Friday, October 30, 2009

Bronze Varg Veum

An old friend of mine just let me know that there is a statue of Varg Veum, the main character in Gunnar Staalesen's novels and the films made from them, leaning against the wall in the hallway of the building where his office is located in the books. Here's an image, courtesy of Petunia's blog (click here, it's in Norwegian). I have to say the statue doesn't resemble my mind's-eye-view of the detective from the books nor Trond Espen Seim, who plays him in the films. But how many of the detectives from the current Scandinavian crime wave (or any other part of the crime fiction world) are immortalized in metal?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Varg Veum: Fallen Angels

A new Varg Veum film, Falne Engler/Fallen Angels, from the crime fiction series by Gunnar Staalesen, ran last week on MhZ Networks in the U.S., in wide screen (so perhaps this one ran first as a theatrical release before its life on TV). The movie starts out not with Veum but with a police investigation by Inspector Hamre, the detective that is Veum's friend/adversary, after a young woman is discovered hanged in her parents home, an apparent suicide. Veum is first seen re-entering the country through a Norwegian airport (after an investigation took him to Poland), having his belongings inspected by customs: including a pair of pulp-noir novels by Mickey Spillane and the now-almost-forgotten Brett Halliday (pen name of Davis Dresser). Veum is hired by an old friend, now a Norwegian rock star, to find out if his wife is cheating on him. After other murders by hanging, the police treat the original suicide as a murder, and Veum becomes involved professionally and emotionally. The plot is complicated, with a final twist that reveals the murderer but also changes the complexion of the whole story quite effectively. There's a bit of the Antonioni film Blowup in the plot and the style, as Varg inspects his surveillance photos from his infidelity case and revisits a crime scene, a villa on a fjord. Norway and Bergen are a bit more appealing here than in some of the other Varg Veum films, and the plot quite effective (children, as usual, play more of a role than in some crime stories, though not in the way a Veum fan might expect). My copy of the newly translated Staalesen novel, The Henchmen of Death, has been delayed (some reviews have already appeared on-line, making me jealous and anxious to receive my copy)--it will be the first Veum novel that I've read since the films started to appear, and it will be interesting to see how the films color my reading of this character, whose three previously translated outings I read some time ago.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A question about Jan Kjaerstad

There was a review by By Tom Shone in yesterday's New York Times of Jan Kjaerstad’s novel The Discoverer. The review makes the novel, and the whole "Jonas Wergeland" trilogy by the Norwegian author, sound awful, though the review is actually quite funny in a snarky way (the reviewer takes a shot at Salman Rushdie, suggesting he's allergic to postmodernist shenanigans). For instance, Shone claims that Kjaerstad intends to do for Norway what Joyce did for Ireland, but instead achieves "more like 1,500 pages of air guitar in a neo-Nietzschean vein." The Kjaerstad books aren't exactly crime fiction, according to what I've heard, but have a crime plot at their center. I hadn't gotten them because the blurbs made the books sound a bit ponderous--but the review makes them sound beyond ponderous into the realm of pomposity, regarding the self-importance of the main character and his “magic penis." Check out the review here please, and let us know what you think--those of you who have in fact read (or tried to read) Kjaerstad in translation or in the original Norwegian, as well as what you think of snarky (if funny) reviews.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tattoo, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Serpent's Tail recently published a new translation (by Nick Caistor) of Tattoo, the second Pepe Carvalho story by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (originally published in 1976, never before translated as far as I can tell, and the first in the series, Yo maté a Kennedy [I killed Kennedy] has never been translated). Carvalho is fully formed in Tattoo, and some of the background of all the novels is more fully shown here (a fuller description of Barcelona's Rambla and some other neighborhoods and of Pepe's habit of burning books, as well as a more developed sense of his girlfriend Charo's character and her life as a prostitute). His background in the CIA is relevant in Tattoo when he travels to Amsterdam and encounters cops that he knew in his former life (though as usual the Barcelona police are mostly off-stage, referred to but not present in the story). There is one name that I had always wondered about in the other books, Bromide, the shoe-shine man and informant who is obsessed with bromides being put in the drinking water to make the populace impotent: is his name meant to be pronounced Bro-mee-day as it would be in Spanish? A question rendered moot in Caistor's version, which gives his name as Bromuro, so I guess Bromide was an Anglicization of his nickname. Pepe is hired by the owner of a hair salon to identify a corpse recently discovered in the sea, with his face eaten away and a distinctive tattoo, "born to raise hell in hell." The dead man inspires a reference to song about a women seeking her missing tattooed sailor, a refrain that echoes throughout the novel, causing Pepe to assume that there is a lovelorn woman behind the man's death. Ultimately, Pepe becomes interested as much in why he has been hired than in the identification of the body (which he accomplishes easily enough in following the trail to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, though he's beaten up and thrown in a canal in the process). The eventual resolution of his search into that problem is a twist that shocks Pepe (who of course seeks solace in food, one of the chief themes of the series). It has never been that necessary to read the Carvalho novels in order, but now that this early book is available, it would be interesting to start at (nearly) the beginning and follow the detective's career as it developed up to the last translated novel, The Man of My Life, an elegaic farewell by Vázquez Montalbán to Barcelona and his character. Some changes occur to the characters along the way (the death of Bromuro/Bromide for one, as well as the appearance, post-Tattoo, of Biscuter, the detective's assistant and cook) but Carvalho is fully developed already in Tattoo: a philosophical, former Marxist, former CIA, always gourmet, and politically incorrect lens on Spain, Barcelona, and modern life. Some of his actions are deplorable, particularly in his treatment of women (both physical and emotional assaults), which would moderate a bit as he aged (Pepe is in his late 30s in Tattoo). Following that development would be one of the interesting aspects of starting the series over. Now we can only hope that Serpent's Tail (or someone) will bring us the the rest of the untranslated volumes (eight have been translated out of 24, though one is a cookbook), including the first and the last, Milenio Carvalho (Carvalho Millennium), which is a two-volume philosophical journey around the world with Carvalho and Biscuter.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beck: the TV series

I recently watched a couple of episodes from the first season of the Beck Swedish TV series, based on some of the characters from the Sjöwall/Wahlöö books but not on the books themselves, from 1997. The two I saw are Spår i Mörker (called Night Vision in the subtitles, but the original Swedish is more like Traces in the Dark) and Money Man (the title is in English in the original). They have simplified Martin Beck's character (as played by Peter Haber he's still dedicated to his job to the point of workaholism, but he's somewhat less moody and he isn't making ship models) and his family (his ex-wife is nowhere to be seen and early on in the series Beck's son is killed off). What remains is the stock situation of the Scandinavian detective, loner cop with angry daughter (as seen most famously in Henning Mankell's Wallander but also in Arnaldur Idri∂ason's Erlendur, with echoes in some others, such as Van Veeteren's incarcerated son in Håkan Nesser's books). As with Wallander's Linda, Beck's Inger is getting less angry and settling down, and is sometimes targeted by the criminals her father is pursuing. The films are more routine TV-cop-show than the '93 Swedish series based on six of the original Martin Beck novels (with Gösta Eckman marvelously inhabiting the lead role), and the only other characters that carry over are Inger and the well dressed but politically incorrect Gunvald Larsson (now played with flair by Mikael Persbrandt, who's also interesting in the 2007 Swedish film Gangster). The new Beck frequently uses typical TV plots, as in Money Man's pursuit of a career criminal with links to Beck's own early career, but occasionally, as in Night Vision, the writing veers toward the Sjöwall/Wahlöö style of plotting, a crime that the police brass and the press have blow into a huge conspiracy but Beck's team discover criminals motivated instead by family disaster and social ills (and, in Night Vision, also by Dungeons and Dragons type video games--one of the players being a young woman who might have been a model for Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth, there are a number of parallels). Some of the new crop of Scandinavian TV cop shows, such as Varg Veum (more on a new episode of that shortly) are more up to the standard of the '93 Martin Beck, though the '97 Beck (and its later seasons) compare pretty well with the Wallander series produced in Sweden from ideas by Mankell rather than the books, and the parallels (cop and daughter) are interesting but played differently (Linda being a cop and the settings, Stockholm and Ystad, considerably differ in atmosphere). And the Peter Haber Beck series retains some of the quirky humor of the original novels, through Gunvald's quirks and in some of the peripheral characters such as his neighbor and his usual waiter, both of whom are altogether peculiar. Plus Beck gets a cop girlfriend, further distancing him from the moodiness of the early novels, moving toward the happier Martin Beck of the late novels.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

around the world in crime fiction internet radio show

Courtesy of crime author Leighton Gage, here's info about an upcoming Internet Radio show he's hosting, Around the World in Crime Fiction: This Saturday, October 24th, at 12:30 PM Eastern U.S. time, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Stan Trollip (half of the writing duo of Michael Stanley), Cara Black and Stuart Neville will be joining Gage to talk about mysteries set outside the United States. Listeners can call in with questions. Just go to and type "Leighton Gage" into the site's search function. And, if listeners sign up (it doesn't cost anything) the site will automatically convert the air time into their own time zones, wherever they might be. (Yes, Europe, Asia and Australia too.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The end of the Millennium (trilogy that is), by Stieg Larsson

Echoing some other reviewers who have recently posted about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, I'll reiterate that it is a most peculiar book. It's also very difficult to say anything at all about it without giving something away, so Beware of Spoilers! in this or any other review you might read. I'll try not to give too much away though. In my earlier post I remarked on the huge amount of detail and asked if the book might have benefited from editing; having finished the book now, I must say that editing would have been difficult and possibly beside the point--the book is almost entirely made up of detail and repetition, and Larsson's remarkable feat is to keep pulling the reader along amid that sea of minutia, while not very much is actually happening. In fact (first spoiler alert) the book is well over halfway along and Lisbeth Salander, the "Girl" of the title and the main attraction in the novel, is still in bed, locked into her hospital room after the incidents of the previous book, The Girl Who Played with Fire (I'm giving the English titles, which bear no relation to the original Swedish titles). When Salander finally moves into the action mode reminiscent of her activities in the first two novels of the trilogy, the novel is almost over (and the plot has actually wound up already), and she actually (partially--and here's another spoiler alert) pulls her punches in a manner characteristic of the peculiarly ethical Swedish brand of crime fiction. Speaking of the plot itself, Larsson enthralls the reader with a spy/thriller plot that turns on not nuclear war or encroaching foreign powers but instead an internal constitutional crisis provoked by rampant counterintelligence insularity and the strive toward self-preservation in the bureaucracy of secrecy. Quite unusual in concept, as well as in resolution: the agency is (spoiler alert) already well on its way to defeat before the climax, which is resolved mostly through the revelation of the legal strategy set up by the team of lawyers, journalists, etc., in defense of Salander (who is on trial for assault among other things). All of which is a unique approach for a thriller. Larsson is perhaps a one-off: in spite of his obvious debt to Swedish crime fiction from Astrid Lindgren to Sjöwall/Wahlöö, Jan Guillou, and beyond, staked out a territory that is unlikely to be inhabited by anyone else. As his journalist-hero-alter ego Mikael Blomkvist says, it's all about violence against women, not spies and intrigue. Larsson is doing advocacy journalism by other means and extending his always explicit, never simply implied message of justice and ethics (private and public) beyond his magazine's reach into the much larger (and now world-wide) audience for fiction. I'd still argue that the 10-volume Sjöwall/Wahlöö opus remains the pinnacle of Swedish crime, but Larsson puts his very individual stamp on the genre and also brings the form into the 21st century's criminal, information, and political environment. I almost started this post by saying that there's really not much to say about Larsson's epic (plenty of words, lucidly translated by "Reg Keeland", in the novel itself) but I find myself nevertheless making a fairly long post about Hornets' Nest...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quarter of the way through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest announces to the reader through references to Jan Guillou, popular Swedish author of spy novels, few of which have been translated into English, that the genre that will be dominant in this third volume of Stieg Larsson's trilogy is the spy novel (as the detective/mystery was for the first volume and the thriller/revenge tale for the second). Life has intervened to slow down my reading schedule, so I'm only just over a quarter of the way through Millennium III, but I have a couple of observations and questions (an surely a book this long can support more than one blog post). Many writers will compose a lot of detail about the background of their characters and their plots as part of planning a book or as a first draft. Many of those writers delete the extensive background information in the final draft, allowing inference in the finished text to fill in the picture. Stieg Larsson didn't do that, possibly because of his untimely death, and the books are chock full of that kind of background info--to the extent that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest seems to actually get going on page 160 (out of 600, and possibly accounting for the overall length to some extent). Another reviewer said that Larsson fills in so much background because he's writing more as a journalist than a novelist, and on the other hand, a lot of bestsellers (including those of mediocre or worse quality, as opposed to the Millennium trilogy, which has at least some merit as a story, according to most reviewers including myself) also fill in a lot of background, giving more information than most crime novels of the first rank in terms of being well-written. Is there something about the oversupply of information that helps make a bestseller? Is anyone else bothered by the extensive detail of the first 160 pages of TGWKTHN? Do those fortunate enough to have already finished the book have any opinion as to the lost opportunity to perhaps improve the book (and its prequels) by some careful but extensive editing? Or is part of the appeal of this particular story its effort to fill in all the details about what's going on, what has gone in the past, etc., regarding so many of its characters? For me, what saves the book from the dismal quality of so many bestsellers (such as one currently at the top of the lists) is that Larsson does actually have something to say about the real world (which goes back to his backround as a journalist as well as to the Swedish tradition of crime fiction).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Åke Edwardson, Death Angels (Erik Winter's debut)

Death Angels is the translation of the first of Åke Edwardson's Erik Winter novels, only now arriving in English (rather like the late appearances, recently, of the first of Fred Vargas's Adamsberg or the first of Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren, and in this first outing Winter has something in common with both). The style of the writing (and/or the translation by Ken Schubert) is a bit difficult, alternately elliptical and explicit information, rather like Winter's own complaint (regarding the police reports he's been reading) of "William Faulkner one minute, Mickey Spillane the next." Edwardson spends a lot of time establishing the social context of the crime and the police (in both Sweden and England, and that tendency plus the somewhat difficult style result in an oddly static story for the first two-thirds of the book (but then, Edwardson writes pure police procedurals, which tend to have long unproductive segments in their investigations). Winter is here a loner, not yet the married man of the later books, but already a dandy and a somewhat pretentious jazz fancier, to the point of not recognizing a reference to The Clash by the English Inspector Macdonald, with whom Winter is cooperating in his investigation of a series of murders in London and Göteborg that suggest the making of snuff films. Snuff films were a few years ago (perhaps about the time this novel was originally published, under a Swedish title that actually translates as Dance with an Angel) quite the cliche of crime fiction (most particularly crime movies) but are less so now--perhaps in recognition of a general feeling that snuff films are an urban myth. One of Winter's detectives gets over his head in an investigation of strip clubs another (and continuing) staple of crime fiction (and movies). Once the momentum crests and the reader thinks everything's figured out, there are a still a couple of surprises in store. Though it seems to take a while getting started, Death Angels is a good foundation for a series that has since then gotten better and better.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indri∂ason

The sixth of Arnaldur Indri∂ason's Reykjavik murder mysteries to be translated from the Icelandic (this time by Victoria Cribb) is Hypothermia, a title that resonates in at least three different threads of its story. It is quite different from the others, focusing almost entirely on Erlendur, the detective and central character of all the novels, with very brief appearances by the other detectives, who are much more evident in the other books. Another difference is that, although a corpse appears at the very beginning, there is no certainty as to whether a crime has been committed (rather than a suicide) until the very end. There is no official investigation into the death of María, but Erlendur cannot let go of the case, and doggedly interviews her husband and friends, grasping at tentative threads concerning her life and her obsession with the afterlife. He is also visited by the parent of a long-missing young man and as a consequence Erlendur unofficially begins investigating several very old unsolved missing persons cases, bringing to the fore his own troubled past. He finally shares with his estranged daughter (and with us) details of the disappearance of his brother in a snowstorm (when they were very young), a tale that has haunted the whole series. And his daughter lures him into a meeting with his bitter ex-wife, in the process revealing the problem at the heart of Erlendur's marriage and divorce. As a whole, Hypothermia is a fascinating close examination of the confluence of rational versus spiritual outlooks on life, as well as the conundrums of friendship, love, marriage, and fate. The slow development of the story, plus the almost total lack of events or plot, is no detriment to the power of the book: rather, it is a consequence of the very close focus that Indri∂ason takes on Erlendur, the dead woman, and two other missing persons. Indri∂ason is at times an intensely visual storyteller, evoking the Icelandic urban and natural settings with great vividness. At other times, the story moves forward in reluctant or willing conversations between Erlendur (who has no right to conduct interrogations in this case) and the many people surrounding these non-cases, and at times in interior monologues of a particularly "arms-length" sort as Erlendur reveals a little (and slowly) of his own straitened life (both internal and social). All along, there is the overarching metaphor of hypotermia, whose relevance is immediately apparent in some cases and only made clear at the end in others, while also being a more indirect reference to the coolness of Erlendur's sometimes (though recently less so) solitary life. One virtue of the book, as a book, is that it is very difficult to imagine a film drawn from this story: there is almost no exterior action, only ruminative monologues and dialogues with portraits of the settings in which they occur. The power of the book is in the language, which is deceptively simple, rather than action. There has been considerable discussion in the blogosphere about the line between genre and literary fiction: Hypothermia is a very good book no matter which direction you approach it from (and it requires no previous acquaintance with Indri∂ason's work to appreciate it). This is the auspicious beginning to a few weeks venture into Scandinavian crime, which will include newly translated novels by Stieg Larsson (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), Åke Edwardson (Death Angels, actually the first of the Erik Winter novels, only now available in English), and Gunnar Staalesen, plus a few upcoming posts on Scandinavian crime TV series.