(L-R Barry Forshaw, Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis (© Ayo Onatade))
I first met authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis at Bouchercon that took place in St Louis in 2011. At the time they were with promoting the first English translation of their book The Boy in the Suitcase.
Our second meeting took place when I attended the UK launch of The Boy in the Suitcase, which took place yesterday evening (17 January) in the Gallery at Foyles Bookshop, which is based along Charing Cross Road in London. Crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw, author of Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction and editor of Crime Time chaired the event and they were joined by Scandinavian Crime enthusiast and founder of the legendary Nordic Noir Book Club Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (UCL).
The event started off with a brief introduction by Dr Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen who introduced Barry Forshaw. The two authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis where then introduced by Barry Forshaw before he started to talk/ interview them about their book.
One of the first things that was commented on was that aside from the fact that The Boy in The Suitcase was a brilliant multi-stranded book, it was also quite complex. Barry was interested in finding out from them both why this was the case as they had more than 3 voices in the book. They explained that what they wanted to do was to ensure that all the important characters were not only seen from the inside but were also able to view the world. This of course meant that they needed to have 5 different voices, which included that of the villain and Nina’s husband.
They also expressed the view that the villain was not only filled with rage but also still human but when asked how they felt about such a character for example Hannibal Lecter they expressed the view that whilst they felt he was an interesting character he was also seen as a psychopath. Their villain on the other hand (they explained) was a person who had a very ordinary life/dreams that anyone could relate to. They could not go down the route of what Steig Larsson did with his villains. The hardest part is actually making the villain believable.
But what about Nina their heroine and why is she so irritating? They explained that they did not feel the need to make her a perfect person and thus annoying but they did need to find a delicate balance. They did not want readers to lose sympathy with her entirely but people did find her annoying and sometimes found her behaviour a barrier to them finishing the book. It seems that women were mainly the ones as they found it difficult to forgive her for being such a bad mother. Nevertheless, they felt that she did try very hard.
The authors also revealed that whilst doing their research they found out that there were a lot of unaccompanied children going missing in Denmark. Over 600 have gone missing in the last 10 years. Some had in fact moved on but others had been sold for prostitution etc. The difficult was that hardly anything was being done about this because they were immigrants but it would be a different matter if the missing children were from Denmark. There were different rules for immigrants as opposed to Danes.
One of the other questions that was raised was whether or not there was a legacy of Russia hanging on the Danes? They felt that there was not and they did not just want to write a Danish novel but wanted to ensure that Nina came into contact with all sorts of people.
With journalists currently being in the news they were also asked how journalists were currently being viewed in Denmark. It was explained that unlike in the UK they did not really have tabloid newspapers and thus they were not seen to be as bad as UK journalists but that the quality of journalism was indeed going down what with the internet and the failure to properly check sources.
They authors were also asked how did they work together. They pointed out that they wrote separate chapters before going through each other’s chapters and commenting on them. It did (they agreed) sometimes lead to the odd argument but this was something that they got over very easily. They both had a basic mutual respect for each other’s work and were thus able to point out where they saw problems.
It was also agreed that not only were Scandinavian writers likeable but there was a sense that writing crime fiction was a good way of communicating ideas.
The topic of titles was discussed. It is well known the Eva Gabrielson was not happy about the fact that the title to the first Stieg Larsson book was changed from Men Who Hated Women (Män som hatar kvinnor) to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The title of the second book in the series is (in English translation) A Quiet Unfelt Killing, which is a line from the book. However they explained that the titled worked better in Danish and that they did not believe that once it had been translated into English that it would still have that title. The third book is set in Ukraine with references to Stalin.
One of the things they made clear was that they wanted to avoid clichés. They explained that they were not so much interested in corruption for example but more interested in the complacency surrounding it.
The success of such television programmes as The Killing and Borgen was also commented on. Both authors were bemused by the phenomenon and wide spread acclaim both programmes had received as Danes were less overwhelmed by them. There were as they explained others, some that were good and some that were bad. The fact that so many people were prepared to sit through programmes with English subtitles amazed them. They could to a certain extent understand The Killing but could not understand Borgen since it is about Danish politics.
Dr Stougaard-Nielsen commented that well crafted writing and art was very much appreciated by anybody who came into contact with it as they saw it for what it was.
The Boy in The Suitcase won two major awards and was also nominated for The Glass Key they were asked whether or not this had raised their profile. Both authors agreed that it had. They had thought that they would win Best First Novel as the book has only been published three to four months earlier but they had surprisingly won Thriller of the Year. Sadly however, The Glass Key is not so well known outside Scandinavia and usually it is accompanied by the comment that it is the award that Steig Larsson won twice”.
Boundaries were also discussed with the authors and whether or not they had boundaries that they would not cross. The reason for the question was because Barry Forshaw had just finished reading Hans Koppel’s She’s Never Going Back which he found to be a very dispiriting read with humiliating sex scenes. They agreed that the did have boundaries which hey would not cross. They indicated that they would not write about anything that they were uncomfortable with themselves and that there was a fine line between titillation and showing things for what they were. Real crime is as far as they were concerned bad enough and they did not feel the need to go overboard. Their book is from their point of view not really a howdunnit or a whodunit but a whydunnit.
The audience were also informed that the film rights for the books were under discussion but they could not really talk about it. They also confirmed that Lene Kaaberbøl had in fact done the English translation of the book.
The authors were also asked questions one of which was whether or not they felt it was right that authors should use their books for social commentary or should they be seen as pure entertainment. Both authors agreed that they should but that the books should also entertain. It was as they explained supposed to do both.
The event at Foyles was extremely well attended. It was a testament this evening to how much Nordic crime is read by the full room. The Galley was full and the authors had an extremely receptive audience. At the end of the evening the authors joined the attendees for drinks and signed books as well.
My thanks go to Lene Kaaberbøl, Agnette Friis, Barry Forshaw and Dr. Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen for such an enjoyable evening and Foyles Bookshop for hosting it. If you have not yet read The Boy in The Suitcase then I urge you to do so. It will in my opinion be one of the best crime novels this year.