Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Scandinavian writers

Fellow blogger and Balloon Juice reader Linkmeister told me about Detectives Beyond Borders, an exemplary blog on non-American mysteries, which features a lengthy blog roll that includes Scandinavian Crime Fiction. (Linkmeister also solved my ‘small footer’ problem for which I am forever grateful.)

It never occurred to me to create a blog on such a specific subject, but if I did it might have been Scandinavian crime fiction. Good thing I didn’t because I am a near neophyte, having read only four (well, five) authors:  Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell and Stieg Larrson. 

I have a definite order of preference among those, starting with the Martin Beck series by Sjöwall and Wahlöö. It’s hard to explain why these books are great. The writing is spare and plain -- adjectives are hard to find -- and no detail is too mundane for these authors, who often recount scenes like a court reporter.

Yet I’ve never read anything as suspenseful as the stake-out of the suspect in the series' first book, Roseanna. The police are investigating a crime in which catching the killer is like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack. They have zeroed in on someone, but he has done nothing yet to justify their suspicions so they employ a woman detective to entice him into making a move. In the meantime, they watch him day and night while he follows an ordinary, boring routine. The capture was a bit predictable, probably because the scene has been done to death since the book was written in the 1960s, but it’s the mind-numbingly dull stakeout scene that I love. For the cops, it sounds like it must be like watching paint dry, but for the reader it is ultimate suspense. 

The books are not whodunits in the typical sense; you’re not presented with a cast of likely suspects. The crimes are central to the books, but the criminals make only cameo appearances, usually with little to no dialogue, and only when they are in the sights of the police or at the end when they are apprehended.  (I should say I know this to be true only of the first three books in the series.) 

All that is because the books are about the police. The reader stands side-by-side with the police, not the victims or the victims’ families or the suspects or the criminals.  And, as others have pointed out, the books are about Swedish society. 

As I’ve already written, I like Henning Mankell very much. He follows in the same unsentimental, realistic style of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Kurt Wallander is as essential to Mankell’s books as Martin Beck is to the Sjöwall and Wahlöö series. But Mankell adds more convoluted plots, some usual suspects and commentary on the world. Wallader is gloomy and emotional while Beck tends to be more inured. 

I shouldn’t really comment on Nesbø. I’ve only read Nemesis and I don’t remember it, but I have a vague recollection of feeling like the plot went off in too many directions. But that may be unfair. 

As for Larsson, I’ve only read the first of his insanely popular trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I put that book down after about 200 pages, picked it up a month later and finished it in a day or two of near-constant reading. It was compelling reading, but, gotta say, I didn’t love it like apparently most of the rest world did. A thorough, page-turning plot, but I find the characters a bit cartoonish, especially Lisbeth Salander. The big crime at the center of the book feels almost incidental to the plot and I find some stuff involving Salander gratuitous. I do find the corporate intrigue interesting. Maybe in one of the later books that becomes a focus. 

I like to find people who confirm my feelings, not to dump on Larsson but just so I know I’m not alone. I know there have been some mediocre to bad reviews of the books, and now the World Socialists organization has weighed in.  The critique is much more academic than mine, but echoes some of my problems with the book. (He also takes the Martin Beck series to task which I will not sign on with.) 

I found the link at the above mentioned Scandinavian Crime Fiction, where I hope to continue to find more Scandinavian authors like Leif G. W. Persson, Camilla Lackberg, Ake Edwardson and others to add to my to-read list. 

Do you like to read authors from a specific part of the world? 


Linkmeister said...

I've read all three of the Larsson books and reviewed them here (top three reviews on that page). My feeling about book one was that it ended about 50 pages late; solving the industrialist issue was anticlimactic after the Salander sub-plot was done.

Books two and three really got me, as my reviews show.

Cops and Cozies said...

You've convinced me to read at least the second book. And thanks for pointing me to another great web site. I'm putting it on my blog roll.

Linkmeister said...

You mean Library Thing? It's a joy and a really useful tool. Once you get your initial shelf dump into it, it's easy to keep up. My first step when I buy a new book is back here to the computer to plug its data into my library.

Linkmeister said...

As to authors and their regionality, I'm not particular. Most of what I have is English or American, but I've read some Aussie, some Irish, some South African. . .