Hey Ho, Nesbo

I enjoyed BBC4’s documentary on Nordic Crime Fiction rather more than I expected.  BBC4’s documentaries tend to cover topics that interest me, but often feel a little thin on content.   However, as the estimable Uriah Robinson points out, this had a better than average selection of talking heads and managed to raise some interesting questions about Scandinavian politics and society in relation to its crime fiction.  And while it couldn’t cover every author, it seemed to me to highlight a pretty decent selection. It was good to see Maj Sjowall interviewed alongside more recent names, and I enjoyed Hakan Nesser’s typically wry recognition that many current Scandinavian writers have been fortunate in riding a wave of interest that would inevitably eventually dissipate.  ‘After all, we used to produce great tennis players, too,’ he added.

I was pleased also that the programme gave decent coverage to Jo Nesbo, who’s certainly emerged as my favourite among the Nordic contingent over the last year or two.  His books now proudly carry a sticker proclaiming him as ‘the next Steig Larsson’.  No doubt that’s what the publishers are hoping for in terms of sales, but as a writer I think he surpassed Larsson long ago.  As the documentary suggested, his books perhaps have a slightly different feel from most Scandinavian crime fiction (or, at least, from most people’s idea of Scandinavian crime fiction) – a little wittier, more playful and certainly more bloodthirsty.  I’ve enjoyed his books since they started appearing in the UK, mainly because I liked his main protagonist, Harry Hole, so much.  While on the surface Hole fits the standard template of the Nordic cop – troubled, alcoholic, rebellious – I was most attracted by his downbeat humour, his constant compulsion not just to break the rules but to tweak the nose of authority.  While all the books are excellent, I thought this year’s The Snowman was terrific – brilliantly plotted, full of genuinely chilling moments, gripping and surprising throughout.  It’s quite rightly begun to garner Nesbo the attention he deserves.

I didn’t bother reviewing The Snowman at the time because everyone else seemed to have got there ahead of me and there wasn’t much to add.  But I’ve recently been fortunate enough to pick up a copy of his latest book, The Leopard, due out in the UK in January (I’d like to give you the impression that this is due to some writerly inside track, but the truth is that they were selling copies in the airside W H Smith’s at Manchester Airport.  It almost made up for the surreal experience of being stranded in the Channel Islands by snow).  It’s another typical Nesbo tour de force, beginning with Hole, still recovering from the impact of the Snowman case, lost to the world in Hong Kong’s opium dens.  He’s brought back, of course, and ends up pursuing an apparent serial killer along a path that takes him from the Norwegian mountains to the Congo.  The plotting is as intricate and playful as ever, constantly toying with the reader’s expectations.  And Hole remains a superb character, balancing investigatory genius against his urge to self-destruct, his anti-authority tendencies given additional spice by a turf war between the local police and Kripos, the national police agency.  I suspect that particular plot thread may run and run.

I imagine Nesbo will not be to everyone’s taste.  Some will find his style too discursive, his playfulness just irritating.  There are certainly times when his brilliance at plot-twisting risks overwhelming his other talents as a writer – there’s a surprise in the middle of The Leopard which, although superbly managed, left me feeling uneasy about its psychological and narrative credibility.  There’s a risk, too, that this book perhaps feels a little too similar to The Snowman – another ruthless killer, more snow-bound set-pieces, even some recurring devices.  But there’s enough here that feel fresh, including some tremendously gripping moments, and anyone who enjoyed The Snowman probably won’t be too disappointed that Nesbo has taken us further into similar territory.  But, given the way this series has developed, I’ll be very interested to see where Nesbo takes us next.

What’s up, Docx?

Sunday’s Observer newspaper carried a mildly provocative piece by the oddly-named Edward Docx in which he seems to argue, or at least assert, that even the best genre fiction is intrinsically inferior to ‘literary’ fiction.  I say ‘seems’ because, having just re-read the piece, I’m not sure he actually says anything so coherent.  He says that ‘we need urgently to remind ourselves of – for want of better terminology – the difference between literary and genre fiction’, talks about ‘the fallacies of relativism’, and quotes approvingly of ‘some fine contemporary novelists’ (‘Franzen, Coetzee, Hollinghurst, Amis, Mantel, Proulx, Ishiguro, Roth’, if you’re interested).  But it’s not clear to me quite what he means or what he’s comparing when he talks about – for want of better terminology, remember – ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction.

He begins with the not unduly controversial view that the books of Dan Brown and Steig Larsson aren’t well-written, quoting an admittedly spectacularly dull piece of writing from Larsson and the usual tin-eared cliche from Brown. Fish, barrel, boom.  Somehow, though, he then segues from his view that Brown and Larsson are ‘mesmerisingly bad’ (while acknowledging in passing that some other thriller writers, such as Robert Harris, are actually rather good at their ‘highly skilled craft’) into a general denunciation of genre fiction.  His core argument is that ‘even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.’ He goes on: ‘If you are following conventions, then a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise. Lots of decisions are already made.  So it follows that genre tends to rely on a simpler reader psychology.’  It’s still not easy, he acknowledges.  But it’s easier.  Well, thanks for that.

In some respects, this position is so fatuous that it barely merits engagement.  But it interests me because I’ve always felt that one of the distinctive pleasures of crime fiction (I can’t talk with any authority about other genres, but the same may apply) lies in its awareness of its own traditions and conventions.  Most crime writers are also enthusiasts for the genre.  We know, to a greater or lesser extent (even if we can’t all be Martin Edwards), its history, its variants, its unwritten rules and standards.  Part of the pleasure of writing and reading crime fiction, alongside the familiar delights of narration and characterisation, lies precisely in the way it works within and against those disciplines.  Of course, a lazy writer may simply follow conventions, with ‘lots of decisions…already made’.  But the vast majority of half-decent crime writers are looking to subvert the reader’s expectations, to use the established frameworks to explore new territories or themes.  Sometimes this may be playful – one thinks of the late Colin Watson or of L C Tyler today.  More often, the intentions are very serious, if not necessarily earnest – writers like Reginald Hill, Jo Nesbo or Peter Temple have their feet firmly in the crime tradition, but explore issues and material that the majority of ‘literary’ novelists don’t even approach.  Docx suggests that genre books rely on a ‘simpler reader psychology’.  It may be true that readers of crime fiction bring a set of expectations or assumptions about what they’re reading.  But the most skilful crime writers take advantage of that, undermining those expectations not just for effect but to provoke readers into questioning their own views.  Gene Kerrigan’s splendid The Midnight Choir did that for me a couple of years ago, playing with the familiar trope of the ‘cop who bends the rules’ to raise important questions about the nature of ethics and policing.

Docx presents genre writing as both easy (sorry, easier) and more limiting than ‘literary’ writing, as if its writers were living in some kind of institution where we have nice warm plots provided but aren’t allowed out to play with the big boys in the literary playground.  It’s at least arguable that the opposite is true – that working in a literary genre is like choosing to adopt any established literary form.  It brings disciplines, it brings challenges, it brings a weight of reader expectation.  But the most skilful writers turn those demands to their advantage, rubbing against the boundaries to generate their creative sparks.  Let me finish with Jo Nesbo again, partly because he’s at the forefront of my mind at the moment (I’ve just finished The Leopard, of which more soon) and partly because he’s such a masterful exploiter of the possibilities of crime fiction.  He’s clearly steeped in crime-writing tradition and, on the surface, his books display many of the ‘cliches’ of the genre – ingenious Christie-esque plotting, exotic murders, a dysfunctional middle-aged cop.  But Nesbo has thrown out much of the rule-book.  He kills off apparently central characters in the middle of books, he introduces over-arching plot developments which transcend (and sometimes subvert) the resolution of individual books, he constantly undermines our assumptions about characters and their motivations.  He plays games with the author’s and the reader’s perspective, leading us up a beguiling maze of garden paths.  He introduces false endings which toy with our expectations of resolution as we realise that there’s a big chunk of the book still to go, before suddenly he’s off again, leading us into even darker territory.  He doesn’t shy away from the implications of his subject-matter – he takes what, in other hands, might be a stock situation or issue (Harry Hole’s alcoholism, for example) and makes it real.  He balances the satisfactions of narrative resolution against a backdrop where everything important is left hanging – relationships, careers, the future.  And, most of all, he writes about the here and now – about corruption, finance, globalisation, war,  exploitation, politics –  all the untidy stuff that too much contemporary writing shies away from.

I don’t know whether that constitutes ‘literature’.  I can’t for the life of me think why it shouldn’t, even though I imagine Docx would have Nesbo firmly catergorised elsewhere, if only because his books sell in the millions.  But I can’t conceive that what Nesbo does is easy, or even easier, when compared with the work of the novelists that Docx cites with such approval.

Norwegian blood

I seem, more or less by accident, to have immersed myself in Norwegian crime fiction over the last week or two.  First – on purpose – I finally got around to reading K O Dahl’s The Fourth Man, which various people had recommended to me as another fine piece of Scandinavian crime-writing.  I found it enjoyable enough – a nicely convoluted plot, a typically dysfunctional lead character, some moments of genuine suspense and atmosphere.  But I was left feeling oddly disappointed and disengaged, and I suspect that may be just because I’ve become a little spoiled of late.  The back of my edition of The Fourth Man quotes Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper to the effect that Dahl is ‘number one among Norwegian crime writers’.  That may have been true, but I suspect that over the last year or two his position has been usurped by the incomparable Jo Nesbo.  While The Fourth Man was a perfectly decent crime novel, I found myself growing increasingly conscious of what Nesbo might have done with similar material – a greater depth of background and characterisation, a more unsettling atmosphere, a sharper wit, a few more twists and turns in the plotting.  Above all, compared with Nesbo’s Harry Hole – for my money, the most engaging character currently operating in crime fiction – Dahl’s Frank Frolich just seems a little colourless.

But then I increasingly feel that Nesbo’s setting the standard for all of us.  I’m just coming into the final straight on his latest, The Leopard (due out in the UK in January), which is another remarkable piece of work.  Perhaps not quite on a par with The Snowman, which was the best crime novel I’ve read in the last year, but still pretty impressive.  I’ll give you a more considered view shortly.

As if all that Norwegian crime wasn’t sufficient, I was also delighted last week (courtesy of Sky Arts 2, somewhere down in the furthest reaches of the Virgin Media box) to get the chance to see the original Norwegian version of the film, Insomnia.  This was one of those films that Hollywood liked so much that it had no option but to remake it.  Usually, when Hollywood gets hold of a decent foreign film, the result is a disaster (I refer any dissenters to Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man).  But Insomnia was actually rather fine, transposed from the Norwegian Arctic Circle to similar latitudes in Alaska, atmospherically directed by Christopher ‘Inception‘ Nolan, and with striking performance from Al Pacino and a cast-against-type Robin Williams.  I was intrigued therefore to see how much derived from the Norwegian original.  The answer was, well, quite a lot in terms of the memorable setting and the neatly insidious plotting, but the two films felt strikingly different in tone and impact.  The Nolan version, perhaps inevitably, smooths out some of the rough edges that make the original so unsettling.  We’re encouraged to sympathise with Dormer, Pacino’s lead character – if he does the wrong things, it’s more or less for the right reasons.  The equivalent character is the Norwegian version, Engström, played by Stellan Skarsgård, is a more equivocal character, creepy and amoral in his dealings, particularly with women.  His motives are less clearly defined, his actions more problematic.  The ending of the US version is neater, with the loose ends at least partly tied up, whereas the Norwegian version simply leaves us with Engström, apparently off the hook for his actions, his feelings unrevealed.  Afterwards, I felt I marginally preferred the US version, mainly because of the charisma of Pacino and Williams.  But I think the Norwegian version may stay with me longer.

Far-Fetched Stories

A while ago, Clive James stirred up a minor controversy with a New Yorker article which argued, or at least asserted, that many contemporary crime novels are simply ‘guide books’ and that ‘finally there is nothing left… in the memory except the place they are set in’.  James concluded sardonically  that ‘ideally, an author should turn out a sequence of detective novels that will generate a bus tour in the city where they are set’.  While James’s judgement is perhaps a little harsh, he does have a point.  Much of the best crime fiction, whatever its other merits, tends to be grounded in a strong sense of place – whether it’s an indigenous writer exploring his or her own terrain or an outsider delving into the less familiar.  The delights of literary tourism may be an ancillary aspect of good crime fiction, but they can be potent nonetheless.

The great Maxim Jakubowski, never one to duck a challenge, has now taken Clive James at his word and produced a literal guide-book to accompany a choice selection of the best crime writers. Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction is a beautifully produced book that takes us from Rebus’s Edinburgh to Sam Spade’s San Francisco, covering extensive ground in between.  The book comprises a series of essays describing the authors in question, their books and characters, and the key locations in which the stories are set, including maps of the relevant cities or areas.  In general, each essay focuses on a single writer and his or her chosen setting, but where appropriate also picks up other relevant authors along the way – so, for example, Barry Forshaw introduces us to Henning Mankell’s Sweden but takes time, in passing, also to alert us to the wealth of other Scandinavian crime writing out there.

If this were just a well-produced coffee-table book, it would be worth a browse, but typically Jakubowski has made it much more than that.  The real value of the book lies in the array of writers that have been assembled to provide commentary on their selected authors – not just experts, but experts who can be relied on to write interestingly and entertainingly, including a number who have pioneered outstanding coverage of crime fiction through their blogs and websites,  So we have names like J Kingston Pierce, Peter Rozovsky, Sarah Weinman and Declan Burke, alongside leading writers and critics such as John Harvey, Martin Edwards, David Stuart Davies and Barry Forshaw.  All of the essays are interesting, even for those familiar with the books or locations concerned (I tested this with John Harvey’s piece on Nottingham, which I know both from Harvey’s own splendid books and because I grew up there – he was still able to provide me with some surprising insights).  More importantly, though, the book provides an excellent inducement for readers to explore new literary and geographical territories.

I should conclude by declaring a small interest. Alongside the major names featured in the body of the book, Jakubowski also includes a graphical overview of more far-flung international crime fiction, and has been kind enough to include a reference to Mongolia and the Nergui books.  Given the quality and range of the rest of the book, I can only feel privileged to be in such august company.

The book is published by New Holland Publishers at www.newhollandpublishers.com/followingthedetectives.  I’m told that you can save 20% on the normal price of £17.99 and get free P&P by quoting Walters at the checkout (this offer ends 31st January 2011.).  I can think of no other context in which you’re likely to obtain a discount by quoting my name (quite the opposite, I should imagine) so I’d suggest you make the most of it.