Scandinavian Noir  


Karin Fossum, Åke Edwardson, Helen Tursten, Arnaldur Indridason, Liza Marklund, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, reviewed by Glenn Harper, International Noir Fiction

fossumThe Scandinavians have been turning out prime examples of noir fiction since before the Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö books created a sensation 30 years ago with their detective, Martin Beck, and his team (many of those novels have been made into movies and also a first-class Swedish TV series).

Among the recent noir authors are Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund (though her novels are really mystery-thrillers, not noir), and Helene Turstenn in Sweden, Arnoldur Indridason in Iceland, Matti Joensuu in Finland (not to mention the wildly entertaining Finnish-noir TV series and movie featuring the laconic hitman called Raid), and in Norway,  Kjersti Scheen, Gunnar Staalesen, and Karin Fossum. I don't know of any Danish noir--perhaps somebody can fill me in.

fossumOne of the most recent translations is Fossum's Calling Out For You, featuring Inspector Sejer, a detective in a small Norwegian city and the surrounding towns. Fossum has revived a genuine small-town noir, combining the police procedural and the dark small-town ambiance that recalls James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Of the four of Fossum's novels to be translated thus far the first, Don't Look Back, and this most recent one are the best, and also the ones that stay closest to a police-procedural format. The other two diverge from the format though remaining in the noir tradition (Sejer is there, just not central to what is happening)--closer perhaps to the English psychological-noir tradition. In Don't Look Back and Calling Out For You, though, she adheres to the police format only in order to turn its conventions upside down. The biggest reversals come at the beginning of the earlier novel and at the end of the latest one (not to tell you too much about the plots). These two novels are so well done that they leave a reader thirsting for more, a prime consideration in genre fiction but a real problem given the lethargic schedule of the publication of translations.

 

Scandinavians, noir, and police

The long winter nights in Scandinavia would seem tailor-made for noir plots, but some of the new Norwegian and Swedish crime novels don't really go in that direction. And most of them (the ones that have made it into English anyway) are about the police, rather than private detectives (the staple hero of traditional noir). The one-person detective agency is represented only by the Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum (whose specialty is lost children, in novels translated as ) and Norway's Kjersti Scheen's (her novel Final Curtain has a setting on the fringes of the theatrical world). Staalesen's three novels translated so far (the only one currently in print is The Writing on the Wall, the others, published in Britain, are out of print and occasionally available through Internet booksellers) are bleak in outlook, anti-authoritarian, and frequently involved with the lower classes. All of that keeps them very much in the noir tradition. Scheen's novel is closer to the "amateur detective" tradition, since her heroine clearly doesn't know what she's doing and doesn't handle violent interactions at all well (kind of like the heroine of P.D. James's one (or is it two?) novel with a female, private detective, heroine). I wouldn't class Scheen as noir, exactly, because of the theatrical milieu and plucky heroine, but there is definitely a dark tone and a good deal of social criticism. Not exactly an amateur detective (since she's an investigative reporter), the heroine of Liza Marklund's Stockholm novels does fit into the plucky category, and the social criticism is more muted. Marklund's novels are more about the media, and the violent plots are about specific incidents more than social phenomenon (not very noir, I'd say). Karin Alvtegen's novels are not in a series--each takes a very noir, very "alternative social history" approach to outsiders, individuals at the fringes of the social milieu for one reason or another.

scandinavian noirBut the majority of what's been translated from Scandinavia concerns the police. Police procedurals are not in themselves inherently noir. The 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain can be very dark (and very entertaining) but are in a way a genre unto themselves. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö openly acknowledge their debt to the 87th precinct in their 10 novels featuring the the Stockholm murder squad, but while McBain's social criticism (and the darkness, perhaps) increase over the life of his series, the S/W books featuring the dour, melancholy Martin Beck are dark from the beginning, creating a bleak portrait of the welfare state of Sweden's mid- to late-20th century. I recently read this series straight through, as if it were a single novel, and it holds up very well, until the mess of the last book (The Terrorists), which was written during Wahlöö's final illness. The novels are each short (after the fashion of the earlier mystery, detective, and police novels--the genre has fattened since the '80s, even McBain's later novels were much longer than his earlier ones), and each is an easily consumed commodity, almost more like a chapter than a whole novel. And though the detectives don't change all that much through the series, their characters and personal situations develop over time. The excellent Swedish TV series made from the novels glosses over some of these changes, and the novels remain the definitive Martin Beck.

scandinaviaThe reason for this meditation is that I just finished Åke Edwardson's Sun and Shadow, translated from the middle of his series about Gothenburg chief inspector Erik Winter. There is some confusion in reading this novel, since there are evidently some elements from earlier novels that remain as fragmentary plot situations in this one, and Edwardon's style can be a bit oblique and choppy at times (even telegraphic, as in the resolution at the end of the book--very unsatisfying). Though Edwardson pointedly contrasts a not-that-idyllic Spanish coastal getaway (popular with Swedes) with the cold snowy winter of Gothenburg (the Swedish city's actual name is Göteborg), there is a bit of non-noir cliche in Edwardson's focus on the private life of the detective (and even more cliche, but oddly used, in the plot of the serial murder's turn toward threatening the detective's family). The novel is also a bit long. Helen Tursten's police procedural novel Detective Inspector Huss, also one of a series, but more self-explanatory, is a more satisfying book (also set in Göteborg). Though Tursten's text is more laconic than dramatic, and very much in the police-procedural tradition, the on-the-street focus of the plot and the difficulties of the female detective's life have a grittier, more realistic tone closer to Sjöwall/Wahlöö's books than Edwardson's book manages to be. While Edwardson's novel is a welcome addition to the growing list of available Swedish crime novels, Tursten's book is better.

scandinavian noirBut better still is the first Icelandic police/crime novel of Arnaldur Indridason (there's a diacritical mark in his name that I can't duplicate, but don't worry, Amazon etc. can't either, so the author's name is easy to search for). The novel is available under two different titles (I hate when they do that, I think there's a new book out and it turns out to be the same one): Jar City or Tainted Blood. Neither is a translation of the original Icelandic title. The book is very focused on the detective hero's methods and daily grind, and also tangentially on his alienated daughter's decline into the drug world (another cliche particularly of Scandinavian noir is the detective's daughter, present also in the Beck novels and Henning Mankell's Wallander novels--more on that in a minute). But in Jar City (or Tainted Blood) there is also a deeply noir metaphor, a "mire" or bog, almost with a quicksand overtone) that lies underneath the crime. The second novel in this series, translated as Silence of the Grave, is less satisfying in plot and metaphor than Jar City, but is still a good read, dealing with time, domestic violence, and (still) the descent of the detective's daughter into the drug world. There is another in this series promised for next year, and it's on my list, definitely.

scandinavian noirAnd one last comment, on the most recent Wallander novel to be translated, Before the Frost, which features the detective's daughter again, but this time as police in her own right, a rookie cop assigned to her father's district in southern Sweden. Mankell's first police novel, Faceless Killers, was excellent, capturing police work, social problems, and a dark plot in a laconic style that almost seems stilted at first but gradually grows on the reader. But while that first novel dealt with a confined, even stifling, small town, noir milieu, subsequent Wallander novels tend to move toward global plots. There is a very good Swedish TV version of these novels (and in one case, While Lioness, the movie is not only available in U.S. and U.K. in a subtitled version, but is also much better than the book it's based on). There are a couple of exceptions, but Before the Frost is not one of the exceptions, and this tendency to Big Plots takes away from the novels as noir, to my eye. The surface action of the novels is dark, and the personalities of the characters darker still, but the globalized action breaks through the enclosed, claustrophobic milieu that is essential to the concentrated gloom of true noir. Linda Wallander, the new daughter-cop of Before the Frost, is interesting, though, and all the Wallander novels are worth reading, if in one central aspect deficient (from my own perspective, in my search for contemporary noir).

As a contrast to the above comments on Scandinavian police fiction, there is a very cinematic French novel by Dominique Manotti, called Rough Trade in the translation that is very focused on police work at the micro, street level, plus lots of "lower depths" milieu within Paris. This fascinating novel has a sequel in translation that's been due out from a U.K. publisher for some time, and is now promised for this fall.

 

Copyright © 2005 by Glenn Harper

 

International Noir Fiction - Glenn Harper's blog offers excellent sections on Italian and Latin American noir, publishers of international noir in English, definitions of noir,  and so on -   "current and classic detective fiction, mostly from outside the U.S., in English translation", generally available either through U.S. or international sources. The aim is to talk about "books that rise above the formula, books that reveal something about their setting, books that (like the best crime fiction) reveal something about us and our times." http://internationalnoir.blogspot.com/