Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What do your favorite writers do less well?

I've finally found something Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did not do well: routine description.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966), second of the ten Martin Beck novels, takes Beck to Budapest to look for a missing Swedish journalist. His reflections on arrival are potted history and travel-guide boilerplate, the only time I have been tempted to skim rather than read Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Apologists might call the flat prose a comment on Beck's alienation or on the economics of tourism, but that would be out of character for Beck, who we are told enjoys travelling. Besides, alienation ought not to alienate the reader.

In any case, the bad bits were brief distractions, paling next to Sjöwall and Wahlöö's compelling portrayal of Beck's feeling at a loss in a country about which he knows little, whose language he cannot speak, investigating a case as baffling as the novel's title.

But that's a distraction from the day's question: What have your favorite writers tried that did not work?
***
The Man Who Went Up in Smoke is broadly similar to Henning Mankell's The Dogs of Riga, which takes Kurt Wallander to Latvia. Each novel is the second in its series in order of original Swedish publication.

Mankell has acknowledged Sjöwall and Wahlöö's formative influence on Swedish crime writing. Could The Dogs of Riga be in part a tribute to his great predecessors?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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41 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

This was not my favorite S&W. I read it first, wondered what the fuss was all about, waited and then read "The Laughing Policeman." That one won me over to being a fan of theirs.

I'm only reading authors and books now that I like, so have no complaints. I don't read or don't finish any that are boring or not well-written.

Of course, there's individual taste, but no criticisms here.

January 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Too long to quote???

Anyway, to answer the question: I get really irritated by agendas. Mankell's excursions to Africa really bother me. So did Elizabeth George's recent lecture that the parents are to blame for not having loved their homicidal children enough. And Rendell can get quite preachy in her Wexford novels also.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I was thinking of changing this post's title. I'm not looking for writers people don't like, but rather slips or misfires from writers they do like -- the literary equivalent of Humphrey Bogart's performance in Sabrina, you might say.

I started reading The Laughing Policeman ;ast night.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., do you like reading Manekll, George and Rendell other than their lectures?

January 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, yes. I like them very much. I will say that there are writers I love who don't irritate me quite as much or at all. R.D.Wingfield, Colin Dexter, Camilleri, that Brazilian fellow, Keating's Ghote series (I hate his "Detective" series), Van Gulik, and others.
Like Kathy, I don't read authors I don't like.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

One thing I find most interesting (and occasionally irritating) in these 'Nordic' books is that they're all so similar in tone. Doesn't anyone in that part of the world ever laugh? If I have any complaint it's that. However I do like S&W and read the books you've mentioned. Perhaps it's just that people from that part of the world can't do humor? It's all world-weary ghastliness. Maybe it's hard to laugh when it's always cold.

Didn't really answer your question. Let me try again:
I'm trying to think of my favorite writers and what they don't do well. Hmmmm...Well, Earl Emerson (a most underrated writer in my view) has trouble writing intriguing man/woman relationships. Not his strong suit.
Though his last book CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT showed some growth and facility in that area.

Lee Child, a writer I am very fond of, only seems to be able to write one sort of younger woman. But maybe that's enough.

Steve Hamilton also seems to have trouble with the man/woman thing. Where he excels is in the brilliant description of the Northern Michigan peninsula and its weather. His plotting and male characterizations are top notch.

In truth, the man/woman thing is where a lot of otherwise terrific writers let me down.

January 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

That's a good point.

In Indridasson's brilliant Erlander series, in which the writing and plots are terrific, the personal relationships of the inspector's are a mess. I don't think this is a shortcoming of the writer, but of the main character.

I would agree there's little humor in the Nordics, except for Nesser, whose Van Veeteren thinks of witty points in the midst of murder.

I would say also that in the Nordics, sometimes the method of murder is too gruesome and gory, ala the two Larssons--Asa and Stieg; maybe that's also from not enough sunlight. But that can be overdone.

And with Lee Child, whom I used to like and read, the brutality and gore got to be too much, so I stopped reading his books.

Also, I think Harlan Coben, whom I liked, went way off in his plotting and violence in a recent book, which careened into global terrorism; it was too much. I dropped that author.

And Michael Connelly, whose is at the top of my reading list, also, I thought went way off in a recent book, also, with shocking results. I'll keep reading his books though.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I also don't read authors I don't like. To put that another way, I will always find something worth noting and discussing in any author I read.

Apropos of our current subject, Colin Dexter wrote the introduction to The Fire Engine That Disappeared in the Sjöwall/Wahlöö reprints about which I've been waxing enthusiastic. (There are published by Vintage/Black Lizard in the U.S. and, apparently, Harper Perennial in the U.K. I bought a British copy yesterday.)

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I should warn you that you are talking to the author of an article about humor in Nordic crime fiction. Granted that I know of no Nordic equivalent of Donald Westlake's Dortmunder novels or Janet Evanovich, one will find occasional flashes of humor in Nordic crime writing that can be all the more delightful because they are unexpected. Håkan Nesser's novels have these especially. So do Jo Nesbø's and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's, to name three authors about whom I've written here.

In truth, the man/woman thing is where a lot of otherwise terrific writers let me down.

That's a point worth pondering. Violence, adventure and crime don't always co-exist easily. One will occasionally read a passionate plea from readers of some series or other featuring a male protagonist not to give the guy a girlfriend. The feeling is that romantic entanglement will detract from the action, I suppose.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I meant to write that violence, adventure and crime don't always co-exist easily with romance, of course.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, perhaps would-be Scandianvian authors of humorous crime novels find it hard to break into print at home because of an apparent domestic preference for dour, sombre crime writing.

I haven't read Harlan Coben, but the example you gave is just the sort of thing I had in mind when I put up this post: examples of authors trying things that, for whatever reason, don't work -- even if the effort is commendable.

January 12, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

True.

And Lee Child went off into global terrorism and war, and I think it was off and got too gory and revenge-filled and gratuitously violent.

Also, Michael Connelly, whose writing I do like a lot--and his characters--ventured into international crime and horrible, unexpected violence and damage to people close to a key character (in this way, his life changed, which a series may need to do), and I don't think it worked as well as his U.S.-domestic thrillers--police procedural or legal. I'll keep reading his books.

Child and Coben I don't think so.

January 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, your answer would have fit well under the recent discussion of whether lone-wolf protagonists make it more difficult for an author to keep a series going. It sounds as if you think Connelly has strained a bit for novelty.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes. I thought of that discussion point. Connelly probably thought he had to make some drastic changes in Harry Bosch's life and he did, however, I will not mention spoilers.

He also brought Bosch into collaboration with his half-brother, Mickey Haller, in a few books, which was a good change.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know much about Connelly, but I'd agree that a lawyer who works out of his car is a good change, all right.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Connelly recently sent Harry Bosch to Hong Kong in Nine Dragons which I felt was a bit like sending him to the Moon. That didn't work for me. I prefer to read about him on his own turf, even if it may seem too familiar.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I've never read the Nordic authors you've mentioned. For a minute there I thought the title of your article on Nordic humor was a joke. I actually laughed. Ha!
All I can say is: if you say so.

I've read Henning Mankell, Sjowall and Wahloo and Stieg Larsson, whom I didn't like. Only read a book and about a half of the trilogy. I may try the others you mentioned, but right now I am a bit weary of it all. I think I'm taking a holiday from grim noir for awhile.

(When I speak of humor, I don't, necessarily think of Janet Evanovich type humor, though I love those books. I don't know, I guess I mean, just a bit of humor laced throughout the book as par for the course. I mean, life really is absurd if you think about it.)

The man/woman thing: I think I meant just interaction between male and female that is interesting on its own, not necessarily or always having to do with romance. Very hard to do, I know. Martha Grimes can do it. So can Thomas Perry in his Jane Whitefield books. All I can say is: I know it when I read it. Not very helpful, perhaps.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Asa Larsson can do it with a partnership of equals on the police force.

Michael Connelly has done it with cop and FBI profiler and journalist and FBI profiler, and lawyers/prosecutors.

Yes, Pat was referring to what I meant about Connelly's Bosch getting into global crime, and I preferred him dealing with U.S./domestic crime solving. As I said, that didn't work for me--the Hong Kong aspect, nor the killing off of certain characters.

But I'll keep reading Connelly.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Thrillers often have plot weaknesses as the authors struggle to outdo the latest product. I read Child because I like his protagonist.

I didn't miss Nordic humor.

As to the male-female thing: Oh, yes. That is a fascinating topic. You can argue that men are just by nature too straightforward and action-oriented. Hence they simplify the relationship with women down to the basic instinct. At best you get some lip service to the "liberated female", perhaps so as not to turn off women readers.
But on the other hand, female authors give the main role to a woman and then set out to prove that men are dumb and dull and totally inadequate pricks.
Of course, the excessive attention to the male-female relationship in the mystery genre really belongs to romance writers changing horses (i.e.Evanovich).

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, authors often send series detectives across borders, and I always wonder, at least briefly, how realistic the device is. Most recently, I've read The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, in which Sjowall and Wahloo sent Martin Beck from Sweden to Hungary to track down a missing journalist.

I've always had the idea that American authors did this far less than Europeans did. Viewers talk about a television series jumping the shark. Maybe series novels can do it, too.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I don't mean to suggest that the gloom in Nordic crime novels is an illusion. I've noticed in my recent Sjowall and Wahloo reading, for example, how often characters wave their hands helplessly or survey the scene gloomily, and so on. Adverbs of gloom abound. All I suggest is that flashes of humor can and do break through. In Sjowall and Wahloo, this will take the form of cross-talk in which each character might be confused about what the other is saying. And don't forget Kristianssen and Kvant.

There is no need to feel guilty about not finishing the Stieg Larsson trilogy. In fact, you should feel proud of resisting the hype. The books have reached such phenomenal status that people feel they have to read them. They don't. There is no such thing as a must-read.

I may have more to say on the man-woman thing in a subsequent post. I've been reading lots of Dashiell Hammett, so naturally The Thin Man comes to mind. Nick and Nora Charles functioned well together on their odd fantasy world.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I notice how quickly romance creeps into a discussion that started about professional partnerships.

I don't recall Helene Tursten's Irene Huss having particular problems with her colleagues, but she does make domestic issues part of the story -- much better and more convincingly in The Glass Devil, third of her novels to be translated from Swedish, than in Detective Inspector Huss, the first.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Helene Tursten, mentioned above, makes great play of making her protagonist's domestic life part of the novel. Fair play to her; she's taking a realistic approach to her genre, and domestic responsibilities might well weigh more heavily on women than on men. Ideology and politics aside, the question is how well she integrates this into a novel filed in the shops under "crime" rather than under "domestic Scandinavian realism." In the third of her books to be translated, she does this well by the simple device of subordinating the main domestic subplot. Said subplot is accorded much importance, but more as background; Tursten was not constrained to see it through to its dramatic conclusion.

In the first of her books to appear in English, on the other hand, the domestic subplot had its beginning, its complication, its climax and its denouement, side-by-side and in lock step with the main plot. This made the domestic side feel didactic and forced.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

To be fair to Bosch, he had never been to Hong Kong before, and as I have only been once - as a tourist - I was impressed with Connelly's ability to capture that 'stranger in a strange land' feeling that I experienced going to such a different culture for the first time and using it well as a thriller device. Nevertheless, as a fan of the series, it was too massive a step outside the 'comfort zone' for me. I enjoy reading about the way Bosch 'thinks' about his mysteries much more than how he responds to their associated threats. Nine Dragons was too much like a Hong Kong action film for my tastes, though it may have worked just right for others.

Regarding Nordic 'humor', I recently read Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End by Leif G W Persson. It was first published in Sweden in 2002 and covers several issues that appeared later in Steig Larsson's trilogy but in a very unique way. The overall tone of the writing is satirical to say the least especially when relating the cynical thoughts of some characters lodged behind their 'professional' veneers. Highly recommended, though the 'humor' can be very creepy!

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Pat, you may just have sold me on on Leif G.W. Persson. Thanks.

I visited Hong Kong twenty years ago, and I can well understand the attraction it has for an outsider. That means I can sympathize with Connelly's desire to write about it. But does sending a Los Angeles cop to Hong Kong smack to much of fantasy and adventure? Nothing wrong with fantasy and adventure, of course, but do they work in a relatively realistic police story?

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Only a portion of the book was set in Hong Kong which, for me, felt like switching from a text-based read to an almost graphic novel style in mid-stream, then back again. I think if an entire book were set in Hong Kong allowing for more background development, it might be a more enjoyable reading experience. But that wasn't the storyline here, so I can understand the dilemma. It's nice to have Harry back where he belongs. I am looking forward to revisiting him in LA in The Reversal. Michael Connelly is a terrific writer and I've enjoyed his non-series books just as much as the Harry Bosch series.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder what the classic solutions are for maintaining interest in a long-running series with a lone-wolf protagonist: Get him a girlfriend. Kill off his girlfriend. Send him to Hong Kong.

I always thought authors of police novels set in France or Italy could get away with moving their protagonists to different parts of the country because of the nationwide organization of those countries' police forces. Where such a situation does not exist, the author must confront the possibility of straining readers' credulity.

Jo Nesbo has set books overseas, but these have yet to be translated into English. It would be interesting to see how he handled the challenge.

January 13, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Irene Huss is fine, good relationships with colleagues, and happy family--except for teenage angst.

And Helen Tursten writes the series, and there is no putdown of male characters.

Harry Bosch's foray to Hong Kong annoyed me for all of the reasons stated above. I was glad when Michael Connelly brought him back to California. "The Reversal" with Bosch and Mickey Haller is an excellent book. (And, yes, I like Bosch's thinking, which is fascinating. I didn't see much of that in Hong Kong.)

And Connelly does write well about equal, respectful working relationships between women and men, including in dangerous situations.

He did make changes in Bosch's life other than send him to Hong Kong, which resulted in a different family structure for him. (I do not want to write spoilers, so won't go into it, but it is elaborated on in "The Reversal.")

There are many women writers who write about women protagonists, who do not put down male characters. Sue Grafton doesn't do that nor does Marcia Muller, whose Sharon McCone respects all of her colleagues, and is happily married.

Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky, who writes about V.I. Warshawski, are long-time married and apparently happy.

January 13, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Helene Tursten did a nice job with the teenage angst in "The Glass Devil," less so in the book published in English as "Detective Inspector Huss." I wonder if this was a conscious effort on her part, a bid to improve in one book what she had done in an earlier one.

I wonder where Fred Vargas' Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, with his on-again, off-again yearning for his Camille, fits into this discussion.

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

Well, Adamsberg and Camille are not work colleagues or partners. They're in an on-again, off-again relationship, which has bizarre twists and turns.

Adamsberg is enamored of her, but does not treat her well. He cannot fix his personal relationships nor do the right thing.

And as the books go on, he has an important reason to keep his relationship with Camille on an even keel.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's true; they're not colleagues or partners. Adamsberg's female colleague Retancourt plays a prominent role in Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, but I'm not sure where that fits into this discussion, either. Little about Vargas is conventional in crime-fiction terms.

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

I laughed my head off when I read about one scene with Betancourt (talk about humor!) in that book, and I kept laughing about it (when she helps Adamsberg hide from police).

Yes, Adamsberg treats women colleagues respectfully, even though he messes up his personal relationships.

Fred Vargas, in my thinking, is brilliant, and goes where no writer goes in her creativity, and I am willing to go wherever that takes me.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read at least one stinging criticism of the Retancourt scene's alleged unreality and, to tell you the truth, it was difficult to picture her hiding him that way. But the scene worked for me. I suppose it had a kind of fantasy aspect.

I cannot think of any crime writer remotely similar to Fred Vargas. Where will she take you? To Canada, but mostly around France. Each one of her books seems to focus on a different region: Normandy, Brittany, a village of Paris.

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

I was using "take me" metaphorically, and meaning where her plots would go, her intellectual creativity, where it'll take the reader...often her convoluted yet brilliant routes to a solution.

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

And, the person who criticized the Betancourt/Adamsberg scene does not have a sense of humor, and is judging as if it's a court of law rather than a story, a work of fiction, which can use any plot device--except the supernatural or a lightning bolt striking down the police at the right moment.

And it sure was a creative way of hiding a character, like none other.

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

I like Helen Tursten very much. Yes, she handles both male and female characters very well and very fairly.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I'll give the critic of the Retancourt/Adamsberg a break on the no-sense-of-humor charge because I don't have the criticism in front of me. It was a creative way of hiding a character, all right, and I think it just strained that one reader's credulity.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I figured you were using the expression metaphorically, but your comment nonetheless reminded me of one of the notable features of Vargas' novels: their consideration of regional peculiarities of different parts of France.

January 14, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Tursten does a good job on the domestic front, at least in The Glass Devil, just as Stuart Kaminsky did in his Abe Lieberman novels. I don't know what their treatment of their characters' domestic lives have in common other than that both authors made them interesting and made them matter.

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

Making them matter is crucial. Actually, a policeman without an off-duty life is an abnormality, a partial man or woman.

January 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Making them matter and subordinating them to the main plot at the same time -- or at least appearing to do so. In other words, magic. Or tautolgy: The key to writing a good story is to write a good story.

January 15, 2011  

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