Friday, April 21, 2006

More new Swedish noir by Kjell Eriksson

Kjell (pronounced "shell," I believe) Eriksson's newly translated The Princess of Burundi (I should really start crediting the translators: Ebba Segerberg did a great job with translating this one from the original Swedish) is one of (probably the best of) a new crop of Scanidinavian crime novels hitting the shelves in the U.S. and U.K. this year. This is another "collective" novel of a sort, since none of the detectives in this police procedural dominate all the others. There are a couple of characters who come forward, though, as well as some of the families of the principals in the crime. There is no Sherlock Holmes who solves the crime by himself--on the other hand, it is less of a self-consciously social novel in the sense I use the word "collective" with respect to The Beast (see earlier post on that Swedish novel). Eriksson's detectives work in Uppsala, the famous Swedish university town, and there is a subtle variation on the "town and gown" theme that is as common in crime novels as in "mainstream" fiction (since Lucky Jim at least). The class boundary is here clarified by exposure to, and participation in, crime, and the line is drawn in an effective manner by Eriksson. Detective Ann Lindell (whose role here suggests that she may be a more prominent figure in others in this series not yet translated) remarks (with regard to the cultured detectives of a certain genre of crime fiction) that the cops she knows are not cultured, not great readers (see my comments on Garcia-Roza's detective Espinoza). She comments that her crowd is perhaps better at what they do because they are closer in class, taste, and education to those with whom they most often work, the perpetrators and victims of crime. Another of the detectives, Berglund, comments at the early stages of the investigation that "Solving a crime was a matter of discerning a pattern...and in that way this man and his context, his part of town, his expressions, gestures, and language were a part of the answer," and that when confronted with the puzzle that a crime represents for him, the investigator must put together "the pieces of the puzzle, the puzzle of the town..." These comments get to the heart of what makes a crime novel "noir," and also what makes crime novels (and to me, particularly the international ones) so interesting. To be effective, a "noir" writer must get to the heart of a city, and also give a certain amount of the surface detail, the "map" of the city. Eriksson's book is not a travelog, though--his characters have the pessimism about society and about the bureaucratic realities of policing that make "noir" noir. If I find one flaw in The Princess of Burundi, it's in the plotting--especially of the ending. Without giving too much away, I hope, I found the solution to this puzzle a bit unsatisfying, not in the way the book ends but in the revelation of the criminal's identity. It seems almost as if the author had originally designated one character to be the murderer, and then decided that wouldn't work--so he came up with the most similar character he could as the perpetrator. Still, the plot moves forward without any other artificial contrivances, and the conclusion has a genuine inevitability and pathos. This is a good one.

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