Book review: Scandinavian Crime Fiction, eds Nestingen and Arvas

Scandinavian Crime Fiction
eds Andrew Nestingen & Paula Arvas
University of Wales Press, 2011.

Ten years in the making, Scandinavian Crime Fiction is a series of essays, academic in tone, about the “brand” (as the editors call it) of crime novels from the region, in the light of their increasing popularity since the 1990s. The only connection between the essays is this broad subject area; there is no central thesis or attempt to synthesise contributors’ views, though several of them write from similar perspectives. There is also no attempt to cover all the books from the region, leading to the omission of several important authors.

Of course there is organisation in the book: the first section loosely looks at the history of Scandinavian crime fiction, looking back into the relatively distant past (not as far back as the sagas and myths) when the output was more similar to Agatha Christie-style novels, until the watershed of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s ten-book Martin Beck series in the 1960s and 70s, “the story of a crime”, which examined and heavily criticised the Swedish welfare state and a perceived increase in fascist government and politics. This part of the book examines some police procedural novels. The second section is about regions in various novels; and the third is about gender and cultural politics. TV programmes, as well as novels, come under scrutiny.

I found this book both fascinating and irritating, in almost equal measure. The fascinating parts, to me, were the synopses of novels that haven’t been translated. An early Erlunder book by Arnaldur Indridason and several by Hakan Nesser were particular favourites, but there are several nuggets about books by authors I’ve never read or heard of. I also enjoyed the parts about public debates and articles within Scandinavia – though amazingly I learnt less from these than I had read in online newspapers and crime-fiction blogs (examples are the accusations against Liza Marklund and Camilla Lackberg of being “lipstick” authors rather than creating “proper” crime fiction; and the controversy about the truth behind Liza Marklund’s expose of sex-trafficking.) As the authors of these essays are from the region and/or speak the language fluently, it was frustrating to me that there wasn’t more information or analysis of matters such as these compared with what is already available in English (and has been for a while).

The most irritating aspect of the book is its pseudo-academic nature. Each essay takes a particular ideological point of view, cherry-picking one or two books, series or TV episodes to make the author’s point. This is not convincing in the least. For example one essay author wants to make the point that female detectives are single parents, and provides three or four examples (some of which are wrong) but ignores a host of others from the opposite perspective. Not only is there far too much generalisation from skimpy specifics, but many significant, commercially successful authors are omitted (for example Karin Alvtegen, Gunnar Staalesen, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Roslund & Hellstrom, Adler-Olssen) or mentioned only in passing (Asa Larsson, Helene Tursten, and many others). I don’t think that one can “prove” a point on this basis.

Nevertheless, as a keen consumer of Scandinavian crime fiction, I enjoyed this brief collection of essays on the subject (the book is 194 pages long, probably around 20 of these are lists of references), and was able to pick out a few points of interest from most of them. One or two were much weaker than the rest, for example the idea that a sort of mafia of the literary establishment excluded Peter Hoeg from serious consideration after Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow does not consider the alternative hypothesis that the author’s subsequent books might not have been that good compared with the earlier title.

I don’t recommend this book if you are looking for an overview or analysis of crime fiction from the Nordic countries (Barry Forshaw’s upcoming book Death in a Cold Climate is much more likely to do that); but if you like the idea of picking out a few gems from a collection of pieces whose authors take themselves more seriously than is justified, then this is a book for you (if you can afford it; I was lucky enough to be given it as a birthday present). One final note, I am still not sure how up-to-date it is. One or two of the essays refer to recent books, but several of them seem rather old, for example the “last” Wallander book is not the last one, and several series have more titles in total than are provided here. As most of the books under discussion take years to be translated, this is not a major issue as many of the newer novels are not (yet) available in English.

About the book at the University of Wales website, and at the website of the US distributor, the University of Chicago Press.

Update: My posts rounding up Swedish crime fiction and Norwegian crime fiction.

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