Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The North will rise again: Roslund and Hellström's world

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, those progenitors of modern Nordic crime writing, sent Martin Beck to Hungary in The Man Who Went up in Smoke, but they generally kept him at home in Sweden as they probed the dark underside of that country's welfare state.

Henning Mankell, the next generation's leading light, wrote books "that connect crimes in Sweden to the rest of the world," according to one review, but there is always a sense in the books of national borders to be crossed.  The White Lioness, for example, divides its plot into two segments, one South African, one Swedish.

For the current generation of Nordic crime writers, borders might as well not exist, and not necessarily because of "globalization" either. (How quaint, naive and archaic that word sounds today.) Three Seconds, the Dagger-winning novel by the Swedish authors Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, offers a Swedish-Polish co-protagonist of Russian/German background infiltrating the Polish mafia in a case that involves Danish as well as Swedish police. His opposite number is a police detective whose name, Grens, is the Dutch word for border. (The Swedish-Polish protagonist has twin sons whose names are those of two of the greatest Dutch Renaissance humanists. I have no idea what significance this has, but it contributes to the novel's strong pan-Northern Europe feel.)

We get ferry trips between Poland and Sweden, sudden plane trips to Denmark, and crowded scenes at Warsaw's airport, and the authors make no big deal about this. It's how their world works.

I like to think that globalization in their world (and in that of Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl, where Lithuanian streetwalkers are part of the Danish human landscape) is neither new nor monolithic, but rather a reawakening of old, even ancient economic ties previously obscured by wars and revolution. In this case, the ties are those that bind the Baltic and North Seas and the nations that surround them. Once they traded herring and salt; today's commodities are methamphetamine and hookers.

The authors rarely make this point explicitly or didactically, and that's part of what makes their books exciting. They really do take readers into a new/old world.

(For an entertaining exposition of the view that Northern Europe constitutes an overlooked cultural and economic sphere, watch Jonathan Meades' documentary Magnetic North.)
Anders Roslund, Börge Hellström, Agnete Friis and Lene Kaaberbøl will be part of my panel "A QUESTION OF DEATH: HOW IMPORTANT IS WHODUNIT?" on Thursday, Sept. 15, 10 a.m.-11 a.m., at Bouchercon 2011.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...

At one Mr Meades eats beaver and rather enjoys it.

August 10, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

That sounds vaguely obscene, Adrian. :)

The Hanseatic League was an enormously wealthy and influential trading company between all the countries adjoining the Baltic and North Seas. They traded more than herring, :)
Actually, I think that bringling the European nations together is a wonderful thing (yes, much like the M.A. and Renaissance), if only they can weather the economic crisis that has befallen the Euro.

August 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

At one Mr Meades eats beaver and rather enjoys it.

Meades slyly picked up on the proverbial Nordic penchant for zany wordplay and practical jokes.

August 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Jonathan Meades's program, in addition to its excursions into the odd eating habits of Northern Europe, made the Hanseatic League look good and certainly worth knowing about.

No contemporary mystery worth its salt and herring will use the words Hanseatic League, but that's what R&J's book reminded me of -- that that the Baltic and North Seas were the nexus of a world just as Fernand Braudel's Mediterranean was.

August 10, 2011  

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