Monday, March 25, 2013

Scandinavian Nights: Nordic Noir and Wallander

(Editor’s note: In the essay below, British editor and critic Barry Forshaw briefs us on the roots of his passion for crime fiction, as well as on his latest non-fiction work about Nordic crime fiction.)

It’s the Americans that got me started.

My lifelong love of crime fiction certainly began with such Brits as Arthur Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, and Eric Ambler, but I found myself perfectly able to resist (for quite some time) the cozy charms of Agatha Christie and her comfortable, unreal world; a qualified appreciation came later. Ah, but the Americans! I know I’m not alone among British crime-fiction aficionados in finding my first acquaintance with such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett to be like a bolt from the blue--prose written with such pungency that the British variety seemed rather thin-blooded. And then I discovered Ross Macdonald ... and never looked back.

By the time I began reviewing crime for a variety of newspapers, though, I was covering writers from all points of the compass--and I realized that even among people who knew me, my initial enthusiasm for the American writers was actually something I hadn’t written about (this was before I began to publish books on crime fiction). After all, I was rather too young to have reviewed The Big Sleep when it first appeared. Or even The Galton Case.

I’m more likely these days to be covering Jo Nesbø or Jussi Adler-Olsen. And the result? American and British writers I meet can bridle whenever the words “Scandinavian crime” are mentioned. After an otherwise amiable evening spent with a well-known writer recently, I was asked, with a tight smile just this side of friendliness: “Why the hell do you continue promoting these Nordic writers in book after book--and in review after review? What about the Americans and the British? Don’t we deserve a mention now and again?” I can only protest, feebly, that if (after I’m pushing up the daisies) anybody cares to tally the nationalities of the crime writers I’ve covered, the Scandinavians would be massively outnumbered by, say, the Brits (I do, after all, have three books under my belt with the same word in the title: British Crime Writing, British Crime Film, and--shortly--British Gothic Cinema). But perhaps every writer on the planet feels that he or she is not receiving enough attention. (Gone, I suspect, are the days when writers would, like Kafka, suggest that their agents burn their complete output.)

I’ve ruefully come to an accommodation with myself: I just have to ride with the punches while the “Scandi Crime” wave continues to roll over everything--and I continue to be seen as one of its spokesmen. After all, my new book is Nordic Noir (Oldcastle/Pocket Essentials).

I was musing on this recently, after being asked to interview the great Krister Henriksson--most viewers’ favorite Kurt Wallander--for a new magazine called (like my tome!) Nordic Noir.

* * *

“My career as an actor,” Krister Henriksson tells me (as London taxis creep around the eponymous Seven Dials obelisk below his hotel), “could have been very short-lived. During a performance of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in my 20s, I fainted onstage--and when I came to I was in hospital. They told me I had fainted because of stage fright--not the best thing to happen to a young actor early in his career, was it?”

Henriksson, who is best known for playing detective Wallander in a widely praised Swedish TV series based on Henning Mankell’s best-selling novels, will make his West End debut in Doktor Glas, which transfers to London following its acclaimed run at Sweden’s National Theatre. Adapted from the classic novel by Hjalmar Söderberg (and performed in its original Swedish with English surtitles), it will preview at Wyndham’s Theatre on April 16.

(Right) Actor Krister Henriksson

But I’m here, principally, to talk about his role as
Henning Mankell’s dour and intuitive Swedish copper with the troubled private life. As we sip aquavit, I tentatively bring up with Henriksson the tricky subject of which, among the three actors who’ve portrayed Wallander (Rolf Lassgård and Kenneth Branagh being the other two), is Mankell’s favorite--and point out how the novelist always gives a diplomatic answer when asked this question. Henriksson smiles; he’s also been asked this before.

“Yes, Henning is always diplomatic when he’s asked this question--and I appreciate that. After all, what else could he be? When he was in London recently with Kenneth Branagh, he wasn’t going to say, ‘Of course, Krister is my favorite!’

“Although speaking for myself, it wasn’t a part I instantly leapt at. When it was first offered to me, I said firmly no, no, no. I really didn’t want to do it, not least because of the length of the production. I simply didn’t want to make the kind of commitment that filming a series like that would involve--I have lots of things I want to do in the theater, and I was genuinely resistant to taking the part. Of course, this had one corollary effect--every time they came back to me, the proposed salary was being adjusted upwards. But this wasn’t why I was resisting--I genuinely wanted to do other things. And I had always described myself as a theater actor first and foremost.

“And then they sent the man himself to persuade me. And Henning Mankell is a man it is very difficult to say no to. He asked me why I kept declining--and I told him one of the reasons was quite simply that I hadn’t read the books.” Henriksson laughs. “But when I read them--I read three of them--I thought to myself: ‘Why the hell didn’t they offer me this part first, rather than Rolf Lassgård?’”

So what finally persuaded Henriksson, after all this pleading, to accept the role? Was it really just reading the books? “No,” he replies, “it was something else. Actually, to be frank, it was that meeting with Henning Mankell. We instantly established contact and had this strange sensation that we had known each other for a long time, even though we had just met.

“I’m glad that Wallander was so popular in the UK--not least because I had a hand in writing the scripts; that was, in fact, part of the reason why I said yes.”

* * *

So, back to the coffee machine and a cool London dusk outside my window, as I write up my interview with Henriksson. And, meanwhile, put the finishing touches to Nordic Noir. The latter is sub-titled The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, and attempts to be a compact and authoritative trawl through a phenomenally popular genre, from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s highly influential Martin Beck series and Henning Mankell’s Wallander (as mentioned above), to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and cult TV hits such as The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen, up to the hugely successful books and movies of the current king in this field, Norway’s Jo Nesbø. (I’ve tried this before with Death in a Cold Climate, but Nordic Noir is a more compact, accessible guide--and shopping list--collecting all the new novels, films, and TV series that have appeared since the last book was published.)

I’ve tried to anatomize the nigh-obsessive appeal of this subject, meeting virtually every key practitioner in every corner of the field. If that means a few more British crime writers will cross me off their Christmas card list, well, I suppose it’s a price I’ll have to pay ...

In the video above, Wallander star Krister Henriksson and author Henning Mankell talk about the character of Ystad, Sweden’s favorite fictional detective.

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