Friday, 6 January 2012

Want to become an Authority on Scandinavian Crime Fiction? No, you don’t...

Today’s guest blogger is from crime fiction critic Barry Forshaw. A former Vice-Chair of the Crime Writer’s Association Barry is a writer and journalist whose books include British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. He was the first author to publish a biography on Stieg Larsson with his book The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson in April 2010. He is also the editor of the crime fiction website Crime Time. His booklet which gives you a brief introduction to all things Scandinavian crime fiction can be found here and should be read in conjunction with his book Death in a Cold Climate, A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction which is published by Palgrave Macmillan today!

Never become an expert – it’s a heavy load to carry, believe me. Being asked to write Death in a Cold Climate, a guide to Scandinavian crime fiction for Palgrave Macmillan was further proof that I seemed to have become (without really trying) the default go-to guy for the massively popular genre of Nordic crime fiction. I’m not necessarily a Nordic authority by choice – those I’ve shared a glass of wine with will know I have an equal enthusiasm for criminous writing of the British, American and Italian varieties – murderous fare from all points of the compass, in fact. But as pigeon-holing goes – well, I suppose there could be worse fates.

As “The Scandi Man”, all the standard authors from Northern Europe are under my belt – as are most of the rest (because I read into the wee small hours, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir or Camilla Läckberg positioned on my chest). I’ve also met and broken bread with a great many of them – which is definitely a pleasant corollary of writing so much about these Nordic talents. I’m now on the guest list of all the Scandi embassies, not necessarily for my amiable personality – the cultural attachés like Brits who proselytise on behalf of their nationals.

But I now spend my life nervously looking over my shoulder. Hardly a week passes when a Norwegian – or a Finn – or a Swede – or an Icelander) doesn’t say to me: ‘You may have read X, but are you familiar with Y?’ They then proceed to name someone who I may have heard of but who isn’t yet translated into English. In such cases, I’m already feeling guilty -- why isn’t my Finnish or Swedish good enough to read this new name in the original language?

Scandinavian crime fiction, while increasingly popular, has happily embraced the literary gravitas that scholarship and newspaper critics (such as myself!) have dressed it with, and the fact that there are few Nordic writers who attempt to present themselves as mere catchpenny entertainers is perhaps proof that such a respectable literary cachet does their sales absolutely no harm.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of reading a good crime novel, the ‘added value’ in many of the best examples has long been the implicit (or sometimes explicit) element of social criticism freighted in by the more challenging writers. Of popular literary genres, only science fiction has rivalled the crime novel in ‘holding the mirror up to nature’ (or society). Best-selling Scandinavian writers such as Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason have kept alive (and nurtured) the tradition of social commentary that was always a key element in the genre – though rarely at the expense of sheer storytelling skill, the area in which the crime field virtually demolishes all its rivals – and when (in the early 21st Century) crime fiction became quantifiably the most popular of popular genres (comprehensively seeing off such rivals as romance fiction), it was only the inevitable coda to a process that had been long underway. And Scandinavian crime fiction, more than most genres, combines narrative grip with social insights.

Mapping this Nordic territory is a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And, frankly, I don’t mind being one of the cartographers...

No comments: