Last updated: January 7, 2012 3:47 am

Crime pays

A guide to Nordic noir provides some clues to its international success

 Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, by Barry Forshaw, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£16.99, 224 pages

 

What can you tell of a writer’s work by the way he carries himself at the dinner table? Usually not much, I would say. The bad ones are sometimes great conversationalists, while even the most sensitive of stylists can be objectionable in person.

I met Barry Forshaw briefly at a dinner for crime fiction aficionados in London some time ago. He was the obvious authority in the room; I could see people straining to hear, weighing his words carefully. That evening, Forshaw came across as humble, intelligent and perceptive.

His new book Death in a Cold Climate is both intelligent and perceptive. Humble it is not. It is, to my knowledge, the most complete guide to Scandinavian crime fiction yet written in any language, an invaluable companion for anyone interested in the genre.

Forshaw seems to have read it all. He puts the books in social context, handing out frequent praise and some criticism. It is apparent that Forshaw loves his subject and the enthusiasm is intoxicating. I usually find it quite boring to read summaries of novels, but in his company it is a delight.

The greatest mystery of Scandinavian crime fiction is, of course, that of its huge international success. Writers, publishers and translators are all given their voice in Forshaw’s book, and all struggle to find solid explanations for the phenomenon.

Theories are plentiful. Scandinavia is exotic but familiar. Its crime fiction is something relatively new in the market – and we all like the new. Then there is the crack between perception and reality: crime fiction effectively punctures the image of these countries as model societies, and instead displays them as violent, unsafe places. For foreign readers, there is a dose of schadenfreude here.

It is noted, too, that Scandinavian crime writers are an ambitious lot when it comes to bringing literary quality to the genre; that there are a few writers who are actually quite good, even beyond the estimation of their British peers.

What is clear is that success breeds success. It all began with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1970s. Then came Henning Mankell. From that point, the genre seemed to explode with Stieg Larsson, but really it had been slow progress over many years.

Something also changes in translation, argues Forshaw. Indeed, reading his glowing assessments of some writers, I wondered at points: is this the same book I read and considered painfully bad? That the local critics slammed? But then it might not be the same book in English but a perfected version, the story and language elevated by a good translator, perhaps with a better command of the writer’s toolbox than the actual writer.

One thing that is not mentioned in Forshaw’s book is the economics behind the boom. I am talking about this from a writer’s perspective. If you are to support yourself working in a small language – as all the Scandinavian languages are – you had better listen to the audience. What, you must ask, will a fair amount of people actually read?

In Scandinavia the answer to that question is crime fiction. Pretty much only crime novels sell enough for a writer to make a living. This simple fact has made many very good Scandinavian writers turn to the genre. The best writers in Scandinavia today, in terms of pure craftsmanship, are without doubt the crime writers.

Over the past 30 years Swedish publishers and critics have taken crime fiction seriously, treating it as literature in its own right. You can be regarded as a serious writer even if you are turning out a crime novel a year. All of this has created a lot of self-confidence. As a writer, I can have high hopes of finding not just a publisher, but a very good publisher.

In recent years, I have been doing lots of promotional work abroad. Everywhere I go I hear stories about people in the local Swedish diplomatic corps scratching their heads in frustration. “How did this happen?” they ask. “The image of our country is being destroyed by a bunch of low-life crime writers.”

Tough luck, I say to them. Our society was never a perfect one, and is certainly not so today. It is rife with the ever-present problems associated with immigration, racism and growing inequality. What is new is that there are writers with an international following giving voice to their misgivings, and readers who find that these stories resonate with their own lives.

Not everyone will like our work – or how we carry ourselves at the table. But writers who strike a chord tend to stick around.

Mons Kallentoft is author of ‘Midwinter Sacrifice’ (Hodder & Stoughton)

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