Wednesday, May 06, 2009

CrimeFest blogfest III: Interview with Håkan Nesser

Håkan Nesser will be a featured author at CrimeFest 2009. (I'll be there, too, as a humbly worshipful paying customer.) Nesser's appearance coincides with the publication of Woman With Birthmark, the fourth of his novels about Inspector Van Veeteren to be translated from Swedish into English. The original version won the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy's prize for best novel in 1996, the second of Nesser's three victories in that category.

In the third of a series of posts about CrimeFest authors, here's an interview I did with Nesser last spring, upon publication of the Van Veeteren novel Mind's Eye.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

Readers of translated crime fiction know that series are often translated out of order. Håkan Nesser's is no different. The newly published Mind's Eye, third of Nesser's ten Van Veeteren novels to become available in English, after Borkmann's Point (second in the sequence) and The Return (third), is the first of the series, published in Swedish in 1993.

The novel tells the story of a high school teacher named Janek Mitter who wakes up hung over and finds his wife dead in the bathtub. He struggles to recover his memories of the fatal night, cracks jokes and makes a mockery of his trial, and finds himself confined to a mental institution. Then Mitter himself is murdered, and the investigation and mystery begin in earnest.

The book contains much that will be familiar to Nesser's readers: deadpan humor, sympathy even for unsympathetic characters, and delightfully true-to-life oddball observations. Since this was the first in the series, a reader might naturally wonder if the novel is more autobiographical than those that followed, in the proverbial manner of first novels everywhere. I did, so I asked Nesser a few questions.

What have English readers missed by having only three of the Van Veeteren novels available in their language?

You’ve missed seven books, but hopefully Pantheon will make up for the loss. Next one is published next April. Woman with Birthmark (Kvinna med födelsemärke) got the award for best crime novel in Swedish 199-something. (Note to readers: The year was 1996, when Nesser beat a field that included Åke Edwardson and Henning Mankell.)

You were a teacher. To what extent does Elmer Suurna, the headmaster in Mind’s Eye whose only ambition was “to keep his handsome red-oak desktop clean and shiny,” reflect your own disillusionment with that profession?

My disillusionment is not that big. The main problem with Swedish schools is too much administration, too little money. Most headmasters are good. I have seen one or two like Suurna, though.

You named your protagonist, Van Veeteren, for Janwillem van de Wetering, author of the Grijpstra and De Gier stories. What do you find attractive about Van de Wetering’s work? How is Grijpstra and De Gier’s world view similar to Van Veeteren’s?

Not sure. I enjoyed De Gier and Grijpstra a lot, of course, perhaps the way they sort of look in the wrong direction most of the time, not really concerned about their work. But perhaps Van Veeteren is different in this respect.

Minor characters in Mind’s Eye are named Joensuu, Mankel and Kellerman. Why those particular crime writers? And what other writers have I missed?

Well, most people like to have a name, and it doesn’t cost a lot to give knowledgeable readers some meaningless hints.

Both this book and The Return display strong sympathy with characters who have been in prison or otherwise institutionalized. What are the origins of this sympathy?

With different circumstances the good guy would have been the bad guy. It’s important to understand the motive, and to not demonize the criminal. Some murders are more understandable than others, and those are also more interesting to write about.

The great Swiss crime writer Friedrich Glauser also showed special sympathy for institutionalized or otherwise downtrodden characters. Do you know his books?

No, never read Glauser. Heard of him though.

What plans do your U.S., U.K. or Australian publishers have for issuing more English translations of your work?

See 1). Also I believe they’ve bought a fifth title from the series.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Captain Mary said...

Sounds like my kind of story.

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

He's not like most other crime writers. You might also try the Dutch author Janwillem van de Wetering, whose name comes up in the discussion. If you do, you might start with Hard Rain, An Outsider in Amsterdam or one of two overlapping collections of short stories about "The Amsterdam Cops."

As for Håkan Nesser, try any of the three novels mentioned here. Or learn Swedish. Or German, Italian or any of the other languages into which more of his books have been translated.

June 23, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's a nice bit of synchronicity; I was just reading about this book on the UK publisher's website.

Incidentally, and quite unrelated, you might be sorry to hear that Il Falcone Maltese seems to have gone the way of the dodo.

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Gary ("Old Dude") said...

Being the typical "ugly American" and literate in only one language (and even thats questionable), I am not familiar with foreign authors per se. I have to say from your post however I like the premise of his books---but you say they are translated out of order? I hate that---I love finding a author who has a run of books using the same characters, but much prefer to read them in sequence---not hit or miss. It annoys me no end to find books that list other books by this author, but make no reference to the sequence they were written and published.

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Karen (Euro Crime) said...

gjg - this was one of the main reasons I set up Euro Crime so that we could have the books listed in the written order rather than translated order! To see series in order =>

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps it would more appropriate to say it had gone the way of the Etruscans. Sorry to hear that.

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GJG, out-of-order translations probably bother me less than they bother some other readers -- with one exception: You really should read Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast before you read Devil's Star. The books were written but not translated into English in that order. I read them in the order they were translated, which robbed The Redbreast of a fair amount of suspense. (The books are still worth reading, in whatever order.) In Håkan Nesser's case, there are certain small stylistic differences between the first in the series and the two that followed, but no big narrative leaps to be missed by reading out of order.

His translations actually stick closer to the order of original publication than many series do. The first two translated into English were the second and third in the series, followed by this latest, the first. The novel that the author says will be released next April is the fourth in the series. What English readers have to cope with, if they care about such matters, is that the English translations lag so far behind publication of the Swedish originals. The series is now up to ten books. Even though we are getting the first four in something like series order, who knows what Nesser has the characters get up to in the many later novels? The first four in the series, of which we will get to see the fourth in 2009, were published in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996.

And Euro Crime is a fine resource for chronologically accurate series listing and many other reasons as well. By all means, visit.

June 23, 2008  
Blogger Kostas said...

In Spanish, Nasser has only one book translated: La tosca red, in the original is: Det growmaskiga nätet.
To my reading proved to be a fantastic and an alternative to Mankell.

June 27, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That is this book, the once called Mond's Eye in English. I am surprised. Most other languages have more of his books than English does.

June 28, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Mind's Eye," not "Mond's Eye"!

June 28, 2008  
Blogger R/T said...

I recently read and enjoyed WOMAN WITH BIRTHMARK by Hakan Nesser. You do not want to miss Nesser's intriguing tale of unrepentant brutality, family loyalty, and determined revenge.

POSTSCRIPT: Congratulations for the honors you have just been given by SPINETINGLER. Well done!

May 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the note. I've read the first three of Nesser's novel translated into English, but not yet this latest, which is actually an earlier book in the series.

It's refreshing to see you descrine his work in those terms. Discussions of Nesser often focus on his off-bear humor or the odd games he plays with setting.

Thanks, too, for the news about the Spinetingler. I had not yet heard it.

May 06, 2009  

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