Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Subgenre That Came in from the Cold

For my Kirkus Reviews column this week, I interviewed Barry Forshaw, a well-respected British crime-fiction critic who is currently composing a book called Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction (due out from UK publisher Palgrave Macmillan in early 2012). We talked at some length about the rise and distinctiveness of Nordic crime fiction.

When you have a chance, go read the column here. And I’ll be thrilled if you leave comments with the piece, especially suggestions about which books and authors in this subgenre you’ve enjoyed.

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Although the Kirkus piece is not a short one, I still had to leave out several aspects I found interesting. Here are a few parts of the exchange that were left on the cutting room floor:

J. Kingston Pierce: What is it that sets Nordic crime fiction apart from what’s being turned out by writers in Britain, America, Germany, and elsewhere? Is it the storytelling approach, the atmospherics, or the protagonists that are different?

Barry Forshaw: Many American and British authors are content to relate their narratives in carefully organized, linear fashion without attempting to test the elasticity of the medium. The result: work which is weighted with precisely those elements required to produce a Pavlovian response in the reader, with all the customary elements (suspense, obfuscation, resolution) employed in a straightforward contract between author and reader. Scandinavian crime fiction, however, is more prepared to toy with notions of improvisation and destabilization of the generic form, producing writing which may sketch in the rough parameters of the crime novel but also attempts to expand the possibilities of the medium--those possibilities which so often remained unexplored. There is often an initial resistance to unfamiliar, convention-stretching innovation, which is why so much anodyne product is available. Even the least ambitious Nordic fiction, however, is often prepared to take some audacious steps into the unknown, producing fiction which can function both as popular product and personal statement from the author.

JKP: You say that Nordic writers attempt to “expand the possibilities of the medium.” Can you provide give me an example of that?

BF: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s continuing influence (since the death of Per Wahlöö) remains prodigious. They were the ne plus ultra of the socially committed crime novel. The sequence of books featuring their tenacious policeman Martin Beck are shot through with the ideological rigor of his creators; that’s to say: as well as being lean and compelling crime novels, they simultaneously function as an unforgiving left-wing critique of Swedish society (and of Western society in general). But this shouldn’t put off those readers conscious of Marxism’s fall from favor, since it first inspired Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in a very different era; the duo took the relatively conservative format of the detective novel and introduced genuinely radical elements into what was at the time an unthreatening form (with, they felt, distinctly bourgeois values), and they were able to both enrich and re-energize what had become something of a moribund field.

JKP: Without Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, do you think Nordic crime writers would be selling much beyond their own countries right now?

BF: The answer to that can be encapsulated in four words: Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.

JKP: Yet it was unquestionably a smaller contingent of readers who appreciated Mankell’s series about Swedish police detective Wallander. Didn’t it take Larsson’s novels to make the Nordic crime-fiction subgenre a worldwide phenomenon?

BF: Larsson was the all-conquering Visigoth army, but Mankell was the Trojan horse.

1 comment:

Jersey Jack said...

To me, Larson's first novel read like a piece of fiction stuffed with big chunks of magazine non-fiction. Facts, facts, facts, set aside from the story in three and four-page lectures. I finished the book -- and enjoyed the girls's story -- only by skipping these journalistic asides. If that's what I can expect from the others, I'll pass.