Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Whither The Mavericks?

I’m reading Barry Forshaw’s DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE at the moment, and a fine piece of work it is too, being a forensically detailed account of the rise and rise of Scandinavian crime fiction. One interesting aspect is the short interviews dotted throughout the text with British-based editors who have signed Scandinavian authors, who respond to Forshaw’s question of whether the current trend for Scandinavian crime fiction is running out of steam with variations on a standard response of, ‘Well, all good things must end, but my guy / gal is different to the rest because …’ Yes. But you would say that, wouldn’t you?
  The book has got me thinking about the future of Irish crime fiction, though - or rather, about the fact that ‘Irish crime fiction’ doesn’t really have a future. A couple of weeks ago I posted a comment on a website which was asking about which country was likely to break through as the ‘next Scandi crime’ phenomenon, suggesting that it had to be Ireland. Now I’m not so sure; in fact, I’m pretty certain it won’t happen.
  That’s not to say that Irish writers aren’t on a par with their peers all over the world; they are, and then some. I honestly believe that some of the Irish crime writers currently plying their trade are some of the finest writers working in the genre.
  The problem, in terms of the break-out to mass commercial success, is also one of Irish crime writing’s greatest strengths: its diversity.
  Over the last year or so I’ve read novels by Karin Fossum, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Camilla Lackberg, Roslund & Hellström, Liza Marklund, Jan Costin Wagner, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Anne Holt. Some were better than others; some were very good indeed.
  What struck me most forcibly, however, is how narrow are the parameters of Scandinavian crime fiction. That’s not to say that all the writers are working off the one palette - Karin Fossum’s novels are very different to Liza Marklund’s, for example, and there’s a marked difference in the urban- and rural-based police procedurals written by Jo Nesbo and Camilla Lackberg, respectively.
  Essentially, though, the Scandinavian novels I’ve read have been for the greater part characterised by the classic crime fiction model: a state-sanctioned investigator (cop, private eye, lawyer, etc.) charting the symptoms of turbulence in society and persuading us that the (admittedly tarnished) status quo is better than the alternative.
  There’s nothing wrong with that story-telling model, of course. I’m a fan of many writers who employ it. But it does seem to me, from my limited reading of Scandinavian crime writing, that there’s a homogeneity to the ‘brand’.
  I find that odd. It’s not as if the current crop of Scandinavian crime writers only began writing last year, or the year before. Hakan Nesser published his first novel in 1988; Henning Mankell’s first Wallander novel appeared in 1991; Karin Fossum’s first Inspector Sejer novel arrived in 1995; Anne Holt’s first novel came in 1993. Which is to say that the earliest pioneers have been working in the field for the best part of two decades. Shouldn’t a few mavericks have appeared at this stage, writers keen to subvert the established form by playing with narrative structure, or humour? Are there any Scandinavians working in the historical crime fiction realms that predate WWII, say? Is it the case that there are Scandinavian writers who take a decidedly post-modern take on the crime narrative, in the way Ken Bruen or Colin Bateman does, or in the way that John Connolly blends genres, but simply aren’t translated into English?
  Where are the Scandinavian comedy crime capers? The classical noirs that take the part of the wretched and doomed criminal as he seeks in vain for an escape from the labyrinth?
  If they’re out there, and I’m simply not aware of them, please do let me know.
  In the meantime, the whole reason I started writing this post was to celebrate the fact that Eoin Colfer’s postmodern comedy crime caper about a wretchedly balding bouncer, PLUGGED, has been shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prizes in the ‘Mystery / Thriller’ category. The full shortlist runs as follows:
PLUGGED by Eoin Colfer
11 / 22 / 63 by Stephen King
  Nice one, Mr Colfer sir. The prizes will be awarded on April 20th, by the way, and here’s hoping that Eoin will emulate Stuart Neville, whose THE TWELVE (aka THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST) won said category back in 2009.


Maxine said...

Jens Lapidus/Easy Money (sweden) is first of a trilogy to be translated, very much a hardboiled noir novel.

Then there is Amberville, which I haven't read but I believe is humour/fantasy based crime. (Swe)

And there is magic crime, eg The House of Shadows by Mikkael Birkkegard. (Den)

I think it is true that most of the Scandinavian crime novels, different among themselves (the Norwegians Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo and Gunnar Staalesen are as different from each other as anything), do focus on the "wider social context" as well as atomosphere/sense of place -- I think this is one reason they are so popular - they are not just crime novels but "novels with a crime in them".

If people want "cosy", for example, they are totally spoilt for choice by the trillions of examples coming out of the US (cats, dogs, cookies, gnomes, you name it). There are plenty of English examples too.

Again, if people want hardboiled/noir, they are not exactly spoilt for choice with the output from the Americas and Spain. If you count Finland as Scandinavia, there are some pretty hardboiled examples, eg the Helsinki Homicide books or the Raid novels. Nights of Awe has just been published by Bitter Lemon press.

Quite possibly there are lots of these novels being published in Scandinavia, but not translated because they are too similar to what is in a very crowded marketplace. Dorte has said this kind of thing about Danish crime novels - there are masses of not very good ones, that don't get translated, apparently. Maybe all your cosy/noir/humour is lurking in there.

crimeficreader said...

And there's Sweden's Theorin who sails close to the wind with supernatural territory. (But not enough to push him over the edge into it.)

Uriah Robinson said...

Dec, I think we may all have been fooled by those stickers and blurbs that tell us that Lackberg and Larsson, and Nesbo and Nesser are similar.

There are some Scandinavian authors writing very different books such as Missing:Karin Alvtegen [Sweden], The Serbian Dane and The Woman from Bratislava: Leif Davidsen [Denmark], and recently The Boy in the Suitcase; Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis [Denmark]. From memory only two of these books have a state sanctioned investigator who plays a minor part in one of them.
I find the quirky humour of Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren series to be totally different from Mankell, Leif GW Persson or Asa Larsson, even though they all get those ridiculous stickers comparing them to each other.

You can't expect the stuffed shirt inhibited Norwegians or Danes to have the imagination of a laid back Irish author.
Perhaps if Irish crime fiction had the marketing budget that publishers seem to have have lavished on Scandinavian crime fiction the current situation would be different. ;-)

seana said...

I hadn't notice Irish writers being as laid back as all that...

I still remain hopeful about Irish crime fiction becoming a bigger phenomenon. Neville, Colfer and Tana French have all been up for these sorts of prizes in the U.S. recently. I really don't think American readers are averse to reading Irish writers, but better marketing would help a lot.

Yes, and congratulations to Mr. Colfer!

michael said...

I am not sure there was a demand for Scandinavian mysteries.

Remember when Dan Brown's "DaVinci Code" became such a hit. There were an endless parade of similar thrillers.

When Stieg Larsson's "Girl With a Dragon Tattoo" was a hit, it wasn't because of the country but the style.

I know some love sub-genres based on language or location, but most readers choose their next book by the writer's style not the country.

michael said...

I think I should add for a comment on a blog devoted to a country's crime fiction, I mean the next big thing does not have to come from a country but could come from the style of an Irish writer. And there is an Irish POV that differs from other countries.

This is why we see little success for the Scandinavian comedy cozy.

seana said...

Right, Michael--not that I could define it, but I think that there is an Irish sensibility that is a common thread through the Irish crime fiction I read.

Of course, it's hard to market it if you can't define it, I suppose.

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

If I weren't typing with both hands, I'd be using one of them to rub my chin thoughtfully. I had not thought of Scandinavian crime fiction in these terms before, but the outstanding Nordic crime novels I've read have been those that took a different approach: Arnaldur Indridason's, for example, or Karin Fossum's "He Who Fears the Wolf," whose humor made it a much stronger book than "The Devil Holds the Candle," with its skillfully done but standard-issue psycho-holds-prisoner plot.

Finland's Harri Nykanen sticks out for its extreme deadpan humor and Roslund and Hellstrom's "Three Seconds" does some interesting things with that notion of the state actor, but you're right: Scandinavian crime fiction can't come within miles of Irish for breadth and diversity of approach.

And here's hoping Colfer becomes the second Irish member of one of my Bouchercon panels to win the L.A. Times award.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Peter Rozovsky said...
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Peter Rozovsky said...

I’d wager that the Scandinavian provenance is what lets Amazon get away with charging $13.99 for an e-book of that Jens Lapidus novel. Easy money, indeed.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

seana said...

I'm reading another Swedish crime novel that exactly fits the mold described here, as a matter of fact--Between Summer's End and Winter's Longing, by Leif GW Persson. It is definitely a novel about the state, but there is a lot of deadpan, extremely dry humor in it so far.

Maxine said...

I meant to type that people are spoilt for choice when it comes to noir/hardboiled, from the Amercias/Spain, not that they weren't, sorry.

Re Peter's comment on "Amazon" charging for that e-book, not Amazon! The publisher is setting the price - this is a well-known and longstanding affair - there is currently a legal case now in which Amazon is trying to stop publishers setting the price.

bookwitch said...

Mavericks? In Scandinavia? Are you insane?

We believe in the well ordered life and all detectives are entitled to regular pay and a decent pension and the right to be ill or to take paternity leave. Even maternity leave if need be.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Maxine, I'd read about that dispute, and I stand corrected. Amazon likes to let the world know when it does not get its way. I've seen those "The publisher has set the price for this title" notices. But my point remains the same: Whoever set the price, that price would likely have been lower than $13.99 were Lapidus not Scandinavian. (And I don't presume to suggest what a fair price is for e0books.) When it comes to crime writing, Ireland is a country, and the Scandinavian countries are a brand.

Diane said...

Where are the mavericks? Try Ice Cold Crime's offerings -- Finnish crime fiction by award-winning authors such as Jarkko Sipila (HELSINKI HOMICIDE series) The quirky sense of Finnish humor is quite evident.

splotch said...

I'd imagine there are loads of new scandanavian writers that just haven't been translated yet. I heard a Nesbo interview recently where he mentioned a load of names I'd never heard of.

Also I think the translating flattens out the style a bit I'd imagine. You aren't really reading a Nesbo as such in a way, but a translated Nesbo. A lot harder from a style point of view to translate more flowery writing like a James Lee Burke I'd imagine.

Overall I don't see that much sameness among scandanavian writers really. Those that follow the procedural route do so in a certain tradition that makes sense, and those that do the thriller route do theirs. There probably isn't as much of a Fred Vargas absurdist writer, but again they might not have been translated.

Declan Burke said...

Much obliged for all the feedback and suggestions, folks. Plenty of new material there for me, ta.

Cheers, Dec