust have and I don’t think anyone is disappointed in this outcome. Congratulations to Karen and other judges who had a pleasantly difficult job of choosing among outstanding books. I gave the book a thumbs-up back in February. Other reviews include

Yrsa Sigurdardottir is interviewed in The Scotsman and is her usual charming self. One thing I didn’t know: she has a day job that sounds very demanding.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir doesn’t live by writing alone: her time isn’t all her own. Oh no: she also builds dams. And not just any damn dams. For her last major project she was technical manager on the Karahnjukar dam in remote east Iceland, the biggest of its kind in Europe and the largest construction project in Iceland’s history.

She is also angry with the bankers who infused so much money (and new class divisions) into their egalitarian society, and then let everyone down so badly in the crash that is called the “kreppa.” She’s so angry, in fact, that she won’t include them in her books, not even as victims.

A poor country until it discovered how to harness its natural resources in the 20th century, and until the Second World War highlighted its strategic importance, pre-kreppa Iceland seemed a relatively classless one too.

That’s how Sigurdardottir – who was born in 1963 – remembers it, anyway. Pharmacists were rich (not doctors or dentists) but that was about it. No particular Reykjavik suburb was more sought-after than anywhere else. “And now, with these bankers – there’s just 20 people, everyone knows who they are – everything’s ruined. Robbing charities, for God’s sake. And Britain using these laws against us like we’re terrorists.

“You see, that used to be the thing about being Icelandic. We don’t have an army, so we’ve never done anything to any other nation . . . We thought we weren’t a corrupt country, but it turns out that we were about the most corrupt one in Europe. Because we’re so tiny, you can’t find anybody who’s not involved so we’ve had to bring in someone from Sweden to investigate the banking collapse. Because they weren’t fools, these bankers: they brought all kinds of people onto the boards, like it was a way of getting themselves immunity.”

Her newest book to be translated into English, Ashes to Dust, has just been published in the UK.

As part of a project to examine the portrayal of science in crime fiction, Kerstin Bergman of Lund University looks at the work of Åsa Nilsonne, (who hasn’t been translated into English) and in the ways the books were promoted and received. She finds that Swedish writers are much less inclined than popular US books and television shows to highlight science, rather paying more attention to social issues as the backdrop and key to crimes.

An aside: as much as I find science fascinating, I am dismayed by the way it is often treated as the ghost in the machine, a deus ex machina that reduces tragic muddles and messes to a matter of clever tests and clear-cut results that are rare in actual criminal investigations (partly because science isn’t always clear in its results and largely because there simply aren’t the resources to spend such a lot of time and technology on cases; just this month Illinois passed a law that all rape kits must be submitted for DNA analysis – after thousands of kits lay on evidence room shelves for years). It leads people to expect certainty in situations where so often there isn’t any, and distracts them from social issues that are all to real.  This is particularly curious in the US, where in nearly every other situation science and scientists are viewed with a rather high level of skepticism. But when it comes to a choice between lab results and intractable social problems, the lab is a relatively clean, well-lighted place.

photo of a double helix made of books courtesy of inkyhack.

Fire and Ice

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir chats with Sydney Jones at his blog devoted to crime fiction’s relationship to settings, Scene of the Crime. She gives some coordinates for her next book to be translated into English, Ashes to Dust:

It takes place in a small fishing village on the Westmann Islands off the south coast of Iceland, an island on which a volcano erupted with much ado in 1973. Being pretty used to lava and seascapes it was an archeological dig called Pompeii of the North that intrigued me the most. The dig involves excavating houses from underneath massive layers of ash to showcase them in situ, while my story adds a fictional twist when something other than broken roof beams and rusted iron is unearthed. On every visit to the dig I was just as impressed as the first time I laid eyes on the huge, deep canal, as the blackness of the all-encompassing ash and the effect it had on sounds was intimidating, not to mention the graphic reminder of nature’s not so gentle treatment of the houses we intend to keep us safe from the elements.

For more from Yrsa about Iceland and volcanoes, see her most recent post at Murder is Everywhere, a joint blog of several authors who set mysteries outside the US.

In the Going Backward Department, the Salomonsson Agency’s newsletter reports that the first of Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, titled The Bat Man, will be published in English in 2012, after The Leopard, which is number eight in the series. Will we get the second in the series eventually? Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, Glenn Harper at International Noir Fiction gives us a preview of his experience reading Nesbø’s The Snowman.

Nesbø writes beautifully, with a style that seems simple but is interlaced with humor, metaphor, character, and menace. Though many readers will figure out who the killer is long before Detective Harry Hole does, the fun in reading the book really comes in reading the prose and watching the plot twist and turn through numerous red herrings and false leads until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Ali Karim reports thoroughly from the evening at the Swedish Embassy in London where distinguished guests were invited to discuss “Crimes of the Millennium.” One interesting tidbit: about half of the 44 (!) translations of what is called in English The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo used a literal translation of the original title: Men Who Hate Women. Ali’s report is followed by a short essay written by Barry Forshaw, author of the forthcoming biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon.

Maxine, who picked up a copy of Swedish Book Review at the big do, reports on a preview published there of Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man written by its translator, Laurie Thompson, and reminds Maxine that she much prefers the books to any of the television adaptations. The final Wallander novel will be published in the UK in 2011.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s Last Rituals

A lawyer accepts a job investigating the gruesome murder of a German student who has been studying in Iceland when the students’ parents conclude the police did a slapdash job and have probably arrested the wrong man. The student was deeply interested in witchcraft and witch trials and has collected a group of students around him who have similar interests.

Though there are to date only two Icelandic mystery writers whose works have been translated into English, they could hardly be more different, at least among Scandinavian crime writers. Yrsa’s book is lighthearted, traditional in structure and cozy in tone, with lots of family background and even a bit of romance thrown in. In spite of some gruesomeness in the murder that opens the story, on the whole it’s an amiable entertainment, and fun to read, with some nice landscape included, but it doesn’t have the narrative complexity or the depth that Arnaldur Indridason’s books have. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.