It has been exactly one month since I reported that I had enrolled in a class at Stanford University on Nordic crime fiction, both written and filmed. At that time I reviewed The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahoo. Since then, our class has read Firewall by Henning Mankell, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, and Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg. I promised you reviews of these books.
I, however, have not read these books.
That’s not exactly true: I read Larssen’s Millennium Trilogy back when they first came out and enjoyed them very much. By and large, however, this immersion into Scandinavian literature and, by extension, its culture, has not gone according to plan.
For one thing, we have focused the first three weeks on Sweden, which appears to be one screwed up country. The sort-of-failed experiment in social democracy, the corruption of all government services, the complicity with Axis forces in World War II that haunts the country to this day, and the psychological ramifications of living in a country where it’s always dark and/or snowy . . . just hanging around a classroom talking about it gets depressing. It seems that everyone’s neighbor is either a Nazi, a slayer of prostitutes a pedophile, or a drunk; in many cases, one’s best friend is a combination of two or more of the above. If I meet one more detective who is “sad-faced” or who has a terrible relationship with his grown children, all of whom are “sad-faced,” jag kommer att slå någon med en spade och sedan bli full på aquavit (”I will hit somebody with a shovel and then go get drunk on aquavit.”)
This week, I was therefore excited to leave Sweden behind and turn to Denmark – which evidently vies with Norway and Disneyland for the title of “Happiest Place on Earth” – when we began Smilla’s Sense of Snow. But look at this cover! This is exactly how the book feels:
Here we have yet another snarky female protagonist who is probably on the spectrum (hello, Lisbeth Salander). The novel begins with the funeral of a murdered six-year-old Inuit boy in the freezing snow in a nasty housing block in Copenhagen. Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen! It moves eventually to Greenland and to a sci-fi like conspiracy involving a fallen meterorite and killer parasite worms. Fun times! This is not what I signed up for.
Except, as it turns out, this is exactly what I signed up for.
I knew that switching to a new sub-genre of mystery might be problematical, yet I hoped that 1) I would find much – or, at least, something – to enjoy; and 2) I would meet other mystery lovers with whom I could share good conversation, a cup of coffee and a sly, “Let’s get outta here and go talk about Christie!” I even wore my And Then There Were None t-shirt to the first class and was immediately labeled a subversive by our instructor, a lovely doctor of languages who is of Swedish heritage herself and keeps asking hopefully how many of the students have Scandinavian blood in them. (The most I can offer is the memory of a cheese Danish I ate seven years ago before I turned gluten free.) Most of the students are in their 70’s or older, including my instructor, who is perfectly lovely but a little scattered. She goes off on tangents – some of them more interesting than the book at hand – and she reminds me of my mother in her relationship to technology. There’s a DVD system installed in the classroom, which she simply cannot get to work correctly. At the start of each class, I arrive to find a student technician standing at the front with our instructor, instructing her on how to use the machine. But it never seems to go according to plan. And so last week she let us out early. I found myself warring with the impulse to complain about a shortened class that I had paid good money for and the desire to kick up my heels and sing “Free Again” as I dashed to my car.
Now, halfway through the course, I have decided to re-align my options. I have read as many synopses of Smilla as I can find and am heading to my mom’s to watch the movie on Amazon Prime. I think I’ll skip the Nesbo on the list (The Bat) and concentrate on trying to read Camilla Lackberg’s The Ice Princess. Lackberg has been crowned “the Swedish Agatha Christie.” Already I can tell that this is a boldfaced lie! The novel begins with the discovery of a woman’s body frozen solid in her bathtub. Does nobody use heat in Sweden? Right now, I am so grateful to live in California – expensive as hell and prone to earthquakes – and to be able to count the number of days I have seen snow on one hand. I assume before I start that the “Ice Princess” was murdered in her bath either by her own father, who has lusted after her ever since she was a babe, when he hung up his Reichstag uniform for the last time, or by the kindly neighbor down the road who has loved her since childhood . . . and who has dressed up all the dead prostitutes he has stuffed in his basement to look just like her. Please, don’t tell me if I’m right! I want to be surprised!
The problem with my plan is that I feel like such a cheat. Here I am, a teacher of almost thirty years, and I’m balking at doing my homework. And my reaction to this class is even seeping into my real life. For example, this is the year I am being evaluated under a new system that is so labor-intensive for the teacher that I’m not gong to be able to finish what I’m required to do. Everything is due on Monday!! I didn’t procrastinate – exactly – but I didn’t get the last two cycles done, and I have to deal with the fact that this means my grade will get lowered. And we all know where that leads:
How many of you, like me, needed to get an A? I always felt a desire to be among the best, and since I couldn’t accomplish that on the stage or in the athletic arena, I tried to be a fantastic student. Nowadays, I see my students grubbing mightily for grades. One boy came into my office a few weeks ago and railed against his puny B+. I mean, it’s almost an A-, and he’s almost certain to end up with a final A, but at the moment, a B+ was what he certainly deserved – in fact, I think I was a little generous. He put forth a series of arguments that would have done Perry Mason proud – God! I wish I was taking a course on Erle Stanley Gardner right now – but to no avail. And the thing is, I felt for the kid, even if I never had his nerve. In my day, we did not advocate so fiercely to our teacher’s face for every extra point. I remember how guilty I felt in my first university English class when I approached the professor with my midterm in trembling hands and notified her that she had added up the points wrong. I felt terrible bothering her, but as it turned out, I needed every point I could muster to pass her class!!! I always felt that the report card was the ultimate judgment: to my parents, who paid taxes so I could receive this education, to my own fragile sense of self-worth, and ultimately to my maker who would judge me when I got to the gates of Heaven. (“I’m so sorry, Bradley, but I see here that you received a C+ in 10th grade trigonometry . . . You are consigned to hell.”)
As I gear up to begin my final spurt of time as a public school teacher – four more years, I believe; one final high school cycle – I’m trying to teach myself to care a little bit less about the grade. So I get a “just okay” on my evaluation. My administrator is a great guy, we work closely together, and he knows how hard I work on the stuff that matters: the curriculum, the after-school play program, my duties as a department chair and teacher-leader at our school. Maybe he will take that into account when he sums up my year in his evaluation. Maybe he will have to go strictly by the book. I don’t envy him because I have to figure those things out every day. We will meet on Wednesday, and I promise you I will not take the tack with him that my student took with me. We’ll roll the dice and let ‘em lay . . .
As for my Nordic crimes class? Well, it’s always more enjoyable when you’ve done the reading. So my punishment will be feeling a bit more lost at every lecture. Hopefully, I’ll finish The Ice Princess in time and have something to say about that. In order to actually receive course credit, we need to submit a five-page paper on any Nordic crime novel that is not on our current list. Oh boy, extra reading! If I have time, I can write about the sequels to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If not, well . . . it was an experience, and it taught me something about what I don’t like!
I am trying to go easy on myself, even though the guilt is surrounding me as I write this. The final month of the school year starts Monday, and I’m feeling the same senioritis as the students who are about to graduate. It also doesn’t help – and here my GAD friends will probably understand – that there is a stack of books on my shelf waiting to be read that include several by John Dickson Carr, Norman Berrow, Patrick Quentin, Helen McCloy, Hake Talbot and many more. With over three dozen GAD novels on my TBR, I fear the likes of Henning Menkell and Jo Nesbo are, to say the least, främmande (translation: extraneous), They are about to be consigned to a used book bin somewhere. I’m sure that, as he shortchanges me, the bookseller will remark on how fresh and new the books appear to be.
That’s all I have to say on the subject. Don’t judge me too harshly. Tack för att du lyssnar.*
*Thank you for listening.
33 thoughts on “Hjälpa! Jag är fångad i en svensk boklista! (Translation: Help! I am trapped in a Swedish booklist!)”
That’s the thing, Brad. No matter how dedicated a fan of crime fiction you are, there are some kinds of/subgenres of crime fiction you’re not going to love.And that’s OK. It really is. So long as you give it a real effort and don’t reject it out of hand, that’s what matters.
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I’d have thought that, as a GAD reader, you’d have found a lot to like in Mankell (not Menkell).
I loved the first vol of Larsson’s trilogy but ground to a halt in the middle of the second and, although the third is on my shelves, every time I pull it down I do no more than look at the number on the final page and shudder.
I’ve just been reading a review of The Bat that says it’s nowhere near as good as Nesbo’s later stuff, a couple of which I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed.
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I corrected the spelling, John, so thanks! I don’t mind appearing narrow-minded, but I hate to look ignorant! 🙂
Does that mean you’d like some help with all those other Swedish expressions as well? 😉
“Sweden, which appears to be one screwed up country. The sort-of-failed experiment in social democracy, the corruption of all government services, the complicity with Axis forces in World War II that haunts the country to this day, and the psychological ramifications of living in a country where it’s always dark and/or snowy . . . ”
That’s what you get for reading Swedish authors. I’ve always gone out of my way to NOT read Swedish literature, because as I said in a reply on JJs blog:
“There were a few GA type authors in Sweden in the 40s, 50s and 60s … but when Sjöwall/Wahlöö burst on the scene everything turned to dust. Now it’s all just bleak and boring and child abuse and bleak and dull and ulcers and bleak. Sometimes, just to spice things up, it’s a woman protagonist who is bleak and boring and bleak and dull. And bleak.”
However, let me tell you that we don’t really feel all that screwed up in general here in Sweden. (And no, we do NOT have a high suicide rate – it’s one of those myths that keep cropping up everywhere even though it’s completely untrue.) We do not feel “haunted” by our actions in WWII, and as for it being cold, dark and snowy – hey, that’s the fate of Canada, Norway, Scotland, Russia, Finland, Alaska and Iceland as well. It’s what makes us so stalwart. 🙂
As for corruption, I actually take offense at that description. Is that something that Swedish mystery authors say? If so, they can go **** themselves. Sweden is one of the least corrupt countries in the world. So there.
Back to mysteries.
Don’t read Läckberg believing that “Agatha Christie” blurb. It’s just that she’s popular and writes “mysteries” (don’t get me started, they’re not mysteries, they’re crime fiction), so of course she’s just like Agatha Christie?
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Bradley, you are far too amusing. Right now I am snuggled up in my easy chair fighting off a cold, the flu, rampant hayfever – who knows? Thank you for making me laugh between sneezes.
I must say, I felt toward the Stieg Larsson trilogy much as I felt toward the Lord of the Rings books lo these many decades ago – the first book was ok, the second mildly interesting, and the third – couldn’t be bothered.
But as far as vampire novels (Sweden is a happy place!) I enjoyed John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In.” (Although the original film is better than the book.)
Having said this, I’d like to thank you for warning me against any other Scandinavian crime/mystery novels. Now back to page 231 of Wilkie Collins’ “Armadale.”
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Feel better, Viv, and pray that more shin honkaku detective fiction gets translated soon! Now there’s a class I WANT to take!
I’d like to thank you for warning me against any other Scandinavian crime/mystery novels.
But plenty of other readers — e.g., moi — have enjoyed lots of Scandinavian crime/mystery novels! And I know people who find Wilkie Collins boring. (I know, hard to imagine, but they do exist.) So, if you enjoyed Let the Right One In . . .
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Sorry you’re not enjoying your Scandinavian experience, Brad. I haven’t tried Stieg Larsson yet (though one of my friends gifted me the first book, so I suppose I ought to try it one of these days…). I do like Sjowall & Wahoo and Mankell–but I can’t do many of them in row.
So… I infer you didn’t like ‘Smilla’s Sense of Snow’? I was tempted to read the novel, many years ago, when the movie first came out. Should I give it a miss?
Absolutely not! I can tell it’s well-written. It’s just not to my (admittedly limited) taste!
Disliking Scandinavian crime-fiction has nothing to do with your limited taste, Brad, but rather with the fact that it’s completely subversive to the values and standards of the traditional detective story. It’s not the type of crime-fiction a reader of Golden Age mysteries is likely to enjoy.
And on a personal note, the awful Sjöwall and Wahlöö were among my first excursions into the genre and they revolted me to the point I nearly gave up on detective stories all together. Luckily, I had already read A.C. Baantjer and Agatha Christie. So they probably inoculated me, but they made eternally suspicious of everything published after 1959.
” . . . the fact that it’s completely subversive to the values and standards of the traditional detective story.”
I feel this is something we need to explore, TomCat, since my professor keeps referring to this booklist as “murder mysteries.” She has even given us a few brief lectures on what exactly a murder mystery is, and while what she says if very basic stuff, you might imagine that she understood the genre. But our discussions of the books tend to focus on their cultural significance, and I feel that if I stood up and argued your point, I would truly become “en fiende av folket” (an enemy of the people).
You make me want to write a longer piece about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo because I think if I examine this one I can really get behind what you’re saying. The structure is all wrong, the concept of a “locked room mystery,” which analysts keep calling this crime, is misleading, and Larsson is clearly much more interested in other aspects of his novel than the whodunit, even though this IS one, to some extent. (The other two books, most definitely, are not.) It does feel like these authors play with the “idea” of a classic murder mystery in order to complain about the weather, or the government, or some deep preoccupation with moral deviancy. The tone and pace is off, but then I got into this sort of problem reading French mysteries, which Xavier Lechard kindly explained to me is because French writers have different preoccupations that lead to a different style.
I feel like I’m in the right place to enjoy these books if I’m ever going to enjoy them, since the emphasis in my class IS on cultural studies, with a slight detour into the books as literature. So far, as cultural signposts into the Scandinavian mindset, they are alarming, while as works of mystery lit, they are merely boring.
So has Miss Simila’s Feeling for Snow now been permanently retitled following the movie? It’s not like the movie was that big, right? And the fact that it ends up “a sci-fi like conspiracy involving a fallen meterorite and killer parasite worms” is honestly enough on its own to make me pick it up.
I recently struggled through a Lars Kepler novel on the promise of it containing impossible crimes. It didn’t, and the authors are so in love with their main character that I can honestly believe they sit in their writing room with bedsheets bearing the legend “I HEART Joona” and idealised screenshots of people from Instagram pinned up all over the place that they stare at and sigh before typing two words and then resuming staring for another couple of hours (it reads like a book written two words at a time). It has nothing to do with your expereince except they’re Danish (I think, and even then that puts them a few miles away) and I wanted to get it off my chest.
Thanks for cheering up my Sunday morning; come your assessment, just go in an tell your administrator about the above — you’ll both have a good laugh, and at least if your downgrading is the inevitability you make it out to be then you’ll have enjoyed it happening!
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I’ll probably never give myself the chance to heart Joona, but on the strength of Kate’s approval, I DID buy the first book by Norwegian writer Hans Olav Lahlum (in hardback yet!) At least the description on the book jacket sounds more traditional . . . although the word “Nazi” IS featured prominently. Who woulda guessed???
Oh, yes, there is a Nazi, but no paedophiles, and no alcoholics. It’s an…odd book, The Human Flies, and the follow-up is even odder. Can’t say Lahlum is someone I’d return to any time soon, but Kate loves the books, so now you have to decide who’s side you’re on….
Looking at the comments it does seem like your Swedish suffering has caused us a great deal of good cheer and amusement (I did love how your Agatha T Shirt made you subversive!). Dare not recommend Lahlum at the moment as your current Scandi reads may prejudice you, but once you’ve had a good break and recovered from the ordeal I suggest you give him a try.
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The Human Flies is sitting on my bookshelf as we speak, Kate! I would love to have a Scandi author to rave about. I also own a series I can highly recommend called Crimes of Passion, based on what seem to be very traditional mysteries from the 1940’s-50’s by Maria Lang. Sadly, there are only six episodes, and I think only a few of her books are translated into English. But I checked on Amazon, and a couple can be cheaply found on Kindle. Maybe when I’ve better recovered . . . 🙂
Ah, I can see three Maria Lang novels on my local Kindle store, but they aren’t cheap: ‘Death Awaits Thee’, ‘Wreath for the Bride’, and ‘No More Murders’…
They’re $6.99 in the U.S!
You know Brad, when I watched Fortitude series 1 I thought it seemed familiar. I haven’t read Smilla’s Sense of Snow in many years. I find Nordica a bit dry, though I loved Larsson’s trilogy.
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I enjoyed Larsson, too! It doesn’t make for a good re-read, but the Swedish movies are great distillations of the novels.
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Thanks, Christian, I appreciate the view from one who should know. The way she goes on about Maj and Per!! It’s enough to put one off his smorgasbord! We just discussed Smilla’s Sense of Snow last night, and our teacher chatted about the different countries’ disdain for each other (or – sorry – dis-Dane!) 🙂 It all felt a little gossipy . . .
I’m about a quarter through The Ice Princess, and so far it feels like the least “culturally significant” novel yet. I would call Lackberg Sweden’sanswer to Mary Higgins Clark, not Christie. But it does feel more “traditional” than anything else I’ve read so far in this class.
If anyone should be called the Swedish Agatha Christie, it should be the aforementioned Maria Lang. A long series of books, all in the traditional vein, it’s a much better call. She is a bit more on the cozy side, but there are some interesting murder motives in her books, for example.
As I hinted in my previous rant^H^H^Hreply, if you’re looking for more traditional mysteries in the GA vein, you’ll have to turn to the 40s-60s authors. H.K. Rönblom, Vic Suneson, Stieg Trenter and Lang are the great 4 of Swedish GA mysteries. Jan Ekström, who’s been discussed on JJ’s blog, is an ardent follower of these values as well, even though he’s a bit later. Bo Balderson started in the late 60s and is a very funny political satirist with sometimes clever and fair play mystery plots as well.
I’d be hard pressed to recommend any current mystery writers of that kind, though. Both because I cannot be bothered to try to sift through all the garbage to find the golden nugget, and because I genuinely believe there are none. 🙂
As for your teacher’s “gossip”, she’s probably mostly right. Though it’s not disdain, it’s cheerful ribbing. Except for Sweden – all other Nordic countries dislike Sweden.
A recommended link: https://satwcomic.com/equality-means-no-mercy. In the spirit of understanding us, do have a rummage round on that site. 😉
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Hey Brad, I’m returning to this post as I’ve finally made my foray into Scandi/Nordic-noir crime fiction. with two novels: Jo Nesbo’s ‘Snowman’ and Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Snow Blind’. I was wondering if you’ve read either or both of them? Many bloggers have lauded the complexity of plotting in Nesbo’s ‘Snowman’, and while there were a few layers stitched quite cleverly together, I didn’t think the false solutions were particularly convincing, or that the real culprit was especially well-hidden. And in the end I thought it was too explicit and dark (and long) for my taste.
I approached Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Snow Blind’ with some degree of interest, because of all the ‘Agatha Christie’ comparisons made: even the Christie expert John Curran described ‘Snow Blind’ as a ‘modern Golden Age mystery’. By the end I thought the premise of the mystery had a strong Golden Age flavour, but I wasn’t entirely sure how thoroughly fairly-clued the resolution was. But I enjoyed it enough to think of trying the second instalment in the series.
I recently borrowed from the library a stack of contemporary mystery novels written or translated into English, and read them back-to-back over Christmas and the new year – and came to the conclusion that flame of Golden Age fair-play puzzle fiction is possibly burning most brightly among the Japanese mystery writers, as well as the Chinese writers operating in the shin-honkaku convention.
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Hey, John! To be honest, the class I took – and the books I read – didn’t make me want to rush to return to Scandi-noir. I have to say, though, that Jonasson, of whom I have never heard till you mentioned him, sounds more promising.
I agree with you that the best examples of modern detective fiction in the GAD vein has so far come out of Asia. I’m about to start focusing more on “modern” GAD in my “Going MAD” series, and there are a couple of shin honkaku books on my stack, although I may not get to either one for a while.
Hi Brad, I’ll keep you posted in my subsequent forays in Jonasson’s writing prove successful. I hold out some hope because Jonasson is himself a Golden Age fan, having translated quite a few Christie novels into Icelandic early on in his writing career.
Most of the Asian modern detective fiction that has been translated into English flows out of Japan, though in recent years works by Szu-Yen Lin, Chan Ho-Kei and Zhou Haohui have been translated. I’ve recently purchased a bundle of Chinese mystery writing – including some translations of Japanese works and even Paul Halter – and it’s bobbing its way towards my mailbox.
P.S. I was tempted to try ‘Ice Princess’, but your review had effectively discouraged me from doing so…