Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Draining Lake and the exceptional crime

I have a full review coming elsewhere of The Draining Lake, so for now I'll restrict myself to a wry observation that Arnaldur Indriðason makes in the book about his native Iceland.
Arnaldur lamented a few weeks ago at Bouchercon that "The biggest difficulty for an Icelandic crime writer is that we don't have much crime in the country." In The Draining Lake he has his narrator muse that the novel's three main police officers
"were more accustomed to dealing with simple, Icelandic crimes without mysterious devices or trade attachés who weren't trade attachés, without foreign embassies of the Cold War, just Icelandic reality: local, uneventful, mundane and infinitely removed from the battle zones of the world."
That passage comprehends both wistfulness and rueful, ironic observation. The novel itself reminds me a bit of Jo Nesbø's The Redbreast, with its excursions decades into the past for the roots of an event in the narrative present.

Is that sort of novelistic excavation more common in Nordic crime fiction than in crime writing from elsewhere? Does brutal crime so shock the placid, civilized surface of life in the Nordic nations that its crime writers are driven more than those elsewhere to probe the past for answers where, say, American authors might seek roots in the present?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The Second World War, the Nazi occupation of Norway, Denmark, Vichy France and the Cold War were such shattering events in Europe that they are bound to have writers probing into the past.
The intellectual battle between communism, fascism and democratic government is still going on in much of Europe simmering under that 'placid, civilized surface'.
I don't think anything in 20th century US history even Vietnam, even the Civil Rights Movement, even 9/11 can compare with the trauma of the those years on Europe's psyche.
The Ellis Peter's contenders this year included three out of six books on that 20 year period from 1930-1950, and three on the rest of history. Those three books were by English authors so it is not only the Nordics who are excavating the past it is a European occupation.

October 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps only the Civil War had a comparable effect in the U.S. And I may add this year's Ellis Peters shortlist to my own reading list. That's an intriguing list

Perhaps the clash between the peaceful present and what simmers beneath is sharper in the Nordic coutries, since these enjoy such an enviable reputation (except for an occasional story about high suivide rates) -- topping all those mortality tables and best-places-to-live rankings, and so on. After all, Arnaldur himself comments ironically on this in the passage I quoted.

October 29, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

1. Where does one find the Ellis Peters list?

2. Given the current state of Iceland's banks, perhaps new crime-novel fodder is being created even as we write!

October 29, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

1) You'll find information about the Ellis Peters winner here along with links to discussion of all the short-listed books.

2) Re Iceland’s financial crisis and its potential effect on the country’s crime writing, I went to the source

October 29, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I wanted to comment on this post for a while (but I hadn't had the time).

Obviously there might be a bias: Because readers have a certain opinion, those books are translated and published (and bought) that sustain this opinion. Per Wahlöös early books show that also a country like Sweden has social and political problems - to which (as far as I know) nowadays the integration of immigrates are to add.

As far as I understand it, the post and the comments cover two different topics. One is about the probing of historical events and the other is about books in which present day events are connected to past ones.

Living in a country that suffered as bad as any other (though by its own fault) I'm not sure whether the second world war still has a large effect on Europe's psyche - "only" on her shape.

From the outside it seems to me that the events in the recent US-history that are most often covered are 1968 and Jim Crow.

E.T. Blands Fatal Remains, several of George Pelecanos', L.A. Confidential, Kent Kruegers Thunder Bay, Nancy Pickards The Virgin of Small Plains, ..., or Thomas H. Cook's Breakheart Hill (one of the finest crime fiction books of all times) are books that connect the present with the past and are written by US-authors.

November 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One of John Connolly's novels probes the rippling after-effects of Jim Crow (interesting that an Irish author should take up the topic), and L.A. Confidential certainly takes up Jim Crow and maltreatment of Mexicans as well.

At least one author is trying to push World War II back into Europe's psyche, or at least into England's: John Lawton, especially in his current novel, Second Violin. Quite naturally Germans and, especially, Austrians, do not come off especially well in the novel. But Lawton's real subject is the comlicity and complacency of the English, and that's why the novel works, at least so far. That might make this book a relative, though a distant one, to the Sjowall and Wahloo books and some of the current Nordic crime writing, such as Arnaldur's: It probes beneath an apparently benign surface to find crime and evil.

November 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have already convinced me, that I must read Lawton. That Germans don't come off well, yes, obviously that makes sense.

How does Lawton compare to Alan Furst ?

November 12, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't read Alan Furst, though I think Lawton has. He brought up Furst's name last night. He also mentioned Philip Kerr, whom I think he also likes.

You're right that it obviously makes sense for the Germans not to come off well. Lawton's take on the Austrians and especially the English is less obvious, and that's what makes the novel interesting.

Where should I start my reading of Furst?

November 12, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fursts books are connected to each other. There are persons who play a big part in one book and a small part in an other book, so that events and places are bonding.

There are events that are told in different perspectives like the events around and after the Munich agreement or the invasion by German troops (of Poland resp. France)

Kingdom of Shadows won the Hammett, it is a good starting point and can be favorably combined with The Foreign Correspondent.

November 14, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the recommendations. It appears that Lawton handles his characters similarly. Frederick Troy is the series' protagonist, but he does not appear until page 124 of Second Violin. For the first 275 pages or so, Freddie's brother Rod figures more prominently.

November 14, 2008  

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