Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why Lars Kepler are the real next Stieg Larsson

The Stieg Larsson school of Swedish crime writing doesn’t go in for guilty pleasures. Instead, it combines potboiler thrills and righteous anger in a fat, sprawling tosh-filled package, often with 475 or more pages plus a didactic, statistics-filled epilogue in case the reader doesn’t get the point – or in case he or she thinks the point was just to have some fun. That way the reader gets dirty thrills but feels morally uplifted at the same time.

The Nightmare, second of Lars Kepler’s novels to be translated from Swedish into English, offers one protagonist haunted by deep secrets. The novel is fascinated with Paganini and with great old violins. It equates moral rectitude with musical ability, and it does so with a straight face. Talk about far-fetched, potboiler-y notions.

The solution to the central mystery, though that mystery concerns a political issue torn from today’s headlines and involves government and corporate corruption, is straight out of Columbo. Quite naturally, the novel includes one especially horrible death. And then its prologue ranks the world’s top arms-dealing nations, of which Sweden is in the top nine.

There's nothing wrong with potboilers, and there's nothing wrong with politically engaged crime fiction. But it's always fair to ask whether the politics and the potboiling are organically intertwined, or whether they appeal, separately, to two separate aspects of what the reader wants. Dominque Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and the great Leonardo Sciascia tell stories in which the politics and the thrills seem to emerge, inextricably bound, from the same reality. Among current Swedish crime writers, I would argue that Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström come close to achieving this in Three Seconds.

The Stieg Larssonites don't do this, and I don't think they try. I find their achievements less impressive than I do those of the authors I've just named, but it doesn't mean the Larssonians are any worse, just different. I can't blame an author for failing at what he or she may never have tried to do.
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The invocation of Stieg Larsson is especially apt in the case of The Nightmare because Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril, the female half of the couple that writes as Lars Kepler, has said that the Lars part of the nom de plume is a tribute to Larsson. Crime writing previous to the late author of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was fine, she said, but it had grown a bit stale.

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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35 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Nicely said. A few years ago I thought the world had gone mad: I read Dragon Tattoo and hated it and when I expressed this and a fairly modest proposal for the turning of Larsson books into kindling my editor told me to tone down the hostility because "everyone" loved these books. Well maybe I'm wrong, I thought, everyone else does seem to adore these books. They may seem cheesy and hacky and didactic and clumsy to me but Stieg Larsson is a million seller and I'm not so maybe he and his followers know better.

But then gradually I began to see the Larsson backlash setting in. Christopher Hitchens wrote a good piece for Vanity Fair and the late Nora Ephron wrote a mild satire for the New Yorker. Other better Nordic crime writers began to express their doubts.

I think when the dust settles we'll look back on the Larsson books as an essentially harmless mildly embarrassing pop culture phenomenon, like Christopher Nolan's overpraised Batman films or The Star Wars prequels.

I dont think they'll have done any long term damage to the crime writing genre and perhaps they'll have got a few more people to read books who might otherwise have done something else.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I am actually afraid to read Kepler, from what certain gruesome scenes people have alluded to.

I don't even know where I'll come down on Larsson in the long run. I didn't mind the first one as much as you guys did, but I think it's kind of a shame that it comes across that Larsson somehow invented the genre when he had so many worthy predecessors. I don't mind at all that Swedish crime fiction has become more recognized in America. There's a lot of great stuff that wouldn't have gotten a look in just a few years ago. I just wish that America's interest in foreign crime fiction extended beyond Scandinavia and England.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, there's nothing especially gruesome in this novel.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, the odd thing is that this book is better written than at least the first of Larsson's books. It's asif Lars Kepler saw the success of the books, analyzed what Larsson was doing, and tried to do it better. It really is not a bad book, but it absolutely is a pot-boiler.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Larsson may have pioneered a genre that lets readers feel unashamed of reading potboilers. In that respect, he not, in fact, he an heir of Sjowall and Wahloo. I'm invoking their names four decades after they wrote their books. I'm not sure people will be talking about Stieg Larsson in forty years.

I was lukewarm at best on "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," but it wasn't until I read Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril's comments and then read "The Nightmare" that I realized there might be a distinct Larssonian school of crime writing.

July 18, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Nice distinctions, Peter. But again, I don't mind if Larsson is instrumental in introducing the non-Nordic to some better writers than he is.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, will he introduce readers to better writers than he is in the same way that Harry Potter got and kept children reading?

There were a bunch of Scandinavian authors at this year's Crimefest. A number gave Larsson credit for opening doors. How wholeheartedly they gave such credit, I don't know.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I thought of Harry Potter. While it's true that Harry Potter didn't transfer in the most direct ways, I think it did open the doors to more series, like Rick Riordan's and Anthony Horowitz's.

But in crime fiction, the transfer has already happened. There is a lot more name recognition. And once people find these others, its not such a hard sell at all.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of the crime writers who credited Larsson with opening doors did so with what I imagine was a wry expression, noting that he had been a published novelist before Larsson came on the scene.

An Icelandic crime writer at Crimefest, incidentally, gave Arnaldur Indridasson similar credit to opening doors.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

My feelings about Harry Potter are similar to the way I feel about the firebombing of German cities in WW2. German industrial production actually went up during the firebombing and carpet bombing of German cities but who is to say that that industrial growth wouldnt have been much higher without the area bombing. And while its true that readership in general and amongst children in particular declined in the Harry Potter era, perhaps without Potter the decline in readership would have been greater.

My 10 year old has now graduated to The Hunger Games books and is baffled by how much she used to like Potter where easy answers to problems where only a flick of the wand away. What baffles me is why these books ever became popular among grown adults.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"My feelings about Harry Potter are similar to the way I feel about the firebombing of German cities in WW2."

I would buy a Harry Potter book that had a cover blurb like that.

Interesting that your daughter should have outgrown Harry Potter. What were the Harry Potter books' target age?

I've read and liked a lot of Eoin Colfer's books, but I tried one of the Harry Potter novels but have up after about a page. It just didn't hold my interest.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I'm not a Potter fan, but I don't have a hard time understanding the adult following. Nostalgia plus children is a powerful mix. It would be interesting to know how many adults without kids in the household actually got hooked on them. I would guess that they were fairly young adults.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's an interesting yardstick, the adults-without-kids test. I don't know how many such readers there are, but a friend around my age with two kids said he liked the books. I don't remember precisely the reasons he gave, but I think they included things like overcoming obstacles, etc. -- standard sort of stuff which leads me to suspect that J.K. Rowling, like Lars Kepler, cannily combined elements that had worked separately or together elsewhere.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I think a surprising amount of why people do anything has to with other people. It's interesting to me that when I was a kid, adults didn't get that involved with kid's reading once the kids could read. The best case scenario was that they took you to the library and funded the Scholastic Books orders and stuff like that. And they listened to you when enthused about things you read, but they didn't necessarily feel that they had to read those things too. It's a very interesting transition that adults now feel that they have to keep up with kid's books.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Or maybe the children's reading market simply wasn't so fragmented then. I jumped right form Dr. Seuss to there Hardy Boys and then to Tom Sawyer

July 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its true that being around kids encourages you to read stuff that otherwise you never would have. Among the great books I'm sure I would never have read but for reading them to the sprogs: Lassie Come Home, Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, The Secret Garden.

July 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

A very good review!!! Compliments!

The fire-bombing comparison was an "Ouch" for someone who was a child at the receiving end of that.

Harry Potter appeals to adults (at least in the earlier volumes) because it recreates a childhood memory of fairy tales and myths that many of us grew up with. A great deal of work and ingenuity, as well as an understanding of children, went into the construction of that concept, and I stand in awe of the achievement, whatever one may think of the later commercial explosion of the material.rombe

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., so my guess that Roeling cleverly combined elements that had worked elsewhere may be right, then.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and thanks for the comliments.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Gavin said...

A few thoughts:

I liked the early Harry Potters (1 & 2), and my wife liked them up through 5. Rowling has a decent sense of whimsy, and it can be nice to indulge. Not my favorite kids' fantasy (I like Diana Wynne Jones better), but there's much worse out there.

Instead of reading what my kids read, I do a bit of the opposite -- push books that I've read on them :-). Of course, they have more time to read than I do, so it's only a subset of what they read, but it gives us something to talk about book-wise.

My mother-in-law likes the Larssen books, but still won't read any other crime fiction. It's a weird thing. And she's not the only person I know like that.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure many of Stieg Larsson's readers read no other crime fiction. Some probably came to Larsson through the general cultural hype and simply don't know of any other crime writers. Others may respond to something in Larsson other than what crime fiction readers respond to.

I'd like to sit down with an intelligent Larsson reader who reads no other crime writing and ask what he or she finds attractive and compelling in Larsson.

July 19, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

When a couple of writers set out to create the next Larsson-style sensation, they are likely to use whatever seems necessary to patch the thing together. A very different approach from just writing a good book, or good thriller.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not sure that's what Lars Kepler set out to do. At least in the brief excerpt I read, Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril said not that they were setting out to create a Stieg Larsson-style sensation, but rather that they admired Stieg Larsson's technique.

That's not so different from Raymond Chandler's awe at Hammett's achievement, or any of the countless authors whose eyes have been opened by the work of some predecessor.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

IJ

Exactly. There's a reek of cynicism about the whole exercise.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Certainly a whiff, though not necessarily a reek.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I don't believe that either Rowling or Larsson were cynical when they started out. And Larsson of course never knew of his great celebrity.

I think the world of publishing induces a certain amount of cynicism in us all over time.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I read Adrian accusation of cynicism as directed against Lars Kepler, though Stieg Larsson once wrote or said that he felt he was breaking rules and defying convention in crime fiction.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

I thought it was cynicism about optimists who think that reading is not on the decline because of mass phenomena like HP, Gw/Dt, and 50 Shades of G.

That kind of cynicism I would consider well placed.

July 19, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I thought our friend Adrian was unexpectedly optimistic in this matter, viz. "I dont think they'll have done any long term damage to the crime writing genre and perhaps they'll have got a few more people to read books who might otherwise have done something else."

July 19, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

We read with different emphases.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think he'd previously contented himself with citing statistics that fewer children were reading since the Harry Potter books had some on the scene. I regard it a sign of mellowing, or at least of resignation, for him to concede that the decline might have been steeper if not for Harry Potter.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, you can go there if you want.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll be interested in enquiring about how and why his daughter has outgrown the Harry Potter books. I never knew what age readers they were meant for. I bet you do, though. Who were the books' intended readers?

July 20, 2012  
Blogger seana said...

Grade school kids. Though as the protagonists age in the series, it was meant I think to appeal to older kids as well.

July 20, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Doesn't surprise me that a child of that family might be a bit ahead of the curve.

July 20, 2012  

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