Monday, 19 July 2010

The Swedish Crime Story


Widespread enthusiasm among British (and, I suspect, American) readers for Scandinavian crime fiction is a relatively new phenomenon. I’m pretty sure that before Sjowall and Wahloo created Martin Beck in their remarkable ten-book series in the 60s, hardly any Scandinavian crime fiction was translated into English, but even until the last ten years or so, there was not much Swedish, Norwegian or Danish (let alone Icelandic) fiction to be found in translation.

All that has changed now. Stieg Larsson may be dead, having never published a crime novel in his lifetime, but his name is everywhere. In recent weeks there have been not one but two very good series featuring Kurt Wallander, albeit in different ways, on British television. And names like Fossum, Nesbo and Nesser are prominent on the shelves of the bookshops.

So it’s tempting to assume that there was really very little Scandinavian crime fiction being written until quite recently. Tempting, but wrong. As ever, with fiction, the real difficulty was that publishers saw no demand for translated Scandinavian fiction, and so made no attempt to provide it for English-speaking readers. But there was material in abundance, even so.

Because I am fascinated by the history of the genre, I am keen to know more about Eurocrime (and crime fiction written outside Europe and the US) of the past. With this in mind, I’ve just acquired a short, privately printed book produced by Bo Lundin in 1981. It is called The Swedish Crime Story, and it is full of information that I find really interesting. So I will be posting again soon about the Swedish crime books you never get to hear about.

14 comments:

seana said...

Yes, it's hit in America in an equal way. It's a little disconcerting for a bookseller to find that many people's knowledge starts with Steig Larsson. I can remember when Henning Mankell broke on the scene here in some black oversized and rather forbidding looking paperbacks. Some people caught on to them right away but most people didn't discover them until Random House put them in more attractive,and less dour jackets.

And I only knew of Sjowall and Wahloo because we had a very savvy mystery reader in the store who turned me on to them way back when. But even that was relatively late. I'd never claim to be part of the avant garde. Still, I am somewhat depressed to be reminded yet again that marketing is everything. And also about how resistant the American audience is to anything in translation.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I will be watching eagerly.

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I very much look forward to learning from what you read on this topic. As you say, the Swedish crime story didn't begin with Larsson and Mankell...

Charmaine Clancy said...

Sounds cool. I'm listening to 'The Girl Who Played With Fire' on my iPod right now (as I browse), there's a certain individual style to it.

Uriah Robinson said...

I am looking forward to these posts.
As a result of the Larsson Effect we may get more Scandinavian authors translated and even published in the correct order.

aguja said...

Just to leave a 'Thank' You for your kind words, Martin, yesterday. And yes .... it is impressive! It is also my home city, having been born in North Shields. I shall wrie a post on it in August, when I return. Meanwhile, keep on with your amazingly informative posts!

Maxine said...

Looking forward to your future posts, Martin. I've read much Scandinavian, including Swedish, crime fiction, some of it (eg Helene Tursten and Kjell Erickssen) published in the US but not in the UK, so it is odd that the US media are featuring so many articles as if S Larsson is something new. Translated crime fiction from the region does go a long way back, for example I have enjoyed reading two of the early Varg Veum books by Gunnar Staalesen (a PI series still going, but started in about 1970), and two books written in the 1980s by Ella Griffiths (Murder on Page Three, and to be read, The Water Widow) - both these authors are Norwegian. Kirsten Eckman has been writing for many years (Swedish), starting I think in the 1960s. Blackwater is her most favourite. (I can't remember when Miss Smilla was written, but that was another one like S Larsson that was supposed to have started a trend as if there were no literature before that).

Dorte H said...

We have also had a number of classical writers in Scandinavia, e.g. Swedish Maria Lang (died in 1991, wrote almost 50 fine crime novels) and Danish Kirsten Holst (died in 2008, wrote 50 children´s books and crime novels). Their work was generally of good quality, but more nice puzzles like Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey than Stieg Larsson´s dramatic thrillers, I´d say.
Two of my Danish favourites, Elsebeth Egholm and Susanne Staun, have been translated into German, but not English.

Martin Edwards said...

Seana, thank you. With crime fiction, as much else, a knowledge of the history helps one appreciate the present, don't you agree? It is depressing about marketing, but I think it's true...

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, Charmaine, thank you.
Uriah, yes this publishing of authors out of order is frustrating!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks Aguja, look forward to hearing about your event.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, you've read much more widely than me - I would like to give Ella a try, I've only read one or two short stories.

Peter Ohlsson said...

A couple of comments:

seana: Are you sure it is the American audience that resists fiction in translation? Could it be that American publishers are too narrowly focused, and don't look well enough outside the US for quality?

Maxine: I've seen you mention Ella Griffiths as a Norwegian writer before. Are you sure? How do you know? Do you have a reference? I am Swedish/Norwegian, and have have read most of the crime fiction ever published in Scandinavia, and have never heard about her?

And to Martin: You write that "So it’s tempting to assume that there was really very little Scandinavian crime fiction being written until quite recently. Tempting, but wrong." Why would that be tempting? I don't see it at all? Philosophically, that would be equivalent to saying that whatever you haven't heard about probably doesn't exist? That's extremely ethnocentric! There are rich crime fiction literatures in all the Scandinavian countries that go back to the 1950's - with some excellent stuff even before that!!

seana said...

Hi Peter--

Intriguing questions. As for me, I do work in a bookstore in California, and though it's a pretty well read crowd who shows up here, and one tha is definitely open to the Scandinavian wave as well as many other sorts of foreign writing, I still think it's a bit of an uphill battle. It's kind of like the Indie theater houses here showing foreign films. Yes, they do attract an audience and keep in business, but are these ever going to compare to the big commercial houses and their megahits? No. Of course it does have to do with risk averse publishing, but it's also due to the fact that that publishing is directed toward appetite. People are drawn to violence of course, which I assume is part of the reason Larsson has broken through. It's funny that I often hear the reverse though. They want something that's not too violent or too depressing. "Upbeat" is an adjective that's often used...