by Barry Forshaw – Pockets Essentials, March 25th 2013
See also the US release – Oldcastle Books, release set for Sept. 1st 2013
by Barry Forshaw – Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
Since the Scandinavian crime fiction bonanza began, there has been a growing need for guidance to help sort through the enormous quantity of material, both for readers and viewers as well as critics, academics and bloggers like myself. Barry Forshaw, a journalist and crime fiction and cinema critic, has just published the second of two guides on the subject. I’m reviewing both together because they have much in common but aim for different audiences. I’ll start with the newer guide since it has just come out.
Nordic Noir (2013)
Nordic Noir is directed squarely at the readers and fans of Scandinavian crime fiction and related films and TV series. Material imported from Death in a Cold Climate is either streamlined or in some cases expanded to help point the way to new authors and films. Nordic Noir contains dozens of useful, concise reviews organized under broader topic headings that cover a) the relevant early crime fiction writers such as Sjöwall & Wahlöö b) Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels, along with notes on his many other writings, c) Stieg Larsson, d) a wide array of other Swedish writers e) a chapter on specifically Norwegian authors, f) on Icelandic and Finnish authors, g) on Danish authors, h) on film and TV adaptations, and (i) as an epilogue, mention of many authors on the rise. In addition, one of the most useful features of Nordic Noir, especially for readers new to Scandinavian crime fiction, is an appendix listing the “Top Twenty Nordic Noir Novels,” the “Top Six Nordic Noir Films,” and the “Top Six Nordic Noir TV Dramas.” Like Death in a Cold Climate, it also offers lengthy author statements and interviews. Most memorable perhaps is Forshaw’s account of a meeting with Henning Mankell, who after 40+ novels makes for a seasoned, even formidable respondent. The reader will also enjoy Forshaw’s frank, broad-ranging commentary on everything from fiction to film/TV to real-life crime statistics. Readers looking for a specific kind of novel, type of protagonist, level of action or scenic description will appreciate his clear assessments.
Nordic Noir also includes a fair amount of insight as to what makes this genre—in this particular region of the world—more than usually fascinating to the wider public today. I am talking about the uniquely Scandinavian perspective on politics and society as reflected in crime fiction, a subject dear to the hearts of newspapers, magazines, blogs, and Scandinavian Studies departments around the world. Forshaw’s reviews help clarify which authors put the most or least emphasis on social or political elements and help to contextualize their work and viewpoints. The reader will come away with a greater understanding of just how complex and varied Scandinavian attitudes can be. For instance, Sjöwall & Wahlöö conveyed a Marxist perspective (though one that aims its criticism “at all levels” (14) of society, avoiding pointless oversimplification). Roughly half a century later, Liza Marklund also asserts that the violent world depicted in most Nordic Noir novels is “more correct than our propaganda brochures” (45). Yet Sean French remarks that Sweden is “the most effective welfare state the world [has] ever seen”—while acknowledging that perhaps there is “much murkiness about the Swedish miracle” (79).
While Nordic Noir can be used as a reference book—complete with a comprehensive index—it can also be read straight through as an exploration of Scandinavian culture and its influence on other countries. Common misperceptions are pointed out and less obvious aspects of Scandinavian life are illuminated. I was interested, for instance, to see Toby Haynes (director of one of the Kenneth Branagh Wallander episodes) quoted on the chilling psychological effect of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation on Swedish citizens. This is something my Swedish husband mentioned to me long ago, and it’s no trivial observation.
In short, Nordic Noir is quite useful to anyone interested in the topic, but especially to those beginning to dig through the avalanche of new Nordic noir titles.
Death in a Cold Climate (2012)
While readers like myself will find both guides useful, there is some overlap. Death in a Cold Climate offers the same sort of helpful commentary and reviews, for instance, but the material is not laid out as cleanly for a general reader. Instead, it is geared toward those interested in a fuller examination of the social, political, and literary implications of Scandinavian crime fiction—for this crowd, it’s indispensable.
Forshaw solidly justifies the attention the genre has received in the media. Scandinavian crime fiction, he points out, offers writers and critics alike an unprecedented chance to engage with a large number of readers on a slightly higher level than typical crime fiction. This is partly because Nordic novelists deal in markedly more “opaque motivation and clouded psychology” which “[forces] the reader to make a more crucial engagement with the text than is customary…” (49). He notes too that “the writers of the best Nordic fiction … offer us a greater (and more flexible) range of choices” (50). The choices at issue and discussed at some length are not merely psychological or intellectual, but also political and social. The welfare state as found in Scandinavia is not as familiar to British readers (Forshaw’s primary audience) as they might have guessed. The subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Finland also emerge in brief descriptions of each country’s social and political structures as well as their geographical features. Throughout, Forshaw allows ample space to writers, translators, editors, and publishers of crime fiction to share their own thoughts on the state of their nations as well as the state of their craft. Their strikingly disparate viewpoints are enlightening, as you can see in this sampling of snippets cut from longer, more complicated passages in the book:
Mons Kallentoft, novelist: “To be brutally frank, social democracy as an ideal is dead in Scandinavia at the moment. It needs to be redefined…” (47).
Karin Alvtegen, novelist: “Speaking from a political standpoint, the socioeconomic divisions and differences in Sweden have increased considerably since the 1990s…Since 2006, when the centre-right Alliance won the election over the Social Democrats…the disparities have notably increased” (61).
Johan Theorin, novelist: “Sweden is, in general, not a tarnished society and when it’s exposed to the light, Swedish malfeasance tends, let’s face it, to be very trivial—usually some political official with a little power in a commune who has been given a care to seal a building contract or something. Frankly, it doesn’t make for stirring drama” (77). Theorin’s level-headed assessment also includes his comment on the current lack of “immigrant crime fiction writers” — a potentially fascinating new angle.
Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, lecturer in Scandinavian literature at University College London: “To claim that crime novels paint an accurate picture of Scandinavia societies would be mistaken—the level of violence and crime obviously doesn’t represent reality; but I suggest that the crime depicted should be taken as symbolic of a sense of growing insecurity not only pertaining to Scandinavia” 164).
Barbara Haviland, translator: “Scandinavian crime writers often seem anxious to make some sort of political or social statement…To be honest I think there’s too much of this, particularly among female crime writers in Scandinavia, many of whom seem to feel that it’s almost obligatory to describe the seemingly appalling social conditions in what are some of the most prosperous democratic countries in the world” (176).
Politics aside, Death in a Cold Climate also offers rare access to the inner workings of the publishing world. Forshaw has been covering Nordic crime fiction for some time now, and few people can have spoken with more authors, agents, editors, publishers, film makers, and academics on the subject. The literary chatter is delightfully wide-ranging. Arnaldur Idriđason comments that “…there really are very few very good crime writers working today” (142). In turn, the author Quentin Bates feels that Idriđason is actually better in translation (thanks to the late Bernard Scudder) (128). Camilla Läckberg’s publisher, Julia Wisdom, shares her strategies to increase publicity (39). Juliet Grames, publisher of The Boy in the Suitcase, describes the recent attention that translated fiction has garnered from the Nordic Noir boom (179). Forshaw comments on the ancient/modern schism in Icelandic authors’ hearts: “Everyone in Iceland seems to be on Facebook, yet everyone’s granny has spoken to elves” (133). Last, I particularly enjoyed the translator Laurie Thompson’s remarks on the precise meaning of the word “skog” (forest, woods, and so much more) (30).
As satisfying as Forshaw’s two guides are, some topics perhaps merit deeper discussion, such as the influence of high literary culture (the Icelandic Sagas, Ibsen, Strindberg, Bergman, Söderberg and others) on Nordic noir. One could attend further to Theorin’s observation on the absence of new immigrant authors and the thorny issues surrounding race, religion, and skin color in the Nordic countries. It might be interesting, too, to consider the relative lack of environmental themes in Nordic noir—surprising, given Scandinavians’ progressive environmental values (though one recent exception I’ve found is Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, which I discuss here).
In any case, Forshaw’s Nordic Noir and Death in a Cold Climate allow readers and viewers to enter into the discussion at many different levels, and I am very glad to have read both of them.