Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Petrona shortlist: six superb tastes of Scandi-crime

CRIME NOVELS from Finland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2016 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, announced today. 

It's celebration time for six Scandinavian authors who have today been named on the shortlist for the prestigious Petrona Award, which will be presented at the upcoming Crimefest in Bristol on 21 May. The Petrona Award celebrates the very best in translated Scandinavian crime fiction, as well as remembering prolific British book reviewer and blogger Maxine Clarke, who sadly lost her battle with cancer a few years ago. Last year's winner was Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of getting to know Maxine in an online sense - we shared and discussed our opinions about crime fiction (not always agreeing - in fact sometimes vehemently disagreeing) and both reviewed for some of the same outlets. Maxine was a real force in the world crime fiction blogging when it was just getting started, and it is terrific that this award, celebrating the Scandinavian novels she particularly loved herself, continues her remarkable legacy every year.

Without further ado, here are the six books now in the running, with judges' comments:

THE DROWNED BOY by Karin Fossum tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway): Fossum’s spare prose and straightforward narrative belie the complexity at the heart of this novel. After the drowning of a young child with Down’s Syndrome, Chief Inspector Sejer must ask himself if one of the parents could have been involved. The nature of grief is explored, along with the experience of parenting children with learning difficulties. There’s a timeless feel to the writing and a sense of justice slowly coming to pass.

THE DEFENCELESS by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland): The second in Hiekkapelto’s ‘Anna Fekete’ series is an assured police procedural rooted in the tradition of the Nordic social crime novel. Its exploration of immigrant experiences is nuanced and timely, and is woven into an absorbing mystery involving an elderly man’s death and the escalating activities of an international gang.  A mature work by a writer who is unafraid to take on challenging  topics.

THE CAVEMAN by Jorn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway): this book begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse just down the road from William Wisting’s home. Troubled by his neighbour’s lonely death in an apparently uncaring society, the Chief Inspector embarks on one of the most disturbing cases of his career. Beautifully written, this crime novel is a gripping read that draws on the author’s own experiences to provide genuine insights into police procedure and investigation.

THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER'S WEB by David Lagercrantz tr. George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden): The late Stieg Larsson created the groundbreaking, two-fingers-to-society, bisexual anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander. When Larsson’s publishers commissioned a fourth book, they turned to David Lagercrantz, whose The Girl in the Spider’s Web often reads uncannily like Larsson’s own text. His real achievement is the subtle development of Salander’s character; she remains (in Lagercrantz’s hands) the most enigmatic and fascinating anti-heroine in fiction.

SATELLITE PEOPLE by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson (Mantle/Pan Macmillan; Norway): An accomplished homage to Agatha Christie, Satellite People adds a Nordic twist to classic crime fiction tropes. References to Christie novels abound, but Lahlum uses a Golden Age narrative structure to explore Norway’s wartime past, as Inspector Kristiansen and Patricia investigate a former Resistance fighter’s death. Excellent characterisation, a tight plot and a growing sense of menace keep the reader guessing until the denouement.

DARK AS MY HEART by Antti Tuomainen tr. Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland): Tuomainen’s powerful and involving literary crime novel has a mesmerising central concept:  thirty-year-old Aleksi is sure he knows who was behind his mother’s disappearance two decades ago, but can he prove it? And to what extent does his quest for justice mask an increasingly unhealthy obsession with the past? Rarely has atmosphere in a Nordic Noir novel been conjured so evocatively.

A few thoughts about the shortlist. Firstly, as an awards judge myself, I understand just how tough it is to select longlists, shortlists, and winners for crime writing awards. It is rare to have clear-cut decisions when there are very often a large number of very good and very different books out there - far too many for too few spots. So there are bound to be strong differences of opinion among keen crime fans about who should win, or books that 'should' have been there instead of some that are.

At first glance though, I think that is an incredibly strong shortlist, with six very fine authors (I haven't read all these specific books, but am familiar with all six authors). Interestingly, given a deserved recent rise in profile, Yrsa Sigurdardottir winning last year, and plenty of critical praise for Arnaldur Indridason and Ragnar Jonasson, there are no Icelandic crime writers on this year's shortlist. Just goes to show what a tough 'competition' it is among Nordic authors.

Three of the shortlisted authors were also shortlisted last year (Hiekkapelto, Horst, and Lahlum), so that's a very fine achievement regardless of who takes home the trophy. I'm very pleased to see David Lagercrantz's novel make the shortlist, as I felt that was a very good book that was rather unfairly maligned by many Larsson fans in a knee-jerk manner, on principle, but judging it simply on its own merits, was very well written story and a great continuation of the Millennium trilogy.

I'm also pleased to see that some high quality Nordic authors who don't yet have the broader following of compatriots like Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo, Liza Marklund, Camilla Lackberg and others are getting much-deserved attention. All the authors on this shortlist are excellent writers and storytellers, and I think there's something there for any crime fan, regardless of style preferences.

Congratulations to organiser Karen Meek (Eurocrime) and judges Dr Kat Hall (Mrs Peabody Investigates, CRIME FICTION IN GERMAN: DER KRIMI) Sarah Ward (Crimepieces, IN BITTER CHILL), Barry Forshaw (Crime Time, The Financial Times, NORDIC NOIR, DEATH IN A COLD CLIMATE, EURO NOIR, etc) on the fine job they've done and all the effort that does into it.

You can read more about the Petrona Award, including past winners and shortlistees, here.

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