Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Nordic crime fiction

The runaway international success of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels marks what may be the apogee of Nordic crime fiction. It's Raymond Chandler meets Ingmar Bergman as the moody, complex protagonists solve their mysteries in clear, crisp prose. (Ironically, Henning Mankell, creator of Inspector Kurt Wallander, is actually married to Bergman's daughter.)

The international following for these writers started with Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (a husband and wife team) and their series about Martin Beck in the 60s and 70s. I read a number of those in English while I was living in Europe. One of the novels, The Laughing Policeman, was made into an American film starring Walter Matthau (with the action set in San Francisco and the character called Jacob Martin). Derek Jacobi played Beck in a 1980 international production of The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.

Beck was the quintessential troubled man, who goes through a divorce during the series. He is gloomy about his work -- and who wouldn't be with all the crime and death. The Nordic characters brood about evil and the difficulty flawed police have in fighting it. Beck introduced this atmosphere to the world at large.

Kurt Wallander is Martin Beck's successor. He is actually a little unhappier and a little gloomier than Beck. He drinks and eats junk food as well as any Chandler hero, but he generally muddles through and gets the job done. While Beck operated in Stockholm, Wallander is based in Ystad, in southern Sweden near Malmo, so that Denmark and the Continent are more present in these novels.

Kenneth Branagh is playing Wallander in a BBC series that has appeared on PBS. Branagh brings his customary verve to the role, but he is not really at all as I have imagined the character. Branagh is too energetic, too alert, whereas Wallander often appears almost befuddled, which is an endearing quality.

Hakan Nesser seems to follow the tradition. Inspector Van Veeteren appears in English in Borkmann's Point, which engages like the books of his Swedish predecessors, but does not break any new ground.

It is Stieg Larsson who breaks new ground. His protagonist is a business journalist, not a policeman, who is less cynical about the human condition. But the novels are taken over by the "girl," Lisbeth Salandar, a character of real complexity who takes on astonishing depth in the second novel of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played With Fire. There is mystery, but the Larsson books are as much character-driven as plot-driven. By the second novel, journalist Blomkvist (who mirrors Larsson in real life) fades into the background as Salander grows stronger. The third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, will be released in the UK in October of this year.

Larsson, according to Wikipedia, was the world's second-bestselling author last year, after Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini. Sadly, the Swedish writer died in 2004, leaving behind the manuscripts of the trilogy.

A Swedish miniseries of the trilogy is scheduled for broadcast next year, and Hollywood, again according to Wikipedia, is interested in doing an American version, with the likes of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp looking to star and Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese to direct.

Larsson seems to owe as much to American and British mystery writers as to his Swedish predecessors, but there is nonetheless a pronounced Nordic element to his novels. Perhaps it is the long winter nights and endless summer days, or the feeling of being on the edge of the world.

I started a book by a Norwegian mystery writer, Jo Nesbro, called Redbreast, but got bogged down and have abandoned it for the time being. The main character seems interesting but we see so little of him in the first part of the book that I lost interest.

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