Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Scanning Scandinavian crime

Declan Burke asks a provocative question about why Scandinavian Crime Always Pays: Whither the mavericks?

His thesis, to which commenters, including your humble blog host, provide but minor correctives, is that there's a certain sameness to the Nordic crime fiction translated into English, as good as some of that crime fiction may be.

You can find the rest over at his place, but to expand on one of Declan's rhetorical questions, where are the Scandinavian Eoin McNamees, Ronan Bennetts, Eoin Colfers, Adrian McKintys, and Kevin McCarthys?

The hook for Declan's post was the publication of Barry Forshaw's Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction. Forshaw was kind enough to provide some advance material from the book last year when I moderated a panel full of Scandinavian crime writers at Bouchercon.   And here's a post based on some notes Forshaw sent along some months ago about the book.

*
Declan's post may be a message from above, as it comes just when I had picked up his interestingly neo-Chandlerian novel Eightball Boogie for a second reading.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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28 Comments:

Anonymous solo said...

One interesting aspect is the short interviews dotted throughout the text with British-based editors who have signed Scandinavian authors, who respond to Forshaw’s question of whether the current trend for Scandinavian crime fiction is running out of steam with variations on a standard response of, ‘Well, all good things must end, but my guy / gal is different to the rest because …’ Yes. But you would say that, wouldn’t you?

Jealousy is a terrible thing, isn't it? Burke wants 'British-based editors' to sign Irish writers rather than Scandanavian ones. Being Irish, he would, wouldn't he?

Editors are morons. They figure what sold last week will sell next week. This belief, of course, is a form of idiocy. Nobody knows what will sell next week.

But you can't blame editors for assuming the past is a good guide to the future. They've nothing else to go on. Some of them are getting rich selling Stieg Larsson novels. Nobody's getting rich selling Irish crime novels.

March 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, yes. But in this case I have considerable sympathy for Burke's position. With the caveat that I don't read much current America crime fiction, I think Irish crime writing is the world's best available in English.

It has to be terribly frustrating when such a fine book as Adrian McKinty's Cold Cold Ground can't find a U.S. publisher, but anyone with a slash through or two dots over a letter in his name gets massive promotion and billing as the next Stieg Larsson.

March 07, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Rushed today, so can't consult the links.
There is a fad for Irish writers, just as there is one for Scandinavian writers. The sameness applies as well. (Ken Bruen is responsible for starting it, while Henning Mankell caused the other).

Some of the Scandinavian writers are weaker than others, but there is still some wonderful stuff there. I'm reading a Hakan Nesser at the moment. Have you discussed him, Peter? Excellent for flippant dialogue and self-analysis.

Ultimately the perceived sameness matters less than the quality of the novel.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I am very concerned about the perceived sameness of Abercrombie and Fitch clothes and D&Gabana sunglasses...no pain, no gain... (this will make no sense if Peter deletes the wonderfully random, spam ad above...)

I agree with Declan that perhaps there are really subversive, formally radical(like Declan's Absolute Zero Cool), challenging social realist (like any of Eoin Mac's)crime fic being written in Scandi (lumping them all together) but it's just not being translated b/c it's perceived as challenging and therefore not saleable.

All of the translated Sw/Nor/Dan/Ice novels which I've read--and much of it is very good--seems burdened by the imperative to write state-of-the-nation-lite crime novels. The best crime novels reveal corruption etc. through the workings of plot and the responses of the characters to the culture in which they are acting. With much of the recent batch, some of this sameness can manifest itself in a certain right-on, capitalism is bad, men are violent, war is hell, serbian paramilitaries are somewhat genocidal, life ain't fair confection that oddly, as Declan says, ends up somehow bulwarking the status quo through the slavish devotion to genre tropes.

For this snow-white man's burden, I blame Waloo/Sjovall and their pervasive influence but b/c their books are so brilliant, I can't be too critical. Martin Beck rules, OK?

March 08, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Oh, yes. Martin Beck rules indeed, but no one paid much attention until Henning Mankell became a bestseller.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J.: Arnaldur Indridason is one of the best in the world. Karin Fossum's "He Who Fears the Wolf" is one of the highiights of my recent years' reading. Roslund and Hellstrom's "Three Seconds" is a fine thriller with a touch of Jean-Patrick Manchette that i quite like. So it's not that Nordic crime writers are bad. But I think Declan has a point about there being a certain sameness to the books, or rather, to the ones translated into English.

The apparent sameness is due in part to marketing. Hakan Nesser, who can be delightfully dry, is nothing like Stieg Larsson, fatuous blurbs to the contrary.

Bruen may have a counterpart in Mankell, but Declan Burke asks where the counterparts are to the Irish crime authors who write humor, historical crime fiction, and other sub-genres not apparent in Scandinavian crime writing translated into English.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin, while some readers may feel frustrated by a sameness to Nordic crime writing, creativity flourishes in the spam world. Those comments I deleted were some of the longest and most elaborate I'd ever received, the kind of thing Stieg Larsson might have written had he turned his hand to annoying techo-vandalism rather than groundbreaking crime fiction.

Once again, I find myself wondering whether publishers are more at fault than authors. If Nordic authors are writing the sorts of books Declan wonders about, why is no one willing to take a chance, have them translated into English, and put a bit of marketing muscle behind them?

Yep, Sjowall and Wahloo were so influential that many Nordic crime writers try to do what they did and so brilliant that almst all fall short.

March 08, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I detest Roslund and Hellstrom. I bought THREE SECONDS and tossed it largely unread. Also dislike James Thompson, but that was mainly because the 1st p. pov doesn't work there. Are the Finns all excessively violent? Given fact along with fiction and a gun problem.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I found the beginning of R+H's "Cell 8" excessively tendentious. Parts of "Three Seconds" are open to similar accusations, but the book tightens the screws nicely in the suspense department and manages to score some political points that are not quite as easy as those in "Cell 8."

WIth respect to Finns, Harri Nykanen is a fair successor to Sjowall and Wahloo in the matter of quite, matter-of-fact, but telling narration of police investigations.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Solo

Re editors and publishers: I'm reminded of Willian Goldman's lietmotiv in the brilliant Adventures in the Screentrade about Hollywood executives: "nobody knows anything."

March 08, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Will try Nykanen. Thanks.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I think you commented on my post about Nykanen's Nights of Awe a few weeks ago. I did not mention that roughly the first half of that book consists of little but routine police interaction in the course of an investigation. Yet Nykanen manages, in part through dry wit, to keep up the pace. Sjowall and Wahloo did something similar: You'd get little but Beck and his colleagues interacting, talking, thinking, and observing, yet that almost never failed to keep things interesting.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I wonder if the "nobody knows anything" comment is applicable in quite the same way. I get the hazy impression that publishers today are impatient and overly cautious.

I saw one book by Roslund and Hellstrom and another by Benjamin Black atop a crime-fiction table at a Barnes & Noble last night. What does that tell you?

March 08, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

It tells me that I have chosen the wrong profession. John Banville's crime writing is the Coors Lite or the Pabst Blue Label of the fiction world.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe it's the earnestly but not quite competently prepared home brew of the fiction world.

March 08, 2012  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Solo -

"Jealousy is a terrible thing, isn't it? Burke wants 'British-based editors' to sign Irish writers rather than Scandanavian ones. Being Irish, he would, wouldn't he?"

Erm, apologies for bursting your bubble, sir / ma'am, but British-based editors are signing Irish writers, as well as Scandinavian ones. Not me, obviously, but that's another day's work.

The point I make is that there's very probably a diversity in Scandinavian crime fiction we're not being made aware of, simply because it isn't being translated, possibly because it doesn't fit the 'Scandi crime' 'brand'.

There's no jealousy involved.

Cheers, Dec

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right. I wonder how many crime writers from the Nordic countries whose work is untranslated into English want to punch someone in the nose at the mention of Stieg Larsson's name.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I just now noticed that you asked if I'd discussed
Håkan Nesser. I have both discussed and interviewd him. Read the relevant posts here.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Yes, I did read that interview at the time. Too many names to remember. In any case, Hakan Nesser is good. No complaints here.
I don't insist on humor or cheerfulness in protagonists. I do insist on some balance. If the character is deeply depressed in one book, I'd like him to regain some normalcy in the others.

And while I'm grumbling about writers: Arnaldur Indridason's protagonist's family problems are beginning to get on my nerves. His wife and children are disfunctional because he is as a husband/father. And things never change, book after book.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I don't insist on humor either. In fact, I hate yukkety-yuk cheap laughs. But Nesser had a nice way of creating humor out of situations, not jokes.

I have not read Arnaldur's Outrage or the Erlendur novel due out this year. But if his dysfunctional-family motif is starting to wear thin, at least he gave it a good run through six books. The last of those six, Hypothermia, held out the possibiity of a thawing of relations between father and daughter. I thought Arnaldur handled this theme well.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Editors are morons

I'm not sure which jackass said this, but whoever the fool was, he probably didn't approach the issue with any degree of subtlety.

Back in the mid-80s Doris Lessing decided to publish her latest novel under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, supposedly a first-time novelist. Many were fooled, but not all were. In an interview in The Paris Review, Lessing said:

My two English publishers turned it down. I saw the readers’ reports, which were very patronizing. Really astonishingly patronizing! The third publisher, Michael Joseph (the publisher of my first book), was then run by a very clever woman called Phillipa Harrison, who said to my agent, “This reminds me of the early Doris Lessing.” We got into a panic because we didn’t want her going around saying that! So we took her to lunch and I said, “This is me, can you go along with it?” She was upset to begin with, but then she really enjoyed it all. Bob Gottlieb, who was then my editor at Knopf in the States, guessed, and so that was three people. Then the French publisher rang me up and said, “I’ve just bought a book by an English writer, but I wonder if you haven’t been helping her a bit!” So I told him. So in all, four or five people knew.

OK, so not all editors are morons. It's like everything else, I suppose. There are a few good ones and the rest have been dragged in from Central Casting.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Humility and self-abasement are such a wonderful spectacle!

I had heard the Doris Lessing story before, but I had not heard that that many editors saw through it. I suspect that some current crime writers have styles distinctive enough to be recognizable even without their names attached. If I were to call Stieg Larsson one of them, I would intend no compliment to his writing.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Humility and self-abasement are such a wonderful spectacle!

Enjoy it while it lasts.

I've read a couple of articles on the Lessing 'hoax' but none of them answered an important question: how was the book submitted to publishers. I can't imagine a hotshot editor like Robert Gottlieb picked it out of a slushpile. If Lessing's agent sent in the book, that's one goddamn big clue about who the writer was.

Incidentally, Wikipedia says Gottlieb rejected John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. This makes me wonder is there is a collective noun for editors? If not, may I suggest a confederacy of editors.

Editors, of course, are not to be confused with their more useful cousins: copyeditors.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I would bet a lot of editors rejected A Confederacy of Dunces. The story I read said O'Toole's mother brought the manuscript to Walker Percy, who began reading out of obligation then gradually fell in love with the book. What he had to do with its publication, I don't know.

March 09, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Gottlieb edited Catch-22. I'll give the man a pass, or at least a Section 8.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I suppose Gottlieb was a Legendary Figure. I'd settle for some editors willing to take a chance now and then -- and to spend a few dollars hiring a good copy editor, of course.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

One of my sales reps told me that Walker Percy himself wrote Confederacy of Dunces and had to write it under a psuedonym because his editors weren't interested in publishing it. Although I have never heard anyone else corroborate this, he is the kind of guy who knows this kind of stuff and he thought it was common knowledge. I have no idea if its true, but it makes an odd kind of sense to me.

I'm going to twist the sales rep's arm about this next time I see him.

March 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mmm, then Percy either had O'Toole killed or, with a lively sense of humor, chose the least likely candidate to put forward as the author of his (Percy's) book.

I had not heard the Percy-wrote-it rumor before, which may indicate that it's not common. Whether it constitutes knowledge is another matter.

March 09, 2012  

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