Monday, June 09, 2008
A Swedish crime novel of a different sort
Among the very large crop of Scandinavian crime novels being translated these days, there is one that stands out as completely different: Carina Burman's The Streets of Babylon: A London Mystery. The translator is the aptly named Sarah Death (her translation is lucid, fortunately--perhaps the most exemplary aspect of this publication, particularly apt since the novel deals with the subject of literary translation). The title gives away part of the novel's difference: it's about Victorian London, at the time of the great world exposition (early in Victoria's reign). The narrator/author (I'll come back to that designation in a minute) is a Swedish author of popular novels (so popular that she is recognized repeatedly in the novel by her English fans) is the oddly named Euthanasia Bondeson (the oddness of her name is remarked upon in the novel, but still strikes me as silly). Euthanasia's young niece and traveling companion, Agnes, disappears not once but twice, the second disappearance setting the novel's plot into motion. On a trip to London to see the world's fair and the famous Crystal Palace which housed it, the disappearance of the author's niece instigates a search for her through slums and fine houses, among transvestites, titled artists, prostitutes, and so on. One of Euthanasia's fans, the chief detective of Scotland Yard, resists Euthanasia's attempts to play amateur detective, but ultimately appreciates her talents in that area. Of course, there are inevitable echoes of the Whitechapel murders (not too explicit, fortunately) but the fate of Agnes proves to lie elsewhere. The whole plot is cheerily told in a style that is part potboiler and part an excuse for the charming and eccentric authoress to gather material for her own next book (hence my earlier use of the term narrator/author to describe her). There are numerous literary references (Dickens and Wilkie Collins make an appearance, Euthanasia reluctantly reads a novel by one of those "Yorkshire sisters," and is ultimately won over (could it be Wuthering Heights that she's reading? Jane Eyre? It's not quite clear--if you recognize which it is, please let me know). The whole thing is charming, but the believability quotient is pretty low, resulting in a lack of much sense of threat concerning poor Agnes's plight. And in the end, Euthasia is sailing away for future adventures and (presumably) further Carina Burman novels, suggesting that she has in mind a kind of travelogue of the mid-19th century world, in the form of potboiler novels starring our intrepid amateur detective. I understand that The Streets of Babylon is popular in Sweden and beyond, and I at least was interested enough to finish it (and I appreciated the occasional glimpses of Sweden in that period--a few years before the birth of August Strindberg, whose novels were the topic of my own doctoral dissertation, as it happens). But I don't really go to crime fiction for "charming," even if the charm is contrasted (as it is here) with the dark and dangerous aspects of society at the time. For me, Burman's charm quotient overbalances her social conscience and even the slums seem to gain charm from Euthanasia's presence there. A novel that, perhaps, is not digging in the muck but casting perfume over it. Too sweet for me. Anybody have a varying opinion? I'd love to hear a defense of this odd (to me) Swede.