Thursday, March 22, 2012
Barry Forshaw (left) with Swedish author Johan Theorin.
I have always admired UK critic Barry Forshaw’s insights into the crime-fiction genre, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. A few years back, I was fortunate to be one of the contributors to a book he was editing for Greenwood Publishing, British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia, and more recently I provided him with some background for a biography he was writing, Stieg Larsson: The Man Who Left Too Soon. In addition to his being one of London’s leading literary critics, he somehow finds time to edit the magazine Crime Time.
Over the last couple of years, though, Forshaw has become closely linked with the explosive growth of the Scandinavian and Nordic crime-fiction subgenre--an association sure to be cemented by the release earlier this year of his book Death in a Cold Climate: A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan).
Prior to the start of publisher Orion’s recent authors’ party in London, Forshaw and I got together at a local hostelry. Over a couple of glasses of port, we discussed his newest book, what he considers “signal work” from the Nordic region, what he’s busy with now, and of course one of my favorite subjects, Stieg Larsson.
Ali Karim: Tell us how you came to write Death in a Cold Climate.
Barry Forshaw: I was keen to write about the amazing explosion of interest in Scandinavian crime fiction (both on the page and on the screen) and the fact that the British and Americans are becoming aware of the fact that the Scandinavian countries have their own very individual identities--this is reflected in the novels of the best writers. When I was writing Death in a Cold Climate, Norwegian Anne Holt said to me: “If you are visiting a new country it should be a crime novel from that country you read before you leave on your trip--you will learn more than any travel guide can tell you.” I try very hard to capture the individual identities of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland--and if I’ve managed to make even the Scandinavians look at their neighboring countries afresh, I regard that as a little added value for the book.
AK: Death in a Cold Climate is a fascinating overview of the Nordic countries’ new-found fame when it comes to crime fiction. I was particularly delighted to see you explore the pre-Henning Mankell, pre-Stieg Larsson era of Scandinavian/Nordic mystery writing. How important were the roots of this subgenre?
BF: The roots--or the inspiration for the whole genre--could, frankly, be summed up in the names of two writers (although vintage writers such as Maria Lang should not be overlooked): the massively influential Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. [Their] Martin Beck novels [were] name-checked again and again by so many Nordic crime writers I spoke to as a key influence. Interestingly enough, statistically speaking, a certain British writer turned up frequently as another influence--not Agatha Christie, but Ruth Rendell, for her dark psychological standalone novels (rather than her [Chief Inspector Reginald] Wexford police procedurals); she is, of course, half-Swedish, but clearly that unforgiving, ruthless mindset is something that Scandinavian crime writers respond to.
AK: So there could not have been a Lisbeth Salander or a Mikael Blomkvist without there first having been a Martin Beck. Is the appeal of this subgenre linked to its social commentary and introspective nature?
BF: Absolutely! The social commentary aspect in the genre is crucial--even if we are not offered a totally accurate picture of the Nordic counties. Let’s face it, most readers are canny enough to realize that the picture of a society given to them by crime fiction has to be more dramatic, more corrupt, more sinister than the real thing. We might know that Iceland, for instance, has approximately two murders a year, rather than the host of killings committed in the novels--just as foreign readers know that Oxford has a far lower body count than in the Morse novels of Colin Dexter. Having said that, the best novelists can still give us some sharp insights into various key aspects of their societies.
AK: And I noted while reading your book that perhaps there could not have been Beck, Kurt Wallander, or Inspector Erlendur without, say, Lew Archer, Philip Marlowe, or Mike Hammer?
BF: The excellent Norwegian detective novelist Gunnar Staalesen and I often talk about how many crime-fiction aficionados are Ross Macdonald disciples. But then, what crime writer worth his or her salt doesn’t read Macdonald? (And his partner, Margaret Millar, definitely deserves a revival.) ...
AK: Is crime fiction of the Nordic regions, then, more in tune with the American tradition than the British Golden Age?
BF: Of all the writers I spoke to--and that was a great many of them--most were familiar with (and admiring of) both the British and American traditions.
AK: While you delve into the history of Scandinavian/Nordic crime fiction, you also talk about many of the contemporary and up-and-coming wordsmiths. How did they feel about being discussed alongside the so-called masters?
BF: Everybody was happy to talk frankly about their work--from the major names to the up-and-comers. Thankfully, it’s a very democratic field. In the entire genre of Nordic crime fiction I found a welcome readiness (almost without exception) among novelists to discuss their own writing, and to answer the many questions I had about their individual countries and societies. I suspect they were intrigued by the fact that a Brit was trying to tie everything together!
AK: Tell us what you’ve made of the Nordic writers you’ve met over the years. Are they as dour as their characters can sometimes be?
BF: Ah, the stereotypes! We’re all comfortable with them--but when I’ve spoken to Håkan Nesser about such things, he shoots them down quickly, notably the dourness and the British/American idea that the Scandinavian countries are sexual wonderlands, sans inhibitions. My own view? It was important for me to nail such notions. To that end, I contacted again every author I could with whom I had previously spoken, along with many whom I had not been in touch with before and discussed the stereotypes. Yes, it’s true that some writers correspond to the dour Scandinavian image (two of the very best do, in fact)--but most don’t. The reverse, in fact!
AK: Considering your diverse workload, did you work on Death in a Cold Climate in short bursts, or was it a concentrated effort?
BF: Both, in fact. As editor of Crime Time, I sometimes spend time chasing copy, but I had few such problems here with the authors, publishers, and translators I interviewed. My own motivation? I sometimes shout at myself--after squandering time on work-evading tactics: “Come on, Barry--for God’s sake, get to work!”
AK: Do you think that the influx of these chilly tales has altered the general direction of today’s crime fiction? We now see publishers scouting around for the “next Sweden,” in terms of the genre. And one paperback edition of Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X carries the blurb, “the Japanese Stieg Larsson.”
BF: Aren’t these attempts to catch the slipstream of literary success inevitable? With such a wealth of Nordic writing talent currently producing best-selling crime fiction, the continuing rude health of the field seems guaranteed--though publishers will always be looking for the next trend. You mentioned the excellent The Devotion of Suspect X--showing that the Scandinavians had better watch their backs!
AK: I found your book to be less a critical study of individual works from the region than it is a sort of guidebook. Would that be a reasonable comment?
BF: That was, in fact, the aim--I wanted to produce a guidebook. You may have read and enjoyed Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, or Karin Fossum and are hungry for more, so I can hopefully guide you to your next choice.
AK: You interviewed many writers; I counted over 70 novelists mentioned. How did you stop the book from becoming unwieldy? Are you a particularly judicious editor?
BF: It was tough, I can tell you! As the deadline loomed, more and more new writers seemed to demand attention and inclusion--on a daily basis. Frankly, it could have been even longer … but I like the shape it now has. There are omissions, but I tried to be as comprehensive as I could within the word count--at least including those writers currently translated into English.
AK: There’s a section in this book about film and television, which--considering your own professional film criticism--is most welcome. So, can you tell us about some of your favorite adaptations?
BF: Fair enough. Well, [I must mention] the first Swedish Larsson film adaptation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for all its faults (and the David Fincher remake is pretty creditable). The first season of The Killing, of course--nothing needs to be said, does it? We all worship at the altar of Sarah Lund. And the compelling Borgen--which does have political thriller elements (there’s a prominently displayed poster in the flat of one of the protagonists for All the President’s Men). The film of Jar City (possibly to be remade). And the adaptations of Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum novels, not shown [in Britain] yet, but available on subtitled DVDs. I’m looking forward to the Swedish/Danish The Bridge, though I found Those Who Kill efficient, but by-the-numbers and over-familiar.
AK: Speaking of Jar City, I have found Arnaldur Indriđason, in person, to be very different from his melancholic Detective Inspector Erlendur. From where does the too-familiar Nordic/Scandinavian depressive stereotype spring?
BF: [Henrik] Ibsen and [August] Strindberg, of course, the dour twin gods of Scandinavian theater. Strindberg influenced the great Ingmar Bergman … and Henning Mankell married the latter’s daughter. There’s a line of succession.
AK: For readers who want to get a flavor of Scandinavian/Nordic crime fiction, but don’t have a lot of extra time, which five or so works would you recommend their reading?
BF: I’d go for:
• Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, aka Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1992), by Peter Høeg: The atmospheric literary crime novel that almost single-handedly inaugurated--without trying to--the current Scandinavian invasion. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow mesmerizes with its evocative use of Copenhagen locales and weather, so significant for the troubled, intuitive heroine. Most of all, it’s the poetic quality of the novel that haunts the reader.
• The Laughing Policeman (1968), by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: Two writers--a crime-writing team--might be said to have started it all. The critical stock of Sjöwall/Wahlöö could not be higher: they are celebrated as the very best exponents of the police procedural. Martin Beck is the ultimate Scandinavian copper, and if you prefer to ignore the subtle Marxist perspective of the books, it is easy to do so.
• The Redbreast (2000), by Jo Nesbø: Is he really “The Next Stieg Larsson,” as it proclaims on the [book] jackets? He’s certainly the breakthrough Nordic crime writer post-Larsson, and more quirky and individual than most of his Scandinavian colleagues--not least thanks to Nesbø’s wonderfully dyspeptic detective, Harry Hole (pronounced “Hurler”). The Redbreast bristles with a scarifying vision of Nordic fascism.
• Firewall (1998), by Henning Mankell: Mankell’s Kurt Wallander is one of the great creations of modern crime fiction: overweight, diabetes-ridden, and with all the problems of modern society leaving scars on his soul. Firewall is one of the writer’s unvarnished portraits of modern life, in which society and all its institutions (not least the family) are put under the microscope.
• Woman with Birthmark (1996), by Håkan Nesser: Where does Håkan Nesser set his novels? It’s not important; his crime fiction, located in an unnamed Scandinavian country, is so commandingly written it makes most contemporary crime fare seem rather thin gruel. Nesser’s copper, Van Veeteren, has been lauded by Colin Dexter as “destined for a place among the great European detectives.”
•Jar City (2000), by Arnaldur Indriđason: The talented Indriđason is making a mark with his Reykjavik-set thrillers. His debut, Jar City (successfully filmed), is Indriđason’s calling card. When the body of an old man is found in his apartment, DI Erlendur discovers that the murdered man has been accused of rape in the past.
AK: Now that Death in a Cold Climate is out, what’s next of your plate?
BF: Three books! I’m a glutton for punishment. Next up are British Crime Film (for Palgrave Macmillan) and a study of Thomas Harris and the film of The Silence of the Lambs. Then I have to write a book about British gothic cinema--which will be another labor of love. Hopefully, British Crime Film and British Gothic Cinema will remind people I’m not just a Scandi Man …
READ MORE: “Death in a Cold Climate: Review,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’).