Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

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This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

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Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

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Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

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First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

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This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

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The Missing (series 2), Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and the virtues of voting wisely

I’ve been catching up with lots of TV lately – Australian political thriller The Code (very good) and the new series of The Missing (BBC1), which also has me completely gripped.

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Series 1 of The Missing involved the disappearance of a young boy, Oliver Hughes, on a family holiday in France. The new series cleverly flips that ‘missing child’ scenario by opening with the unexpected reappearance of Alice Webster, a young woman abducted as a schoolgirl over a decade before. The main connection to series 1 is Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired French police detective who investigated Oliver’s case, and who is now drawn to Alice by her possible link to a second abducted girl, Sophie Giroux. Aside from him, there’s a new set of characters featuring wonderful British actors such as Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey and Roger Allam. Hawes stands out for me in particular as Alice’s mother Gemma.

There were mutterings from some viewers after episode 1 about the difficulties of keeping track of three timelines (2003 when Alice was abducted, 2014 when she returns home, and the present day), but it’s very much worth persevering as those temporal layers create a wonderfully rich story. And while the drama feels very British in tone, its international settings and characters give it added depth: the Webster family live on a fictional military base in Eckhausen in Germany; we see British military police working together with German police and (with some reluctance) the French detective; the latter’s investigations even take him to Iraq for a while. And every single episode has had a twist that will make you drop your knitting – especially episode 4! I’m looking forward to the rest immensely.

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I’m a little late to this party – Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel epic 22.11.63, which sees English teacher Jake Epping step back into a 1958 America, five years before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The big question at the heart of the narrative – ‘would you change history if you had the chance?’ – is explored in an inventive and nuanced fashion.

Like some of King’s other novels, such as Dolores Claiborne (a favourite of mine), 22.11.63 draws on elements of the crime and thriller genres. Alongside the infamous murder of Kennedy, there’s a second murder case that takes up a significant part of the narrative. Both of these place Jake in the role of a detective tracking suspects, and in the role of a potential murderer, as he *could* stop the perpetrators from committing their crimes by killing them. But taking such action would obviously raise serious ethical questions, leaving Jake with some tough choices to make…

King does a brilliant job of depicting Jake’s incredible journey back to ‘the Land of Ago’, and recreates the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s in meticulous, loving detail. The mechanics of time travel are given interesting new twists, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Two minor reservations include the sheer length of the novel (I listened to the 30-HOUR audiobook version) and the odd bit of excessive sentimentality (but that could just be me). Hats off to audiobook narrator Craig Wasson, who does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, and I must admit that I’m now curious to see the 2016 TV adaptation with James Franco.

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

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Time to liberate this little chap!

All this talk of American presidents reminds me that there’s a certain US election next week. We’ll be watching the results with baited breath on this side of the pond, and hope that our American friends can learn from the Brexit Omnishambles here in the UK.

The EU Referendum taught us that:

  • not voting is not an option. VOTE!
  • protest votes are a luxury you can’t afford. VOTE WISELY!
  • talking to swing voters can make a difference. EVERY VOTE COUNTS!
  • and that there’s NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY (polls are fickle, so pretend your candidate’s 12 points down).

Good luck! And for anyone still undecided, I’ll just leave this here: The New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton. You might also want to check out this utterly inspiring and hopeful website: I’ve waited 96 years. It’s simply wonderful.

Mother knows best? Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (USA) and Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian (Spain)

Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2006) and Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian (2013) are quite different in style, but have a number of features in common, not least their challenging depictions of mother-daughter relationships.

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Both crime novels begin with the murders of a series of young girls or teenagers. The killings take place in or around a small town or village, and are investigated by a young woman who grew up there, but who left as soon as she could. In Sharp Objects, Camille Preaker is a Chicago journalist whose mother, stepfather and half-sister live in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri. She returns there for the first time in eight years when her editor sends her to report on the killings of two young girls. In The Invisible GuardianInspector Amaia Salazar is ordered to lead the investigation into the murders of two teenagers, and returns from Pamplona to the village of Elizondo in the Basque country, where her mother and sisters are still based.

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In the course of their journalistic and criminal investigations, Camille and Amaia are forced into close proximity with their families and to confront repressed childhood traumas. In particular, the novels portray abusive mother-daughter relationships in ways that are both unflinching and disturbing. In one, we are shown how abusive mothering is transmitted from one generation to the next. In the other, no rational reason for the abuse is ever shown, which is perhaps even more unsettling. In both novels, the daughters have to accept and somehow deal with the corrosive effects of their mothers’ extreme behaviour.

While both of these crime novels are excellent, they won’t be to the taste of all readers. Gillian Flynn, as I’ve noted in previous posts, is one of our most daring contemporary crime writers, who repeatedly takes on uncomfortable or taboo subjects such as self-harm. She often writes in the first person – as we see with Camille in Sharp Objects – and her protagonists are prickly and unconventional, or even downright unlikable. In this novel, Flynn creates an atmosphere dripping with Gothic menace, and piles on vivid physical detail to unsettle her readers. In the process, she dissects the suffocating, conservative nature of Wind Gap’s small-town life and shows how girls are pressurized to conform to gender norms in order to be accepted by society. Her other crime novels, Dark Places and Gone Girlare equally challenging and rewarding reads.

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Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian can be categorised more straightforwardly as a police procedural and is written in the third-person. It creates a different kind of atmosphere, using the mists and forests of the Basque region along with the mythical figure of the basajaun to suggest that other-worldly forces are at work. (In this respect, the novel reminds me a little of Fred Vargas’ ‘Inspector Adamsberg’ crime novels, albeit without the quirky eccentricity that marks her narratives.) Like Sharp Objects, The Invisible Guardian is a hard-hitting novel whose depictions of gender and power relations will stay with you long after the story ends. It’s also the opening novel in the acclaimed Baztan Trilogy – the second novel, The Legacy of the Bones, is out now, and the Offering to the Storm is hopefully on its way.

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Book 2 in the Baztan Trilogy

Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009 [2006]).

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, trans. by Isabelle Kaufeler (Harper, 2016 [2013]).

#50 Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective

Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (Den döende detektiven), trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Doubleday, 2016 [2010]). 5 stars

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Opening line: Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden.

Leif G.W Persson is a writer at the absolute top of his game. The Dying Detective is the seventh of his novels to appear in English, and is a gripping, absorbing, beautifully plotted read. Not only does it succeed brilliantly on its own terms, but deftly extends the universe of his previous novels, and, like another of his novels, Linda, pays homage to a giant of the crime genre in a truly inventive way.

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Readers of earlier Persson novels will remember Johansson as a brilliant investigator with an uncanny ability to ‘see around corners’. Now we find him frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery – a sobering depiction of the aftermath of a stroke – and drawn into the investigation of a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he has assembled a rag-tag team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

From the very beginning, the novel adds an extra level of complexity to the investigation of Yasmine’s case: the challenge for Johansson is not simply identifying the perpetrator, but figuring out what to do if he finds him, for a new statute of limitations means that the killer can’t legally be held to account for his crime. And this is where Persson’s literary homage comes in. Around two-thirds of the way through the novel, Johansson is shown praising Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s Der Richter und sein Henker (The Judge and his Hangman), originally published in 1950. He states that a good book ‘can give you something to think about, and if it’s really good then reading it can even make you a better person. I’ve read this one several times’.

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In The Judge and his Hangman, Inspector Bärlach, who is in poor health and at the end of his career, does battle with an old adversary, a man who delights in committing crimes in such a way that the legal system can’t touch him. Bärlach is desperate to bring him to justice, but knows that he’ll have to act unlawfully to do so – a terrible dilemma for a policeman who has upheld the rule of law all his life. The novel stresses the illegality of Old Testament justice, but also the terrible moral consequences of such action for the self-appointed ‘judge’ or ‘hangman’. And that’s not all. A later Dürrenmatt novel, Das Versprechen (The Pledge, 1958), features a policeman who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of a young girl, and whose desperate need for justice leads him to act unethically. This clever ‘intertextuality’ is carried off by Persson with a light, expert touch. It’s like watching a jazz musician improvising brilliantly with the main melody of a song.

What a smart and versatile writer Persson is. He pulls off the big ‘state of the nation’ novels (his ‘Story of a Crime’ series) or the more intimate police investigation (Linda, As in the Linda Murder) with ease, creating an expansive universe in which characters move freely from one novel to another. Regular readers will undoubtedly feel rewarded by the appearance of many old friends in The Dying Detective, from Bo Jarnebring and Lisa Mattei to the shortsighted pathologist who bids good morning to the yukka plant in reception. A special word of praise, too, for long-time Persson translator Neil Smith, who does such an excellent job of capturing the author’s voice, and in particular his wry, often black humour.

The Dying Detective has been submitted for the 2017 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. It sets a very high bar!

You can see a list of Petrona Award eligibles over at Euro Crime.

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Henning Mankell, 1948-2015

Some extremely sad news today. Swedish crime author Henning Mankell has died at the age of 67. 

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Mankell is of course best known for his ‘Kurt Wallander’ police procedural series, set in the small town of Ystad in southern Sweden. Aside from its high quality and the wonderfully complex characterisation of Inspector Wallander, the series is marked by its social conscience, a deep empathy for others, and an outward-looking view, which connected Ystad with Europe and the rest of the world, most notably Africa, a continent Mankell loved and where he spent a great deal of time. The series was and remains ground-breaking, tackling subjects such as xenophobia, violence, terrorism, the globalisation of crime and the historical legacies of the twentieth century. It is rightly viewed as one of the great series in international crime fiction – elegantly bridging Sjowall and Wahloo’s 1970s ‘Beck’ series and more recent Nordic Noir such as Indridason’s ‘Reykjavik’ novels.

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There are ten Wallander novels. Here they are with their original date of publication and their atmospheric opening lines.

Faceless Killers (1990). ‘He has forgotten something, he knows that for sure when he wakes up. Something he dreamt during the night. Something he ought to remember.’

The Dogs of Riga (1992). ‘It started snowing shortly after 10am. The man in the wheel-house of the fishing boat cursed. He’d heard the forecast, but hoped they might make the Swedish coast before the storm hit.’

The White Lioness (1993). ‘Louise Akerblom, an estate agent, left the Savings Bank in Skurup shortly after 3.00 in the afternoon on Friday, April 24.’

The Man who Smiled (1994). ‘Fog. A silent, stealthy beast of prey. Even though I have lived all my life in Skane, where fog is forever closing in and shuttering out the world, I’ll never get used to it.’

Sidetracked (1995). ‘Just before dawn. Pedro Santana woke. The kerosene lamp had started to smoke. When he opened his eyes, he didn’t know where he was’.

The Fifth Woman (1996). ‘The letter arrived in Ystad on 19 August 1993. Since it had an African stamp and must be from her mother, she hadn’t opened it immediately. She wanted to have peace and quiet to read it.’

One Step Behind (1997). ‘On Wednesday, 7 August 1996, Kurt Wallander came close to being killed in a traffic accident just east of Ystad.’

Firewall (1998). ‘The wind died down towards evening, then stopped completely. He was standing on the balcony. Some days he could see a sliver of ocean between the buildings across the way.’

The Pyramid (1999). ‘In the beginning, everything was just a fog. Or perhaps it was like a thick-flowing sea where all was white and silent. The landscape of death.’

The Troubled Man (2009). ‘The story begins with a sudden fit of rage. The cause of it was a report that had been submitted the previous evening, which the prime minister was now reading at his poorly lit desk.’

Huge thanks are due to the translators who brought us the Wallander novels and expertly translated the lines above: Steven T. Murray, Ebba Segerberg and Laurie Thompson.

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Further links (I will keep adding to these – if you find good ones, do leave them in the comments section below).

I’m off to liberate some Aquavit from the back of the drinks cupboard and to watch an episode of Wallander with Krister Henriksson…

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, the Kappe historical ‘Kettenroman’ (chain novel) and some other tasty bits

What do you do when your TBR pile is so vast it defies all hope of control? Answer: give up and read what you want.

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In that spirit, I picked up Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home (Vintage, 2014). Lots of people had told me about this debut and as soon as I started reading, I could see that the praise for the novel was justified: it’s a beautifully written police procedural, which explores migrant experiences in the UK in a realistic and very sobering way. Its main investigative protagonists, Detectives Zigic and Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit – with Serbian and Portuguese heritage respectively – are both extremely well drawn, and the story, which starts with the discovery of a body in a burned-out garden shed, is gripping and believable. It’s a hugely accomplished first novel, and I’m already looking forward to the second in the series, Tell No Tales.

While researching my article on post-war justice in crime fiction this week, I came across the German crime novel Auge um Auge (Eye for an Eye), which explores how doctors involved in medical crimes under National Socialism often went unpunished.

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Auge um Auge is part of a remarkable historical crime series called ‘Es geschah in Berlin’ (‘It happened in Berlin’), which uses the cases of policeman Hermann Kappe to trace German history from 1910, before the collapse of the German empire, through to the Cold War era. To date, there are 26 novels set at two-year intervals from 1910 to 1960 (nephew Otto Kappe takes over the investigative reins in 1956):

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The image above shows how the novels are packaged, with the series title and year highlighted on the cover, together with a striking abstract design. It also shows that the novels – rather unusually – are written by a collective of authors. Horst Bosetzky, a well known German crime author since the 1960s, conceived the series in 2007 with publishing house Jaron, and the other writers work under his overall guidance.

The series has also been called a Kettenroman or ‘chain novel’, which is a neat term. At the moment, ‘Es geschah in Berlin’ is the most ambitious use I’ve seen of a crime series to ‘investigate’ twentieth-century German history and I’ll definitely be checking out the other novels. Hopefully they’ll make their way into translation too.

In other news:

I’ve been flying the flag for German crime in the Times Literary Supplement, with a review of a fascinating volume called TATORT GERMANYThe Curious Case of German-Language Crime Fiction (Camden House), which is edited by Lynn M. Kutch and Todd Herzog. Unfortunately the review’s behind a paywall, but I bought a copy of the TLS yesterday, and was delighted to see a whole page dedicated to German literature.

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Most interesting find of the week: a 2015 Penguin Special by Erich Schlosser called Gods of Metal, an essay exploring America’s nuclear capacity and the frightening ease with which a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee was breached in 2012. Schlosser meets members of the Plowshares movement, who break into nuclear facilities as a form of civil protest, and are subsequently branded as criminals by the state. Thought-provoking stuff, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima.

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CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

I’m just back from this year’s CrimeFest, which was particularly special for a number of reasons. This is the first of two posts on the event, and focuses on Lee Child’s interview with the legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall.

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Maj Sjöwall and Lee Child at CrimeFest, Saturday 16 May (with thanks to the unknown photographer!)

Sjöwall, co-author of the highly influential ‘Martin Beck’ series with her husband Per Wahlöö, was the festival’s guest of honour. The almost mythical position she holds as the ‘godmother of Scandinavian crime’ was illustrated by the standing ovation she received on entering the room with Lee Child. What we heard from her in the course of the conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating:

  • The ‘Martin Beck’ series (1965-75) grew out of national and international events: 1960s Sweden was turning from a social democratic country to a more right-wing country, and it was the era of the Vietnam War and student demos. The series was designed to show what was happening to Swedish society and how the police was becoming more militarised, but in bumbling way, like a small-town police force.
  • They choose the crime genre as a vehicle because it was entertaining and would reach a wide audience. She and Per sat face to face over a table and worked together, talking extensively about the stories and the language they would use. The aim was to make the novels as accessible as possible.
  • In the case of Roseanne, the first novel, they’d been on a boat trip and seen a beautiful American woman travelling on her own. As Per was looking at her just a bit too closely, Maj decided, ‘we’ll kill her!’ (just one example of her splendidly wry humour).
  • Crime fiction wasn’t a big thing in Sweden at that time (just a few ‘bourgeois amateur sleuths’). There were no police procedurals. They wanted the novels to be realistic, so they kept the pace of the narrative slow and a created a police team rather than focusing on just one hero.

The first novel in the series (1965)

  • Their influences were Chandler, Hammett and Simenon. The American 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain were NOT a direct influence as is often thought. They only read these after they started writing the series. (Given the similarities between the two, one can only say that this was a remarkable case of synchronicity!)
  • The series took off around book three or four. But it tended to be read by young left-wingers who were already converted to the [Marxist] ideals and values it promoted. So as authors, they were not necessarily reaching the audience they wanted to influence.
  • Of police investigator Martin Beck: he is a ‘quite boring’, classic civil servant, ‘but has a very important quality – empathy’. He reflects the masculine police world of the time and is depicted realistically: he’s married to the job and has a complex relation-ship with his wife and children. The authors were criticised for this: it was felt that police in crime novels should not have a private life. Now it’s a big part of modern crime (Child added that it’s ‘almost a requirement’).
  • They decided on ten novels from the start, and thought of the series as one long novel that was split into ten (influenced by Balzac).

The ten novels in the series also match the number of letters in Martin Beck’s name.

  • Was the series successful in critiquing/changing Sweden? Maj responds by saying that she doesn’t think books can change the world, but that they can influence and help to change the ways that people think.
  • The novels were first translated into French and German, then later into English. Maj thinks they paved the way for other crime writers in those countries. [She’s certainly right in relation to West Germany, where the Beck series had a significant influence on the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Intriguingly, the series was also published in East Germany, which approved of the series’ political viewpoint].
  • Child sees the influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other crime writing far beyond Scandi borders. In a brief Twitter conversation, Rankin told me: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d written a few Rebus novels before reading the Becks. On the other hand… it is feasible I’d been reading *about* the Becks and the notion of a real-time series may have chimed’.
  • Maj does not have explanation for why series is so popular. She likes the recent work of Leif G. W. Persson because he stays close to reality. But in her view too many contemporary crime novels are set in small towns and focus on personal narratives.
  • One of Maj’s favourite Beck novels is The Locked Room, due to its structure and logic, and the memories she has of writing it.

The Sjöwall interview was sponsored by British Institute for Literary Translation, which is very fitting: we would never have been able to read the Beck series without the services of marvellous translators like Lois Roth, Joan Tate, Alan Blair, Thomas Teal and Paul Britten Austin. Huge thanks to them! Here’s a list of the ‘Martin Beck’ novels and a few interesting links:

  • 1965 – Roseanna (Roseanna)
  • 1966 – Mannen som gick upp i rök (The Man who Went Up in Smoke)
  • 1967 – Mannen på balkongen (The Man on the Balcony)
  • 1968 – Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman)
  • 1969 – Brandbilen som försvann (The Fire Engine That Disappeared)
  • 1970 – Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy)
  • 1971 – Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (The Abominable Man)
  • 1972 – Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room)
  • 1974 – Polismördaren (Cop Killer)
  • 1975 – Terroristerna (The Terrorists)
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A wonderful memento from a wonderful event

Coming up in the next CrimeFest post: The 2015 Petrona Award, Euro Noir and other international delights.

The 2015 Petrona Award shortlist is revealed!

Six high-quality crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist of the 2015 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today.

  • THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston                         (Arcadia Books; Finland)
  • THE HUNTING DOGS by Jørn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce                              (Sandstone Press; Norway)
  • REYKJAVIK NIGHTS by Arnaldur Indriðason tr. Victoria Cribb                        (Harvill Secker; Iceland)
  • THE HUMAN FLIES by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson                               (Mantle; Norway)
  • FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM by Leif G W Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)
  • THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb             (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winning title will be announced at CrimeFest, held in Bristol 14-17 May 2015. The award will be presented by – and we are so very excited about this! – the Godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall, co-author with Per Wahlöö of the influential ‘Martin Beck’ series.

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The wonderful Maj Sjöwall. Photo by Dr. Jost Hindersmann via Wikimedia Commons

Here are the judges’ comments on the shortlist:

THE HUMMINGBIRD: Kati Hiekkapelto’s accomplished debut introduces young police investigator Anna Fekete, whose family fled to Finland during the Yugoslavian wars. Paired with an intolerant colleague, she must solve a complex set of murders and the suspicious disappearance of a young Kurdish girl. Engrossing and confidently written, THE HUMMINGBIRD is a police procedural that explores contemporary themes in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

THE HUNTING DOGS: The third of the William Wisting series to appear in English sees Chief Inspector Wisting suspended from duty when evidence from an old murder case is found to have been falsified. Hounded by the media, Wisting must now work under cover to solve the case and clear his name, with the help of journalist daughter Line. Expertly constructed and beautifully written, this police procedural showcases the talents of one of the most accomplished authors of contemporary Nordic Noir.

The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS: A prequel to the series featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson, REYKJAVIK NIGHTS gives a snapshot of 1970s Iceland, with traditional culture making way for American influences. Young police officer Erlendur takes on the ‘cold’ case of a dead vagrant, identifying with a man’s traumatic past. Indriðason’s legions of fans will be delighted to see the gestation of the mature Erlendur; the novel is also the perfect starting point for new readers of the series.

THE HUMAN FLIES: Hans Olav Lahlum successfully uses elements from Golden Age detective stories to provide a 1960s locked-room mystery that avoids feeling like a pastiche of the genre. The writing is crisp and the story intricately plotted. With a small cast of suspects, the reader delights in following the investigations of Lahlum’s ambitious detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen, who relies on the intellectual rigour of infirm teenager Patricia Borchmann.

The Human Flies

FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM: It’s 2007 and the chair of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson, has reopened the investigation into the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. But can he and his dedicated team really solve this baffling case? The final part of  Persson’s ‘The Story of a Crime’ trilogy presents the broadest national perspective using a variety of different techniques – from detailed, gritty police narrative to cool documentary perspective – to create a novel that is both idiosyncratic and highly compelling.

Falling Freely, As If In A Dream: (The Story of a Crime 3), Leif G W Persson

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has said ‘I really love making people’s flesh creep!’, and she is the supreme practitioner when it comes to drawing on the heritage of Icelandic literature, and channelling ancient folk tales and ghost stories into a vision of modern Icelandic society. In SILENCE OF THE SEA, an empty yacht crashes into Reykjavik’s harbour wall: its Icelandic crew and passengers have vanished. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates this puzzling and deeply unsettling case, in a narrative that skilfully orchestrates fear and tension in the reader.

As was the case last year, the standard of submissions was extremely high, with plenty of top-quality crime novels jostling for the shortlist. That the quality of the novels shone through in English is of course due in large measure to the skills of the six translators. They are often the forgotten heroes of international crime, without whom we would not have access to these marvellous texts.

Thanks to fellow judges Barry Forshaw and Sarah Ward for a thoroughly enjoyable shortlisting, and of course to Karen Meek – none of it would have happened without her hard work behind the scenes.

So did we get it right? Are there others that you’d like to have seen on the shortlist? And who do you think the winner will be? 

2015 Petrona Award judges

A happy Petrona team after the shortlisting. Clockwise from back row left: Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw, Karen Meek and Mrs Peabody/Kat Hall

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website

An album of Petrona pictures is also available at the Swansea University Flickr page.

Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

Last Friday, to pass some time while ill in bed, I started listening to the podcast SERIAL, which explores a real and very complex murder case from 1999. I don’t consider myself to be a fan of true crime, which is all too often voyeuristic and salacious, and so wasn’t expecting to get drawn in. But I found myself hooked from the opening of the very first episode, and by the end of the day had listened eight (EIGHT!) episodes.

SERIAL is a podcast phenomenon. Since it started in October it has become the fastest podcast on iTunes to be downloaded or streamed 5 million times, and is one of reddit’s most discussed topics. The series first crossed my radar when writer Linda Grant wrote about her fascination with it and I’m glad to have finally caught up, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

SERIAL is an offshoot of This American Life (a weekly radio show by Chicago Public Media), and is presented by journalist Sarah Koenig. This is how SERIAL’s website describes what the podcast is about:

>> On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A few weeks later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers. <<

So the podcast is a 360 degree examination of a murder case, one that Sarah carries out with great intelligence, care and respect for all the individuals involved. Although the hope is to get to the bottom of the case’s contradictions by looking at the evidence with fresh eyes, Koenig pledges to ‘follow the story where it takes us’, even if that means failing to achieve closure. It’s this willingness to accept all outcomes that is one of the series’ chief strengths; in many respects it is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of finding the truth.

Eleven episodes of SERIAL are currently available. The 12th and final episode airs this coming Thursday. If you haven’t yet listened, you might want to leave this post and head over to episode 1. If you’ve already caught up, you might be interested in reading on below…

What I’m not going to discuss is the (admittedly fascinating) question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, because it’s being dissected exhaustively elsewhere, and to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. Arguably, one of the few pitfalls of the podcast is that it’s been treated by some as a fictional crime whodunit, losing sight of the fact that the story is about real people. I’m more interested in the insights Sarah Koenig (SK) has offered listeners into the impact of murder, the minutiae of police investigations and the complexities of the trial process. These are meta-observations that have made me think really, really hard about the justice system in a way that I haven’t done before.

Memory. The first episode of SERIAL opens with an observation about how hard it can be to remember past events. Can you remember exactly what you were doing the whole of last Wednesday? Now, how about a Wednesday six weeks ago, which turns out to have been the day of a murder, in which you are a suspect? What happens if you genuinely can’t remember? Or if you think you can, but then realise you’ve got it wrong? Or if you can, but no one can corroborate what you say? Any of these could be the beginning of a road to wrongful conviction. Unless of course you’re lying, which is when things get even trickier.

A piece of evidence can appear utterly damning when viewed in one context, and completely innocent in another. It all depends on how you build it into a larger narrative or how you spin it. SK demonstrates this by discussing specific bits of evidence with those who think Adnan is guilty and those who don’t. The same applies in the courtroom: building a convincing narrative is key for the prosecution and defence. They are telling competing stories to the jury and are fighting for their own to be believed.

The power of narrative is also illustrated by the podcast itself (something that SK does not explicitly acknowledge). Episodes are constructed in such a way as to consider one side of the argument, then the other, and inevitably sway the listener back and forth as well (ooh, he’s guilty/nooo, he can’t be). There’s a cliff-hanger element built into the episodes, with previews of ‘next time’ promising new evidence that will keep us hooked. Very successfully.

On a moral level, we listeners are gripped by questions of guilt or innocence. But in a legal context, guilt or innocence may never be definitively proved. The more important question then becomes ‘is there reasonable doubt’?

Murder investigations are HUGELY complex. We all know this, but listening to over ten hours of detail about one case makes you appreciate that fact all the more. It instills a respect for police investigators, who have to process mountains of potential evidence and decide what it relevant and what is not. It also makes you realise how easily the truth can be lost if the wrong leads are followed, or if prejudices start to cloud investigators’ judgments.

The police are not necessarily looking for the truth. Rather, they are trying to build a case against someone. This means that there may be ‘verification bias’ present in the investigation – the disregarding of so-called ‘bad evidence’ that does not fit the detectives’ theories of what happened. Scary stuff, and this is why it’s so important for justice systems to have a robust element of defence and cross-examination, so that lots of difficult questions can be asked.

SK’s own investigations show us a range of different perspectives and voices: we hear sound clips of police interviews and court proceedings, readings from Hae’s teenage diary, SK’s interviews with family, friends and witnesses (all of whom were deeply affected by the murder), and her phone conversations with Adnan in prison. These are augmented by her own commentary on the difficulties she is encountering as she tries to figure out this ‘Rubik’s cube of a case’.

‘Cops assume that everyone is lying all the time’. A pragmatic, logical approach or a breach of the presumption of innocence? They will ‘offer the suspect a theme’ – meaning that they will discuss the subject of the crime in a way that suggests understanding to encourage a confession (e.g. ‘I can understand why you hit that man. After all he provoked you’).

‘How easy it is to stir stereotypes in with facts, all of which then gets baked into a story’. SK does a great job of exploring the possible bias of the judicial system (for example, the use of certain types of vocabulary in reports or in court). This quote is also a wonderful example of how SK sums up ideas in an accessible and interesting way.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis examine some evidence. Photo by Elise Bergerson.

I never quite realised how many factors can feed into the outcome of a trial: the quality of the prosecution or defence lawyers, cultural biases, the composition of the jury, alibis or the lack of alibis, the presence or absence of forensic evidence, the efficiency or inefficiency of the investigators (did they ask for that crucial item to be checked for DNA?), the willingness or refusal of witnesses to testify, the credibility of witnesses, etc. etc. etc.

If you are innocent, and continue to maintain your innocence following conviction, then your chances of parole are low, because the parole board is looking for evidence of remorse. So you can lie and get out, or be honest and stay in. Hmmmm.

SK and her listeners may be playing the role of the detective, but that does not remotely guarantee the discovery of a ‘solution’, because this is real life. Will the final episode offer listeners the closure they crave? At the simplest level, Adnan’s guilt/innocence may only be known to three people: murder victim Hae Lee, Adnan himself and his friend Jay. Of these last two, one has to be lying. I’m doubtful that SERIAL can reveal who’s telling the truth, but it certainly succeeds in showing us plenty of others.