Saturday, July 07, 2012

What makes a Swedish crime novel Swedish? (Or an Italian crime novel Italian? or ...)

I've just finished reading a fat Swedish crime novel that I'd have guessed was Swedish even if you deleted every set of eyebrows from above every a and o in the book. (You know what I mean: all the ö's and ä's, not to mention the å's.)

What was the giveaway? It wasn't cold weather or earnest leftist politics, and it wasn't a dour protagonist with bad digestion. Rather, the clue in this book (The Nightmare, by Lars Kepler) was that the lead police investigator does not make his first appearance until after the action is well under way and, once he does show up, he's less prominent than many police protagonists are.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who elevated the diaeresis to a position of prominence unprecedented in crime fiction, did it first, and writers including Norway's Karin Fossum have followed suit. Since then I've always thought of the late-appearing police protagonist as a Nordic thing, perhaps as an example of Sjöwall and Wahlöö's politics.

What makes a Swedish crime novel typically Swedish for you? An Italian crime novel typically Italian? An American novel typically American? Pick a country, and tell me what you regard as typical features of that country's crime fiction.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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20 Comments:

Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I don't know. I'm guessing wildly here. The Scandinavian novels deal with social issues (like guest workers and racial tensions between the natives and Muslims) while they investigate crime. I'm not fond of Kepler (isn't that a pseudonym for 2 people?), but I just read Jussi Adler-Olsen's KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES and liked that very well (for the characters, not the plot).
I'm not as familiar with the Italians. The books seem simpler, and Italian problems like the Mafia and political or church corruption feature largely.

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Lars Kepler is, indeed, the nom de plume for a husand-and-wife team. I read today that the "Lars" is a tribute to Stieg Larsson, whom they admire for bring a new freshness to somewhat stale Nordic crime tradition. I think I see that they mean, and I don't find this encouraging.

I think you're right about that tendency to deal with social issues, though I'd go further and say that Nordic crime novels tend not just to take up such issues but to do so bluntly and didactically. One would never mistake a Nordic crime novel for a story by, say, Camilleri, Jean-Claude Izzo, Dominique Manotti, or even Gianrico Carofigilio or Jakob Arjouni, though they, too, would write about racial tensions.

I'll have more to say later about how The Nightmare addresses such matters.

July 07, 2012  
Anonymous Barbara Fister said...

I think Swedish crime writers tend to employ a nice balance of character and plot and setting (particularly the communal, social environment in which the crime occurs). Some focus more on the psychological states of characters (Alvtegen, for example) and others more on action (Larsson) but there's always a sense that crimes don't arise out of genetic mutation or some sort of religious choice to be evil. American thrillers are more likely to feature bad guys whose genetic/moral reasons for their bad behavior are about as sociologically complex as in a fairy tale or a book of the old testament. They are monsters whose job is to be leeringly evil, primarily there for the heroes to slay.

This is, of course, a wild over-generalization. Lots of American crime fiction is subtle, original, terrific, surprising, etc. etc. and much Swedish crime fiction is formulaic and uninterested in much more than what happens next and how will the characters fare. Nothing I've heard about the Lars Keppler team's books make me want to read them, mainly because they sound rather tediously made to formula, but there is a kind of earnestness in a lot of Swedish fiction that makes me think Swedes might also be infrequent jaywalkers.

Danish fiction is quite different, in my limited experience. But then I've always been prone to look for differences between Danes and Swedes after reading Helene Tursten's The Torso, in which a Swedish detective goes to Copenhagen and finds it all quite shockingly hedonistic.

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In re differences between Swedes and Finns, I have Barry Forshaw's Death in a Cold Climate on my to-read list.

Interesting that you should cite a balance of character, plot, and setting. I found two or three places in The Nightmare where characterizations seemed forced, perfunctuory efforts at a human touch. These may not amount to much in a five-hundred-page novel, but they did stick out.

Did you read Alexander Ahndoril's statement (she's the female half of "Lars Kepler") that Steig Larsson was an inspiration and a trailblazer for the couple? That's all to the good, but I but I suspect that part of the inspiration was license to throw everything into a fat book without necessarily assuring that all fits together well.

July 07, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I don't have an answer to your question, though it's an interesting one. But not totally off topic, I had a somewhat embarrassing experience yesterday when a nice Norwegian couple came in and asked for some Norwegian fiction to give to a friend here as a gift. My co-worker had brought them over to the mystery aisle, somewhat in desperation and I realized as I tried to help them that this wasn't a distinction most Americans make. They're looking for Nordic crime, not Norwegian crime in particular. Spent a nervous couple of minutes pulling familiar names off the shelf and disappointingly realizing that they were Swedish--or Icelandic.

Not that I would have made that mistake about the ones I'd actually read, but still...

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, no Nesbø in the neighborhood?

I mentioned above that I'd bought a copy of Barry Forshaw's book. That may give me some insight into national differences in Nordic crime writing.

I've seen a number of passing admonitions that that the Nordic nations are not identical, that their crime fiction is not interchangeable, and so on, but none has specified what the differences are.

Simple social facts account for some of the differences. I'll always be alert for signs of tension when a Finnish character appears in a Swedish novel, for instance. But as for national literary tendencies in crime fiction? I haven't read enough to detect them.

July 07, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, yeah, they had already gotten to Nesbo by the time they were handed on to me. The one I forgot was Karen Fossum.

Actually they ended up,I think, with Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses and not a regular crime novel at all. Although stealing horses doesn't really sound law abiding...

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, here in America, we may not have a whole heap of North Sea oil money to make our citizens' lives a bit easier, but I reckon we know what to do with horse thieves.

If your Norwegian friends come swashbucking back in, you might add Anne Holt to the list. I've read two of Karin Fossum's novels, one of which, He Who Fears the Wolf, is one of my favorite crime novels of recent years.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger seana graham said...

I showed them Anne Holt, eventually. They already knew her. I liked them, I just didn't have exactly what they were looking for. Don't know what they bought for their friends in the end.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And I've never been to that part of the world and I've read just a few of its authors, so I'm in a weak position to make recommendations. You could do worse than to suggest they give their American friends some sagas.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

Nordic crime novels aren't westerns -- I think that's important. They are not archetypal. Related to that is that they aren't hard boiled nor terribly noirish.Their character leads may be neurotic and stalked by depression but they are a long way from Kafka or even Edvard Munch -- so they aren't so easily Expressionist in the way they go about their business.

"Evil' as it is biblically deployed in much US crime fiction isn't a tangible entity nor a contagion.

The bad things that happen flow from the context and as the social context worsens then more bad stuff is congealed.

As for place and time, if reading Håkan Nesser you'd couldn't be so certain what side of the Baltic the novel was written nor how far south. In similar mode Karim Fosim (although Norwegian)could easily be exploring middle class sensibility in many other regional semi rural settings outside the Norse lands.

As for arriving late in the plot -- that's not Wallander. The cultural break is , of course, Nesbo...He replicates the stereotypical 'Vietnam Vet' syndrome so much loved in the States.

I know you are asking specifically about Sweden but really the borders across Scandinavia aren't a major cultural divide (with all due respect to Norwegian nationalism).

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, they may be archetypal, but the archetype may simply not be American (or British or French).

Håkan Nesser deliberately (and mischievously, I think) obscures boundaries between countries on the North as well as the Baltic Sea. The name of his protagonist -- Van Veeteren -- after all, honors that of a Dutch crime writer, Janwillem van de Wetering. (Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström similarly cross borders, so one hallmark of Nordic crime writing may be the breaking down of national borders as well as a focus on the North and Baltic Seas rather than the Mediterranean.)

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

Perhaps there are two strands of Scandinavian crime writing: the thriller (which seems to me excessively violent for the Finns and appallingly religious for some of the others), and the police procedural. They are mostly very good at police procedurals because those are character-driven. Politically, they seem to be pretty far left, but in a character-driven book the reader tends to accept this as one of the quirks of a character.

I like Hakan Nesser a lot, too.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And the thriller strand, as represented bt Stieg Larsson, would be what attraced the female half of Lars Kepler, even though The Nightmare is a police procedural.

July 08, 2012  
Anonymous Barbara Fister said...

I really like what Dave says, and it in a nutshell is what I was trying to say about a key difference between Scandinavian and US thrillers, in a very broad sense.

I haven't read Keppler but interviews with the couple made me feel quite depressed. It sounds like Frankenstein writing. I'm not surprised that the characters lurch about gracelessly.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kepler's comments made me think about their own writing as well as about Stieg. If by "Frankenstein writing" you mean disparate parts stiched together, not always gracefully, you may be right.

July 08, 2012  
Blogger Dave Riley said...

Just because it is different doesn't make Scandinavian crime writing better than some other country's product.

That it is socially engaged however, sets it aside.

I don't think it is didactic as some have suggested.I think it is exploratory -- is seeks answers not in the souls of the protagonists but in the world around them.

American crime fiction tends to have a lazy acceptance and dependency on a pervasive Evilism while the Brits maybe defer to a sort of Gothic grotesque that's a tad seasonal.

The Italians --a and i'm not well read up -- see it as a chronic disease. A festering boil -- like the Mafia and corruption.

July 09, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Except that the best-known Swedish crime writer of recent years -- and, for most people, probably, of all time -- is explicitly didactic. Please don't suggest that the statistics that serve as chapter headings in at least one of Stieg Larsson's books are anything else.

A villain with a rotten soul is no villain unless he has a world in which to carry out his villainy, but, given an either/or choice, I'd say The Nightmare seeks its answers decisively in the souls of its protagonists and antagonists rather than in the world around them.

You want answers in the world rather than in the soul? You want to read Domininque Manotti.

July 09, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Food and wine and the joy of life are part of Italian crime fiction and are not intrinsic to Nordic noir.

Where would Salvo Montalbano be without his pasta and fish dinners -- and his daily wine? Even Guido Brunetti enjoys gourmet meals daily, along with wine and other alcoholic beverages.

Irene Huss luckily has a spouse who is a chef, so she enjoys good food, but meals are not an art, as they are in the Montalbano or Brunetti households, or in the trattorias the detectives visit.

And even when Martin Beck serves up several types of herring and other Swedish goodies at a big meal he hosts for his colleagues, there is no oohing or aahing about the food or ruminating about the pleasures of the meal the next day.

Not to mention the pleasures of walking on beaches or swimming.
Even enjoying eccentric neighbors, friends or colleagues, something Montalbano and Brunetti do, seems lacking in Scandinavian crime fiction.

And I definitely must see my opthalmologist; these word scrambles are becoming hieroglyphics more and more.

July 11, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Those verfication words are getting more difficult faster than our eyes are getting worse. This is not wishful thinking. I learned this from an article in my newspaper a few months back.

July 12, 2012  

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