Annika Bengtzon: Journalist Sleuth

Thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic Jen Forbus of Jen’s Book Thoughts for hosting Moonlighting for Murder as this year’s crime fiction theme week and for offering me the chance to participate in festivities.

My favourite amateur sleuths are journalists. It’s partly because they’re really the only category of amateur sleuths who I can imagine living in the real world (much as I love some of the other great amateur sleuths it’s stretching credibility to imagine a bookseller or caterer really stumbling across so many dead bodies in one life time). And it’s partly because I am a news junkie. When two things I love – news and crime fiction – converge I do a happy dance.

A fictional journalist I have recently enjoyed getting to know is Annika Bengtzon, the creation of Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund, who named the character after her own daughter. Annika began her journalism career at a local paper in rural Sweden before moving to the national daily Kvällspressen in Stockholm. As a summer intern she answers her paper’s tip line and learns of the death of a young woman who Annika later learns was a dancer at a club. This is her first major investigation (depicted in Studio 69) and sets the tone for Annika’s future work as she becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the woman’s death, regardless of the risk to herself. In this story too we are introduced to the very nasty domestic situation in which Annika finds herself and this story thread has a dramatic conclusion which impacts Annika materially and mentally in subsequent books.

In the most recently published book in English in which she features, Red Wolf, Annika is described in some detail through other people’s eyes. I was struck by how well these brief snippets of other people’s thoughts built up a picture of Annika which really helped bring her to life for me. Firstly her boss thinks

She gets herself into all sorts of situations, things normal people would never dream of doing, because there’s something missing there. Something got lost long ago, yanked out, roots and all, the scar fading over the years, leaving her exposed to the world, and to herself. All she’s got left is her sense of justice, the truth like a beacon in a world full of darkness, she can’t do anything else

Then her husband compares her to the other women in his life

Eleanor [his ex-wife] and Sophia [his mistress] moved effortlessly through office corridors and meeting rooms, glamorous salons and international hotel bars. Annika just got clumsy in situations like that, her clothes more dishevelled than usual, looking incredibly uncomfortable in her own skin. Whenever they went anywhere she just wanted to talk to the locals and eat in the bars where the locals ate, and wasn’t remotely interested in culture or the exclusive hotel pool.

And finally, Annika’s view of herself

Annika saw [the news boards] flash past from the window of the bus and felt the same strange effect as usual – a fascination at having put something into the world that goes on and lives its own life. Her articles could be read by hundreds of thousands of people whom she would never meet; her words could generate emotions and reactions that she would never know about.

Annika's creator is Liza Marklund, herself a journalist, mother and now UNICEF Ambassador

Annika’s investigations all see her delving into some aspect of society or politics or a combination of both and it is this aspect of the novels that really draws me in. In Prime Time a TV star is murdered and the depiction of her world is a very unflattering one that makes the reader wonder if real-world news programs are staffed and handled in a similar manner.  Other books tackle the Swedish political landscape (both contemporary and historical) in a way that has helped me learn loads about this fascinating country.

The other thing I enjoy about Annika is that she is credible. Far from the all-knowing, super-confident protagonist we see so frequently in crime fiction Annika makes mistakes and has grappled with a range of personal and professional issues (domestic abuse, sexism in the workplace, a philandering husband, almost crippling worry about her parenting skills…). All of this makes her one of the most complete and believable characters in crime fiction. I have found her behaviour at times appalling, insipid or downright silly but always she is realistic too. Who among us hasn’t done something nasty, lacking in courage or stupid? Annika muddles her way through life, with it’s small dramas and big ones, like most of us do but she maintains an admirable desire to see justice done. The fact that she’s a bit clumsy and is more interested in meeting locals than lazing about exclusive hotel pools when she travels makes her all the more endearing to me.

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In English translation the books featuring Annika are listed here (the dates in brackets are their original publication dates in Swedish)

  1. Studio 69 (1999) – takes place eight years before the action of The Bomber
  2. Paradise (2000) – a direct continuation of Studio 69
  3. Prime time (2002) – the action occurs between Paradise and The Bomber
  4. The Bomber (the first book published, in 1998)
  5. Red Wolf (2003) – an independent story which picks up from the end of The Bomber

There are another three books which have yet to be translated to English, though Neil Smith stopped by one of my reviews of Marklund’s books to say he has been commissioned to undertake a translation of Nobels testamente (in addition to a new translation of The Bomber which will be released in 2012)

  • Nobels testamente (2006) – takes place some months after Red Wolf
  • Livstid (2007) – a direct sequel to “Nobels testamente”
  • En plats i solen (2008) – a direct sequel to Livstid

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Do check out all the blogs participating in Moonlighting for Murder. In addition to possibly finding a new series to try you’ll go into the draw to win a prize pack from Jen if you leave a comment at any of the participating posts.

If your own sleuthing skills are up to the task you might also have a go at the Positions Wanted competition that Jen is hosting. Each of the amateur sleuths being featured this week has prepared a position wanted add and all you have to do is match the sleuth with their add to be in the running.

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10 Responses to Annika Bengtzon: Journalist Sleuth

  1. Bernadette – What a terrific post about Annika Bengtzon. I like her very much, too, actually, and I think you’ve hit on her essential qualities so very well. One of the things I like about Annika is that she’s so human. She has, as you mention, a real thirst for justice, but she isn’t a superhero. Her approach is sometimes all wrong, she sometimes comes to the wrong conclusions, and so on. But she gets there and she’s so determined. A great choice!

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  2. I hate to admit this but I gave up on Studio Sex (after I told you I’d write about the journalism aspect of it) — just wasn’t the right book for my frame of mind. I do like Annika, though, and I’ll get back to her eventually.

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  3. It’s not a crime Karen to give up on a book – I think I stumbled across Annika at the right time for me – I was experiencing some of the same professional issues as she was (well we both still are) and I think it suited me to see someone else going through similar things. At another time I can see how I might not have reacted so strongly to the books and to Annika in particular.

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  4. kathy durkin says:

    Annika Bengtzon is a very complicated character, much like a real person, flawed, yet courageous, smart, bold, set on reaching her goals, yet anxiety-ridden. This makes her more interesting that many protagonists. Trying to figure her out was my task as a reader of this book, never mind the plot. It was a challenge, one that I gladly took on and that was different from the challenges in most mysteries. Usually, one has to figure out the plot and then the suspects, not the main character.
    It made for a good read — though not without puzzlement and concern, and maybe a little anxiety — but well worth it.
    There are so many mysteries, thrillers, etc., out there, that when characters are unique — or something else is unique — it makes for a tantalizing read.
    So, that said, I will read more about Liza Marklund’s creation, if and when I can get the books in the States for less than a ransom.

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  5. Jose Ignacio says:

    A very interesting post Bernadette. Thanks.

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  6. Beth F says:

    I can’t argue with you about a journalist being more likely to run across dead bodies than a bookstore owner, but I just love cozies!

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  7. Word Lily says:

    I love journalist sleuths, too! And since I’m also fascinated by Sweden, I think I need to at least try this series.

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  8. Kay says:

    I’m going to be trying these books too. Swedish mysteries are very popular right now and I’m intrigued by them. Thanks for sharing about a new-to-me author!

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  9. Jen Forbus says:

    Bernadette, I was so excited that you picked this because I have one of these books and I was very intrigued by it. It came with a group from the magazine I review for. It’s going in the definite must read pile for sure now! I’m excited about it. 🙂 Thank you so much.

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  10. @BethF … I love some cosy series too…but they’re just not the most realistic of reading…sometimes I like pure escapism and sometimes I like a bit of realism

    Hope the rest of you enjoy meeting Annika when you give her a go

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