Once again, I find myself frequently asked about Stieg Larsson, his influence on me, on, as it was frequently called, the Scandinavian Crime Wave, but seems to have morphed into an actual genre called Nordic Noir, although very few of the works lumped into it are actually noir (I think people just like the sound of it. Nordic noir rolls off the tongue). And most importantly, who will be the next Stieg Larsson?
Much of this resurgence of interest has stemmed from a book by his common-law wife, Eva Gabrielsson, in which she claims to have greatly influenced Larsson’s works. One gets the sense that she’s stopping just short of claiming to have co-written them, but hasn’t received any share of his estate. His millions earned post-mortem passed his family. I have to ask the question, If she was so integral to Larsson’s work, and so must be a quite talented storyteller in her own right, why don’t I see fiction authored by her on the shelves at the bookstore? But that’s neither here nor there. This essay contains material I covered in various articles years ago, but given the renewed furor, seems worth re-examining.
First, Stieg Larsson is dead. That’s right. I said it out loud. Larsson is dead, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such unsettling news, but he’s not coming back. Despite being anointed the literary Son of God by the media. Despite article after article predicting who will be the next Stieg Larson, he’s dead. He died, and the requisite three days and resurrection have long since come and gone, so apparently he won’t rise from the dead. Or if he did, he’s keeping mum about it. My cat, Sulo, was born around the time that Larsson died. Maybe Sulo, a foundling but presumably of Nordic origin, is the reincarnation of Stieg Larsson, unable to reveal himself because of the lack of prehensile digits that renders him incapable of holding a pen or typing. It’s possible, but I doubt it.
Day after day after mindless day, critics, reviewers and journalists tout yet another Nordic writer as the next Stieg Larsson. As nearly as I can tell, every inhabitant of the Nordic region able to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence is a potential next Stieg Larsson. In a Finnish newspaper, I read a quote from a British newspaper extolling Sofi Oksanen, Finland’s most popular author, as the next Stieg Larsson, and referring to her as a ‘crime writer.’ I cite neither the original publication nor the writer in question, because I can’t make myself believe that anyone could make such a moronic mistake, and the British newspaper is unavailable on the internet without a subscription, so I couldn’t check this fact for myself.
Still, either the author of the piece or its translator apparently misunderstands the meaning of crime fiction. I will enlighten. Crime fiction is a genre that explores crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. I’m a crime writer and so fairly certain about this. Oksanen writes mainstream literary fiction, and is extremely talented, but no more a crime writer than I am the author of Harlequin romances. Or could it be, just possibly be, that the writer of the original article knows what crime fiction is, but didn’t know that Oksanen isn’t a crime writer because the journalist in question hasn’t read a single word of Oksanen’s work? That the journalist just wanted to spew out the name, Stieg Larsson, in the hopes that it would sell more newspapers? Nah, now I’m just being silly.
Please don’t conclude from this blog that I don’t like Stieg Larsson’s work. I enjoyed his first two books, haven’t read the last one. And further, I think society owes a collective debt to Stieg Larsson. Once in a great while, a writer comes along who sparks the popular imagination: Larsson, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. Whether you like their books or not—and quite a few readers opine that none of them could write their way out of a paper bag—their tremendous popularity encourages people to read, and many people have discovered the joys of reading because of them. In today’s world of fractured attention spans and plethora of entertainments to choose from (and reading is one of the few common entertainments of our time that makes you smarter, not dumber), that’s no easy trick. Still, Larsson is gone, there will be no next Larsson, nor should there be. His body of work was unique, and what the world needs is new and unique voices to spirit us away.
This constant harping about who will be the next Larsson is simply an exploitation of his name, in a way I feel demeaning to his memory, and repeating Larsson’s name over and over again like a printed mantra in the belief that it will sell more papers is insulting to the reading public. Journalists, critics, reviewers, I’m pleading with you. Stop this madness and move on before I cut my own throat out of ennui. Find fresh voices, new ideas, authors that expose the world to us in a way we’ve never before encountered. I think Stieg Larsson might have wanted it that way.
I wish to say this, in the hopes of getting a few more web hits for this essay: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson.
Get it now? Annoying, isn’t it?
I didn’t know I was a Scandinavian Crime Wave writer until Snow Angels came out internationally, and a number of reviewers said that I am one. Now, as that term has fallen slowly out of use, I’m more often called an author of Nordic noir. In my case, it’s true. By the definition of most, I write pitch black noir.
Here in Finland, despite my nationality, I’m usually considered a domestic writer (my publisher says I am, I’ll take his word for it), and obviously I write noir, but I never gave my placement as a writer much thought beyond that. Probably because I’ve never cared about it, I just want to write good stories. It didn’t really sink in until I was in a bookstore in Barcelona, and saw Snow Angels (in Spanish: Ángeles en la Nieve) placed alongside works by Larsson, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, etc. Some reviews have said that I’m clearly influenced by the work of Arnaldur Indriðason. Sorry, never read any of his books. Reviewers also sometimes inform that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin. I had never read any of his books either, so I read some (good stuff), and I see where they got that idea, but wrong. Sorry, I’m digressing…the point is I’m part of a literary movement, some might even call it a genre, and didn’t even know it until I was told so.
And hundreds of times, I have been compared to Stieg Larsson and, many times, readers have been assured that my writing is influenced by his. I assure you that this isn’t so. I had been a published author for quite some time—I think I was writing my third published novel—when I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. If there exist similarities between our works, it’s because we write about the same region of the world, tackle similar themes, and perhaps share a worldview and aesthetic. Can’t say. Never met him.
So what is the Scandinavian Crime Wave, where did it come from, and why is it so popular?
I really enjoy the work of only a few authors in the genre myself, and the reason is obvious. I’ve lived for well over a decade in a Nordic country, and so unlike most international readers, authors exposing this part of the world and its way of life are telling me things I already now. Second, the protagonists in the genre tend to be middle-aged, divorced men with drinking problems. They’re depressed, their kids don’t like them, etc., and I’m a bit bored with the stereotype at this point. Which isn’t to say I don’t like some Nordic crime writing. I do. I enjoy Larsson, Mankell, Nesbø, and a few others (I’m using these names in particular because most readers of this piece will be familiar with them), and some others, it’s just that my tastes are more eclectic.
Larsson, to the casual observer, because of his overwhelming popularity, might be considered the father of the genre, which would be a mistake, but more about that later. He was a good storyteller, but I have some mild criticisms. I haven’t read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest yet, but by the end of The Girl who Played With Fire, he had set Lisbeth Salander up as a kind of dysfunctional waif superhero. She has a photographic memory, and the implication and setup for the last book seems to be that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is supposed to explain her sociopathy.
Now, I think Salander is a brilliantly designed character, but there are a couple problems here that I’ve never seen commented upon, and they bothered me. 1. There is no proof that photographic memory exists. There are people documented as possessing vast powers of memory, but as written for the Salander character, nope, sorry, not buying it. 2. Granted, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary so much from individual to individual that they’re nearly unique, but Salander just doesn’t fit the profile. Larsson may have mentioned the disorder without considering it a foreshadowing, but if so, it should have been edited out and replaced with autism spectrum disorder. Most would agree with me that the book is under-edited. I researched these topics in-depth for a book released in Finland, The True Name of God (Jumalan Nimeen), and I feel confident about these statements. If you disagree, sit in front of your computer for a few days and read some hundreds of blogs by people with Asperger’s and see if any of their voices remind you of Salander. I know I’m digressing again, but what the hell, it’s my essay.
But people who do love the Scandinavian Crime Wave genre. Why? Obviously, they’re getting something they lacked from novels by authors from other regions. At least for U.S. and U.K. readers, I suspect a prime reason is the aforementioned cultural reading experience, but also and more importantly, is that the depth of characterization in the best of Nordic crime fiction is, in my humble opinion, often far superior to that of most crime novels on the bestseller lists by writers from those regions. Yet another difference between Nordic and Anglo crime fiction is the weighting of the crime vs. social commentary in the novels. In Nordic fiction, the crime is often no more important, sometimes of less importance, than the descriptions of the societies in which the stories take place. All this hints to me that the international reading community is bored with cardboard crime novels and demands something more and better.
Mankell is sometimes referred to as the father of Scandinavian crime fiction. Yet his first book, Faceless Killers, in the much acclaimed Wallander series, didn’t appear until 1997. What, in the formation of the Scandinavian Crime Wave, preceded it? As near as I can figure, the Scandinavian Crime Wave truly originated with the Martin Beck series, a decalogue written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö between 1965 and 1975. Although they seem a bit dated by today’s writing standards, I love this series. They feature a great cast of characters and solid crimes. Most notably, in terms of this discussion, is that they contain scathing critiques of Sweden’s social democracy, from a Marxist viewpoint. These critiques sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, delivered by an omniscient third person narrator, and this technique, to me, carries with it an almost Victorian feel, hence my comment about dated writing. However, these small tirades are often delivered with humor that I think enhances rather than detracts from the writing as a whole.
I read somewhere that Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was intended as a decalogue, but he died before he got further along in it, which makes me tend to think that, at least to some extent, the Millenium series was intended as a homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think you would be hard put to find a Nordic crime writer who would disagree with this statement: no Martin Beck series, no Scandinavian Crime Wave/Nordic noir as it exists in its current form.
So, who influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? I read an interview with Mankell, in which he stated that Ed McBain influenced the Martin Beck series. This doesn’t surprise me. I did some minor research (an hour web surfing), to try and find out if Sjöwall and Wahlöö had mentioned their influences, but found nothing. Per Wahlöö died in 1975, but Maj Sjöwall is still with us, so I had a look to see if her contact information was readily available. I thought it would be fun to e-mail or even call her and ask about this. However, I didn’t find it, and thought that if her contact info is hard to find, she values her privacy and doesn’t want to be bothered.
When I read the Beck series though, I get the distinct impression that it’s heavily influenced by noir and pulp. As well as McBain, I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and even Jim Thompson (not me of course, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, etc.). If I’m correct about this, the Scandinavian Crime Wave of today was in part born in the U.S.A. and took the long way home over the course of the better part of a century. And so, in a sense, the Scandinavian Crime Wave is in part a retro movement. I’ve long considered myself in some ways to be a retro writer, but that’s the topic of discussion for another article.
Also interesting to me is that the bleak outlook of noir and pulp and their tales of social injustice have often carried with them fascist ideals through the voices of their narrators, but that, in the hands of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, they turned those nihilistic societal worldviews into left-wing arguments, and to good effect. And so in retrospect, their work makes all crime noir seem like socialist propaganda. Does this mean that all these years, I’ve been writing political and crime noir and protagonists with sociopathic tendencies and never knew I was a Communist sympathizer in disguise? Me. A Comsymp. Whodda thunk?
A last word on Larsson and his achievements. I believe his success, despite his flaws, is his incredibly well-drawn protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, and the immense amount of empathy she garners from the reader. She’s a pint-sized Superwoman. She’s been brutalized as a child and an adult. She’s emotionally damaged beyond words. Her appearance is diminutive and child-like. Everything about her screams victim. But she overcomes all. She finds a way to live life on her own terms and refuses to be a victim. When others try to victimize her, she punishes them in the most vicious ways. The kinds of punishments people dream about when figures in their own lives mistreat them. It sends the message that no matter how cruelly life treats you, you can overcome it and survive, even thrive. I feel confident in saying that message made the series a resounding success.
November 27, 2012
With his first internationally published novel, Snow Angels, James Thompson proved himself Finland’s best and most popular representative in the rise of Nordic noir. It was selected as one of Booklist’ s Best Crime Novel Debuts of the Year and nominated for an Edgar Award, an Anthony Award, and a Strand Critics Award. His novel, Lucifer’s Tears, has received critical acclaim from all quarters, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus, and was selected as one of the best novels of the year by Kirkus. His novel, Helsinki White, was released to critical acclaim in the U.S. in March, 2012. He is also a reviewer for The New York Journal of Books. The first three books in his Inspector Vaara series have been optioned for film.