Thursday, October 07, 2010

Collaborating in the Darkness, Part I

Börge Hellström, Quercus CEO Mark Smith, and Anders Roslund

(Editor’s note: This is the first half of an exclusive, two-part interview with Swedish crime novelists Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström. The second part will appear on this page tomorrow.)

In addition to seeing some of my friends and a couple of editors at next week’s Bouchercon in San Francisco, and maybe meeting some new authors, I’m most looking forward to once more visiting with the Swedish crime-writing duo Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström. In my opinion, those two are the most viscerally challenging writers to work in this genre since the now-famous Stieg Larsson.

My introduction to Roslund (a journalist) and Hellström (a reformed ex-criminal who works to help place ex-cons back into society) came during the winter of 2005. As usual, I was reading more books than I ever had time to review. But one that I did want to comment on--The Beast, Roslund and Hellström’s debut novel--I found I could not write a word about. Although I’ve read many shocking and disturbing works of crime fiction in my time, The Beast took my psyche beyond anything I had ever experienced before. After I’d finished the book, I reflected back with new insight on the précis that publisher Little, Brown had sent along with it:
Two children are found dead in a basement. Four years later their murderer escapes from prison. The police know if he is not found quickly, he will kill again. But when their worst fears come true and another child is murdered in the nearby town of Strengnas, the situation spirals out of control. In an atmosphere of hysteria whipped up by the media, Fredrik Steffansson, the father of the murdered child, decides he must take revenge. His actions will have devastating consequences. As anger spreads across the whole country, the two [Stockholm] detectives assigned to the case--Ewert Grens and Sven Sunkist--find themselves caught up in a situation of escalating violence. A powerful and at times profoundly shocking novel, The Beast has been likened to both Hitchcock and Le Carré. It is also an important and timely exploration of what can happen when we take the law into our own hands. It has been shortlisted for Glasnyckeln 2005 [The Glass Key Award] for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.
I am the father of three children, and what The Beast did was challenge my bleeding-heart-liberal values system. It made me think about the question: What would I be capable of doing, should a predatory pedophile commit the unthinkable act of murdering my offspring? I found it as disturbing as Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone, another book about youngsters victimized by adults, published seven years earlier. I thought perhaps I would be capable of exacting a terrible retribution from my children’s attacker. But Roslund and Hellström added a further dimension to their tale, detailing the consequences that can come of such vengeful, blind-rage acts.

After I finished that novel, I couldn’t rid myself of the images it had embedded in my mind. And the idea of revisiting the world of The Beast in order to write a review repulsed me. So I put the book away in a box and tried to erase the memory of having read it.

Then along came Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008). I was already interested in Swedish crime fiction, but that work made me so much more so. After hassling the delightful Lucy Ramsey and Nicci Praça at Quercus Publishing for an early copy of Dragon Tattoo, I published the first English-language review of it here in The Rap Sheet. I went on to write more about Larsson and his debut novel. But, like everybody else, I had to wait ... and wait ... and wait until its sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, was released by Quercus in 2009. In the meantime, I found a copy of Roslund and Hellström’s Box 21 (published in the States as The Vault), the follow-up to The Beast--also starring detectives Sven Sundkvist and Ewert Grens--in my possible-review pile. I held it in my hands as if it were a cobra preparing to strike. The Beast still haunted me; was I ready yet to give Box 21 a try?

Thankfully, Box 21’s plot did not involve children. Here’s the synopsis:
When a severely wounded woman is brought to a hospital in Stockholm, doctors are horrified to learn that her injuries are the result of a brutal whipping. She is Lydia, a victim of people-trafficking, a young girl from Lithuania sold by her boyfriend and now trapped in a Stockholm brothel, forced to repay her “debt.” In the same hospital, police officer Sven Sundkvist and senior officer Ewert Grens are chasing a lead that may just expose a notorious mafia boss, a dangerous man Grens hates with a vengeance. Two stories of passionate reprisal twist together, ending in a dramatic climax: two bullet-riddled bodies and a room full of hostages in the hospital’s basement. But in the cold light of day, will Sven protect the senior officer he so admires, even from his own corruption?
So I brewed up some coffee one evening, cracked Box 21’s spine, and discovered another deeply twisted yarn that held a mirror to my values system. Petrona’s Maxine Clarke summed up my own reaction to Box 21, calling it “a very dark book indeed, a compelling, fast-paced and fresh take on those well-worn staples of crime fiction: the hostage drama and sex-trafficking. It is also a police procedural, told with relentless cynicism. I think it’s an excellent novel, but you have been warned!”

Following the release of Box 21, though, Roslund and Hellström pretty much fell off my radar, because Little, Brown UK stopped publishing their work in English. Which was a great disappointment. Even though their stories were disquieting and forbidding, I was impressed by their writing abilities and their sheer brilliance in unfolding a tale ripped from the headlines. The pair were also fearless in handling subjects unflinchingly, that many other scribes would have avoided.

More recently, publicist Lucy Ramsey, who had heard me talk on occasion about Roslund and Hellström, informed me that Quercus had just picked up a novel by that duo called Three Seconds. At the time there were no printed proofs of the book to be read, but she kindly sent me a copy of the manuscript, fresh from the translator, for my opinion. It was a whopping big book (almost 600 pages when ready for publication), but I found myself consumed wholly by its story.

Three Seconds ushers you into the grim, violent world of undercover police and the Polish mafia’s plan to corner the drug market in the prison systems of Sweden, Finland, and Norway. When a clandestine drug operation handled by undercover Swedish agent Piet Hoffmann goes wrong, and a Danish covert operative is murdered, Hoffmann’s handler, Erik Wilson, concocts a scheme that will place his agent in full view of the Polish mafia, to take control of the drug supply at a Swedish penal complex. Sniffing an irregularity in the investigation of the dead Danish agent are Roslund and Hellström’s series cops, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundqvist, who encounter barriers at every turn. Meanwhile, agent Hoffmann infiltrates a maximum-security penitentiary with the idea of assuming dominion there, using the drugs supply as leverage. However, the Polish mafia, in the guise of Wojtek Security, has other ideas.

Tense and gripping, with a chilling climax, Three Seconds is not a book to miss if you like your crime fiction edged with the steel blades of reality. Roslund and Hellström pepper their narrative with insider knowledge and perspectives, and their story’s brutal violence pushes this new book firmly into the thriller category.

I was delighted recently to receive an invitation from Quercus to meet these two Swedish authors at (appropriately) London’s Nordic Bar in Newman Street. Also attending that event were other London critics and bloggers, including Mike Stotter and Ayo Onatade of Shots, Barry Forshaw, Maxine Clarke, and Euro Crime’s Karen Meek. I’m often surprised to find that the darker the subjects crime-fiction writers explore, the nicer those writers are in person. Roslund and Hellström fit that pattern, being delightful company when tipping back a few libations.

The authors were amazed that I knew a great deal about their work, and they kindly agreed to sign my copies of their books. I learned in the course of talking with them, and with CEO Mark Smith, that Quercus has also purchased the rights to Roslund and Hellström’s backlist, not only The Beast and Box 21, but also the third and fourth Ewert Grens/Sven Sundqvist novels, which are currently in the process of being translated into English. (Three Seconds is actually the authors’ fifth book, but it’s the third to be published in Great Britain.)

Soon I was able to find a quiet corner where I could interview Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström for The Rap Sheet. The two opened up about their lives, which have provided the backdrop for their fiction. We talked about some disturbing truths behind The Beast; the pair’s relationship with fellow Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall; how Stieg Larsson helped Roslund by exposing the Swedish neo-Nazi movement; and the authors’ taste in reading material.

Ali Karim: You both have rather eclectic backgrounds. What drew you to write novels? Were you both from bookish families?

Anders Roslund: I used to read all the time. But I also played a lot of soccer--but not at the same time. [Laughs] In the beginning, I read the big Swedish writers; Johan August Strindberg was, and remains, my favorite. I discovered crime through Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and I read them when I was very young and probably without being aware of their influence on my future writing.

I have written every day since I was 15 years old. I wrote five full novels for practice before having the guts to go all the way, before submitting one to a publisher. The early novels are still in my drawer, and that’s where they will stay [locked away], since they are memories from a person much younger, learning to write. But they fulfilled their mission, being my own personal writing school. I knew from the beginning that writing was meant to be my future. I could not see any other way to live my life.

Börge Hellström: In my family we read a lot of books and still do, but I can’t say that we were a particularly bookish family. I actually didn’t start reading avidly until I was a teenager, around 14, 15 years old, I guess. Of course, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did make a big impression on me. I also liked a prolific English writer very much, named Dennis Wheatley [The Devil Rides Out], and I read a lot of books by him, though he is not so popular now, as his work is a little dated.

Karim: While we’re on the subject of the influential Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, do you have a favorite among their 10 Martin Beck novels?

AR: Maj Sjöwall is a dear friend of ours, and from our many discussions I have adjusted my opinion into Maj’s [work]. ... [S]he and Per considered their 10 novels as one complete work, one long book divided into 10 parts. I agree now that you have to read them all to get the full idea, their full intention.

BH: I agree with Anders that their 10 novels form a complete series. However, I do have a soft spot for their 1971 novel, Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle [The Abominable Man].

Karim: So how did you guys first meet?

AR: I worked for Sveriges Television, the Swedish equivalent of the BBC, for 15 years. I was with the news program Rapport och Aktuellt, similar to the Nine O’Clock News, for 10 years and then I started a daily program called Kulturnyheterna [Cultural News], which was and still is a great success. I was the head of this program for the first four years. As a news reporter and editor for Rapport och Aktuellt, I produced a lot of long, ambitious reports about the consequences of crime that were shown on prime-time television, to millions of viewers each time. Most of the Swedish population watched. But no one remembered. And that’s what this is all about. That was my starting point for this joint authorship. Producing TV reports was like writing in sand. I found my way into the sitting rooms of every home in the country, but somehow the content got lost on the way. Which is often the case with news programs. What do you actually remember later? Try asking yourself next time you watch one--what did I actually see? But this--writing crime fiction, tense thrillers that are primary intended to entertain, divert, but also help to inform people about a society, a reality that most of us know nothing about--this is a much better way [to work]. To entertain using a genre that is so well loved, and at the same time, educate a little.

I first met Börge when I was making a report as news editor for Aktuellt, and then again later when I was making a documentary about the organization KRIS (Criminals’ Revenge in Society), a non-profit organization that Börge had helped to establish for former criminals and drug addicts.

I had for a long time worked as a probation officer in my spare time, supporting serious criminals, and so had Börge. And I had been looking for something like this--an organization beyond the establishment, made up of former criminals who knew how things worked but had decided to change their lives, [that was designed to help] others who had also decided that they wanted to make the journey from prison to society and were then met at the gate when they were released.

Börge was one of five people who participated in the film, and when it was ready, and had been shown on television in a number of countries, we just continued to meet. We discovered that we were good at developing stories together, and that we could weave our knowledge into them.

BH: I would add, that [at the time] I had just created (together with 10 more people) KRIS in Sweden, and I sat down at the KRIS office on Bondegatan [Street] in Stockholm when the phone rang. A man with a weird accent (and very obsequious) presented himself as Anders Roslund, news director at the evening news from Sveriges Television. He said he thought that KRIS was the best idea he ever heard of, and he wanted to do a story and a documentary about us.

Guess what answer he got? Of course, we wanted to [cooperate]! As we were filled with our grandiose personalities, [and would be] seen and heard on TV ... who could refuse? [Laughs]

Karim: And what first sparked your desire to write together?

BH: After Anders had completed the documentary film on KRIS, we continued to meet, and we talked about writing together. That’s how it started, in 1998. So today, we have worked together for 12 years, [and] have been working full-time [on] writing now for six years. I guess we had realized during the time we were filming that we had a number of common interests. Incidentally, both Anders and I were parole officers for some very heavy criminals, and we had the same experience of the Swedish prison system. We soon realized that crime is a word for a multitude of strange behaviors in people, and these we could write about.

Karim: There is plenty of social commentary in your own novels, but it’s less overtly political in tone than what you find in, say, the Martin Beck novels. So why do you think social politics is such a strong theme in much of Swedish crime fiction?

BH: Social commentary is perhaps one of the reasons why many Swedish crime novels have become so popular, because we are addressing social issues. What Roslund-Hellström are doing is we’re taking it one step further and describing the events that get the reader to question their choice[s] and their idea[s] about that particular problem. We want readers to think for themselves about what they read in our work, rather than force-feed them our own opinions and thoughts. But the social issues that pepper the narrative in our books are actually secondary. The most important thing for us is still to entertain our readers. If you want to read our books to get information about a problem, you can do that; but you can also read [them] as pure entertainment, as that is our primary purpose. If you learn something, or the work provokes you to think, then, well, that’s wonderful too.

Karim: I first stumbled upon your work a few years ago when I read The Beast, your debut novel. That book not only disturbed me deeply, but it introduced me to your series detectives, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundkvist. So which came first, your detectives as characters or the disturbing plot?

AR: Definitely the plot. Since Börge had a troubled background, and I had worked for quite some time producing reports concerning the treatment of child molesters/pedophiles, we both had knowledge from different angles.

Karim: The Beast is a cautionary tale of morality, and it made me wonder why you chose the disturbing theme of child murder and its consequences.

BH: It’s a matter of personal history for me. As a child I was sexually abused by men three times. And I did not tell anyone about it. But it was a trauma to me that I carried inside me for almost 30 years. I was 37 years old when I first started to talk about what those men had done to me sexually, abusively. As painful as it is for me to reopen that chapter in my life, I do understand you asking about The Beast, as it was our debut novel. We wrote The Beast 10 years ago and we are very proud of the book and honored about the awards and recognition it gave us as writers. But The Beast to me is no longer current. It is a different story about other characters and events that lie in the past, a past that I would like to move on from. For each subsequent book that we wrote following The Beast, we have changed the way we write. We have also introduced new main characters in each successive book. Each book is written with a view toward being different. So with our latest, Three Seconds, we have changed direction again.

Karim: I’m sorry to reopen old wounds. But now I understand better why--as a father--The Beast gave me nightmares and made me question my own values system. Let me just ask one more question, Börge: What were you like when, during the writing process, you had to re-immerse yourself in that horrific chapter from your past?

BH: It brought terrible memories to me, when we wrote it. Memories of sexual abuse from my childhood. These memories were also one of the reasons that we wrote The Beast. For me it was an opportunity to get even with my history, my self-loathing, and my own hatred. When Frederick Steffanson shot Bernt Lund [in the book], it’s me who is holding the rifle. And I have to admit it felt good. Very good. Cathartic. Our question throughout the book is “How far can/will I go as a parent to protect my own and other peoples’ children?” If I have to kill someone to protect these kids, will society allow it? If they ever allow it, it is surely when the father [in this book], punishes her daughter’s killer. And that is The Beast at its core.

Karim: Was The Beast your first collaboration? And had either of you written or published fiction prior to working on that novel?

AR: I’d published some smaller stuff in my 20s--before those 15 years at Sveriges Television occupied all my time and strength--with a small publishing house which is not in business anymore. But I doubt that it was my fault they are no longer in existence. [Laughs]

Karim: One last question about The Beast, and then we’ll move on. Can you tell me a little about that book’s path to publication?

AR: Maj Sjöwall was one of the first to read our work--she was impressed, and later on also the Swedish publishing house Piratförlaget, where we still publish our novels, was very enthusiastic. I still remember that day when we arrived early to Old City in Stockholm, where the publisher was situated; how we had a coffee in the corner shop with the manuscript in my bag; and how I took one paper out and on the back side wrote the word “vi,” which means “us.” We talked about this “us”--us working together, us producing this together, us never taking credit from each other, us dropping our first names on the cover in order to create the authorship Roslund & Hellström. ... Then [after dropping off the manuscript we] just waited, waited, for a couple of weeks ... [the] longest wait except for when my son was born.

(Part II of this interview can be enjoyed here.)


Mark Thwaite said...

Great piece, great interview...

Mark Thwaite from Quercus here, I just wanted to bring your attention to the brand new:

The site has a forum which I hope readers of 'Three Seconds' will use to discuss the challenging work of these astonishing authors.

Very best, thanks again for the great interview (can't wait for Part 2).


Maxine Clarke said...

Excellent article (and thanks for the reference to my review of Box 21) and fascinating interview. I am looking forward to the next installment, and how the authors will respond about Grens's actions towards the end of Box 21.

Susan said...

I am reading:Three Seconds" as part of a group on ,in the USA My first book by these wonderful Authors..and it will not be my last.I especially want more background on "Grens"We are only on Part Two for this week..and had to force myself to put "Three Seconds" down..We will be meeting Anders and Borge today..We are quite excited..