Not getting away with Scandinavian murder

My second riposte is against a much harder target than my first one of this pair, which concerned Ian Rankin. This time, I am being forced to take issue with the wonderful Mike Ripley, he of the excellent Angel detective series, witty raconteur, man about town, distinguished reviewer, author of Shots Mag's hilarious Getting Away With Murder column, etc. Hence I shall probably be ripped (ha ha) to shreds or suffer some equally ghastly fate for launching into a foolhardy defence of Scandinavian crime fiction and of the "fanatical" and "chattering classes" as he seems to be calling me and others who dare to like reading this stuff. In his August column containing a very funny hatchet-job on Johan Theorin's latest, and superb, novel The Darkest Room*,  Mr Ripley writes:

quite recently, I was censored by the Eurocrime website when I wrote that I could think of many “terminally-serious, glacially-paced Scandinavian crime writers who should lighten up and try a crash course in (the sheer bloody humanity of) Reginald Hill.” Okay, so maybe I do have issues with the chattering classes who think that if it’s Scandinavian crime-writing it must, by association, be upmarket, fashionably flat-packed and therefore good. Its fans tend to be just that, fanatical; going into raptures about the latest Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish or Icelandic writer they have ‘discovered’.

In his July column, Mr Ripley comments on the 2009 International Dagger shortlist, including this sentiment:

Predictably, the list reflects the love affair between Nordic crime and the chattering classes, with five out of the six books being from authors of Scandinavian origin (four of them alive).

As Mr Ripley's Getting Away with Murder column does not allow comments, I thought I'd respond briefly here:

Dear Mr Ripley

I confess that I am one of those who in recent years have discovered novels by authors such as Maj Sjowall/Per Wahloo, Johan Theorin, Helene Tursten, Liza Marklund, Asa Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Anne Holt, Kjell Ericksson, Yrsa Sigurdadottir, Ake Edwardson, Inger Frimansson, Camilla Lackberg, Karin Fossum, Hakan Nesser, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and others from the Scandinavian region. Before then, I had thought these countries' entire crime-fiction output was written by Henning Mankell. While many (but not all) of these books are admittedly not primarily exciting, action-packed thrillers, most are either variants on the traditional police-procedural, or rely on a combination of character dynamics, atmosphere and a sense of place to hold reader interest. Some are even funny.
I find that most of them succeed admirably. Over the same period I have read an equal if not greater number of US and UK thrillers and other crime fiction, including some authors whom you promote in your column (some of whom I have read purely on the basis of recommendations in your column), and find that quite a few of them blur into an unmemorable, same-y whole. Others are good, but on average, I'm finding that for me, translated fiction is achieving a higher star-rate than yet another cynical, sexist male detective with a drink problem, or yet another high-octane, predictable thriller.
I agree with you that there is much excellent non-Nordic translated crime fiction in print just now (eg Saskia Noort, Petra Hammesfahr, Andrea Camilleri, Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti, Gianrico Carofiglio). But I'd argue that a book is as good as its reader finds it. I "chatter" (a.k.a. read and review, I presume) these Scandinavian books because I enjoy them, and plead guilty to liking to share that joy in my reviews. I'm a reasonably well-read, old and broadly educated person, so while my enthusiasm for Nordic noir may certainly be considered strange, it isn't copy-cat, vacuous or jejune.
By the way, I think you mean "edited" when you write that your review was "censored".

Yours sincerely

Maxine Clarke
Confessed reading addict – with a confessed current bias towards Scandinavia.
Confessed admirer of Mike Ripley.

*Different perspectives of Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room can be found at:

DJ's krimiblog
Crime Scraps
International Noir Fiction
It's a Crime
Nordic Bookblog

Some of these people even like reading Reginald Hill ;-). (An excellent author, in case the ironic intention does not come across.)
My own (positive, I'm afraid Mr Ripley) review of The Darkest Room is submitted to Euro Crime.

7 thoughts on “Not getting away with Scandinavian murder

  1. I have one small problem with your post Maxine, where you say you are ” old and broadly educated person”. You are not “old” if you are old I must be ancient. ;o)
    Most of what the MIke Ripley writes is very amusing and he usually has some interesting things to say, but on this occasion I totally agree with Maxine. I am certainly not one of the “chattering classes” I started reading crime fiction because I was brought up with heavy duty criminals on the other side of our garden wall.
    This is not some new affectation indeed I was searching in Totnes bookshops as long ago as 1987 trying to complete my Sjowall and Wahloo collection. Henning Mankell’s books have been published in English for over 10 years and they have been happily read by many alongside Reginald Hill, Peter Robinson and Ian Rankin.
    The International Dagger was created possibly because of the prospect of translated books winning the major prize year on year despite there being some superb British writers around.
    This isn’t some brief love affair but a long standing marriage with those Nordic writers who describe their countries, make a social comment, campaign for right over might, make us chuckle and still have time to surprise us with twists and turns in their plots.
    Maxine has listed many brilliant writers and perhaps I may be permitted to add three more, thriller writer Leif Davidsen, the very noir Massimo Carlotto and the superb Carlo Lucarelli.
    I can assure Mike there is nothing “upmarket” about these writers and the only thing “fashionably flat packed” is the bodies.
    We are not snobs we just like a good read.

  2. Well said!
    And as a scandinavian, I would like to add that to me it is difficult to decide what is most silly: a foolhardy defence of ALL Scandinavian crime fiction or a foolhardy rejection of the whole packet, just because other readers happen to like them. We have some that are better than Reginald Hill, others that are worse.

  3. Agreed, Dorte, and as well as that, there is the subjective element. One person’s good book is another’s bad one.
    Thanks for your comment, Norman!

  4. Very well said Maxine. I will admit to being a recent reader of Scandinavian crime fiction but I put my interest down to knowledge and availability rather than a need to keep up with the latest fad. Where I live there are only a couple of chain book stores (no independents) and for the most part all they stock is rows and rows of James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and the entire Kellerman family. Oh and some Ruth Rendells for an English perspective. So until the internet, and in particular book blogs, came along I had no way of knowing that there was anyone else doing any crime fiction writing. Now that I can find my own recommendations and source my own books affordably (thank you Book Depository) I have branched out to reading all sorts of new writers. Many of these are Scandinavian (some have been wonderful discoveries while some have not) but I’ve also used the same means to find wonderful non-Scandinavians like Denise Mina, Matt Rees, CJ Box and Deon Meyer – none of whom warrant even a centimetre of shelf space in my local Borders and all of whom are a vast improvement on the dreck that is found there).

  5. Apologies for the “essay” that follows, Maxine.
    I do so love the reference to “terminally-serious, glacially-paced Scandinavian crime writers” for they are not terminally-serious without humour I find and I am still wondering if “glacially-paced” reflects the slow and stuttering banger or third gear in a decent car, as opposed to the Top Gear style lunacy of pace of some US and UK counterparts.
    However, I feel a need to take time out from my job hunting for some R&R and particularly because:
    (1) I am a fence-sitter on the Scandinavian crime front, taking them as objectively as the next author, and
    (2) My translated crime fiction read in 2009 has seen more weight given to the Dutch thus far, having read Saskia Noort, Esther Verhoef and Simone Van Der Vlugt.
    (3) Where I can, I will focus on debut (mainly British) debut authors on my blog.
    Thank you for the link to my thoughts on Johan Theorin’s latest, Maxine. It is a good case in point. The downsides of this novel’s presentation for me were inevitably likely to put me off: mention of use of ghost story in reviews and a back cover synopsis that covered over half of the story when reading (what’s to come and is it worth it?). However, like Richard Jay Parker’s Stop Me – a plot-focused speed read thriller, read at about the same time – I ended up reading Theorin in three sittings also. Why? Because of this master-storyteller’s ability to draw me in and create suspense and mystery. As Norm noted too, he also takes time out to lighten the mood with some humour, such as the interaction between the women in the old people’s home. This is completely nothing to do with the plot, but life as we know it and draws a smile at least.
    In respect of Iceland, I was drawn to Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s first novel having heard her on stage at the Hay Festival, when I loved her down to earth approach to life and humour. I found both these aspects in her two novels published in English, to date.
    For the “terminally serious”, I think we can look no further than our own shores when it comes to crime fiction, for it is the Brits who seem to excel in writing crime without humour, with the notable exception of Mark Billingham and those who pursue the sub-genre of comic crime, such as Mr Ripley himself. How wonderful it is, on times, to read a novel that lightens the load with humour, for it reflects real life: we hardly ever experience a day without a smile or a chuckle at something we hear or see. For me, that provides a balance based in reality, even if it is the dark humour of the police and forensics, as long as well-placed and within general taste.
    Mr Ripley’s humorous diatribe was accompanied by the question of why the CWA had conceived such an award for translated crime fiction while dropping its comic crime award (his own arena), if I recall correctly. That is a matter for the CWA, but translated crime fiction comes with the complications of the nuances posed in translation and perhaps deserves its own award to reflect that. Thereafter, if you are to have an award for the sub-genre of comic crime, how many sub-genres would also battle for recognition? And how many arguments over categorisation would arise? We already have Tom Rob Smith, proud enough to go to NY to accept an ITW award for first novel, (again) if I recall correctly, but still touting that he is a “literary” writer from what I read on the internet. Then there are those authors who argue that their books simply have a crime in it, hoping to appeal to a greater audience. (And why bother, I ask you? Just look at the bestsellers’ list to find a home for sales: it isn’t dominated by general or literary fiction “with a crime in it”.)
    It seems to me that the UK-based CWA has gone out on a limb to recognise translated crime fiction, for it is not always a UK translator and hence not always UK-based. But I understand that the award categories are to grow in future years now that they have a deal with Cactus TV. What these involve, I am yet to discover.
    In conclusion, I agree with your comment that one person’s good book is another’s bad one, Maxine. After sifting through the detritus that exists, it all comes down to taste. My own taste has changed over the years, allowing me to recognise this more fully. I once sought out and enjoyed the high-octane thrillers you mentioned, but these days I seek something with more depth and thought as my bread and butter. It’s all down to the book in hand and personal taste at the end of the day, but I thank the various publishers for buying novels in translation as they have brought us some wonderful books in recent years.
    The other good thing about translated crime is a setting new to us Brits and one that the author knows well. It can entice in reading and in life. We may travel to the obvious locations for holidays etc., but we are opened to new locations as a result of reading. I, for one, have my travel-bug re-invigorated as a result. I have learned that Sweden has summer locations of tourist attraction and that the Dutch value their beaches. Any future travel for me will not be condensed to a city of note; I will travel further. And, as the internet supports and promotes the global world, I am pleased that my crime fiction reading broadens this further, when I allow it.
    Back to Theorin. Would I have been aware of the Swedish island of Oland without this author? No, probably. Would I have realised that other (close) cultures have the same threats and pressures without reading this novel? Again, no. The same applies to the others I have read in translation.
    Sadly, UK publishers and ACE recently announced a Dutch author promotion which omits crime fiction authors. ( Why is it that crime fiction, which offers so much and sells so well, often has to fight over the back seat in the literary car? Time to dump the banger and get real, I think. Time to stop the apologies for it being crime, too. Wherever it comes from, good crime fiction is good crime fiction and let the chattering classes chatter…

  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Bernadette and CFR. Bernadette, we are a bit luckier than you with our local Borders and Waterstone’s, both quite good for crime, but even so much of the translated and back-lists have to be obtained via the internet.
    CFR – yes, I used to read more “adventure” and thriller books, less so nowadays. I’ve enjoyed those Dutch authors, too (have just finished Close-Up by Verhoef, and also two Saskia Noorts). They are all page-turners, but not of the “action thriller” variety.
    I can’t believe I missed Karin Alvtegen in the list in my post! She is a great example as she writes the kind of crime fiction denigrated by Mr Ripley (eg Shadow) as well as exciting thrillers (eg Missing).
    Also agree with you on the categories, CFR. Authors who can be considered “literary” or “crime”, depending on where you sit, are Kate Atkinson (several), Stef Penny (The Tenderness of Wolves) and Diane Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale). I’m not big on these categorisations, myself, but for people who do like them, the edges are very blurred indeed, translated fiction or not.

  7. And ,of course,England’s own Ruth Rendell,
    is half-Swedish,and fluent in the language.

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