Nesser’s images of the North?

So, I thought it was time that we started a discussion about Håkan Nesser’s crime fiction here on the blog in preparation for the Book Club event in February. Will someone like to start talking about books they have read, what they like about them, how they differ or are similar to other Scandinavian crime writers – a friend of mine wrote on Facebook: but is he really Nordic or Noir? What do you think.



Filed under Scandinavian crime fiction, Swedish crime fiction

24 responses to “Nesser’s images of the North?

  1. That’s right Brigitte, I reviewed it at Euro Crime (see blogroll) if anyone wants to check it out. Unfortunately this series was translated out of order but Macmillan, the UK publisher, has now caught up with itself so let’s hope the last 5 titles come out chronologically.

  2. Ian

    Apologies – I did mean “Shadow”. Deceit was my invention

    • Brigitte Bertout

      Not sure this fits in this section of the blog but I just discovered there is another Inspector Van Veeteren novel available in English: It is called The Inspector and Silence. I believe it was published last year.

  3. PS the “verbal jousting humor” in Nesser is also done well in Camilleri’s Montlbano series, abetted by the brilliant translations of Stephen Sartarelli. (Sicily.)

    Which reminds me that as usual the translator of Nesser has been sidelined in this discussion as so often happens, so a hat tip to the superb Laurie Thompson who does such a good job on so many Scandinavian novels that many of us have no choice but to read in a “second” language, English. Translating sardonic and punning humour must be immensely challenging, but Thompson seems very much to pull it off with Nesser’s books.

    • jakobstougaard

      Thanks Maxine for bringing up both Camilleri and translators. Our Book Club is exactly an attempt to pay tribute to the excellent work being done in the translation community in the UK, so hope we will have more discussions about translations. Camilleri is, I think in terms of dialogue, a good comparison to Nesser – though there are tons of differences. I think particularly that Montalbano has a healtheir diet than van V. No?

  4. In response to Bernadette’s comment about Australian writers and sardonic byplay (which I agree is a strong component of Nesser’s van V novels – he is superbly splenetic in some of them), one very obvious candidate is the Master, Peter Temple, also Adrian Hyland and Peter Gwynne but I am sure others.

    I had not seen Ian Charles’s comment about Alvtegen when I made my earlier comment. I 100 per cent second it. She is a marvellous author, and so varied. I’ve read four of her translated novels (a fifth is not in print). Three of them, “Missing”, “Shadow” and “Betrayal” are novels that stick in the mind for a long time. All very intense, but all different. I am not sure which one is “Deceit” which you discuss above, but if you mean “Shadow” I’d agree but maybe more Checkhovian than Ibsen in its historical roots of despair and the core fable told at the crucial dinner, in which each character in the fable is played out by one of the characters in the book?

    “Missing” gives “The Girl Who Played With Fire” more than a run for its money (which was written first?) about a young, abused woman living “below the grid” in a city and becoming a fugitive – genuinely exciting suspense. And “Betrayal” is both a great exposition of paranoia of domestic routine and suspicion, and a very creepy murder plot.

    I did not think “Shame” quite so successful (but still enjoyed it). Nevertheless, the other three novels are stellar and I don’t understand why more is not made of them.

  5. Ian

    Try the fascinating “Inspector O” books by James Chruch (a North Korean Wallander) – and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady character not dissimilar in some ways

  6. Ian

    I agree with Lorna on the setting issue. Jacob, is it perhaps the other way round – what actually is the purpose of fictionalising the location and indeed the country? Do Arnaldur and Henning suffer from locating their characters in known locations? Not for me, they don’t

    • Lorna

      I am looking forward to having the opportunity to ask the author why he chose a fictional setting. I think to really empathise with the impact of a murder or murders, and experience all the emotions that a crime novel can provoke – shock, disgust, fear, anticipation etc. – the more realistic the setting of the novel the better, for me at least. Having spent/wasted a lot of time reading historical crime fiction last year, the sense of space & place now seems vital to me as a reader.

  7. I wouldn´t call Håkan Nesser ´Noir´, but that is just my own view.

    And as for ´really Nordic´ that term doesn´t make sense for me at all. I am a Scandinavian reader & writer, and the idea of all Nordic crime writers writing in the same tone is hilarious. Maxine has just mentioned Läckberg, and if you add Jungstedt and several other female writers, you could talk about Nordic light. And when it comes to my Danish favourites, Susanne Staun, Elsebeth Egholm and Jussi Adler-Olsen are all different in tone and style.

    So if (some) English readers can see one trend or tone only in Nordic crime fiction, I believe it is because they have not read enough writers yet.

    • Ian

      Dorte, I think it’s much more to do with how one defines ‘Noir’ – someone from the BFI introducing a supposedly Noir film a few days ago, pointed out that we could have a 2-day discussion what constituted noir!

      I see several trends in some of the writers you mention, but the term noir still works for me

    • jakobstougaard

      @Dorte. I agree to some point. But you focus on tone and style, and these are surely narrative features that are very difficult to infuse with local color. What would a Nordic tone or style be?
      As with all literature from local traditions translated, marketed and read abroad there naturally will be differences to how they are perceived in the “original” language. There might just be a trend presently in the kind of writers who make it into the UK and US markets, and the kind of crime fiction, the kind of “tone,” or possibly more so, setting that makes it possible to find ways in which Nordic crime fiction abroad creates similarities.
      Maybe the Nordic has more to do with quite a common “world view”, landscapes/cityscapes, the kind of societies these crime novels take place in.
      We could also ask, are there similarities between other Nordic/Southern traditions: for instance, are there similarities between Scottish or Canadian and Scandinavian crime fiction? Another post states that there are similarities between Nesser and Australian fiction (especially the humour and dialogue) – maybe there is something about writing from the periferi.

    • My point was that as a native of Denmark, you see all kinds of tones, styles and subgenres around you, so in my opinion there is no more a Nordic tone than there is a British or American tone. I know I generalize when I think of British police procedurals & American hard-boiled thrillers, but these sweeping generalizations are based on ignorance on my part (lately, I have read a few American cozy mysteries which prove my point). So it seems to me people abroad have come to expect Stieg Larsson or Sjöwall & Wahlöö from Scandinavia and then publishers try to find something similar – and when they don´t, they just apply “the next Stieg Larsson” or “Move over, Wallander” stickers anyway.

  8. I have only read one (The Mind’s Eye) so can’t really compare that well – one thing i can recall thinking when I read that book though was that if they ever kick him out of the Scandinavian club Nesser would fit in well with us here in Australia or maybe in Scotland – the writing has the kind of sardonic dialogue between the colleagues in the team that you don’t find everywhere. The subject matter is dark but he still finds the funny. I haven’t come across this in other Scandinavian crime fiction (not that others aren’t funny but I haven’t seen that verbal jousting kind of humour elsewhere)

    As for noir…I don’t think so, not based on that one book anyway. But I’m using Charles Ardai’s definition of Noir which says in part “In noir novels…any apparent order is generally illusory; things don’t work the way they’re supposed to; justice is rare and, when present, often accidental….It’s a broken promise. It’s a book that betrays us and that we love for it…”. The Nesser book I read didn’t do that.

    • jakobstougaard

      I actually think “The Mind’s Eye” fits well with Ardai’s definition (and thanks so much for that) – isn’t it all about accidentals, about being unable to find one’s way from traces to larger pictures. Van Veeteren does talk alot about the need for finding the point that determines and gives sense to everything, but I am still uncertain whether this novel or the other Van Veeteren stories really present this as anything but a hope in the inspector’s mind.
      Now I am really curious about learning more about Australian crime. Which writers remind you of Nesser?

    • Hmmmm… Australian crime that reminds me of Nesser (or vica versa)…Peter Temple as Maxine has mentioned, also Shane Maloney’s stuff (which is more deliberately comic) and Jarad Henry’s book…it’s a way that dialogue, particularly between men, seems to be written that might appear disrespectful if you’re outside the group (particularly if you’re one of those people who like to get offended on behalf of other people) – they tease each other and can even appear rude to each other and outsiders but the people within the group know it’s not meant that way and there’s actually a healthy like for each other. It’s not just in crime fiction though – it appears all over the place and I just don’t see it terribly often elsewhere (though I thought the same about the Stuart McBride novel I read and he is Scottish).

  9. Well, his books are very dark – Woman with Birthmark for example is terribly sad (I reviewed it for Euro Crime). People argue endlessly about the definition of “noir” and far be it from me to opine on that. I do think that Nesser writes good traditional crime fiction, based on the Van Veeteren novels that have been so far translated (ie while the main character is still a detective). They are similar to the Martin Beck novels of Sjowall/Wahloo (so far) in that each one takes a particular type of crime fiction (locked room, vengeance, miscarriage of justice, etc) and follows it through. Stieg Larsson did something similar with his three novels of course, no doubt intending to continue that theme with the rest of the planned series of 10.

    I would say that Nesser’s novels are classic detective fiction, very definitely Scandinavian in atmosphere (though actually set somewhere more like Holland) . They are on the dark side, in that they show a lack of sentimentality or romanticism in their plots (ie they differ from, say, Camilla Lackberg). They are also very lean and spare.

    • jakobstougaard

      Thanks Maxine. This is a very concise desription of Nesser’s place in the pantheon of Swedish crime. My experience reading Nesser may, now that I think of it, have something to do with what you call “lean and spare” – maybe this is also what really makes them more Noir than other Swedish crime writers today.

  10. Lorna

    I initially struggled with the setting of the Van Veeteren books being so vaguely North European. The fictional setting seemed to me to detract from the storyline, as it left an uncomfortable sense of disbelief at the back of my mind. It also made cultural nuances difficult to pinpoint. However, given the crazy plots and murders of most crime fiction, maybe these things are not so important!

    • jakobstougaard

      @Lorna. I really like your comment – I seem to remember that in the very first Van Veeteren novel, Nesser’s voice goes right through our investigator. he says something like: why do people have to live in all kinds of landscapes. Obviously annoyed with having to leave the comforts of his own environment. Maybe someone have the direct quote.
      It is interesting that the unspecified “Nordic” setting in the novels seems to have made it difficult to get “into the novel” and into the culture of the book – at least in your case. I do think setting is really important to narrative (or lack thereof), and it certainly mattered in your reading.
      I wonder why, though. Why do Nesser’s non-specified Nordic setting seem so different from other crime stories, whose locations we can easily find on a map over Sweden?

    • Matthew

      I’m with Lorna, I tried to like Nesser’s books, but found that for me not knowing the location spoiled the actual reading.

  11. Ian Charles

    Am I the only person who thinks Karin Alvtegen stands up there with the best of them? “Deceit” seems to me to be a reincarnation of Ibsen himself

    • jakobstougaard

      @Ian. You make a very good sell. Thanks for lending me Alvtegen’s Shadow. I hope to read it very soon – and if it is Ibsen disguised as a crime novel, it is almost too good to be true. What is particularly Ibsen-like about Alvtegen?

    • Ian

      Jacob, as soon as the plot started to unfold, I sensed it was another Pillars of Society/Ghosts and others wrapped together. It contained for me several of the Ibsen themes and also for me it wouldn’t be the first time it has been a Swede to do this. OK, Ibsen stands head and shoulders above the lot, so I don’t want to labour the comparison – but retrospective drama, linking contemporaneous events to sinister ones in the past, people concealing the truth through misplaced loyalty, people wanting to ‘reveal’ the truth regardless of the consequences… I think she does a fairly good job!

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