Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

Big news this week: the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed ‘Millennium Trilogy’ is well on its way. The cover and English title – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – were revealed by MacLehose Press on Monday, although its contents will remain firmly under wraps until publication on 27 August. Here’s what we know: the sequel is ‘based on Larsson’s universe and characters’, is written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz; will be published in Sweden by Norstedts; is titled Det som inte dödar oss  (That Which Doesn’t Kill Us) and is currently being translated into 38 languages.


Like many, I have rather mixed feelings about the publication of the new novel. On the one hand, I thought the trilogy had a pretty perfect resolution and am not sure it could be bettered. On the other, I loved Lisbeth Salander and am keen to see how her story develops. I don’t envy Lagercranz the task of taking on such a weighty literary legacy – it must be hugely difficult to find a voice and narrative that are faithful to the original, but more than pure mimicry. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s found a way through. For more information, see this Guardian article by Alison Flood.

There was another interesting article in The Guardian yesterday by Val McDermid, entitled ‘Why crime fiction is left-wing and thrillers are right-wing’ (thanks to Vicky Newham for flagging this up on Facebook).

In it McDermid argues (with help from Ian Rankin) that ‘the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the Krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote. The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”’

That got me thinking hard about whether these political distinctions hold up more widely. While I can think of plenty of examples to support McDermid’s argument – especially in the context of European crime – I can also think of a number of exceptions. Golden Age crime fiction is often thought of as being ‘conservative in style, setting, characterisation, subject matter and socio-political views’, with a dubious social order in relation to class, gender and race being restored at the end of the narrative (quote from Lee Horsley’s excellent chapter on ‘Classic Detective Fiction’ in Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, OUP, pp. 12-65, p. 39). Hard-boiled crime fiction features private investigators not known for their tolerance or diplomatic skills. They may well be critical of the status quo, but are often shown delivering violent, eye-for-an-eye justice rather than handing criminals over to the law so they can be properly put on trial. There’s an interesting discussion on these points in an article by Arlene Teraoka, which explores the lack of a private eye tradition in German crime fiction – arguably due to the P.I.’s fascistic tendencies – and the post-war preference for paternalistic police inspectors who guarantee a democratic social order (who also have their conservative sides…).

Equally, two exceptions in relation to thrillers spring to mind. John le Carré’s works are highly critical of the power wielded by governments and shady secret services, and repeatedly highlight the price vulnerable individuals pay in these larger political games (e.g. The Spy who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Most Wanted Man). I also read a very good Swedish thriller in the course of my Petrona judging duties that raises big moral questions about the conduct of national intelligence agencies in wartime – Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer.

In sum, different crime genres/subgenres are flexible enough to be employed for liberal or conservative political ends, and elements of both can even co-exist alongside one another in individual texts. But I’ll be bearing McDermid’s assertions in mind as I read on, to see if her distinctions hold up as current trends.

Update: Over on findingtimetowrite, Marina Sofia also muses on Val McDermid’s article and gives a wonderful overview of the Quais du Polar, at which Val’s comments were originally made. The post gives a summary of various crime writers’ views about writing on politics from the event; these provide a very nice counterpoint to this post – showing how crime fiction is used by many writers as a progressive means of critiquing and exploring the power structures of their societies.

Wishing you all a very happy Easter break filled with fluffy bunnies, chocolate and lots of crime fiction!

25 thoughts on “Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

  1. I do feel the Stieg Larsson continuation is a cold-nosed commercial venture and don’t envy the author the task in hand…
    Funnily enough, I was there when Val McDermid first voiced her thoughts on crime vs. thriller, leftwing vs. rightwing (she was thinking out loud and admitted that there were probably quite a few exceptions). I’ve read the article and have just written something today about crime fiction and politics. Not sure when I’ll post it though, as it’s not fluffly bunny material necessarily.

    • You may well be right about the sequel, but I’m sneakily hoping it’s good.

      Val is hugely knowledgeable and insightful about crime fiction. It’s a shame that the article couldn’t have been longer to allow for a more wide-ranging discussion. But she’s definitely made people think, so it’s all good..

      Let me know when your post goes up – would love to read it.

  2. I think there’s a degree to which contemporary crime fiction is more progressive than thrillers, particularly when, as Val writes, it comes to depicting diversity. Thrillers tend to showcase individualism (lone hero against the corrupt world), whereas crime novels have a stronger sense of social context and collective action. That said, I recognise the distinction is not hard and fast, and that crime fiction is least progressive/left wing where vigilantism and summary justice are involved. Funnily enough, I challenged Val about her tendency towards this when I had the great pleasure of interviewing her during her visit to Melbourne in 2014.

    • Thanks, Angela. In general, I’d agree that contemporary crime fiction is often progressive in terms of giving those on the margins of society a voice. It would be interesting to compare contemporary crime fiction with crime from earlier periods (has it become more progressive over time? probably) and to think about the role that publishers play when they are selecting texts. I’d love to ask them about their perception of the markets for crime novels vs thrillers. Perhaps they would agree with Val and select texts on that basis, thereby also shaping the market along those lines?

      Wish I’d been there for your interview with Val. Whenever I hear her, I always come away with new insights about the genre.

  3. What next someone writing a new Martin beck novel! The left/right seems pretty daft to me, Joseph Kanon writes thrillers, & he doesn’t strike me as right wing. Also GrahamGreene & Norman Lewis wrote a few books classified as Thrillers, & they certainly weren’t right wing.
    The Swimmer looks interesting, but putting the weight on his shoulders of following Le Carre & Greene is silly, sounds more like Charles McCarry whose books I do enjoy.

    • I don’t think anyone would dare, Brian! Very much looking forward to hearing Maj Sjowall at CrimeFest in May.

      And yes, lots of exceptions to the rule emerging. It’s also true to say that some novels start off progressive/liberal, but then take a conservative turn right at the end. I can think of a quite a few like that. So sometimes there’s not even a clear-cut distinction when looking at individual texts.

      I agree that it’s not useful making big le Carre/Greene comparisons – I always take those with a pinch of salt as they tend to be made for commercial reasons. Far better to read an author on his or her own terms.

  4. Fascinating crime novel/thriller distinction, Mrs. P.! I think Angela may be right that a book’s premise (e.g. lone person searching for justice, etc..) may play a very important role in whether it has more liberal or more conservative themes and messages. And as you show so very well, there are many, many exceptions to that distinction, so I suspect there are a lot of other factors as well that impact the message a book sends.

    • Absolutely, Margot. I think you and Angela (and Val too) are right in pointing to genre conventions as having a big influence on a genre’s political tendencies, but that there’s a whole set of other ingredients that can influence a text’s direction (author’s own politics, commercial considerations, current trends). It’s going to be fun thinking all this through…

  5. Another excellent post on Val McDermid’ s article. I agree that Mr LeCarre certainly seems to be anti government. Graham Greene comes to mind of someone else with disdain for such flaws. But thrillers are so loosely defined as a genre.

    • Thanks, Hfineisen. Yes, the article’s generated quite a bit of discussion, which is great. You make a good point – there’s quite a lot of fluidity these days when talking about genres, and there are lots of hybrid texts that draw on more than one genre as well, all of which makes it difficult to generalise. But VM has also made me want to go back and refresh my knowledge of the basic differences between crime novels and thrillers – and to think about those as I’m reading new texts and considering their politics. Interesting stuff!

  6. Yes meant to say, hope you get an interview with the great lady! Why we are on the subject of left/right wing etc, an excellent article in the latest LRB on the historian Eric Hobsbawn. Concerning the secret service files released on him. If you’ve not read it, it really is worth reading.
    Shows how much more subtle & effective this was then America’s ‘Red Menace’ & Blacklist. Perhaps subtle is the wrong word pervasive is a better description! It’s a long article, certainly not boring though, & this is something that started in the mid 30s, as they say nothing’s new! Also some insight from David Cornwall, aka John le Carre. The article is by Frances Stonor.
    Do read it.

    • An interview would be a dream come true. Will have to see what I can do.

      Thanks very much for the article recommendation – I’ve just read it and thought it was brilliant. It confirms how accurately le Carre captures the tone of intelligence work in his novels. And the way that political assumptions about Hobsbawm are turned into an invisible set of establishment impediments is chilling.

      A great line: ‘welcome to the Bermuda Triangle of intelligence studies’.

      • Is all this in the new LRB? I’ll try and get it tomorrow. Plenty of food for thought here. I must admit I don’t actively think about the politics of a book, but looking at my reading material, it clearly leans to the left. John Lewis Carré’s criticism of the government seems to have increased notably post 9-11, although it may have been evident before that – he just seemed more “angry” after the War on Terror, and subsequent legislation. There’s been some fascinating comments here too – Angela Savage particularly – and there’s more to read. Some thrillers – one I’m reading at the moment – is about one man realising the damage his company’s doing to the environment and the people who live there, and puts his life in danger trying to right the wrongs – as it’s Man vs Capitalist Entity Interested Only In Money, that’s pretty left wing. And there’s not a shortage of such thrillers, although more are always welcome, assuming they’re as well written as this…Lastly, re the (all v different) Larsson covers – the Swedish one looks like a magazine, the US one is OK, but nothing special, and I really couldn’t see Stieg himself approving of the arty (but still) soft porn cover. Horrible. Why can’t they just let it lie, be it Bond, Sherlock, Jane Austen, Wodehouse, and now Larsson – although in his case there was at least some raw material. The rest, of course, bring us back round to…money. Thanks, Mrs P, a pleasure as always. Do you ever venture north for Bloody Scotland? Am thinking of going this year, would love to know if any of my favourite bloggers will be there!

    • Hello crimeworm – the LBR article is on state surveillance of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, but the Val McDermid piece was in The Guardian a couple of days ago. Here’s the link:

      My feeling when reading almost any John le Carre is that there’s anger present just beneath the surface of the page. His post 9/11 novels definitely mark a new phase of his writing and a new set of concerns (for example, with rendition), but for me they continue a scathing critique of government/intelligence misuse of power that’s already visible in his early works. I’ve just started A Delicate Truth as an Easter treat 🙂

      That thriller you’re reading sounds interesting – what’s it called?

      Of the Larsson sequel covers, I think I like the Swedish one best. I found it on the Swedish publisher’s website and agree that it looks like a magazine cover. I did a bit of snooping around to see if there was any other cover available, but couldn’t – so I’m guessing that really is it (if anyone out there knows better, please let me know!).

      I’m going to CrimeFest in May this year, but haven’t got anything else planned as yet. I’d love to go to Bloody Scotland, and it would definitely be great to meet up. My problem is often that the timing of conventions clashes with the academic schedule of the day job. But I promise to check it out!

      • The thriller is called The Abrupt Physics Of Dying by Paul E Hardisty – it’s quite new out, maybe 3 weeks? It’s £1.99 on Kindle atm. It’s very good, thus far – I’m about halfway through, and it was slow to start but now I’m dying to get back to it whenever I put it down! It’s set in Yemen, which is another interesting place to set a book – politically volatile, lots of tribes, lots of oil – but I don’t imagine much of the money’s going to the Yemeni people! I’d highly recommend it! I must read a Le Carré – I’ve read them in such odd orders – sort of picking them up second hand, or when staying at someone’s house – I perhaps hadn’t noticed the criticism of authority in the earlier works. In the late 70s/80s he perhaps wasn’t as popular, then came The Constant Gardener, The Tailor Of Panama (loved film and book!), and the remake of Tinker, Tailor, by which time he was a National Treasure who you can’t criticize! I’m not sure if I’ve got A Delicate Truth or I’ve confused it with A Most Wanted Man )I do this when authors have loads of books; it gets very confusing! Good Easter treat – I bought Eric Ambler’s Mask Of Dimitrios which is being given new life by Waterstones Book Club. I do like the odd bit of derring-do and a touch of skullduggery (fab word!) now and again (but all this crime fiction/politics talk has made me worry people will think I’m a Tory if I’m reading spy novels – oh! the mortification!) Re Bloody Scotland, I was chatting to co-founder and crime writer Alex Gray this morning (as one does! – no, she was passing through town to Mull where her new book is set! and I met her in the local Waterstones for some bloggish stuff I’ve got on the horizon) and this year it’s 11-13 September (you could throw a sicky on a Friday, and be back, slightly rough, on the Monday!) I’m going this year supposing I need a Wonga loan to make up the last bit – joking, should manage! She says there’s fantastic authors but can’t say until June 3rd!

    • Thanks, crimeworm. As it happens, I have a copy of The Abrupt Physics of Dying on my bookshelf, which was kindly sent to me by Karen at Orenda. So thanks for the recommendation – will tuck into that soon.

      I’m a huge le Carre fan (possibly to a point where I’ve lost my critical faculties), and especially love the eight Smiley novels. That character is a genius creation, unassuming and benign-looking on the outside, but perfectly capable of being ruthless when he needs to be. I did a post on le Carre a while back that might be of interest, especially point 5:

      Thanks for the dates and extra info on Bloody Scotland (and for the ‘Friday strategy’!) 🙂

      I hope you enjoy the Ambler and have a lovely Easter.

  7. With respect, the left/right, progressive/conservative dichotomies seem really not very useful; a subtler discourse would make the discussion better, I think. I hope someone takes it up, attending to novels of the current century. While I cannot speak for anyone, anywhere, it seems to me that the new environment in the United States is so rich with misery, ambiguity and ambivalence — and an astonishing increase in public fecklessness and amorality — that a great conversation is needed. If I read the news from Europe, will I find that it is elsewhere too?

    As the post makes clear, it seems that contemporary politics serves up so many crime victims — the dispossessed, the exploited, the powerless — that any novelist (not only the ‘crime novelist’) will find their situations to be fitting themes. Certainly such works do not need to simulate despair or take an extreme political view to make the appeal for justice. Just read the papers. Such books are actually about serving larger justice, far more than the resolution of an overturned life. And the rescuers (not necessarily to be seen as crime solvers) often come to the problem from professions aligned with social policies or social services. Prostitution, once regarded solely (and ruthlessly) as crime, is now a symptom of much larger conditions. Though I don’t have many examples to cite, since most of my reading is in the police procedural tradition, The Boy in the Suitcase and other Nina Borg novels help to make this clear for me. The great novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö were most appealing (decades ago) for their social commentary and disdain. (I also see this in the most enlightened procedurals.) Similarly, much European crime fictions (and the extraordinary modern masters of Scandinavia) still rightly work on matters of conscience and criminality derived from both world wars and the Balkan conflicts; it has taken a few generations for those themes to emerge fully, and there seems to be no bottom to their richness and power. Also, because these injustices remain shrouded in shame by the agencies and officials who helped them along, the novels that address them are about recognizing what is ethical and just, and how survival requires a galvanized conscience, even if it must be achieved in small, simple, moral ways. “Thriller” and “political” novelists can work with this background well, using the examples of history without need for embellishment, to evoke what actually happens to conscience and responsibility in war.

    Thrillers are, to me, about reversals of fortune, great imminent (and sudden) threats, and these are more dramatic when visited upon people of means or people of status. Everyone can identify with the loss of everything, no matter who the loser is. In fact, as in cases of missing persons, kidnapping and extortion, the vulnerability of the citizen might follow specifically from membership in the highest percentiles of income. Also, given the political climate of the world, who else would a terrorist target? The stakes are high, but they are not necessarily about conscience or morality. They are about response to threat. This also provides an author with opportunities to humanize and personalize the wealthy, to magnify their own (often hidden) tragedies, and to portray them as victims just like everyone else, except filthy rich. Also, rich victims typically stand at a greater distance from the detective; overcoming disdain for the Bentleys in the driveway, the hardened heart of experience is forced against instinct and class to adjust. The thriller also has a tendency toward sleekness and fabrication: fabulous homes, tanned bodies, hidden secrets, corporate vipers, unlimited resources … these too have their appeal to the writer — and the reader.

    And the reader? We want to save victims. We want to be morally clear. We like the ambiguities of the socially-mindful crime novel; we feel that we are reading something that matters as it works toward justice. It gives us situations that have human as well as social consequences. As we try to disambiguate the complexities of the thriller (I admit, many seem mechanistic and not really logical to me) we feel rewarded when we find a vein of caring or redemption or (dare I say it?) goodness amid the powerful. In trying to write without simple dichotomies, I have probably failed; but the ideas invite some reasoning — and examples — no?

  8. Hello, David – and thanks for your very considered and interesting comment.

    I totally agree that all of this could be developed further – probably into a book! The post is very much a starting point and there are lots of directions in which the discussion could go. I’m not sure that I would necessarily dispense with the terms right/left or progressive/conservative – they can still be useful and don’t have to be viewed as dichotomies (one of my realisations today is that texts are perfectly capable of containing both progressive and conservative elements). But I agree that there might also be different ways to approach the discussion – perhaps in terms of reading the hidden ideologies or the ideological functions of texts. As you show, many crime novels are engaged in a social critique – and are often critical of capitalist structures and their effects without being obviously party political (you mention the works of Sjowall and Wahloo and Scandinavian writers; I think also of French writer Dominique Manotti and the Soziokrimi/social crime novel movement in 1960s/1970s West Germany). But at the same time there are political convictions behind some of these texts – Sjowall and Wahloo were Marxists at the time they wrote the ‘Martin Beck’ series, while Manotti and a number of German writers would identify with the political left. So some authors do consciously harness the conventions of the genre to deliver a particular political message, but recognise the value of packaging it in an entertaining, readable format.

    I found your last paragraph really interesting. I think I am the same kind of reader as you – I’m looking for the kinds of things you mention – but others may look for entirely different things. I talk to lots of different types of reader, and some are very up-front about their preferences for violence, gore and thrills. The text’s moral values do not seem to interest them that much – the novel has more of an entertainment/escapist/cathartic function for them. Perhaps that’s the market that many thrillers are trying to reach?

    Lots more thinking to do…

  9. Wow this is starting to get really interesting indeed! At first as I said at first I thought this Left/Right thing was daft, to simplistic, but some really interesting points Are being raised. David Carrs comment, or is it an article! does raise some interesting discussions. getting into New Statesman territory here!

    • It’s great, isn’t it? This kind of discussion is one of my very favourite things about blogging, because you learn so much. Lots of lovely ideas bouncing off one another, which help you think in ways you might not otherwise have done. It’s wonderful that people take the time to read and ponder and comment – I’m always really grateful that they do!

  10. I’m afraid politics in books or anywhere else for that matter no longer interests me, and whether crime and thrillers are left or right wing goes over my head. But, I know a good book when I read one, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy were probably the best I’ve read in a very long time. Rumours of a 4th book (or part of) have been doing the rounds for quite a while, and it’s a shame that bickering in the family means that it’ll probably never see the light of day, finished or not. However, like you Mrs P, I’m keen to find out how Lisbeth Salander’s story pans out, and I for one look forward to reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web, even though it wasn’t written by Stieg Larsson.

    • I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment at all, kathy p. and I think it’s one of the reasons why writers are careful about how overtly political they are – I’ve heard both readers and writers make the fair point that political content can overwhelm the narrative and put readers off. As you say, quality is the key. But interestingly, I *would* think of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (which I also loved) as having a political dimension – not in terms of a party political line, but in terms of its critique of patriarchal, misogynist power structures. Its values are primarily left-leaning and anti-fascist (as the political affiliation of one of the main villains shows). But none of this overwhelms, which is the sign of a good writer.

      Yes, it’s a great shame that Larsson’s legacy has been so disputed. Not what he would have wanted, I’m sure.

  11. i can’t weigh in on this heavy issue right now, but I do appreciate crime fiction which blends in progressive ideas and exposes social inequities and government repression — and fights for the underdogs.
    However, to digress, I’d like to recommend a wonderful movie you probably know about: Pride, about the LGBT community’s support for the striking Welsh miners in 1984. I’m watching it right now. There is so much wit. And the backwardness just peels off as the two groups work together and learn to respect and care about each other. But the women! So principled and so funny.
    I’m loving this movie and will probably buy a copy.
    And I interrupted watching an Irene Huss TV movie and reading Harry Bingham’s excellent Talking to the Dead (set in Cardiff) to watch the film. It’s worth it.

  12. I did read Val McDermid’s essay and agree with much of it, although, of course, there are exceptions on the crime fiction genre. Many speak for society’s underdogs and get justice for them.
    Private detectives do this, police not so much. But social and political issues are often brought to light in crime fiction, but not so in thrillers which are fast-paced and concerned with action, not thought. Certainly, crime fiction brings out issues of class differences, as in Denise Mina’s books, for example.
    This post reminded me that my father, an unreconstructed leftist, loved to read John Le Carre’s books, and he would have read the earlier books.
    I don’t know if I’ll read The Girl in the Spider’s Web, as Stieg Larsson’s long-time partner is opposed to how this was written and who was behind it. She has been left out of the estate because they were not formally married, a travesty.
    And I love the bunnies.

    • It was a very thought-provoking piece, Kathy, and is making me think a bit more about specific subgenres when I’m reading and what they are trying or tend to do in relation to larger social themes. Being a contrarian, I’ll be on the lookout for thrillers that try to incorporate some kind of social critique!

      I like Mina’s work very much and agree that she’s a good example of an author who uses the crime genre to engage with issues such as class.

      The bunnies *are* cute, aren’t they?

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