Sunday 25 January 2009


Seems like Open Book got in ahead of the wave (see here). Friday was a big day for Scandinavian Crime in the broadsheet arts sections, with the Independent featuring this piece by Boyd Tonkin on Stieg Larsson's success and the Guardian running 'Move Over Ian Rankin' by John Crace here.

Tonkin had already discussed the Nordic crime wave back in December (here) when he noted that 'many gifted (Scandinavian) novelists had chosen to adopt the form (crime novel) and push its boundaries'. Contrast that to the Guardian's sidebar to Crace's piece, which presented a roster of writers and informed us with some condescension that Mankell wrote 'serious plays and novels' before he 'hit it big time' with Wallender, and that Peter Hoeg 'started out as a serious writer before Miss Smilla'. It's the Guardian's 'Telegraph Crossword' theory of crime fiction rearing its head again, see here for an explantion. They also described Wallender as a 'hard-drinking...angry everyman,' ...there is a difference between heavy drinking and hard drinking (and I'm not sure Wallender qualifies on either count--Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, now he's hard-drinking!) just as there is between angry and morose.

I doubt Crace actually wrote the sidebar, especially since he wondered, quite rightly, why Britain lagged behind Europe in appreciating Nordic crime in translation, and put it down to that 'old national weakness for effortless superiority combined with instinctive parochialism.' But it was nice to see his paper's sidebar immediately prove his point, plus they'd already trumpeted the same prejudice in their '1,000 novels everyone must read' supplements that very week (see my take here, or scroll down to the previous post on IT). The sidebar on the 'husband and wife' team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (actually, of course, wife and husband, that's Maj on the right) mentioned that their Martin Beck series is still in print, but 'almost certainly overdue a revivial'. In fact, the series has just been reissued over the past two years, in uniform editions, by Harper Collins. I wrote the introduction to Murder At The Savoy, other introductions were by the likes of Michael Connelly, Michael Ondaatje, and Val McDermid.

The key introduction was provided by Henning Mankell himself for the first novel in the series, Roseanna, and gave a good background to the whole Scandinavian crime phenomenon. It's important, because Martin Beck lies at the centre of a cross-fertilization which helps understand both where Nordic crime comes from and why it's so popular here. Mankell noted how British cozies, and their Swedish imitations, were immensely popular before, in the 1960s, influenced by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Sjowall and Wahloo decided to do something new, and dissect Swedish society while they were doing it. Beck's own sombre character was in marked contrast to McBain's Steve Carella, though like McBain they populated the supporting cast with colourful characters. This is the field in which Mankell, and many of the others of this new wave (Fossum and Indridasson in particular) plow.

The Beck novels had a huge influence in both American and British crime fiction; it's evident in John Harvey, Ian Rankin, Connelly and many others, crucially, it provided a way for British writers in particular to move into a more hard-boiled territory without adopting American-style private dick heroes. If Inspector Morse indicated a breaching of the cozy puzzle by the police procedural (Morse of course is both hard drinking and angry when he's not listening to opera), Rebus, Resnick, Mark Bellingham's Tom Thorne and Graham Hurley's Joe Faraday all reflected with a keen eye on British society and it made all of them as morose as Beck.

Tonkin noted that where Larsson follows Mankell (and Beck) is in starting with the idea that the 'welfare state has been corrupted from the top'. But it's surprising that he then asks 'where are the native stars of crime who might expose the broken parts of this society and convert them into electrifying entertainment? Let's hope, and search, for a home-grown Larsson'. It's an interesting question, because in answer to the first part, there are, as noted, many British writers dissecting their society with the same sort of acuity as Mankell. But it's the second part of the equation, the 'electrifying entertainment', where Larsson is slightly different, and more difficult to follow, in two ways.

First is the unique interplay of his two heroes. One is a cynical, but not disillusioned journalist, whom you might argue is based as much on Per Wahloo as on Larsson himself. The other is a young woman almost completely disaffected and at odds with Swedish society, abused by it, yet able to manipulate it in ways the older, powerful generation can't quite imagine. Sarah Weinman perceptively suggested (here) Martyn Waites as a British writer who's done something similar, and Waites' books do feature a cynical ex-journo, diaffected youngsters, and hackers, though his scope might be more limited than Larssons, not least because of the Newcastle setting (though that's as close to Scandinavia as England gets!).

But the other thing Larsson does is work with narrative space, in multiple points of view; I compared him to Dumas in this essay. His books may be over-long, but his talent resembles someone like Richard North Patterson, whose approach to issues is somewhat more simplistic, but who within the omnisicient narration manages to assume multiple viewpoints, and keep his characters and story moving at great and involving length. This is something which is not uncommon in the 'mainstream', or what the Guardian might call 'serious' writers, and its the ability to draw the big picture without inflicting authorial taste on the audience that is Larsson's real gift. His authorial aims sneak in while his characters move in their own worlds.

The question of translation in general is an interesting one. Of course one reason so many fewer translations are published here is that the English-language market is so large, and books written by Americans don't require extensive translation. The predominance of Scandinavian crime is partly because Mankell is so good, partly because Scandinavian society has many of the same reserves and divisions as British, and partly because Scandinavian prose translates so well into English. Remember too that there are lots of good writers because the Nordic countries are the world's great readers: proportionately selling many times what books sell here, and keeping far more newspapers and magazines alive.

The current wave is a case of follow the leader, without Mankell, no Larsson (or Fossum, or Indridasson, or Theorin, or Jungstedt) and Larsson's success has made publishers search twice as hard for the next marketable Nordic. In this, the market has changed in 40 years; Martin Beck's success led to publication in English for the Dane, Anders Bodelsen, but I can't think of many others, and the most popular and critically successful Swedish crime books, the spy novels of Jan Guillou, remain strangely under-published here. Harvill, over the years, have been an outstanding publisher of fiction (not just crime) in translation, and in the crime fiction, smaller publishers like Bitter Lemon and Gallic struggle to make an impact, even in the same review sections that wonder why we don't read more foreign fiction.

It's great to see such good fiction being translated into English, and ever better that it is attracting so much attention. But it remains puzzling to me why, when contemporary British crime writers have done so much to move their genre into more challenging territory, it takes two Swedes to get British critics to notice.

1 comment :

Barbara said...

Ow! Perfect touche in that last paragraph. A hit, a palpable hit. Well done.