The third reading challenge I have completed this year (or ever for that matter) is the brainchild of the delightful Amy from The Black Sheep Dances who proposed that participants read 6 books from the region that bought us Lego, Ikea and Carlsburg. I signed up immediately, hoping to expand my Scandinavian reading from its heavy concentration on Sweden which started when I discovered the other Larsson (Asa) a couple of years ago.
Dorte, who would know because she actually is Scandinavian, says that officially Scandinavia is only Denmark, Norway and Sweden but for the purposes of this challenge we were allowed to include Finland and Iceland too. Hopefully this has not caused any embarrassing international incidents or UN resolutions. I decided to read a book from each country plus an extra from somewhere. Of course me being me all the books were crime fiction.
From this admittedly small sampling of books I feel confident in busting a couple of myths:
There is no ‘next Stieg Larsson’. There are a swag of great writers in the region but they have writing styles, personalities and storytelling abilities all of their very own and don’t need to be marketed as the next anyone.
Scandinavians, even the ones in crime fiction, are not all dour and/or at the mercy of seasonal affective disorder. They can be sarcastic and tell jokes like the rest of us. Who knew?
Here is a quick reminder of the books I chose in the order I read them
Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland) – a sad, thoughtful, beautiful story that for me was all about yearning.
The Serbian Dane by Leif Davidsen (Denmark) – a suspense-filled tale about a planned crime and those who would thwart it that had me feeling sorry for an assassin.
The Mind’s Eye by Håkan Nesser (Sweden) – an upside-down procedural featuring a confident and very funny investigator
The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin (Sweden) – a chilling mix of whodunnit and ghost story in the most atmospheric of remote island settings
Snow Angels by James Thompson (Finland) – an absorbing look at the ups and downs of living in a small community set against the backdrop of a harrowing investigation
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø (Norway) – a complex tale about choosing sides in a war and living with the consequences which introduced me to Inspector Harry Hole, a character who made me swoon
Though Hypothermia squeaks into top spot as my favourite of the bunch the others all have elements to recommend them and there isn’t a single dud in the group. About the only downside to the challenge is that it’s added a swag more titles to my TBR both now and into the future. Thanks Amy
By now everyone who cares is undoubtedly well aware that while I was sleeping on Friday night Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room was awarded the 2010 UK Crime Writer’s Association’s International Dagger Award for crime fiction translated into English. My heartfelt congratulations and thanks go to Theorin and his translator Marlaine Delargy for what is a wonderful book and a terrific win. Although it wasn’t my personal pick of the bunch I will repeat what I said when I finished all six of the shortlisted books: there wasn’t a dud in the bunch and any winner is deserving. I congratulate the five nominees (indicated by ** in the list below) and their translators too because they were in excellent company.
To look at the bigger picture for a minute I’m also grateful that there is an award for translated crime fiction at all, and also for the great websites that bring these works to my attention, in particular the excellent Euro Crime which is a brilliant source of reviews and information about what I should spend my pay cheque on each fortnight
I am reading my 17th translated book of the year at present. Before the past couple of years I simply did not read translated fiction. I barely even knew it existed really but so far this year I’ve read (in reading order):
Before you think I’m being all lefty intellectual in rating ‘foreign’ stuff above English works I should point out that the above list contains my equally highest rated books of the year as well as by far the worst book I have read this century and everything in between. But being able to read from a much wider range of settings and voices than just the English-writing ones has enriched my reading life, even including the odd dud (it’s The Last Pope in case you’re wondering).
I have another couple of dozen translated titles teetering on mount TBR and that’s without starting to think about the books eligible for next year’s International Dagger award. I wonder what treats I have ahead of me.
I was lucky enough to win a copy of Woman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser from the host of the Scandinavian Reading Challenge and was just about to read it as book 3 for the challenge when I read this review of The Mind’s Eye which is the first book in Nesser’s series. I decided instead I’d take advantage of my tardiness in finding this author by reading the series in the order written rather than the order they’ve been translated into English.
Schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up with a hell of a hangover one morning and discovers the body of his wife in the bathtub. While it’s clear she has been murdered the question that neither police nor Mitter can answer is whether or not he was the one who killed her. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Mitter is tried, convicted and confined to an asylum for the mentally ill but the case is not yet finished and events cause the police to investigate further.
By reputation Scandinavians are cold and dour but, if their crime fiction is anything to go by, this is as untrue a stereotype as any other because this book really is very funny. Most of the humour comes with the dialogue between Inspector Van Veeteren and his police colleagues though Nesser even finds the funny in Mitter’s dreadful situation. Translator Laurie Thompson has once again done a great job of creating a very readable book which relies quite heavily on verbal jousting for its lighter moments.
Van Veeteren is a terrifically well-rounded character who gets depressed by the weather, plays badminton grudgingly and is, nineteen times out of twenty, very sure of his own ability to judge a person’s guilt or innocence by little more than the tilt of their head. His droll observations and quirks provide much of the humour in the book but he’s also intelligent and caring in a ‘blokey’ kind of way and I look forward to reading more of his adventures.
The book felt a little awkward at the outset with its court scenes at the beginning followed by a police investigation but turning the procedural upside down in this way worked well in the end. The uncovering of Mitter’s wife’s past is really done quite cleverly and offered a good deal of credible tension towards the climax of the book. I shall definitely be looking for book two in this series sooner rather than later.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 4/5
Translator Laurie Thompson; Publisher Pantheon Books [this translation 2008, originally 1993]; ISBN 9780330492782; Length 280 pages