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.

This post is published at If you are seeing it at another site then it has been stolen and/or used entirely without permission.

12 thoughts on “Book review: Scandinavian Crime Fiction, eds Nestingen and Arvas

  1. This sounds like an interesting, but uneven book. I’ll read it if it’s in the library system over here.
    It sounds like there is a bit of a stereotypical view of women detectives, when, in fact, Nordic crime fiction portrays women in varying lifestyles, as in real life.
    Barry Forshaw’s upcoming book on this topic sounds good. Can’t wait for the review.
    And I’m finding that Asa Larsson’s fourth book is simply divine. I can’t wait to race through what I have to do and pick it up. This will be one book which I won’t want to part with at the end, between the main characters and the sense of place. It’s approaching the comparison to a good dessert with a cup of tea — a comparison I don’t make lightly.

  2. It does sound an interesting book but perhaps as you suggest I will wait for the Barry Forshaw book. It is hard to keep track of all the Scandinavian writers, I found the other day the post you did in August on Swedish crime.

  3. Thanks for that reminder on the August post. I was thinking about it as I ponder my TBR list.

  4. Pingback: More in the “European Crime Fictions” Series « It's a crime! (Or a mystery…)

  5. Interesting Maxine. I have added your review into my post about the forthcoming books in this series.
    Sorry to read you remain the subject of content theft.

    • The theft is getting worse, I think because of this WordPress “following” system where you have no option but to have followers on your blog (you can’t block them) who are then ripping off content onto fake websites covered with ads. WordPress won’t help and there is no way to report these people. Most annoying.

  6. What? People take book reviews and create fake websites covered with ads? So in other words, your and other book reviews are being (mis)used to sell products? Awful.

    • Yes, it is horrible. I often find them via a trackback or they pop up in a web search when I am looking for something else. I wish there were an easy way to report them, but the only way to do it is to write to some commission with lots of information and proof that you own the content, and I just can’t spend the time on that, given how many of these fake sites there are out there (and that’s even without going out of my way to look for them).

  7. Pingback: Scandinavian Crime Fiction eds Andrew Nestingen & Paula Arvas | Petrona Book Reviews archive

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