One of the best-known crime-fiction critics in Britain, Barry Forshaw, is also the author of last year’s The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson, a copiously researched study of the Swedish journalist-novelist who gave the world The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two bestselling sequels.
Forshaw is currently finishing work on another book, Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction, which UK publisher Palgrave Macmillan plans to release in early 2012. With the number of English-translated Nordic mysteries climbing fast, I asked Forshaw about the roots and future of this phenomenon.
Read the last Rap Sheet about the PBS-TV series Zen.
Until just a few years ago, the only Nordic crime novels most English speakers read were Swedish, either Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck stories of the 1960s and ’70s, or Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books. How did this subgenre of crime fiction suddenly become so hot?
The desire for novelty in an exhausted, overvisited field? That is one factor, certainly, but there are a variety of reasons—and the study of this phenomenon makes for some fascinating conclusions, relating as much to the insights into Scandinavian society provided by this fiction as to any intrinsic literary merit.
What sorts of “insights into Scandinavian society?”
Any intelligent reader of the genre will quickly become aware of the sociopolitical insights afforded by the novels, building up a complex picture of Scandinavian society—in particular, the cracks that have appeared in the social democratic ideal, an ideal which has been cherished for so long by observers in America, Britain and the rest of Europe. The analysis of society freighted into the novels is more forensic and detailed than in the crime fiction of virtually any other country, even within the orbit of such mordant social critics as the writers James Lee Burke [in America] and Val McDermid [in Britain].
How much of a crime-fiction-writing tradition do the Nordic nations have?
The Nordic storytelling tradition is a long and honorable one, but the crime-fiction invasion is a relatively recent phenomenon—earlier Scandinavian genre writers such as Maria Lang made relatively little impact in the UK or U.S., though Lang was translated.
We hear so much more about Swedish crime novelists than we do about writers from elsewhere in the region. Why is that?
Certainly, in strictly numerical terms, Sweden’s crime-fiction practitioners outnumber those from other Nordic countries, although this situation is in a state of flux.
Is there a Nordic nation you expect will follow Sweden as the next “big thing” in producing English-language crime fiction?
That’s a situation that’s up for grabs. But it’s more likely to be Norway than Finland.
Such things are a combination of mathematics [the number of writers], literary acumen and chance. Norway has all three on its side at present.
But Iceland’s influence on the genre is growing, too.
Iceland has recently moved to a more prominent place on the stage of world events, with the striking dislocation between the country’s recent industrial success and the catastrophic banking crash that virtually bankrupted the nation. An off-kilter vision of Iceland and its recent turbulent history may be seen through the work of such writers as Yrsa Sigurdardóttir [Last Rituals, Ashes to Dust], and different perspectives are provided by another Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indridason, who won a prestigious [Crime Writers’ Association] Dagger Award for his novel Silence of the Grave (2001).
Indridason is a novelist who has a focus on the continuing influence of the Cold War. Remembering a time when idealistic left-wing students in Iceland would clamor to spend time studying in their admired communist East Germany, the novelist built into the mechanics of the police procedural an examination of Iceland’s past and the ideological disappointments—the socialist ideals that inspired people to do something about corruption in society, only to realize that corruption is not the exclusive preserve of capitalist bosses.
In your opinion, what are the best, most representative Nordic crime novels available in English today?
The 10 “Story of a Crime” novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, of course. [Danish author] Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow . [Stieg Larsson’s] Millennium Trilogy. Early-to-mid-period Mankell. And the wonderful Icelander Yrsa Sigurdardóttir.
And which new Nordic crime novels should we watch for in the near future?
Now, about Death in a Cold Climate: Is this going to be a general overview of Nordic crime fiction and the people who write it, or do you have larger goals?
Larger goals, definitely! It was important for me to ensure that Death in a Cold Climate would be as up-to-date and authoritative a survey as I could possibly manage—and that it would be the most complete overview of Scandinavian crime fiction. To that end, I contacted again every author with whom I had previously spoken, along with many who I had not been in touch with before.
In the entire field of Nordic crime fiction I found a welcome readiness [almost without exception] among novelists to discuss their own writing, and to answer the many questions I had about their individual countries and societies. So, along with literature, there is hopefully a panoply of impressions of all the Nordic countries—their politics, their people, their mores, their landscapes. I wanted a total picture.
Barry Forshaw photo, above, by Ali Karim. Used with permission.