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.