Monday, June 27, 2011

Nordic crime is more than just a barrel of laughs

Nordic crime fiction has been in the spotlight here at Detectives Beyond Borders, notably the question of what, if any, characteristics are common to crime writing from the Nordic countries.

With that in mind, two bits from Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall, by Finland's Jarkko Sipila, typify what I suspect many people would regard as typically Nordic:
"Finland was home to one of the top per capita homicide rates in Western Europe, but most slayings were the result of drug and alcohol addicts solving their disputes with whatever weapons they could get their hands on."
and
"Over a million semi-trucks passed from Finland to Russia every year. It was impossible to track all the imports and exports. ... The incidents of fraud were numbered in the thousands, or tens of thousands, but investigators were numbered in the tens."
Resignation. Fatalism. What does Nordic/Scandinavian crime fiction mean to you?

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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60 Comments:

Anonymous kathy d. said...

Nordic crime: Rip-roaring thrillers, broad landscapes, some political/social commentary, frequent teamwork among detectives, and nearly always introspective, brooding detectives.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Kathy, Peter, anyone else who feels like commenting...

I remember when Spamalot came out and everyone loved it and it got great reviews and won all the Tonys and was praised to the skies and when I finally saw it I thought, my God this is shite. And not just shite but embarrassing shite.

I feel a little bit like that with Nordic crime fiction. Perhaps I've read the wrong books but none of the ones I've tackled so far have impressed or even really held my interest. This is what I've read: The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Jar City, The Snowman, The Man From Beijing...

What should I have read? What would you rec that I read to convince me (And I am pretty easily convinced. For many years I was down on James Ellroy and then I read The Cold Six Thousand and it was a Damascene conversion).

So what book or books would you say that a non believer should attempt so that I too can leap onto this bandwagon or

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Barbara said...

I liked Jar City quite a bit, but I've liked Arnaldur's later books in the series even better.

Jo Nebso's Redbreast and Nemesis are very good, though I am not liking his more recent work as much, including The Snowman, which I found disappointing; Karin Fossum can be very good, though em, yeah, same again - didn't care for the most recent one translated into English. Don't Look Back, The Indian Bride, and The Water's Edge are very good, imo. Johann Theorin is great, in his rather quiet way.

To me, Scandinavian crime means lots of variety disguised as "the next Stieg Larsson"! But like Kathy, I think it tends to include either social commentary, a focus on psychological roots of crime, or both. If it makes publishing translated work more palatable to US publishers, I'm pleased, though I am getting tired of every book from any of the Nordic countries having a "next Stieg Larsson" on it, since they tend to be nothing like Larsson.

June 27, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Yes. The "next Stieg Larsson" books are nothing like his writing.

If one really wants to get immersed in Nordic noir, try the original writing team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, the "parents" of Swedish crime fiction.

I agree with Barbara on Nemesis, a fantastic thriller. I haven't read The Redbreast, and I concur that The Devil's Star (after Nemesis) was not that good.

I think Indridasson's Hypothermia is excellent, and as I always say, to me it should have won last year's Dagger award. But it's not a fast-paced thriller. It's more thoughtful, although there is an interesting mystery.

I like Hakan Nesser, whose writing is unlike Larsson's or Nesbo's, not broad-sweeping, more focused, with some wit just dropped in unexpectedly.

There are many authors being touted now in the blogosphere whose works I am going to try, including Jussi Adler-Olsen (Mercy), Jan Costin Wagner, Camilla Ceder (Frozen Moment), and more.

June 27, 2011  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian,

You might try Arnaldur's The Silence of the Grave and/or The Draining Lake. Their special, almost delicate mood is captured beautifully by translator Bernard Scudder. Both have a superficial resemblance to Jo Nesbø's Nemesis (which I found tiresome in the extreme--author has set sociopolitical point of view into which is inserted a not-very-original story that serves to hammer home said point of view) in that historic events and the present are inextricably intertwined. But I couldn't wait for Nemesis to end and wished that The Draining Lake wouldn't. Not meaning to pander, but I felt that way about your Fifty Grand -- both are books that, months after I read them, continue to weave through my mind.

As a reader, I think I prefer to be moved emotionally, even drained, rather than feel like I just got off Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I appreciated Jar City without being fond of it the first time I read it. I read it again later and liked it better, though it's not Arnaldur's best.

If you feel you must venture again into the blinding ice storm of Nordic crime writing, you might try Arnaldur's Silence of the Grave, Arctic Chill or Hypothermia. His Draining Lake may be a cut below those, but it has a highly entertaining opening scene. Other than Arnaldur, Karin Fossum's He Who Fears the Wolf is the highlight of the Nordic crime blizzard for me, though the other book of hers that I read seemed more like a routine shocker. I also got a kick out of Raid and the Blackest Sheep, ungainly title and all, and I'll want to read more of Harri Nykanen.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were brilliant, if you want to explore the roots of the current Nordic madness.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, teamwork among detectives figures prominently in many Nordic crime novels. This may be due to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's influence. I think she and Wahlöö wound up translating some of Ed McBain's work into Swedish after they'd written at least some of the Martin Beck novels, but she denied his influence.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I always found those bobsleds very emotionally draining myself.

I'm not sure really sure what would work for you, Adrian, but I think it's probably true that there are individual titles by some of these writers that would work better for you than others. And I would at least be curious what you thought of those earlier Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo novels. I suppose you'd have a hard time with their indictment of Swedish society though.

I did just see a galley for the author of Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist's, next one, Harbour, on the table today, and according to Wikipedia he has one out in Swedish called Tjärven, which apparently means Lighthouse Island. Might be of interest to you. So maybe you should stick to Swedish horror.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, Nesbø's next to be released in the U.S., The Leopard, opens with a death scene so baroquely over the top that I wonder if it's a bit of a jab at Larsson.

(To those who may not know, Barbara is keeper of the Scandinavian crime fiction blog and database, to which you will find links in my blog roll. So she knows that she's talking about.)

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Nesser is a little more like Sjowall and Wahloo than are some of the other Nordic crime writers these days.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A tip of the fur cap, Elisabeth. I thought you captured the appeal of Arnaldur's books nicely.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

individual titles by some of these writers

Seana, you've probably answered this somewhere in one of these discussions, but have you read Karin Fossum? I found He Who Fears the Wolf exciting, unusual, touching, compassionate and funny, but When the Devil Holds the Candle at est a competently executed bit of gothic horror.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Ok, so I'm getting a consensus around Hypothermia, Wahloo and the earlier Nesbo? Yes?

And Seana I'll check out John Lindqvist's latest because I LOVED Let The Right One In.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I haven't gotten to her yet, but I did actually just buy her Indian Bride the other day, which was recommended to me by a couple of people.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'd say you can't miss with any of Arnaldur's other books, with the possible exception of Voices, his second. Even that has some terrific stuff, but it's more melodramatic than the others, and it doesn't take as great advantage of Iceland's topography.

I've read the first three of Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck books, and I'd say Arnaldur and S+W are very clearly the best of the Nordic bunch. I haven't read Lindqvist, though.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I didn't read Lindqvist but I thought the movie was excellent.

It's funny working in a bookstore, because Let the Right One in reminds me of someone I used to work with, and evokes a whole era of the store, if a year or so can be an era. It's funny how much the people who read around you can create the atmosphere in which you read. Wahloo and Sjowall also bring up an era which is long, long gone. Pre-earthquake, in fact.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, having read just two of Karin Fossum's books, I'm unable to triangulate and guess at which of the two might be more typical of her writing. He Who Fears the Wolf has been one of the highlights of my international-crime-fiction-reading career.

Ken Bruen, who is both the king of blurbs and the duke of epigraphs, included one of the latter from He Who Fears the Wolf in his novel Calibre:

"The only interesting people in the world are the losers," she said. "Or rather, those we call losers. Every type of deviation contains an element of rebellion. And I've never been able to understand a lack of rebelliousness."

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I could make the movie part of my next renting binge.

June 27, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, does that bit I just quoted from He Who Fears the Wolf suggest a kinship with Let the Right One In?

June 27, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Man, that quote reminds me of a very interesting session of the Penny University tonight. I walked in to find them celebrating a 70 year old lawyer who had just spent a few weeks in jail for contempt of court in his quest to find sleeping rights for the homeless in Santa Cruz. He was however upstaged by a younger guy who had been in prison, seemed to be currently homeless, and was quite articulate, maybe a little too articulate about homelessness and prison, and who was scarfing down the celebratory brandy as fast as he could. He did a very good job at serving the cheesecake, though.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That sounds like a short story in the making, or at least an interesting vignette.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Judging from past experience, it is probably going to turn out to be more of a soap opera.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He did a good job with the cheesecake.

That's as good as "It was a wandering daughter job."

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, it's funny, because the person who first said it was a Frenchman, who was actually a restauranteur before he retired, and knows whereof he speaks.

I have to say that these strange interactions are the main reason I go and it still involves a lot of eyerolling on my part.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, in a clumsy nod to Gay and Brecht, then, you could call it The Penny University Soap Opera.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

I'd say if I set it to music, but someone would probably send me some...

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I'm sure you have some musicians in that odd crowd.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Well, I know we booted one out once. He was also a poet. And crazy.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I get the feeling that the group has a high tolerance for eccentrics, so this person must have ventured far beyond the pale to get booted out.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Exactly. I should have said kicked out then pardoned and then kicked out again. Actually, now I think about it, there was also a guy who played saxophone who was booted. Also brilliant. And also crazy.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Did he play his saxophone during meetings?

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Somehow I'm reminded of the Hinkle Horn Honking Club, one of my many favorite bits from Dr. Seuss' Sleep Book.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

No, he talked about social networking, which was worse.

There's actually another musician who comes but he remains for now in good standing. He and his friends form the Hot Damn String Band and have been playing the Bookshop Santa Cruz birthday party in November for decades.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

And I notice no one has jumped up to defend Spamalot. I'm glad we finally can see that as the horrible, unfunny travesty that it was...

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Far worse, Seana, and pointless. Why talk about social networking? Why not just leave the society of your fellow humans and go back to a computer and do it?

Come to think of it, isn't any network of humans social by definition?

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I had not realized what a boffo box-office smash Spamalot was until I just looked up some numbers.

I can't defend it because I haven't seen it, but I've always thought Monty Python were better in bits than in anything sustained.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, "better in bits." Rife with comic possibilities, isn't it?

June 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I like Indridason, though I think some of the later books are better than JAR CITY. I also like Henning Mankell, though his agendas and African excursions bother me. Nesser is very good. And so is Fossum. My favorite Fossum is INDIAN BRIDE.

On the whole, when I'm browsing new authors, I do pick up Scandinavian ones. The odds of hitting a good one are much better.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Wow, it's weird to see that Lindqvuist book mentioned here. I was even more surprised to find out that a movie was made, I have not seen it yet. I did enjoy the book though.

I've only read a few "nordic crime" novels, in fact, I just finished Mankell's first Wallander novel last night. The other ones I have read are: Acrtic Chill and the two Larsson novels. The Mankell and Indriðason books were much more similar that the other one, but I guess the connecting point is the description of the cold. Having grown up in northern Minnesota, I feel I understand cold and how it affects psychology. The landscape or environment acts as another character, although a very subtle one, often shaping and affecting the other characters. I can't really see myself getting that interested in mystery novels taking place in the Bahamas. Although novels taking place in hot climes also have a different sort of feeling- for example, in New Orleans. I should read a novel taking place in a hot city and compare to the experience of one of these Nordic novels.

I also have enjoyed the male characters of these so-called nordic novels I have read, but I realized that I have not read many contemporary American novels, and it is unfair to compare Wallander to Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (I have mostly read American crime novels written right after WWII).

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I think Arnaldur hit his stride when he took his stories out into the wide-open spaces. But right from the first, in Jar City, he has written stories that it's difficult to imagine taking place anywhere but in Iceland. He has a feel for his country, I like to say, like no other crime writer.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lisa, since you mentioned landscape and environment in crime writing, let me put in a plug for a book called Following the Detectives. The book includes essays about twenty-one fictional detectives and the real locations, including maps, guides to special subjects, and two essays by me.

Here's a bit from my chapter about Arnaldur:

"People disappear in Arnaldur Indriðason's Iceland, but the soil has a way of yielding them up again. An earthquake cracks the land, drains a lake, and uncovers a body; a victim turns up on a construction-site excavation; in spring, corpses come to light in a lake, where winter ice had concealed all signs of their disappearance. ... `The setting is a character' is a commonplace in modern discussion of crime fiction; in Arnaldur, the setting is a narrative agent as well. The landscape swallows up victims, whether of murder, accident or natural disaster; geological disruption lays them bare again."

June 28, 2011  
Blogger lisa_emily said...

Thanks Peter, I'll have to check that book out- sounds like something I would dig (more then a gardening sort of way). Also, in referring to the Icelandic writer, is it ok to use the last name? Is his last name Arnaldur or Indriðason or???? so confused now.

Also, I read one of your earlier posts about crime in the Nordic countries- and I was thinking about this last night. How the perception of many of those countries is one of a clean, higher standard of living, equal distribution of wealth sort of place; so to read about crime (and often violent crime) happening in such a seemingly nice country creates a little mental jar. Maybe it fulfills a kind of Schadenfreude- or something; not for me though.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Icelanders don't have family names in our sense, just first names (middle names, too, I think) and patronymics (or sometimes matronynics), that is, names that mean "son of" or "daughter of." Thus, "Arnaldur Indriðason" means "Arnaldur, son of Indrida." Similarly, the Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's father was presumably named Sigurd. If Arnaldur had sons, they would normally be called "So-and-So Arnaldson."

If your father were named Joe, you were married to a guy named Bill, and you had a son named Jeff, for instance, you'd be called Lisa Josephsdaughter, your son would be called Jeff Williamson, and his children would be Such-and-Such Jefferson or Jeffersdaughter. Strictly speaking, Arnaldur's books should be shelved among they A's and Yrsa's among the Y's. Some American bookstores and libraries do this. Others do not.

Nordic crime writers have chipped away at their countries' clean, egalitarian reputations at least since Sjowall and Wahloo in the 1960s. Those countries also have traditionally been racially homogeneous, and recent Nordic crime novels chip away at that, too, exploring issues that arise from prejudice against immigrants. In Iceland, which will have two or three murders in the whole country some years, crime writers just have to use their imaginations.

June 28, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Strangely, I do not like Iceland from all that I have seen. It looks like a godforsaken place. What I like about his books is the way he handles character. In fact, that probably plays a role for me in all the books I like. Give me a protagonist I can identify with, someone who has to deal with some tough private issues and who struggles with the professional ones without ever losing his humanity.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I'm not sure Arnaldur would disagree with you entirely. His feeling for his country is by no means sentimental or boosterish. The feeling I get from his books is that Icelanders are a product of their country and a part of its geography whether they like it or not.

June 28, 2011  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I hugely admired Adrian's initial comment. There's nothing like a spot of polemics to liven up an otherwise dull day. Well done, Adrian.

And the notion that good crime fiction can be determined geographically is an idea that deserves a good kicking.

I've read The Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur or Indriðason, or whatever the hell is surname is, and found it no better than one of those cop shows I used to watch years ago, like Cagney and Lacey, for instance, where every once in a while they'd do an 'issue-driven' episode: today drug abuse, tomorrow homelessness, next week teenage sex, etc. etc. Arnaldur's depiction of domestic violence in The Silence of the Grave falls into this category and is scarcely distinguishable from daytime soap-opera.

Arnaldur's writing never rises above the level of basic competence, and occasionally falls below it. I'd give a couple of examples but this comment is overlong already.

Where I'd digress from Adrian is on the subject of The Cold Six Thousand. Have you read that, Peter? Ellroy called his writing in that 'an extreme telegraphic style.' Pidgin English would describe it better. Some examples:

Wayne yawned. Wayne stretched. Wayne scratched his balls. Wayne dumped his piss cup

Pete flipped on the light. Pete grabbed the door. Pete swung it open. Pete walked out

then I read The Cold Six Thousand and it was a Damascene conversion

Just trying to imagine that:

And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto St. Kilda: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Adrian, Adrian, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am James Elroy whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city of LA, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.

Religious experiences rarely turn out well, Adrian.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, we part ways on Arnaldur, but you're right, of course, that good crime fiction (or good anything, except, perhaps, a good sun tan or good skiing) cannot be determined geographically. What makes Scandinavia, or Northern Ireland, or Edinburgh, or South Africa or any place else a good location for crime fiction is that good crime writers come from there.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and nice rendering of Adrian getting knocked off his ass on the road to Ellroy.

June 28, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I also differ on Arnaldur Indridasson, and very much liked The Silence of the Grave, which is not a typical book at all, Arctic Chill and especially Hypothermia (with a nod to Jar City).

And also Sjowall and Wahloo are well worth reading. Their ten books are gems, although readers might prefer certain books over others. One feels such satisfaction after finishing one of their books.

And of Nesbo's I'd recommend Nemesis for a good thriller, character, and two complex puzzles going at once. I haven't red The Redbreast but plan to.

There are many other Nordic authors whose books are entertaining, thoughtful and a good way to spend time, but they don't write great prose. But one can enjoy reading them.

I have never gotten into Karen Fossum's books. I read The Indian Bride and it made no impression, although I will read the one suggested here.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, Silence of the Grave has it movie-of-the-week, heartstring-tugging, domestic-abuse aspect, and I can't blame a reader for being wary of such themes. I thought Arnaldur handled them rather well.

I share Solo's disdain for issues-oriented crime fiction, but I should add that some Nordic crime writers address such issues subtly, not always making them the central issues of their stories. Arlandlur's Arctic Chill is one such and, in its own way, so is The Snowman. Not every writer from a cold European country is a Stieg Larsson in the soapbox department, in other words.

June 28, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

The big problem with a religious awakening is that there's no way to communicate the experience to a non believer. Its also a little bit like what Louis Armstrong said about Jazz...

I do understand where you're coming from however because I was once in your shoes.

I will take issue with one point though. The bland sentences you produce as evidence however don't really help make your case. The Cold Six Thousand is all about repetition and the iteration of leitmotivs themes, words, ideas. You might as well as take a couple of sentences off Ulysses and say "well this is just gibberish isn't it?" Sure to some people it is, to others (me for example) its high art.

June 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yep, I guess Ellroy or David Peace at the wrong time can be like getting a blast of brassy big band jazz when what you need is a folk ballad or a nice motet to ease you into slumber at the end of a long day.

June 29, 2011  
Blogger seana said...

Sucked you in, didn't he?

June 29, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Who, Ellroy, Peace, Adian, or solo?

June 29, 2011  
Anonymous adrian said...

The only Indridason the St Kilda library had was a world war 2 thriller called Operation Napoleon. I read it today. I havent read a lot of world war 2 thrillers but this was one of the worst. The plot was straight out of an old Victor comic from the 1970s. Hypothermia is going to have to be really really good to turn me around on this guy.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yikes. This could be one of those traumatic experiences that will resonate far into your future. I admire you for sticking with books you don't like, but you probably picked the two of Arnaldur's books that I would have recommended that you not start with.

I was surprised when I saw that he'd stepped out of his series to write a thriller. Bless his heart for trying something different, but that's far removed from what he had done before.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I know its tough to come up with plots, especially WW2 plots set in Iceland, but the Hitler-isn't-dead-but-secretly-living-in S America thing is so played. I can only imagine it working ironically now.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yours is actually the first opinion I'd heard of the book. I was surprised when I heard Arnaldur had taken on such a story because, for all their excursions into Iceland's outdoors, his books are generally of a smaller scale. The drama is much more in individual lives than in big events or splashy crimes.

He's big on long-buried secrets literally coming to the surface. In one of his Erlendur books, the secret involves the Cold War, but that about as close to big world events that Arnaldur gets in his Erlendur mysteries. Maybe Operation Napoleon was just his effort to do something different. You know how zany and unpredictable those Nordic folks can get.

June 30, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Now I know and will avoid Operation Napoleon which did not compel me to read it.

I think this is being overly harsh about The Silence of the Grave. The issue at the heart of the book, aside from it being a good mystery, is very important everywhere, including in the U.S.

I read yesterday that 25 million women in the U.S. have experienced domestic abuse.

Indridasson handled this in his usual downplayed style.

Issues are fine, as long as the author doesn't go off into three-page diatribes. Indridasson does not do that. The story speaks for itself, an important one.

June 30, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I would not be scared off a book by what any one commentator or critic has to say. I'd still at least browse it.

I think the verdict on Silence of the Grave is harsh, but I can understand impatience with issues-oriented, movie-of-the-week themes, I thought Arnaldur handled it well; others may disagree.

June 30, 2011  

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