Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Beyond Stieg: two of the world's best crime commentators discuss Scandinavian crime fiction

Back in mid 2009 I wrote a large feature on the rise of Swedish crime writing for Good Reading, a great books-focused magazine in Australia. Entitled "Hot Crime Writing in a Cold Land" (first two pages pictured right), it looked at the history and evolution of Swedish crime fiction, beyond the Stieg Larsson phenomena that was sweeping the world at the time (and has continued to do so, seemingly unabated since).

In the article I noted that while Larsson had topped the the 2008/2009 Wischenbart survey (which analysed bestselling authors of all types across seven major European markets), beating out the likes of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, he was only the tip of the Swedish crime iceberg; six other Swedish crime writers were in the Top 40, and many others were hovering. The surveyors, who conduct various analyses for the global publishing industry, even specifically noted the “predominance of Swedish (crime) fiction which has been out competing any other flavour or origin of fictional writing”. Not just out-competing any other type of crime writing - out competing any other type of fiction altogether.

It's funny - at the time I thought that I was a bit late on the piece, but since then more and more and more and more publications around the world have jumped on the Swedish crime bandwagon, and the train shows no real signs of slowing - although there are some signs of Scandinavian crime fatigue (or Larsson fatigue, at least) in some quarters.

Now acclaimed British reviewer and crime fiction commentator Barry Forshaw is working on a book, Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction, due for release next year. For those who don't know, Forshaw is one of the UK's best known crime critics, editor of Crime Time magazine and former Vice-Chair of the Crime Writers' Association, and has penned several crime fiction-related books, including British Crime Writing: An Encyclopaedia, and The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction. I for one am curious at to what such an esteemed researcher, critic and commentator has to say about the rise of Scandinavian crime - apparently it will be quite the authoritative survey of the sub-genre.

But you don't have to wait until next year to get some taste of what Forshaw thinks - in a recent Kirkus Reviews interview with US crime critic Jeff K. Pierce, editor of January Magazine and The Rap Sheet, Forshaw shares some of his thoughts on crime fiction's insights into Scandinavian society, the history of Nordic crime writing, the Swedish dominance, and more.

You can read Forshaw's Kirkus Reviews interview with Jeff Pierce here, and also some further discussion between the pair on the topic at The Rap Sheet, here. In relation to the social commentary often threaded throughout Nordic crime, Forshaw says: "The analysis of society freighted into the novels is more forensic and detailed than in the crime fiction of virtually any other country, even within the orbit of such mordant social critics as the writers James Lee Burke [in America] and Val McDermid [in Britain]."

Do you agree? Have you read any Nordic crime fiction? Who are your favourite Scandinavian crime writers? Is there something special about the sub-genre, or has it become merely a marketing/popularity snowball?


  1. Craig, Nordic crime fiction should sell because some the authors are good story tellers, and have created some unusual characters, for example Assad [Jussi Adler-Olsen] Gerlof Davidsson, Van Veeteren, Annika Bengtzon, Lisbeth Salander, Harry Hole, and Erlendur. Unfortunately it has now become a marketing snowball making it difficult to see whether the new author has been translated because they are good, or just because they are Nordic.
    Are Nordic writers more forensic and detailed than others in studying their society? Having read Camilleri, Lucarelli, Carlotto, Sciascia, Paretsky, Rankin, Hill, Robinson, Lawton, Manotti and Temple I would not entirely endorse that statement.

  2. Well, you can talk about analysis of society for some of the best known Swedish writers, or as one of their trends, because Camilla Läckberg and Mari Jungstedt are also quite popular though hardly for the same reason. And Danish books may be strong on forensics, but not (generally) for being critical of the society.

  3. Ever since visting Iceland, I have been a fan of the Icelandic crime writer, Arnaldur Idridason. This lead me to another Icelandic writer, Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Social commentary was subtle, but evident in the latter - island isolation, expectations on the female role, Iceland's growing dependency on tourism. There are similarities with NZ society - and thankfully, it's warmer here.