Talk is cheap, right? I keep talking about how much time I’m going to spend on murder and then ignore the whole gruesome subject for long periods of time. Today is me starting anew…again. Here are a few things I’ve already said in past blogs about the subject and a preview of where I am going…at least for the next few weeks.
Just in case you haven’t read previous posts about my addiction to crime fiction, especially of Scandinavian origins, I’m including a few of those thoughts below. Then we can move directly into the future.
In an earlier post I talked about the early days of my addiction to murder mysteries (this might be an old fashioned term—now it seems to be crime fiction or police procedurals) from Nancy Drew well into le Carré. Why so many of us all over the world become enamored of this bloody genre is an interesting question, maybe I’ll find the answers on an ice floe up north.
My personal fascinations with this whole field of literature focus firstly on the sense of place and secondly the sensation of realism that all the best crime fiction offers. It’s often as atmospheric as travel literature. Yes, that in itself earns my love. Then add a big dose of political/social commentary, a surly, almost-failed male or female cop/detective/spy, a grisly unsolved murder or two and a good deal of excitement and suspense involved in the solving. What is not to love?
An Overview by Guardian writer, Jonathan Gibbs
When I was first thinking about writing about murder—international murder—I read an article that seemed exactly what I was looking for but it turned out to be a little disappointing in scope. Still, it’s worth including here before I launch into specific regions and writers. The piece was Crime fiction: Around the world in 80 sleuths. Let me quote myself in the following comments:
This article in The Independent, a UK newspaper, printed in 2008, would be the perfect starter. However it turns out to be a bit slim in covering the contemporary scene even five years ago and it committed a major faux pas in my opinion—no mention of Southern Africa except for Alexander McCall Smith’s sweet but silly Lady’s Detective Agency novels which the article refers to as “cozy crime.” Some of the best crime fiction of all is coming from that part of the world, Deon Meyer being as good as it gets in meeting all of my above-mentioned criteria and more. There are a number of others but in fairness several of them may have been just starting out when the article was written. Still, not mentioning Deon Meyer is a crime all on its own.
The writer Jonathan Gibbs does mention several of my favorites in the UK: Ian Rankin and Denise Mina from Scotland; Colin Dexter from Oxford (have I actually read his books or only seen the PBS series?) and my new favorite Brit mystery writer, Peter James from Brighton, whose Roy Grace series is packed with all my musts. The UK is definitely in third place for good crime fiction, Scandinavia being first and Southern Africa second.
The article spends a lot of time around Europe which in general hasn’t proven to be rewardingly murderous. Obviously I must explore further, but so far Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen novels leave me unafraid and the few others I’ve sampled over the years were less than memorable. Historical crime may be more in fashion in Europe than elsewhere, also a sub-genre I’ve never found interesting—not sure why since I read almost as much history as mystery.
There are two other mentions of which I highly approve: Omar Yussef whose two books are set in Gaza and West Bank and Colin Cotterill’s series which takes place in 1970s Laos. The latter is a little too cute in the same way as McCall’s Botswana and they are historical—still; they’re definitely atmospheric with a great anti-hero hero.
Since American murder mysteries are generally not my cup of tea, and Scandinavian and Southern African crime fiction will be discussed over many posts, this is a good place to end. The Guardian article did make a number of references that whetted my appetite for more and more ‘murder most foul’ which will lead to further research, reading, and comment.
My own thoughts on being Scandinavian and the crime fiction of the north:
The only two things most people know about me are that I’m very proud of my Scandinavian heritage and I hate guns. Perhaps then, I am a biased judge of crime fiction of the European North where murder has to be carried out more imaginatively since they do not share our national passion for firearms. Of course plenty of fictional Scandinavia crime does involve shooting—after all there’s only so much you can do with knives and poison!
In any case I’ve decided to pursue crime fiction reviews by region—Scandinavia, Southern Africa and the UK before returning to explore other less literarily murderous locations.
Scandinavia first. Usually defined as Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland—an outline which I will follow. However there are enough differences between them to note along the way plus the interesting situation of Greenland, a gigantic island closer to America than Europe, primarily inhabited by the Inuit people, and still partially governed by Denmark. While I do not know of any Greenlandic mystery writers, the location does figure prominently in books from Denmark and Iceland.
Where to begin: The big writing picture is getting clearer; it all begins in Scandinavia, specifically in Denmark. Why Denmark? Good question. It is the least Scandinavian of the five and it might also be the northern country with the fewest crime fiction writers but I must do a little more research before I declare that to be true.
My sons and I stopped in Copenhagen for two days when we did our “roots” trip a few years ago. I’m sorry to say I remember nothing about it except for the train trip we took from the city to Ystad, Sweden one day to walk streets trod through several novels by Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s famous detective. But back to Denmark. We did walk past Tivoli Amusement Park which was closed. We stayed in what was supposed to be a suite big enough for three adults. Wrong. It was a largish room with three single beds around a corner, not conducive to two snoring guys and one me with restless leg syndrome getting actual rest. You know how that is…then you’re cranky the next day and don’t fully appreciate the fascinating new place you’re visiting!
However I do have big memories of a Danish dance troupe that performed for our art center’s Global DanceFest and I am currently immersed in the third novel of Danish author, Jussi Adler-Olsen, “A Conspiracy of Faith.” Therefore I feel absolutely qualified to spend the next essay or two taking about deadly Denmark. A nice mix of dance and murder…please join me tomorrow to experience The art and the dead. The deadly dancer. Murderous movement… Forgive me.