Tag Archives: Scandanavian crime fiction

2011/23 The Troubled Man

We seem to have been waiting a long time for the next Wallander novel, but it has finally arrived in English translation and I devoured it the moment it arrived. It is also a book to be savoured, as it is the final Wallander book – there will not be any more.

For a long time Henning Mankell resisted writing more Wallander novels, saying that he was too distraught following the suicide of Johanna Sallstrom, the young actress who played the role of Linda Wallanader, Kurt Wallander’s daughter, in the Swedish television adaptations. Finally Mankell returned for one final Wallander novel to bring closure to one of the most remarkable series of detective novels in recent years.

The first Wallander novel was published in Sweden in 1991 and first appeared in English translation six years later. In The Troubled Man the usual Wallander themes are evident and the detective is his usual miserable, alcoholic, workaholic and socially dysfunctional self, struggling as much with his personal relationships as with the challenges of the current case. The story revolves around a retired naval officer and future father-in-law of Linda Wallander, who, seemingly preoccupied, disappears one day whilst on a walk. The ensuing investigation inevitably reveals a more complex web of intrigue and scandal. Ostensibly, the missing officer is ‘the troubled man’ of the title, but it is equally clear that Wallander is also a troubled man and, given the background to the writing of the book, it could be said that Mankell himself is also the troubled man.

As with all the Wallander books, this is a fast-paced quick read. I don’t want to give anything away, but I found the ending particularly fitting and poignant. Whilst some may be disappointed by the anti-climatic finish to Wallander’s career, I found his destiny to be particularly appropriate for the melancholic sociophobe, drawn increasingly into himself, that he is. A brave way to end such a fabulous series of books. Now I shall have to start all over again at the beginning with Faceless Killers.

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2011/13 Unknown

 

Still with Scandanavian crime fiction and to the third novel in Mari Jungstedt’s Inspector Knutas series. This is a very well constructed traditional police procedural with a strong ‘whodunnit’ feel to it and perhaps the most satisfying read of the series to date for me. I mention its ‘whodunnit’ quality because this so so often a rarity these days in crime fiction and I felt a certain nostalgia in reading this book at its rather charming and old-fashioned feel, which Jungstedt manages so well.

This time Knutas and his team are called in to investigate the murder of an archaeology student. Jungstedt brings together some of the gorier elements of Gotland folklore, along with the island’s Viking history and the fact that archaeology has become a veritable industry and source of income for the island. It is this bringing together of the ancient and the modern that allows Jungstedt to convey something of Gotland’s landscape and culture – certainly more so than in the earlier novels. Gotland is much more a living character itself in this novel, but not just as a pohysical presence – a cultural, historical and psychological one too.

Where Jungstedt has innovated is that there are two heroes in her novels and this becomes stronger in each of the three books so far. As well as Knutas, there is also the journalist Johan Berg – so two heroes, pitched against each other, but both on the same side, as it were. The tension and rivalry between Knutas and Berg is nicely set up by Jungstedt and looks set to play an increasingly important role in future novels.

 

 

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2011/6 Arctic Chill

Arctic Chill is the fifth of Indridason’s crime novels to be translated into English. Like the others, for which Indridason has established for himself an international reputation, Arctic Chill is a traditional police procedural, albeit one that is dominated by the bleak Icelandic landscape and the interminable winter nights. In this sense, there is nothing particularly radical or innovative in Indridason’s writing – even his emotionally dysfunctional and workaholic detective, Erlendur, with his broken marriage, delinquent, damaged children and heavy smoking is firmly in the tradition of the modern, North European detective. Compared with Fossum, Indridason’s novels are less dark and psychological; compared with Nesbo’s, they are less harrowing and nihilistic. They are simply well-written detective stories with plots that are not over-complicated. Addictive stuff.

But Indridason’s novels, and Arctic Chill is no exception in this respect, are embedded within the Icelandic landscape and Icelandic Society. In Arctic Chill a young boy of Thai extraction is found murdered and Indridason uses this to explore racism, anti-immigration and the tensions of a multi-cultural society. But these are the issues that are explored through the novel, not the reason for the crime itself, which turns out to be rather mundane and something of an anti-climax. And that is, perhaps, Indridason’s point – that violence is so often mundane, even boring. Indridason deserves praise for this – it would have been much easier to have turned this into a novel about hate crime. Instead Indridason tells a story of the banality of evil and he still manages to get across his social commentary on the corrosive nature of xenophobia.

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2011/3 Bad Intentions

 

Fossum is one of Norway’s leading crime writers and, with the publication of her books into English, has developed a strong reputation on the international stage. Her focus is always upon the psychological dimension to a particular set of violent events (and she is not afraid to go into some dark corners!) and, in particular, into the state of mind of the perpetrators of violent crime, rather than the victims. So, whilst she might not be accused of having sympathy with her psychopaths and murderers, she does seem to set out to understand them and explain them. As such her novels focus primarily upon the ‘why’, rather than the ‘who’ and the ‘how’, which is the territory of the traditional whodunnit. In this context her detective, Inspector Konrad Sejer, is a sympathetic, but unusual character. He is rarely centre stage in the novels (and certainly isn’t in Bad Intentions) and the reader does not really come to know him as well as other fictional detectives. Indeed he is far less interesting as a character than many other fictional detectives. Although he is wise and perceptive (perhaps even ‘all-knowing’), he doesn’t do an awful lot of detecting. Infact, he barely breaks into na sweat. It is as if he is simply there as a magnet around which truth, order and clarity can slowly form.

Bad Intentions is a short novel (I read it in a single sitting with just a short break for tea) and the economy of the writing drives the narrative at a swift pace. Without recounting the plot, it concerns a tangled web of lies, woven by a group of young people as a result of a tragic accident, which in turn leads to a greater tragedy. But Fossum seems to be suggesting that an equal tragedy is the wasted young lives of the guilty.

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The Terrorists

It is perhaps fitting that the final instalment in the Martin Beck series, The Terrorists, turns its attention from the local (even parochial) settings of most detective fiction to the international context more common in the spy thriller. The novel, arguably the most political of all in the series, centres around a group of international terrorists, seemingly without any strict ideological commitment, but who are responsible for the assassination of international leaders, statemen and dignitaries. Strictly speaking then, they are not terrorists at all, spreading terror to a whole population with acts designed to cause widescale and indiscriminate death and injury, but a group of professional assassins who target political leaders.

Martin Beck is put in charge of defeating the terrorist threat when Sweden receives the visit of an emminent, right-wing and highly objectionable politician. Whilst Beck carries out his duty dilligently, he barely conceals his contempt for the American and his views, and we, as readers, are inevitablt not without some sympathy for the terrorists. Ultimately, though we are left to conclude that whilst part of us might cheer a successful attempt on the American’s life, we realise that such actions need to be resisted and defeated – objectionable and undemocratic views are not defeated by equally objectionable and undemocratic actions.

With Lennart Kollberg having resigned on principle from the police force, this final novel serves to sum up the whole of the series and give the social concerns of the other books a global context. Set against the context of Vietnam and American foreign policy of the early 1970s, it is slightly chilling just how contemporary its concerns feel over thirty years on. The final paragraph of the book acts as a powerful summary of the series, of the larger ten volume novel that Sjowall and Wahloo conceived as a critique of Swedish society. In this final scene Beck and Kollberg and their respective partners are playing a crossword game, a game of words, just as the Martin Beck novels were Sjowall and Wahloo’s own game of words. Of particular importance is the final word in the whole series:

They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, “The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’ve got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.”

“Is that all?”

“Roughly,” said Kollberg. “My turn to start? Then I say X – X as in Marx.”

As the final volume was being completed Per Wahloo was already ill with the cancer that was to kill him shortly after the manuscript was delivered to the publisher. The Terrorists, and indeed the entire Martin Beck series, stands as a fitting and lasting legacy to their writing partnership. It is a series that changed the nature of detective fiction and continues to exert its influence on the genre to this day.

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Cop Killer

Cop Killer is the nineth and penultimate novel in the Martin Beck series and again concentrates not on one, but on two separate cases, seemingly unconnected, but which become connected in the manner in which they are played out. The first of these cases concerns the brutal sexual murder of a young woman in a remore rural location, where by coincidence, the man convicted of the Roseanna muder in the first Martin Beck novel, now resides, after having been released from prison. Inevitably he falls under suspicion. It draws our attention inevitably that all the novels in the series are intended to be read as ten separate episodes in one larger novel. The second case concerns an incident where a policeman is shot and killed by a pair of desparate, teenage petty thieves in Stockholm. The two crimes stand in contrast to each other, in terms of location and premeditation, as well as the social milieus (bougeois and working-class) they inhabit.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the introduction of the character of Herrgott Allwright, the rural police officer in charge of the rural murder investigation until Beck arrives on the scene. Allwright, a rural police officer, represents everything that policing in Stockholm is not. He is a sympathetic character who polices honestly and sensitively in the interests of the community – an idealistic portrayal of what policing ought to be about in a liberal democracy and the kind of policeman that Beck would like to be if he had the chance. In contrast stands Lennaret Kollberg, Beck’s partner in Stockholm who, dislliusioned with what policing has become, is contemplating resigning from the force. And herein lies the usual ambiguity in the title. Whilst at face value the title may refer to the tennagers who in the heat of the moment shoot a policeman in the second of the crimes, it is really not a single police officer, but the whole concept of policing by consent that is the victim, represented by Kollberg, and the killer is society in general. As in The Locked Room, Cop Killer abounds with witty and outspoken social criticism.

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The Locked Room

 

And so back to Martin Beck. The Locked Room is the eighth volume in the Martin Beck series. This time the story concentrates on two parallel investigations by the Stockholm Police – a bank robbery (or a series of bank robberies) and the discovery of a murdered corpse in a room that has been locked and secured from the inside. In his introduction, American writer Michael Connelly says that he finds The Locked Room the most satidfying in the series and I can see why he might say this. The plotting is the most complex so far and it differs from the other volumes I’ve read so far in a number of ways.

Firstly, Martin Beck plays something of a backseat role. Beck is convalescing after receiving a gunshot wound and he is given The Locked Room case as a kind of mental exercise to ease him back into work. And he works on the case alone. Despite the book’s title, it is the bank robbery that is the prominent case and Beck plays no part in this investigation until the very end, when it is established that there are tenuous links between the two cases. So Beck is absent from a large section in the middle of the book.

Secondly, whilst in the other books Sjowall and Wahloo’s social and political commentary is never far from the story, in The Locked Room, they are more forthright and strident, with whole paragraphs given over to attacks on the establishment, the police hierarchy (a pro-fascist organisation) and an uncaring Welfare State that hides its failings behind a liberal facade. The judicial apparatus, in particular, comes in for harsh criticism, as the book seeks to expose the brutalities and inequalities within a so-called liberal democracy. Yet whilst the authors’ outrage is almost tangible, they are never po-faced about their politics and they are always entertaining. In fact, some of the most bitingly effective pieces of political commentary sit alongside the funniest scenes, some of which would seem more at home in an Inspector Clouseau film than in the pages of a crime thriller. It is also easy to forget that this novel was written in the early seventies – at that time I was just starting to read crime fiction and was cutting my teeth on Agatha Christie, in particular. This is so far removed from all that, not least in its raw exposee of society and the way that the authors capture at least a flavour of the ordinary voices of working people.

The Locked Room clearly refers directly to the room in which the corpse is found in Beck’s case. But it just as equally refers to the prison cell in which the murderer will spend the rest of his life, and, most of all, the claustrophobic Swedish society itself with a police force that is given more to surpressing free political expression and dissent, especially that of the Left, than to contributing to a safer and more equal society.

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