Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Swedish Touch

As a young man, I was fascinated by Swedish cinema. In particular, the films of Ingmar Bergman were a revelation to my undergraduate mind. The image of Death playing chess on the beach with Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal has lingered forever, imprinting on my brain Swedish melancholy and obsession with life’s fragility.

Later, of course, many of us were delighted by the seeming contrast of Abba, with its youthful enthusiasm, physical beauty and joie de vie. Yet even Abba, as their marriages fell apart under the pressures and strains of success, produced songs that turned to despair, such as One of Us and Under Attack. Indeed, after the release of their final album, one critic suggested that Bergman sign Abba to provide a soundtrack for his films!

Björn Ulvaeus himself has said ‘Our songs may sound happy but deep inside, they are not….[Our music] has that Nordic melancholic feeling to it.' (The Guardian, 11 April 2014).

Does this psychology have something to do with the light in Sweden or lack of it? On New Year’s Day, Stockholm receives just over six hours of daylight – little enough to give anyone a bad dose of Seasonal Affective Disease. In contrast, Stockholm has over eighteen hours of daylight in mid-summer. Too much of a good thing perhaps? Or is it the freezing temperatures and year-round rain – Stockholm has 173 rainy days a year?

What I did not know was that while Bergman explored the Swedish character on the screen in the 1960s, a young Swedish couple named Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were busily delving into Swedish society in a series of novels revolving around Inspector Martin Beck of the Stockholm police. Starting in 1965, they published ten Beck novels, writing together after they had put their children to bed. Although they took turns writing the chapters, the finished books are seamless. And true to Swedish tradition, Beck becomes more morose as the series progresses and more obsessed with his work. His marriage too, collapses as he becomes more distance and detached from his wife and more focussed on his inner needs and drives.

This fine series has been republished in English translation over the last few years, in some cases with an introduction by well-known crime writers like Henning Mankell, admired for his Kurt Wallender novels and Val McDermid, famous for the Wire in the Blood TV series, among other achievements. Nicci French, another writing couple named Nicci Gerrard and Sean French, also contributed an introduction.

McDermid, in her introduction to the second Martin Beck book, says ‘It’s almost impossible to grasp how revolutionary they felt .. so many of the elements that have become integral in the police procedural sub-genre started life in these ten novels.’

‘Whoever is writing crime fiction after these novels is inspired by them in one way or another,’ adds Henning Mankell. (See more at:

McDermid singles out wonderful plotting, strong character development, subtle social criticism and an emphasis on teamwork and procedure in solving crimes as key features of their work. I would counterpoise that by suggesting that much of the interest in the books comes from the rivalries if not outright hatreds and workplace bullying between the detectives – which often drive the plot and force their investigations forward. At times, Beck becomes almost a secondary character and several others are given prominence as they each recount their own investigations. Mostly, like Beck, they are a melancholy lot.

Gerrard and French point out that Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s policemen ‘are plagued by doubts about what it is to be policemen and what they are for.’ Society itself often seems to create the opportunities that facilitate crime -  as well as the weak characters who are only too happy to seize them.

Yet, somehow, Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s stories are gripping, driven by a logic that creates gratification at the end – ‘Yes! I knew it had to be that way.’

‘The Locked Room’ has one of the most satisfying plot structures I’ve ever come across in detective fiction, even though the investigation is an exercise in bungles, while ‘The Laughing Policeman’ sets up a most intriguing conundrum which yields only to the most intensive investigation. As is so often the case in crime fiction, past and present intersect violently.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö love to introduce multiple plotlines which at first seem unrelated. The reader can have fun working out the connections because sure enough, they will be connected!

Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s villains are complex and are often seen as inevitable products of a failing social model. At times, the villains are deeply engrossing characters in their own right. Mauritzon in ‘The Locked Room’ is one such study - a thorough villain but a multifaceted personality with many redeeming features. I even grew to quite like him in a way and felt sorry for him at the end - which I won’t spoil for you!

Sjöwall and Wahlöö wrote from the far left of Swedish society and rather than seeing the Swedish Welfare State as an advanced form of caring in a harsh market-driven world, they viewed it as a means of preventing genuine change towards a better life for all. In their view, social democracy was not a very successful model. Gerrard and French state that ‘[Their] investigation is a snapshot in disenchantment, of poking beneath the surfaces of Swedish complacency and discovering what’s beneath, and it’s invariably corrupt or depraved.’ And, I’d add, fascinating!

Like many others, Sjöwall and Wahlöö tempered their views in later life and moved back to the centre of politics.

And then there’s Mankell. Interestingly, he married Ingmar Bergman’s daughter Eva in 1998.

More on Mankell in another blog post.


Monday, 7 April 2014

What makes the difference?

Anyone who writes and submits their work to publishers or agents will know what a struggle it is to get published. The industry is looking for work which is fresh and in some way unique, something that will catch the attention of the readers out there and make the publisher lots of money. Yes, it’s a business and money is a significant motivator in this game.

At the same time as they want something new, publishers also want something that is familiar. They want something original yet somehow the same. What a challenge!

I got to thinking about some of my favourite crime writers and what they offered that was unique and special. Sherlock Holmes, of course, jumps out immediately. What a hard act to follow!

What follows is a brief round-up of writers from the 1920s onwards:

Agatha Christie – a sprightly spinster (Miss Marple) who lurks in the background, observes what is happening and analyses scenarios until she reaches the correct conclusion; an oddball and prissy Belgian (Hercule Poirot) whom villains underestimate while he sniffs out the truth through – again – observation and analysis.

Elizabeth George – a dynamic juxtaposition of an upper class aristocrat (Thomas Lynley), who is never quite comfortable in his skin, with a working class non-conformist (Barbara Havers), who notoriously thumbs her nose at authority and does it her way, while constantly feeling left out of normal life. Lynley at least is capable of normal human relationships; Havers is not.

Henning Mankell – a depressive, self-absorbed detective (Kurt Wallender) who is abysmally bad at human relations but has persistence and intelligence for solving crimes. Also a subtle capacity to unravel the flaws of Swedish society from a left-wing perspective. Largely friendless, he doesn’t get on with his ex-wife, his father or his daughter.

Raymond Chandler – an intelligent yet socially isolated and independent PI (Phillip Marlowe) whose moral fibre and honesty guide him faultlessly through the temptations and evils of Los Angeles. He unwinds by playing chess against himself.

Colin Dexter – a lonely, sensitive and reserved aesthete (Endeavour Morse) with inadequate communication and social skills but ample compassion and insight into human frailties. He relaxes by playing opera.

PD James – a bookish, poetic, empathetic but reserved detective (Adam Dalgliesh) who loses his family and only slowly finds himself able to love again. Like Morse, Dalgliesh always seems to understand why someone would commit murder, without condoning their actions.  An odd pairing of an old-fashioned English gentleman with a life spent investigating grizzly murders.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – an efficient methodical pillar of Swedish society (Martin Beck) who is increasingly used by the authors as a tool for critiquing and eventually savaging the Swedish social democratic model from a Marxist perspective. A man who is rescued from portraying a stereotypical Swedish depressive and recluse with a failed marriage by the meticulous detail with which his cases are conducted and the insights he brings to the human situation.

Ian Rankin – a maverick (John Rebus) who functions best when he is overstepping the boundaries set for him by authority and who will calmly flout accepted procedures in pursuit of an outcome. A social isolate who takes to the bottle and is smoking himself to death while alienated from his daughter and most of his colleagues. A man who brings himself under suspicion from the police complaints and conduct branch – and seems to relish it.

While all of these detectives are unique and readily identifiable, don’t they share something in common? In their own ways, they are not ‘normal’ human beings – they stand outside regular human society. And they are usually observers rather than participants in normal life – almost none of them have regular family lives. Few of them seem to have friends. Many of them have alcohol problems. They are extreme examples of what we see around us.

Yet they are also united by another factor – an unshakeable commitment to ensuring that justice is done, although not always in ways which would be seen as conventional.

Given the enormous success of the above authors, it seems that the reading public is strongly attracted to characters who, while alienated from normality in some way, have a vital job to perform in maintaining the social order. And perhaps that’s why publishers love 'em.

(The odd one out in the above analysis is Ruth Rendell, whose chief protagonist, Detective Inspector Reg Wexford, seems normal by comparison. He has a stable and successful marriage and two daughters. In her other work, however, Rendell specialises in developing eccentric and alienated characters who often live on the margins of society. Rendell’s genius lies in her analysis of the edges and how people cope with their own dysfunctionalities amid the challenges of a problematic social order. I must admit that it’s an ordinariness similar to Wexford’s that makes Tom Barnaby so refreshing in Midsommer Murders.)

Monday, 24 February 2014

Montalbán and Montalbano

We’ve been travelling in Vietnam and Cambodia for a few weeks, a very stimulating and scenic experience which got me thinking about crime and mystery stories set in Third World countries. On board our cruise ship we saw a film of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American – a political thriller and mystery which utters a prophetic warning about the events that would unfold later in South East Asia, written in 1950. It quite destabilises the moral compass.
The other book that leapt to mind involving crime and the Third World was Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Buenos Aires Quintet, first published in Spanish in 1997. Montalbán’s private detective, Pepe Carvalho, who normally lives in Barcelona, is sent off to Buenos Aires in search of his cousin. ‘Buenos Aires is a beautiful city hell-bent on self-destruction,’ he is told. Amidst all the music, dance, exoticism and excitement of Buenos Aires, Carvalho discovers the long shadow cast by the tragic years of the military dictatorship in Argentina, still capable of threatening his life and the lives of others. Carvalho is no Philip Marlowe; rather he’s somewhat self-indulgent and his favourite activity is cooking, not to mention eating and not to forget womanising. He’s anti-intellectual, apolitical and anti-culture, but only because he’s eaten his fill of them – and found them wanting.
Yet politics permeates this bestseller. Montalbán, a lifelong socialist, reveals his empathy for the suffering masses of Buenos Aires as the regime murdered 30,000 of its opponents. This is an exciting and exotic read that changed my perception of Argentina.

And so to Montalbano – Commissario Salvatore Montalbano to give him his full title. Created by the Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, Montalbano is Camilleri’s way of paying homage to his literary hero, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Despite this, Montalbano is no Carvalho. For a start, he’s a cop not a PI. He has a long distance romance with the beautiful Livia, to whom he manages to remain more or less faithful, despite numerous temptations. In some ways, Montalbano is more like Marlowe than Carvalho – he follows his own star of decency and honesty even when he clashes with his superiors. Avoid politics and be loyal to one’s vocation, is Montalbano’s stated policeman’s creed. And even though he loves fine food, he’s disciplined not self-indulgent.

The television series understates Montalbano’s anti-mafia sentiments and the social criticism which Camilleri brings out in the novels as he charts the course of Italian political and social development over the last twenty years. On the other hand the TV series emphasizes Montalbano’s steadfastness, his powerful analytical skills and his humour, along with his humanity.

I was surprised to learn that Camilleri did not write the first Montalbano novel until he was nearly seventy, and he’s still going at nearly ninety. There’s hope yet!

Camilleri won the 2012 CWA International Dagger (for translated crime). And, in a lovely touch, he recently won the Pepe Carvalho Prize for ‘noir’ fiction.

 David Kilner 

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Purpose(s) of Crime Writing

Does crime writing serve a useful purpose?

The most obvious purposes are to entertain and allow escapism from daily life. This much crime fiction has in common with all forms of writing, and there’s nothing wrong in being entertained or escaping for a while. Traditionally, the entertainment in a crime novel is often in the form of a puzzle; the reader is egged on by the author’s clever placement of clues and red herrings, in which the creator and reader try to outwit each other. Solving the mystery of who-dun-it is a great pleasure and can engender a sense of triumph in the reader.

What can crime writing do that other genres can’t or at least don’t do as a rule?

I can think of several purposes.

A popular and longstanding view is that crime fiction reassures us – usually ! – that truth and justice will prevail whatever evil stalks the world. Somehow, when all seems lost, a decent person will put things to rights and see that justice is done. Such has been the case since the time of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, often regarded as the first detective novel. It isn’t a universal rule: sometimes justice fails, but rarely. Sometimes the individual must invoke justice when the system itself fails. In the process the hero will go through hell and only just escape horrible consequences. Think of Philip Marlowe. As Raymond Chandler said, ‘But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’ (The Simple Art of Murder, 1950).


At the same time this has the purpose of bringing order out of the chaos: ‘the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution.’ (PD James, Time To be In Earnest, 1999)


Crime fiction also appeals because it allows the author to explore the dark side of human nature. Indeed much of modern crime writing is devoted to unravelling the why-dun-it rather than the who-dun-it. The author asks what on earth led this person to committee these atrocious crimes? And sometimes the answer is uncomfortable – the reader may think: well, in similar circumstances I might have been tempted too or I might have committed murder too. A sort of ‘there-but-for-the grace-of-God-go-I’ moment. In such stories the identify of the villain might be known early in the story and the enjoyment lies in watching him or her be found out. The reader may well develop sympathies with the villain – and so, to a degree, may the detective. Think Morse or Lynley.

Ian Rankin notes another purpose: that readers ‘learn how to deal with fear and the unknown.’

I think also that crime writing helps us deal with the reality of death, because death – usually sudden, unexpected and violent – is the common thread linking crime writing. The genre helps us understand and cope with mortality better.

Crime fiction is also excellent at exploring the world as it really is. The subject matter of crime novels constantly evolves to explore contemporary issues. The Woman in White explored married women’s property rights at a time they had none. Conan Doyle explored an England growing increasingly industrial and urban and a London that was as socially divided as it was expanding rapidly, allowing the intrusion of organised crime. Today’s writers explore topics such as child abuse, refugees, people smuggling, racism, alienation, homelessness, mental illness, poverty, drug abuse, terrorism, corruption, social diversity, organised crime and the explosion in technology. Liam McIlvanney says ‘crime is engaging with the contemporary world in a way in which literary fiction doesn’t.’ (

To take this further, Ian Rankin has noted that  ‘People are interested in crime fiction because they are fascinated by the margins of the world, those places where society's rules break down.’ (

Titillation is another aspect of crime writing, not to mention schadenfreude – the taking of pleasure in other people’s misfortunes. These perhaps are not quite such respectable motives for reading crime fiction.

Finally, I think another purpose of crime fiction is to give the reader perspective on their own life. Crime novels remind us that perhaps our own lives are not so bad and that there’s always someone worse off.

David Kilner