Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Finnish crime novel that's all deadpan, all the time

I like my cold, gray Nordic crime fiction sprinkled with a bit of humor, and Harri Nykanen obliges in Raid and the Blackest Sheep.

Deadpan humor is plentiful in crime fiction from countries in the Scandinavian cultural sphere, but the first third of this Finnish crime novel  is all deadpan, and the effect is novel, as if a joke is liable to break out at any moment.

One nice touch: Further evidence that Nordic writers' are willing to poke fun at their countries' reputations for vigorous good health. Here's Helsinki Police Lt. Jansson moping his way through a stay at a health center:
"The decision to stay in bed had nothing to do with a hangover. Having only drunk moderately, he felt reasonably alert. He simply had no desire to submit to the hazing of another physical therapist. `Doesn't Jansson's back bend?'  `Jansson, tuck in your belly.' `Jansson, breathe deeply.'"
That's a nice companion piece to the stone-massage ordeal Iceland's Yrsa Sigurðardóttir puts her protagonist through in My Soul to Take.
***
Raid and the Blackest Sheep come from the commendable newish publishing house Ice Cold Crime, an American publishing house dedicated to translating and promoting Finnish fiction,

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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35 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

For whatever reason (probably the authors I happened to have chosen to read), I prefer Icelandic crime fiction to Swedish. I like the idea of the deadpan aspects you describe here. Would you say this is more like Iceland (Indridason, Sigurdsdottir) or Sweden (Wahloo, Nesbo, Larsen) in general tone?

If Nykanen comes up with a particularly entertaining phrase unique to his setting, would it be referred to as a Finnish line?

(Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

June 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure I've read enough Nordic crime fiction to be able to discern national tendencies. Sweden is the big country on the block, and Finns are occasionally looked down on in Sweden, so one gets that sort of thing.

Another Finnish crime writer I've mentioned here, Tapani Bagge, goes in for deadpan, so maybe that's a tendency in Finnish crime writing. I'd say Harri Nykanen is a little closer to Sjowall and Wahloo in tone than he is to some of the others.

I have a review of Nesbo's The Snowman coming up this Sunday in my newspaper. It incorporates material from my interview with Nesbo in which he suggests there may be a general similarity in tone among Nordic crime writers though no necessary similarity in style.

I've made many lame jokes about finish line, change for a Finn and so on, so you need not apologize. And you've put Nesbo in the wrong nation. He's Norwegian.

June 23, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

They definitely need a better title. Anything with sheep in it is unintentionally comic which I cant imagine is what they're going for.

June 23, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You think maybe a Finn could beat a Swede and an Ulster Presbyterian in that contest?

I'm about two-thirds through the book now. I don't know that the book's Finnish title means, but the "black sheep" part is relevant to the opening scenes. And no, those scenes have nothing to do with sheep.

June 23, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Finns are funny. I'm not sure why or how but they are. You probably havent seen the Dudesons on MTV but I think they're fairly typical Finns.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't believe I've ever met a real, live Finn. But this book, which I've since finished, has a different feel to it from other Nordic crime novels I've read. I could easily imagine it as a black-and-white movie with stark exteriors and quiet jokes, the sort of move that gets described as "small."

Its premise turns out to be quite somber, but, since the jokes are all deadpan, the distance between the humor and the serious stuff is not so great. I think I'll try to find more by this guy.

June 24, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Anything with sheep in it is unintentionally comic

I wonder did Adrian find Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep unintentionally funny? Maybe, he did. I certainly did. I wasn't surprised when they named the movie version Blade Runner.

I see the original Finnish title of Nykänen's book is Raid ja mustempi lammas. I've seen this translated as Raid and the Blacker Sheep, the idea being that Raid is a black sheep and the other main character is an even blacker sheep. That's clumsy but at least it makes sense. Turning it into the blackest sheep doesn't help matters any. They should have kept the original or else started from scratch.

June 24, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't know Nykaenen. Will keep an eye out. I do like Indridason, but not Sigurdsdottir. I read her first book, and it seemed very strained and immature.

As for national characteristics: It's possible, of course, that a common heritage makes writers focus on certain topics. The Irish may well also fall into that category. Or it may be that a lot of people jump on the bandwagon of success.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter I haven't read me any Finn-fiction but if its humour is anything like that of filmmaker, Aki Kaurismaki, then I'm sure I'd love it.
If you haven't seen any Kaurismaki then his 'Hamlet Does Business' might be a good starting off point, though 'Ariel' is my current favourite of the 10 or so I've seen.
his soundtracks are wonderful, too; you'll find yourself loving his polkas as much as the Link Wray style rock'n'roll

Very dry, very deadpan: a World of Buster Keatons

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'll agree with Adrian that it's hard to hear the word "sheep" without smiling. I don't know much about Philip K. Dick, but I do know he was no stickler for neat, snappy titles.

Having now finished the book, I'd say "blacker sheep" makes better sense.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., it could also be that those of us who read only in translation get a sharply circumscribed view of a country's writing.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

a World of Buster Keatons

TCK, that's a big selling point for me. Thanks.

June 24, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Reading in translation:
No, I don't think so, at least not for genre fiction. Poetry, and even drama, may be another matter. But there are, of course, bad translators, just as there are some fabulous ones. As a rule, you can tell which is which.
Keep in mind that genre prose doesn't deal with very hazy, complex stuff. People talk and things happen. Not much you can do to that to screw it up.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., my post was unclear. I meant that we who read English can, of course, read only what publishers choose to have translated. There may be zany Swedes and slapstick-loving Finns writing crime fiction as yet untranslated and so unavailable to us.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you've rolled your eyes at religion-tinged plots in some Nordic crime novels. Plots involving Satanism (or rather, the fear thereof) were a current in Nordic crime fiction for a few years starting in the mid or late 1990s. Jo Nesbo wrote a book with such a theme. So did Helene Tursten and, as you mentioned, Asa Larsson. Witchcraft of the past figures in one of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's books, and there may have been others as well.

What was responsible for this regional quirk, I don't know.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

Dont forget that other sf classic, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up.

Good serious book, daft title.

June 24, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

I read her first book, and it seemed very strained and immature

Peter, I haven't read Sigurdsdottir, but rather than hear IJ call it 'strained' and 'immature', I'd rather hear IJ provide some evidence backing up that opinion. It wouldn't take anything special: just a damning sentence or two or a paragraph from one of Sigurdsdottir's books would be sufficient.

But without specific examples, accusations of strainedness or immaturity just sound like a lot of hot air. Screw abstractions, give me details.

TCK mentions Kaurismäki. Not a great fan myself but I would feel like an ignoramus if I hadn't seen at least a couple of his movies. Leningrad Cowboys Go America is available on YouTube at the moment. If you haven't seen it already, Peter, you could do a lot worse than watch it.

Off topic, but I'd be curious to know what a movie buff like TCK would think of Mario Bava movies. Bava's been called the Italian Hitchcock. Not quite an appropriate title. In terms of plot and characterisation Hitchcock is far ahead of him, but in terms of visual flair Hitchcock doesn't even come close to Bava.

Have you ever seen the Bava movie Cani Arribiati (1974), Peter? It's about crime, and it's Italian so it's definitely beyond borders. Still, I know how busy you are, so recommending anything to you is an appaling act of vanity. Sorry about that.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

solo, I think 'Blood and Black Lace' is a Masterpiece; I'm not usually a fan of 'style for style sake' but I don't think I've ever known a director to make as effective a use of colours as Bava did in this film.

'Black Sunday' is another great although I haven't seen it in 20 years or so so can't say whether its better
(there's also a great black and white 'Hitchcockian' film whose name escapes me at the moment)

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I just came across a reference to sheep in Declan Hughes' The Color of Blood. Will I ever be able to take that animal seriously again?

Sheep also make a bloody appearance in Dust Devils. And I have to say that The Sheep Look Up is now one of my favorite titles.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In I.J.'s defense, she made a mere passing remark. I thus hold her to lower standards than I would if she made such a judgment in a formal review.

I don't know Bava. Thanks.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

With apologies for lowering the tone of the thread, but the book title begs the question: Are there any sheep shaggers in 'The Sheep Look Up'

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hitchcock set such a high bar, and reviewers are so promiscuous with adjectives, that I generally blanche when I see a movie called Hitchcockian. But I'll try to keep an open mind.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Its a relatively slight story
Its all about the telling
and the style of the telling.

When it comes to 'Hitchcockian', there's none better than Claude Chabrol
Although he's probably more interested in his characters
and the French middle-classes

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I thought sheep always sought out the high (moral?) ground?

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Drive through the Netherlands at the appropriate breeding season, and you'll see sheep with their butts painted green or purple.

That's pretty funny, though low humor is frowned upon here, of course.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Is that an uncanny case of deja vu or did I just see that Netherlands post before I posted my previous comment?

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, that's an uncanny case of copy editing. I spotted a mistake in my Netherlands post, deleted it, then posted a corrected version that appeared after you had replied to the original, I think.

June 24, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

(there's also a great black and white 'Hitchcockian' film whose name escapes me at the moment)

You're probably thinking of The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a Hitchcockian title, if ever there was one. Great title, not a good movie.

I read an interview with Kaurismäki in the Guardian (a rather dodgy paper published in Manchester) where he proved himself quite a quotable fellow:

that is what is wrong. Hollywood has melted everyone's brains. In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience's attention (Fuck me, I always though it was those decadent European types who lead those innocent Hollywood naifs down the path of sex and violence)

But then who is good- looking? Bruce Willis? I think he is ugly. Horribly ugly. Totally unable to act, and totally ugly (I know a few women who will argue with that, and if I work really hard I'll be able to dig up a few people who will attest to Willis's acting skill)

Tell me, who wrote the book called High Fidelity? Nicholas someone? Hornby? Well, it is the most boring book I ever read. I hated every line because it was just what you are talking about. Every joke, ha ha ha (Haven't read that book, and I'm not going to now.)

A proper movie, Cani Arribbiati, can be seen here

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I thought sheep always sought out the high (moral?) ground?

They don't call the Netherlands the low lands for nothing/

June 24, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

celtic,

no sheep shaggers. its a very worthy morally serious 70s sf novel. but i really liked it. shame about the title though.

Billy Connolly explains the mechanics...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoMdC2i0OXY&playnext=1&list=PLE0A010B28630BC58

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, if only the Dutch had followed the sheep, they wouldn't have had to depend on one of them putting his finger in the dyke!

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Solo, I have 'Rabid Dogs' in a Bava box-set.
If memory serves me correctly, Bava's biographer, who provides a commentary track for the movie, said that it was butchered by the studios.
I'm a big fan of 'gritty 1970's crime movies' so I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't claim it to be a Masterpiece.

You're probably right about 'Girl': perhaps too much pastiche and not enough pizazz

June 24, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Adrian, I'm glad to see that even as late as 1991, Billy Connolly could still raise a 'lol'
I thought he'd been reconstructed as a Californian New Ager, but perhaps that came later

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the clips, all. I'll watch them and comment as appropriate when the situation allows.

June 24, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, it's a weird feeling to be driving around the Netherlands, and to look up at canal banks, sheep's heinies, and all the other sights the country has to offer.

June 24, 2011  

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