The Swedish couple who invented Nordic Noir
I’ve not posted for a while – been busy on my fifth novel The Kindness of Strangers. Reached my target for a first draft of a novel of 200 pages/50,000 words. I know this isn’t long for a crime/mystery novel but I hate padding; I like ‘em tight and fast-paced but with a strong theme, and, my books usually end up closer to 60,000 words/300 pages anyway, which is good for the marketplace. As usual, the book features Liverpool Private Eye Jack ‘Flash’ Gordon and his trusty sidekicks, feisty Mel and alky Roy, and is set in the city of Liverpool. Organised crime, political corruption, a journalist murdered and the crime covered up: a normal day at the office for Flash then. I got the idea for this one from the character Lorne Malvo in Fargo. A man of mystery who is a Shadow figure; does he even exist? Except that my villain is a kind old man. Jungian archetypes?
Talking of short books that hit you like shit off a hot shovel, I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, in particular books that I can learn things from. No, not rob things from. Well, a bit, though I would never cut and paste. Honest. These are all writers in the ‘crime/mystery’ genre. I‘ve also recently read lots of stuff by ‘literary’ writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. I’m afraid I shy away from writers such as Joe Nesbo, Stuart McBride and Val McDermid who use excessive violence, usually misogynistic, in their books. I’m with Ann Cleeves on that one. And I can’t read thriller writers such as Lee Child without laughing out loud (‘Reacher, alone in the dark. Armed and dangerous. Invincible’)
Sjowall and Wahloo (put an umlaut on each ’o’ for me, I couldn’t get my PC to do it), Robert Crais, Gregory McDonald, Andrea Camilleri, John D McDonald, Peter Robinson, Peter Swanson, John Le Carre, James Ellroy and, of course, Nordic Noir writers such as Stig Larsson. I’ll pick one (er, two?) for special mention.
Maj Sjowal and Per Wahloo (see pic) were partners (they wrote after the kids were in bed) who brought out a series of 10 books in the 1960s featuring Stockholm copper Martin Beck. The character in the books is quite different to the one in the TV series and the books are somewhat darker. I read all ten in a few weeks. They are so well written and resonate with me. I was most put out when I went on Amazon to buy the 11th in the series and came up blank. Per died at 48 – how selfish can you get?
Both were committed Marxists but they hardly ever proselytise in their books – though I did detect a little admiration for a bank robber and a young girl who murders Sweden’s prime minister. Their stated intention was to ‘use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological pauperized and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type.’
Wow. That’s heading for Dave Spart territory (Dave Spart is a parody of a stereotypical left-wing agitator who featured in Private Eye in the 1970s and from time to time since). Actually, the Martin Beck character in the books is an ordinary copper and nothing like this stereotype. But then here’s a passage from The Locked Room: ‘Stockhom has one of the highest suicide rates in the world – something everyone carefully avoids talking about or which, when put on the spot, they attempt to conceal by means of variously manipulated and untruthful statistics. For some years now, however, not even members of the government had dared to say this aloud in public, perhaps from the feeling that, in spite of everything, people tend to rely on the evidence of their own eyes rather than on political explanations. And if, after all, this should turn out not to be so, it only made the matter still more embarrassing. For the fact of the matter is that the so-called Welfare State abounds with sick, poor, and lonely people, living at best on dog food, who are left uncared for until they waste away and die in their rat-hole apartments.’
Today, with the benefit of hindsight and fifty years of history later, Sweden and its welfare state doesn’t look too bad at all compared to most countries in the world. For instance, it seems to combine compassion with effectiveness in its prison system. But that passage is rather untypical and I think that Sjowall and Wahloo generally avoided direct political comment in their books, preferring to show rather than tell. Which they did wonderfully well.