American, Icelandic and Swedish gems: Paretsky, Indriđason and Nesser

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is in full swing up in Harrogate. Top news so far: Sarah Hilary has won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin, a tremendous achievement for a debut writer, and Sara Paretsky (below), creator of the ground-breaking ‘VI Warshawski’ series, was presented with the Theakstons Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

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In her acceptance speech, Sara said: ‘When I created VI Warshawski, she created a few seismic shock-waves for being a female detective with gumption. I’m proud of that, and today it’s amazing to be recognised for that legacy and to see so many female characters in the genre who are more than a vamp or victim’. Hear hear! There are sixteen Warshawski novels to date, starting with 1982’s Indemnity Only. If you haven’t met VI yet, now’s a great time to start. She’s one of the many great female investigators on this blog’s ‘strong women in crime’ list.

The Theakstons programme also features Swedish author Håkan Nesser (on the ‘Strange Lands’ panel) and Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriđason in conversation with Barry Forshaw on Sunday. Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that I’m a fan of both these writers – in fact my first ever review was of Indriđason’s The Draining Lake, which won the CWA Gold Dagger and is partially set in East Germany. I also reviewed Nesser’s The Weeping Girl, part of the ‘Van Veeteren’ series, but featuring Ewa Moreno as investigator, back in 2013. It’s interesting to see the comparisons I made between Nesser and Indriđason’s work in that post – there do appear to be very real affinities between these authors’ approaches to writing crime fiction.

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If like me you can’t make Harrogate, but are within reach of London, then there’s a rare chance to see Nesser and Indriđason together this coming Monday, 20th July, at Foyles Bookshop with Barry Forshaw. Here’s the Foyles description of the event:

>> Bestselling authors Arnaldur Indriđason and Hakan Nesser have enthralled millions of readers with their award-winning detective series. On Monday we welcome these two titans of Nordic Noir for an evening discussing their latest work, and a life in crime.

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Messrs Nesser and Indriđason

Recipient of the Nordic Glass Key, the CWA Gold Dagger and the RBA International Prize for Crime Writing, Icelandic heavyweight Indriđason has delighted fans with his long-running ‘Detective Erlendur’ series. Having recently concluded the narrative in Strange Shores, the author has since taken us right back to the beginning with Rekjavik Nights and the brand-new Oblivion, unpacking the early cases of then newly-promoted detective Erlendur.

Splitting his time between his native Sweden and London, Håkan Nesser has been leading readers in ever-decreasing circles for over twenty-five years. Famed for his Inspectors Van Veeteren and Barbarotti series, Nesser has been awarded both Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel and Best Crime Novel Awards, as well as being the only person to have won the Danish Rosenkrantzprisen twice. Now, in his latest novel The Living and the Dead in Winsford, Nesser takes us to the desolate Exmoor landscape as a couple, beleaguered by past secrets, find their rural getaway is not quite the sanctuary they had anticipated. <<

I’ll be making the pilgrimage from Swansea to London on Monday. Perhaps see you there? Full details of the event are available here.

Update: well it was a great evening all round. Here are a couple of pictures:



For an excellent write-up of the discussion, see Euro Crime’s blog post ‘Nordic Night at Foyles‘.

There’s also a marvellous interview with Arnaldur over at Crime Fiction Lover.

It’s Scandi time! Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, Indridason’s Reykjavic Nights and BBC4’s Crimes of Passion

This week, I’ve shared my evenings with two of my favourite Scandi authors, Henning Mankell (Sweden) and Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland).

A *beautiful* cover, don’t you think?

Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn (trans. by Laurie Thompson/Harvill Secker, 2014) was originally written for a Dutch crime event and adapted for an episode of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander in 2012. This beautifully packaged work is now published for the first time in English, and in terms of its chronology, is set just before the last novel in the series, The Troubled Man.

The book is described as a novella by the publisher and in accordance with that genre, is a little shorter than a novel. I can’t help wondering if Mankell’s title pays homage to Goethe’s view of the novella as focusing on ‘eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit’ (literally ‘an unheard of event that has taken place’ or more idiomatically ‘an unprecedented event’). Murder does fit that definition very nicely indeed.

The narrative opens in October 2002. Wallander is about to make an offer on a house when he discovers something dodgy in the garden: a long-ago crime has literally been unearthed and the policeman, with the help of daughter Linda, feels compelled to investigate, in a typically nuanced and engrossing tale. My favourite line: ‘It struck Wallander that nothing could make him as depressed as the sight of old spectacles no one wanted any more’ (p. 51).

Any hopes that more Wallander novels might be forthcoming are dashed in a little afterward by Mankell, so fans of the series had better savour this last work. However, there is an added bonus in the form of an essay by the author entitled ‘How it started, how it finished, and what happened in between’. Lots of lovely insights for the melancholy Ystad detective’s fans.

An Event in Autumn is published by Harvill Secker on 4. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I then received a copy of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights in the post (trans. by Victoria Cribb/Harvill Secker, 2014). I’d been hugely looking forward to this prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series and was barely able to put it down: it’s a wonderfully absorbing read that traces Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a young woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are given new insights into Erlendur’s character and how a traumatic childhood event will shape both his personal life and investigative career.

As was the case with Mankell’s The PyramidReykjavic Nights is a great introduction for new readers to the series. Alternatively, for those of us who have already had the pleasure, it provides a valuable context in which to place the ‘later’ works. Mr. Indridason, if you’re reading this, please do feel free to add some more… Takk fyrir!

Reykjavic Nights is published by Harvill Secker on 18. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy. If you’re interested in Icelandic crime, then Iceland Noir, which takes place in Reykjavik from 20-23 November 2014, is also worth checking out.

And finally, some important BBC4 Saturday evening crime news. Today, 30th August 2014, sees the start of a new six-part Swedish series based on the 1950s novels of Maria Lang (the pseudonym of Dagmar Lange, a well known and prodigious crime author). The first episode of Crimes of Passion, entitled ‘Death of a Loved One’ airs at 9.00pm. The BBC4 summary is as follows:

>> Puck Ekstedt is invited by her university tutor to celebrate midsummer at his summer house on a secluded island, together with a group of friends including Einar Bure. Puck and Einar (Eje for short) are secretly courting and he is the reason she accepts the invitation. The summer nights are seductively beautiful until Puck finds one of the female guests murdered. Einar contacts his best friend Christer Wijk, a police inspector, to investigate. In the meantime, they are trapped on the island – and someone among them is a killer. <<

The series has been described as Mad Men meets The Killing. This sounds a bit too good to be true, but I will reserve judgement until this evening. You can see a short clip from the first episode on the BBC4 website.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores / Iceland Noir

So I’ve finally read Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores (Harvill Secker), possibly the last novel in the Inspector Erlendur series, in which our favourite Icelandic detective heads back to his abandoned childhood home to face the trauma that has shaped his life – the disappearance of his little brother Bergur in a snowstorm when he was eight years old. While there, Erlendur also starts to dig into another unresolved story: that of Matthildur, a young wife who set off across the frozen fjords one day in 1942 and was never heard of again. The two cases are entwined throughout this absorbing narrative, and cuminate in a powerful and and thoroughly moving ending.

What a fine series this is: while consistently delivering satisfying police procedurals, Indriðason has provided his readers with wonderfully realised investigative figures, and with an insightful portrait of a rapidly changing Iceland (and all the good and bad such transformation entails). He also very effectively explores profound themes such as grief and loss. On re-reading my earlier review of The Draining Lake I found I had written that Indriðason’s sensitive treatment of ‘the missing’ – and of the impact of losing someone without knowing their final fate – lifted the novel above many others in the genre. The same remains true of Strange Shores.

If you’d like to know more about the novel, I recommend heading over to Raven Crime Reads, where you’ll find an excellent review. But if you’ve not yet read all the others in the series, it might be best to do so first…

Those with Erlendur withdrawal symptoms will be glad to know that Indriðason has written a prequel set in 1974 entitled Reykjavikurnaetur (Reykjavik Nights), which was published in Iceland last year. Hopefully it will be translated into English soon. Indriðason’s latest novel is called Skuggasund (Shadow Channel), and won this year’s Spanish RBA crime fiction prize. Many thanks to Quentin Bates, author of the marvellous Gunna crime series, for passing on this cheering information.

And speaking of Arnaldur and Quentin… This week sees a very special event taking place in Reykjavik for the first time – the crime convention ICELAND NOIR – which both writers will be attending, as well as a host of other Icelandic, Scandi and British authors. It looks like it’s going to be an absolutely fantastic few days, and I am deeply, deeply jealous of all who will be there. Please tweet and blog LOTS so we can take part vicariously.

Iceland Noir Poster

Scandinavian Crime Fiction Smorgasbord

Thanks to a tip-off from cavershamragu, I’ve spent the evening wallowing happy as a hippo in mud over at the ScandinavianBooks website.

Rubbing shoulders with Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun and Selga Lagerlof are a whole host of Scandinavian crime writers. Indeed, five of the six authors featured under the heading of ‘contemporary and rising authors’ turn out to be crime writers too, illustrating the extent of the Scandi crime boom (as well as the present publishing clout of writers such as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum). 

You can browse Scandinavian crime on the site by writer or by nationality (for the latter, hover over the ‘crime’ tab at the top of the homepage). As one would expect, the Swedes are well represented (Sjowall / Wahloo, Mankell, Larsson and Nesser to name just a few), but so are the Norwegians (Dahl, Egeland, Holt, Nesbo, Fossum), the Danes (Davidsen and Peter Hoeg of Miss Smilla fame) and those amazing Icelanders (Indridason, Sigurdardottir). There are also a couple of Finnish authors, Sipila and Joensuu, whom I look forward to checking out. Typically, each author entry features a biography, a review/overview of key works and links to other sites, such as the affiliated Nordic Bookblog. There’s some information on film and TV adaptations too. 

It’s a veritable treasure trove if you’re new to Scandinavian crime and want to find out what all the fuss is about. Or, perhaps like me, you might have read many of the classics, and are keen to lay your hands on some lesser-known works. Either way, this site is a highly useful resource. Tack så mycket! 

Oh, and if you’re into Viking sagas, it’s also definitely the place for you. Apologies for the naffness that follows; unable to resist.

Top 5 – Nordic Crime

Over at the ‘Tipping My Fedora’ blog, Cavershamragu suggested that I put together a Top 20 Scandinavian crime list. I’ve got as far as a Top 5, as I’m not sure I have 20 I would heartily recommend. I’m also stretching Scandinavian to ‘Nordic’ (read for this anywhere that has a tendency to be cold, snowy and dark for much of the year), as I like Icelandic crime, and it has links to Swedish crime too…

1. Roseanna, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Sweden 1965). An early police procedural, co-written by a husband-and-wife team, which explores the state of 1960s Swedish society from a left-wing perspective. One of the first crime novels to focus properly on the identity of the female victim as well as on the process of investigation and the murderer. First in the 10 book ‘Martin Beck’ series – read them all while you’re at it!

2. Firewall, Henning Mankell (Sweden 1998) While the Wallander series, of which this is the 8th book, is hugely and rightly lauded, you don’t often see individual Mankell books make top-crime-fiction lists. I think this is because the books work best as part of a series, and none obviously stand out. But even so, this is one of my favourites, and I really wanted Wallander to be represented. Another fine police series – greatly indebted to Sjowall and Wahloo’s ‘first wave’ police procedurals.

3. The Draining Lake, Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland 2004) If the Wallander books are ‘second wave’ police procedurals, then Indridason’s can be thought of as the ‘third’, as they clearly draw on the Mankell and Sjowall/Wahloo books before them. This is the 4th in the ‘Ernaldur’ series, and it’s one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read. Check out my earlier post for a full review.

4. Borkmann’s Point, Hakan Nesser (Sweden 1994). This is an ‘Inspector van Veeteren’ mystery. I haven’t read any of the others in the series, but liked this one very much for its slightly quirky philosophical musings. Another police procedural (are there any other types of Nordic crime, I find myself wondering). 

5. The Killing (on BBC4 tonight!!!) (Denmark 2007) OK, cheating here now – not a book – but it’s a way of getting a Danish one in, even though it’s a TV series. See my review of last week’s opening episodes. Top quality crime. Might be based on a crime novel (not sure / will dig)…

If you expand this list out to include all the books in the respective series, you’ll have enough to keep you going for years 🙂 Unless you’ve read them all already that is…further suggestions welcome…

#1 Indridason/The Draining Lake

Arnaldur Indriđason, The Draining Lake (London: Harvill Secker, 2007 [2004]). Wrap up warm for a chilly Icelandic police procedural. 5 stars

Although this 2004 novel is written by an Icelander and set in Reykjavik, it’s firmly indebted to the classic Swedish police procedural. Detective Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson can be viewed as a third-generation representative of the Swedish police investigator, following in the footsteps of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck, and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. Morose, cynical and consumed with self-doubt, these policemen have become progressively more embattled and isolated with each generation. In Erlendur’s case, he’s forced to question the extent to which his absence as a father is responsible for his daughter’s slide into a drug addiction – one the novel describes in sober and hard-hitting detail.

The draining lake of the title is Lake Kleifarvatn, whose mysteriously receding waters reveal an old skeleton weighed down with a heavy Russian radio device. As Erlendur and his team begin the painstaking process of investigating this strange find, they are transported back to an era of international espionage and political unrest during the Cold War, whose consequences can only now be fully understood.

Two things lift this crime novel a cut above the average police procedural. The first is the fascinating insight the novel gives into the Cold War period, and in particular, the experiences of young, idealistic, Icelandic communists who were offered the opportunity to study in East Germany in the 1950s. The second is the sensitive treatment of the theme of ‘the missing’ and of the impact that losing someone without knowing his or her final fate can have on the individual.

A number of the characters, including Erlendur, have lost someone close to them, and the novel is haunted by their many absences. While some eventually learn what happened to their loved ones, others are not so fortunate. They, and crucially the reader, are left without an adequate resolution to the story of these disappearances, a deliberate omission that adds tremendous power to the narrative. Thus, while the central murder is solved, other aspects of the plot are left open, questioning the notion that a case can ever be fully solved. We might know who the murderer is, and understand what motivated them, but the void left by ‘the missing’ remains.

The Draining Lake is well written, enjoyable and thought-provoking: a first-rate, multi-layered crime novel. Erlendur is a welcome and worthy successor to Beck and Wallander, and the novel’s Icelandic setting adds a beguiling and unusual dimension to the chilly subgenre of dark, Nordic crime.

The novel is the 4th in the ‘Reykjavik murder mystery series’, and in my view, it’s the best so far.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Draining Lake a mighty 5 stars