Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adverbs of gloom, or Humor in Nordic crime writing

Discussion here has turned once again to Nordic crime writers and their reputed lack of humor — on a post called What do your favorite writers do less well?, no less.

On the one hand, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö elevated the adverb to heights unseen in crime fiction since the Black Mask days, and those adverbs are generally gloomy. Characters are forever gesturing helplessly and slumping dejectedly. On the other hand are Kvant and Kristiansson:

"Outside police headquarters on Kungsholmsgatan stood two persons who definitely wished they had been somewhere else. They were dressed in police caps and leather jackets with gilded buttons, they had shoulder belts diagonally across their chests and carried pistols and batons at their waists. Their names were Kristiansson and Kvant.

"A well-dressed, elderly woman came up to them and asked, `Excuse me, but how do I get to Hjärnesgatan?'

"`I don't know, madam,' Kvant said. `Ask a policeman. There's one standing over there.'

"The woman gaped at him.

"`We're strangers here ourselves,' Kristiansson put in quickly, by way of explanation."

(Kristiansson and Kvant are officers in Solna whose eagerness to avoid work takes them over the municipal border into neighboring Stockholm and smack into the scene of the novel's central crime. Their ignorance of the lay of the land is thus plausible.)

Read more about humor in Nordic crime fiction in Mystery Readers Journal.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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45 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

Very good article on Nordic humor.

I have found a lot of humor in books from the colder climates.

As you said, Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren is humorous. When I read "Mind's Eye," recently, I would be in the midst of reading about a gruesome murder, and then I'd read a thought or statement by Van Veeteren, and think, "What did he just say"? And then I'd burst out laughing--at unexpected places.

Even with the "dour" Erlander, I've seen wit, not often, but sometimes.

And Sjowall and Wahloo are funny sometimes. The criminals in the book about the locked-room mystery are nutty and hilarious. That book has many twists and turns, irony and funny lines.

As was mentioned in another post, Yrsa Siggurdadottir's books have humorous lines, too.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yrsa probably has the closet thing to American-style crime-fiction humor I can think of, with her bit about the massage in My Soul to Take. And Nesser lived in New York for years. Perhaps this helps account for the humor in his writing.

Humor is not the first thing one associated with Sjowall and Wahloo, but it is decidedly present in their books.

Parenthetically, I wonder if Nordic readers tend to find the same things funny that we do.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

That's a good question.

I can't help but think they find Nesser's wit quite sharp, as it is. His humor is brilliant, not just funny, and is sometimes a shock.

And I'm sure Swedish readers laughed at the criminals in Sjowall/Wahloo's locked-room mystery. They're too absurd to be skimmed over and not laughed about.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have a little less than six books left before I get to The Locked Room. For now, I'll content myself with the thought that Swedish readers laughed at Kristiansson and Kvant .

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Good, then we'll have blogs on the others in the series.

I am going to try to read most of the others this year, but I feel a need to read a Camilleri coming on. Talk about wit! I laughed for days about "The Smell of the Night," and a scene with two parrots--one human, one avian.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My tendency would be to read another book or two in the series before I take a break. But I will try to make the occasional non-Sjowall and Wahloo post.

I recommend The Track of Sand, the most recently translated of the Camilleri novels.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Mediations said...

The Swedish Martin Beck TV series can be very funny. The interplay between Martin Beck and Gunvald Larsson is often punctuated by humour and he spends some time most episodes on the balcony outside his flat, sharing a drink with his eccentric neighbour, played by Ingvar Hirdwall.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can well imagine Gunvald Larsson's peevishness as a source of humor. The eccentric neighbor has not appeared in the first four books (I'm about a third of the way throug The Laughing Policeman.) Is the neighbor a creation of the TV series? And is the series available in English?

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Mediations said...

As far as I can remember, the neighbour is a TV invention. The DVDs from number 17 onwards have English subtitles.

The show is very well cast. Martin Beck is played by Peter Haber, with world-weary shrugs and expressive silences, and Gunvald quite brilliantly by bad-boy actor Mikael Persbrandt.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't care for Yrsa. Read the first one and found it very amateurish.

The quote above (I always love your quotes, Peter) is an excellent example of humor. Two policemen who always try to get out of work in a police procedural? And the scene is well done also.
Wingfield's Frost is hilarious at times as an utterly disreputable detective. Nonetheless, Frost always gets his killers. An exceptionally good series.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

Just bought Jar City on your rec. No jokes so far, but its still pretty good.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, you may have to look long and hard for jokes in Jar City. Silence of the Grave begins with a comic set-up, though. Grimly comic, but still comic.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I'm sure articles have been written about Kristiansson and Kvant as examples of S&W's method and as expressions of comic archtypes. They try to avoid work -- and they stumble, purely by accident, on the most important sorts of work.

My only criticism of the scene -- and it's exceedingly minor -- is the by way of explanation -- unnecessary to my eyes, but perhaps S+W or their readers or Swedish readers in general needed a bit of direction along with their deadpan.

I haven't read the Frost books. Where should I start, if I decide to read them?

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Mediations, I don't know those actors. I can well imagine that Gunvald would be an enjoyable role for an actor who liked a bit of showing off.

I wonder why the producers would give Beck a neighbor. Maybe a way to get Beck on screen more and to put his thoughts before the viewers.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

Could the criticism the Swedish mysteries lack humor be aimed more at the over all mood?

Fine, out of a few hundred pages you can quote a funny line but if the rest of the book is dark and depressing does the humor matter?

Isn't "the lack of humor" less about the writers' words and more about the books effect on the readers' mood?

My favorite section in the mystery world is the light or comedic mystery. While I consider Sjowall and Wahloo good mystery writers worthy of their fame, I would never recommend their books to a reader looking for another Jasper Fforde, Gregory Mcdonald, Craig Rice, or Norbert Davis.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I read them out of sequence and have no total recall. I think A TOUCH OF FROST is the first. The Bantam editions list that first. There are also FROST AT CHRISTMAS, NIGHT FROST, HARD FROST, WINTER FROST, and A KILLING FROST. Wingfield did not have great success and eventually stopped writing. A great pity. A fine character.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've watched a few episodes of the television series based on the Frost books.

OK, I'll try to remember to look for Wingfield the next time I visit Whodunit here in Philadelphia.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael, I'm sure the observations about Swedish mysteries stems from the overall mood. All I suggest is that the grim overall mood makes the occasional humor stand out all the more.

"The Laughing Policeman" is especially rich in humor, which may account for its having won the Edgar in America and its having been made into an American movie. It might work better than, say, Arnaldur Indridason's "Jar City" for a reader of comic mysteries.

Finally, I love Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes books, and I'm a Norbert Davis fan, especially of Max Latin and Bail Bond Dodd. I've also read one of the stories Craig Rice cowrote with Stuart Palmer, featuring both Hildegarde Withers and John J. Malone. I'd like to get hold of the complete collection.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And one can't forget Donald Westlake and Dortmunder, of course.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Jasper Fforde: my idol. I love his work. Both the Nursery Crimes unit books ("Porridge, you know you want it.") and the Thursday Next series. Michael, I do agree with everything you've said in your post. One humorous line per 100 pages, doesn't make for much ha-ha in my book. It's the 'mood' of these books that is so often grim, grim, GRIM! You have to be in the mood, or the writing has to be outstanding enough.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

Peter, "People vs Withers & Malone" is available at Amazon.

Peter, Westlake is the perfect example for this discussion as in Dortmunder vs Parker.

Yvette, be on the look out for Fforde's next Thursday Next book. "One of Our Thursdays is Missing" is set to be released March 8th.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I wouldn't say that Indridasson's books are funny; they are more dour and introspective, somewhat despondent. But there are traces of humor here and there. But that is not a main characteristic.

However, "The Locked Room," by Sjowall and Wahloo has a pair of zany criminals who provide some comedic relief.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette:

You have to be in the mood, or the writing has to be outstanding enough.

Agreed, and in come cases the writing outstanding: the present authors and Arnaldur Indridason, to note two examples. And just as one humorous line per hundred pages does not make for much ha-ha, a "dejectedly" or a "gloomily" here and there does not make a book a downer. That's the case with Sjowall and Wahloo.

I've read just Jasper Fforde's Nursery Crimes books and have written about them. I eagerly await more books in the series.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Michael. I'll look for it on ABE.

I've read all the Dortmunders, including the novella "Walking Around Money," and all the Parkers except Butcher's Moon. I'm a fan of both.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, The Laughing Policeman abounds in high spirits as well, though it contains somber scenes, too.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Michael: Yes, I'm on pins and needles waiting for the next Thursday Next! Have you read SHADES OF GREY?

Two other books I'm especially looking forward to: THE SENTRY by Robert Crais - I've heard nothing but good things.

ONE WAS A SOLDIER by Julia Spencer-Fleming.

Peter: I have read the Sjowall and Wahloo books and recommend them highly. So I'm not averse (adverse?) to gloom. Ha! I also like Henning Mankell who is evern gloomier.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm tempted to say Arnaldur out-glooms Mankell, but I can't quite go that far because his Erlendur is somehow not prone to self-pity. And Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole seems to have a fair amount of slef-knowledge for someone who's so messed up.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I haven't been able to read the Kurt Wallender series due to the despair and gloom, although I do like the PBS versions.

However, Indridasson's books are among my favorites, and a series that at the top of my preferred reading list, i.e., I'll actually buy his books from the Book Depository to give them faster.

I didn't find "The Laughing Policeman," funny, although there were humorous lines or observations. I did not laugh out loud as I did with "The Locked Room," or with Hakan Nesser's books.

Have not tried Nesbo yet, but his books will be cracked this year and soon.

If I need humor, I'll go to Camilleri or a few others.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

Yvette, I tried to read SHADES OF GREY but fell out of the mood. I keep meaning to try it again.

What did you think of it?

Still waiting for THE LAST DRAGONSLAYER to make it over here to the US and us.

I like Crais but can't really get excited by him.

Have not tried any Julia Spencer-Fleming. Peter keeps finding books to break into my all ready too long line of waiting to be read. But I'll download a sample at Peter's favorite spot. Any title you like best?

January 14, 2011  
Blogger michael said...

This would probably be a post all in its own, but who is the best comedy mystery writer for each country?

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Mankell is the gloomiest of the authors whose names have come up here. I heard him read once, and he was lively and entertaining. He even cracked a joke or two.

Arnaldur is simply one of the best, gloom or no gloom. And it's interesting that I detect more humor in Sjowall and Wahloo's fourth book than in their first, and you find more in their tenth than in their fourth. Maybe they included more humor as the series went on.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Michael and Yvette:

I've read one Crais novel. Its introduction was both funny and clever: Elvis Cole welcomes a client in his office -- while standing on his head.

If you’re willing to read what book marketers call Y.A., Eoin Colfer’s Half Moon Invstigations might fit your requirements for humorous crime fiction.

January 14, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

That is interesting about Sjowall and Wahloo's books, that the humor increases.

And I have heard Henning Mankell, and read his blog and interviews with him and he is not like Wallender. He is lively and energetic in demeanor and tone.

I have read some of his stand-alones and plan to continue to do so.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, hey, but Arnaldur is a jolly sort, too, at least when he's having his picture taken.

January 15, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

How fun! (photo)

This post--and the cover displayed--led me to search for my copy of "The Laughing Policeman," which I found with two friends who were both reading it.

This led to a discussion of Sjowall and Wahloo, which has brought two new fans.

This means, however, that I will probably be buying the various books in the series, and lending them to friends--the virtue of paper books, but the downfall of the budget.

All is worth it in the drive for new readers of Sjowall and Wahloo or Camilleri, which is my next series to introduce to others.

January 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Arnaldur Indridasson. Had a go-around with the library on their shelving his books under A, when the publisher intended to go by Indridasson. After considerable puzzlement, I decided that this was an Icelandic peculiarity. Should it be allowed the screw up the rest of the world?
Note another peculiarity: unlike other Scandinavian countries that use the father's name, Iceland uses the mother's. Some logic in that, since you can only be certain about the mother. On the other hand, having thus raised women a notch in their estimation, they then decreed that the child must only use its given name. Hence he is Arnaldur, and let's forget that he's Indrida's son.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Joe Barone said...

Oh my. You make me want to go back and read these books again.

January 15, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Certainly among the funniest: Mortimer's Rumpole series.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I know I've recommended the recent Vintage/Black Lizard editions of Sjowall and Wahloo, but other editions could well be readily available at secondhand bookshops, if one is convenient to you. And you could always order secondhand copies from ABE books, which has the additional virtue of giving business to independent bookshops.

No surprise you should wind up discussing Sjowall and Wahloo with your friends. Few authors are capable of generating as much discussion, I think.

The photo captures one of the joys of attending conventions: the chance to hobnob -- and take pictures.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Joe, this is my first time reading them. It's a pleasure to be able to make such a rich discovery.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., oddly enough I associate Mortimer and Rumpole with humor of a particularly poignant kind, whether because of a pathetic backyard fascist who commits suicide after Rumpole argues successfully before the court that he, in fact, pathetic and not threat, or because of one story that climaxes with a comic undercutting of Rumpole's own ambitions and self-regard.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Icelandic in fact uses a patronymic or a matronymic. Yrsa's father, for example, is Sigurd, presumbaly.

My local library also shelves Arnaldur under A, whereas most bookstores stick him in I. What do we learn from this and from your experience? That librarians pay more attention than most people to getting things right, a commendable trait in this degenerate age.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Michael, Julia Spencer-Fleming's series MUST be read in order - it's one of those. I'd try the first one IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER. I think you'll be impressed. It was her debut a few years ago and won every award.

I loved SHADES OF GREY, though it took me a while to get into the story. But once I was in, I was IN! Picked it as one of my favorites of 2010. I am in awe of Jasper Fforde's imagination.

I would recommend, if you're inclined, trying these three Robert Crais books: LULLABY LAND first, INDIGO SLAM second, then L.A. REQUIEM third. It might change your mind about him.

OR, you might try last year's amazing THE FIRST RULE, a book told from Joe Pike's point of view.

This year's book is supposed to be even better if that's possible: THE SENTRY.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Is the adverb 'dejectedly' not somewhat superfluous when used to complement 'slumping'?
Perhaps 'playfully', 'resignedly', 'shyly', or even coquettishly might be useful and necessary qualifications but 'dejectedly' seems to be the default accompanying adverb for slumping, surely?

January 26, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, one could slump in elated exhaustion (or exhausted elation) after scoring the winning goal in an All-Ireland final. But my example was made up. Just now, though, I found stupidly, mournfully and exhaustedly in the first five pages of one story in the Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, a sequence less likely to occur in a story published today.

January 26, 2011  

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