Alerted well in advance by Simon Clarke, and via a generous complimentary copy given to Karen of Euro Crime (one for each of us!) at the London Book Fair, I have spent the past couple of weeks browsing through and enjoying 2010's first issue of Swedish Book Review, a crime fiction special. Swedish Book Review takes a literary perspective of the genre, focusing on Kerstin Ekman. I read Ekman's novel Blackwater a year or so ago, on the basis of a recommendation in the back of one of the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I did not review the novel, however, because I didn't feel I really "got" it all, with its in-depth portrait of an isolated, traditional community as well as the shifts in time (the two main sets of events are 18 years apart, but we don't realise this until some way into the book) so one often did not quite know where and who one was reading about. It is a very sad book, though, in that one of the people who is murdered is a character I grew to like. Since then, I learned from Dorte that Blackwater is about a place and characters that featured
in previous books by the author (not translated into English), which explains some of my confusion if not all of it. And recently, I learnt that Bernadette began the novel but did not review it, either.
So, with this background I was intrigued by the focus on Kerstin Ekman in the magazine. Translator Anna Paterson writes a lead article (p 3) on Kerstin Ekman and Swedish crime, in which she briefly covers the author's first seven novels, beginning as "playful but conventional variations on the classical detection theme" but (the last four) showing "many signs of departure from the riddle-solving, retributive approach". The only one of these seven translated into English, by Joan Tate, is Under the Snow (1961, tr. 1996), the story of an isolated rural community in the far north of Sweden, "its people held captive by landscape and circumstance. A precise knowledge of place confers originality on an otherwise straightforward story about a murder intended to cover up an inconvenient fatherhood." Anna Paterson identifies Death Knell (Dodsklockan, 1963), a story about elk-hunters in a forest community, as the most prescient of the author's later work.
The author then moved away from this type of novel, and Anna Paterson analyses Ekman's place as a
major literary figure, which began with a quartet written under the main title of The Women and the Town (1974-1983). Ekman returned to the crime genre much later with Blackwater (1993, tr.1995, also by Joan Tate), again set in the far north and involving themes of the invasion of industrialisation and how this affects the old ways of life. A subsequent crime novel is Revive Me (1996), taking a somewhat different path with the theme of "crimes against humanity". Anna Paterson writes: "As in so many of Ekman's novels, a crime infects the body of the story, but we are never quite sure what happened – let alone why." Then, from 1999 to 2003 (so actually after Blackwater, not before, I think), she wrote the Wolfskin trilogy, set in the countryside around Blackwater and following the fates of a group of people over two centuries, showing how old practices have become crimes as the wilderness was tamed. One crime haunts the narrative and is a core element of the trilogy (only the first novel in this set, God's Mercy, has been translated, by Linda Schenck).
Ekman's most recent novel is The Practice of Murder (2009), "the story of a doctor who, driven by his
egotistical longing for recognition, kills to rid himself of an odious senior colleague and at the same time protect an adorable girl from the old man's disturbing attentions."
Other articles in the Swedish Book Review feature translations of extracts of some of these works by Ekman, by Rochelle Wright, Sarah Death, Linda Schenck and Anna Paterson. The novels are: The Practice of Murder, Scratchcards, Revive Me and Devil's Horn. One can only hope that these extracts will attract attention and encourage a publisher to produce English language editions of these novels, one day.
There is more about Swedish crime fiction by other authors in the rest of the magazine. I may return to these in a future post.
You can subscribe to Swedish Book Review here. I'm going to.
Among many other literary works, Anna Paterson has translated one of my very favourite crime novels, which I highly recommend: Missing by Karin Alvtegen.