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.
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.