Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Roseanna ~ Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo

I haven't been particularly successful with Scandinavian Crime Fiction over the past few months. I certainly haven't come across any writer whose works I have wanted to explore past the first sampling. At first I was inclined to put this down to poor translation, but as the numbers mounted I began to think that there must be something in the Scandinavian approach to the genre which just didn't work for me. However, several friends had urged me not to give up until I had tried the Martin Beck series by the husband and wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and last week I finally managed to get hold of the first novel in the sequence of ten, Roseanna.  The preface to my copy stresses the importance of reading the books in order as they were, apparently, conceived of as one long narrative in ten chapters. I have, therefore, just completed chapter one and surprisingly, I think I shall be going back for chapter two. Surprisingly, because there are many of the same features in the Beck novel that made the other Scandinavian books so disappointing, however, there is also something else about it which takes it out of the ordinary and makes this a series worth coming back to.

The body of a young woman is dredged up out of a lake and it is clear on closer inspection that she has been murdered. However, there have been no reports of missing persons who might fit her description and there is no evidence as to how her body came to be in the lake in the first place. Martin Beck thought by some to be the country's most capable examining officer, is called in to help his colleagues discover who the woman is, where she comes from, how she got into the lake and of course most importantly who put her there. There is no quick and easy solution to the mystery and one of the things which is most characteristic of the book is the way in which it stresses the daily grind of police work; the hours spent pouring over reports or shivering through surveillance duties are spelled out in meticulous detail. Even when the police feel certain that they have identified the culprit there is no immediate confrontation. Martin Beck and his fellow officers still have to spend weeks constructing a situation that they can only hope will lead to his giving himself away. And when the case reaches its resolution there is no sense of triumph, simply of a job completed.

It is this attention to the realistic detail which most clearly characterises the novel and which to some extent separates it from many of the other Scandinavian crime fiction I've read which, with the exception perhaps of Larsson, has been fairly short on detail. However, that isn't why I think I enjoyed this more than the works of other writers, in fact, coupled with the narrative voice evoked, it could have been fatal.  Because, as in so many other instances I still found the narrative voice worked to keep me at a distance. As a reader you are never more than an observer of the reported events that comprise a narrative, but it is up to the author just how close an observer you are allowed to be. Scandinavian fiction always seems to want to keep me at arms length. I often feel as if I am reading an official police report rather than a narrative intended to involve and entertain me. When I add that to the way in which the attention to realism seems to flatten out the arc of the narrative structure, which would normally serve to add shape to the otherwise random events of everyday life, what I end up with is something that feels closer to fact than to fiction.

At least it would be if it wasn't for one thing and that is the rather wry sense of humour that permeates the writing and even makes its way through the translation. And it is this feeling that neither Martin Beck or the writers are taking themselves too seriously which eventually won me over to the book and which will take me back to the other novels. That and the fact that as someone who is particularly involved in the study of narrative organisation I am very interested to see how the writers manage to make good their claim that the series is one complete narrative, presumably with a narrative arc of its own, distinct and separate from those of the individual stories. That is an extremely difficult thing to bring off, for technical reasons I won't go into here. If they manage it I shall be very impressed indeed.

As a footnote, when I was in Blackwell's last weekend, I noted a relatively recent book about Scandinavian Crime Fiction, called simply, Scandinavian Crime Fiction, it is by Paula Arvas and Andrew and looked very interesting indeed. Perhaps at some point in the future I shall have to treat myself to a copy.


  1. Hi Annie,

    I have so much Scandinavian crime fiction in my TBR pile, that it is a crime in itself, that I haven't read any of it sooner.

    Many of the books, I have purchased for my father to read, but he got to the stage where he found them quite depressing to read and, like yourself, just couldn't get into the Scandinavian psyche.

    Consequently, they came back my way, en masse and are languishing, awaiting their turn, in the depths of my TBR.

    I saw an article about Scandinavian crime writing, on a website, and thought that this small extract was quite telling, about the psyche of their crime writers and the genre in general.

    "Not too many years ago, it would have been hard to think of examples of Scandinavian crime fiction beyond the Martin Beck series and Smilla's Sense of Snow. Suddenly, readers are blessed with a deluge of choices. What has led to such a renaissance of crime fiction from a part of the world not known for its criminal tendencies?

    Vit Wagner has two answers. One is simple enough: Hennning Mankell. The popularity of his Kurt Wallander series - both in Sweden and abroad - made publishers recognize that there was a vast market for other writers to tap. (To dig a little deeper, Bill Ott suggests that the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent wave of immigration into the Scandinavian countries set up the tensions that drive Mankell's fiction and made it instantly accessible to audiences in the US.)

    The other is bit more complicated. Wagner points to the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, still unsolved. It left many emotionally fraught questions dangling; not just the relatively trivial "who did it?" but more complex ones about modern society and violence. According to author and critic Marie Peterson, the only literature that explored the impact of the assassination, felt deeply throughout Scandinavia, was crime fiction. As Peter Rozovsky has pointed out, Scandinavian writers are not so much interested in the solving of puzzles or the voyeuristic experience of crime, but rather in "the slow, rippling effect of a violent act on the minds, souls and social fabric of those they leave behind." In many ways, crime fiction has taken the place of the 19th century social novel, particularly in Scandinavia.

    Whatever has led to this wealth of freshly-translated fiction, readers have plenty to choose from. Reading crime fiction can give the curious reader a feeling for Scandinavian culture, society, and landscapes."

    I thought that those few paragraphs, probably shed a whole new light on Swedish crime writing.


  2. Yvonne, I think there is a lot in this, although having now read the first of the Martin Beck novels, which was written in the 1960s, I suspect that the interest in the links between the crime novel and the social state of the country, in Sweden, at least, was there before the Palme assassination. Doesn't Larsson tackle that particular question in his books? I think so. Thanks for sending this though, it will provide a useful background for my reading of the others in the series.

  3. Thank you so much for this wonderful review of a Swedish crime series I had not heard of. I have read all of the Larsson books, which had inspired me to want to read more Swedish mysteries. You have given me the perfect book to begin with. I enjoyed this post very much.

  4. Sunday, welcome to the SCR. I have to say I think your blog is very special. If you want to read more Scandinavian fiction then I would definitely suggest that you start here because if you read around the experiences of those in the blogging world you will find a very mixed response to many of the other writers. The Martin Beck novels seem to be closer to the expectations those of us in the UK and the US have of crime fiction and are generally very well spoken of.

  5. I loved the Stieg Larsson books and am dying to dive into more Scandinavian crime, don't know why I haven't got around to it. I will make this the first of the many series I should try!

    Thanks for a very thoughtful review.

  6. Very interesting to read your take on this! Like you, I found the sense of humor a really appealing feature of this series too, as you know.

  7. Tea (sorry, don't quite know how to address you:)) I would definitely start here. As I've said elsewhere many readers have had difficulty with other Scandinavian writers and you wouldn't want to be put off from the start. Kind of you to call by. I hope we meet again.

    Rohan, I'm interested to see if I find myself becoming more involved with the characters as I read further into the series. From reading your comments I feel that you have done. Was this the case from the onset or has that developed as you've read further?

  8. Annie, perhaps because I found the actual case in Roseanna kind of grim and sensational, it wasn't until I moved a bit further along in the series that I really started to warm to people--also, I learned to recognize them better. Beck himself has relationships with the others that change over time, which adds to the interest. There's Melander, for instance, who has the memory of an elephant, and Larsson, who's unpopular but eventually comes into his own. I even became quite fond of the idiot cops Kvant and Kristiansson, so when something bad happens to them, I was genuinely upset. The authors play their hand quite lightly in this respect, I think: you don't get a lot of long analyses of people's characters all at once but they are reiterated, with their quirks and stories, until you feel familiar with them.

  9. Rohan , that gives me encouragement. I've just managed to locate a copy of the second book so I'll see how I feel after that.

  10. Between you and Rohan, I'm tempted by this series! My mystery book group needs to read a Scandinavian at some point, so perhaps the first one in this series would work well.

  11. Dorothy, I've tried a lot of Scandinavian Crime recently and Sjowall and Wahloo are the only writers who have really caught my imagination. Especially if you're comparing it to other known variants of the genre, I think you'd get a lot out of this for discussion.

  12. I've read a smattering of Swedish crime authors, though I seem to have missed the 'biggies' like Mankell and Larsson. I do have this one on my pile and perhaps will have to pull it out soon. I'm reading Camilla Lackberg at the moment--though perhaps not a traditional crime novel (at least so far as much about the characters and their relationships with each other as with the actual crime), so it's hard to gage what's normal in this genre.

  13. Lackberg isn't a writer I've tried, Danielle and I've had so many disappointments in this field that I'm going to wait and see what you have to say when you've finished this before trying her out. One of the joys of the blog world is that you can measure your experience against those whose views you respect.

  14. I would persevere with this series. Together, the ten books make a very impressive collection. The authors are very intelligent and are making a political point about post-war Sweden (the 10 books together are called "The Story of a Crime"). They were marxists and obviously wrong in their beliefs, but the sheer intelligence of the writing is compelling. The wry humour gets more of an outing in future books, as does the idiocy of the police establishment.

    The Harper Perennial editions are very good because of their initial essays (by a range of modern crime writers) and their PS section at the back. They were available as a set at The Book People very cheaply for a while, but you can get them via Amazon et al.

    I have reviewed the novels for Euro Crime (a free resource) if you want to check them out. I've also read and reviewed a great deal of Scandinavian crime fiction. My highest recommendations are Johan Theorin, Karin Altvegen and Asa Larsson (Sweden) - again, my reviews of their books are at Euro Crime. Camilla Lackberg is good but for me at too much of an "easy reading" level and also a heavy dose of romance which though I don't mind it, is not a genre I read.

    That Scandinavian crime fiction book you saw is co-edited by the man whose name I forget who is running the Nordic book club at the University of London's department of scandinavian literature (I may not have got the name quite right). I have it bookmarked but am hoping it comes down in price as £23 seems a lot to pay.

  15. Maxine, I have the second book on order from the library at the moment and if I get on well with that too than I shall probably download them all through Amazon. As you may have realised from my post, what really interests me here is the way in which the writers manage the narrative arc through the ten books so eventually I shall need to sit and read the series straight through.

    Thanks for the other recommendations. I have not been particularly successful with Scandinavian novelists, but I haven't tried any of these so I'll look out for their work in the library.

    And, don't talk to me about book prices. I came across a book on Crime Fiction the other day that I would have loved, Blackwell's Companion to Crime Fiction, but it's only available in hardback at £125. Ow!