Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Criminal Death in Northern Places

I've been a fan of modern Swedish noir writing since I first discovered Henning Mankell lurking obscurely on a store back shelf in the first English translation of his Kurt Wallander detective novels. Since then I've devoured every Wallander tale and as much as I can find of the BBC TV adaptions starring a brooding and distraught Kenneth Branagh. Plus some of Mankell's other dark gems like The Eye of the Leopard where he draws on the part of every year he spends in troubled Mozambique.

Imagine therefore my delight when I find him interviewed under the print heading of: "What makes these Swedes and their mysteries so addictive". We learn that a final Wallander novel will continue to "help us understand the world through the lens of crime and justice" to quote Mankell.  And I learn just why I adore mystery writing so much!I came to it late. Often through my childhood I would see my mother, a sensitive soul in daily life, bury her head in Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and other female pioneers of British crime fiction. At that age I really couldn't see what my proper Edwardian mum got out of so much bad behaviour and gory scenes. But, judging by the enduring  success of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot on TV, many gentlefolk then and now must indeed get more than a cheap thrill.

When it comes to modern fiction, perhaps the Swedes, with their seemingly gloom-laden view of life, have got the best measure of our present angst?  How else to explain Stieg Larsson and the Millennium series? Even though he's now dead, Larsson's former live-in girlfriend hopes to bring out a final Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book based on his partially-completed manuscript.

What happened to make Swedish crime suddenly so global that American blockbuster thriller factory James Patterson decides to go there in his latest - The Postcard Killers? Well, I got an early hint about Sweden becoming the new lodestone for our zeitgeist when a while back I spotted a local review of the first movie from those Larsson books about Lisbeth Salander. This disturbing and then-obscure film was really hard to find in the vanishing world of truly independent cinemas. It sounded very foreign - I'm not sure if the English version book itself was then in our bookstores. I was intrigued but, when I finally found the film playing in an out-of-way venue somewhere in Town, hunched alongside me in the dark there were only a few fellow genre adventurers. After all, it's all in Swedish, and very sadistic.

But I was transfixed! The Swedish murder victims for whom detective Kurt Wallander agonizes all his waking days also had a desperately cruel experience. It's probably no coincidence that Henning Mankell's wife is Ingmar Bergman's daughter. Living up here in the cold it's tempting to equate the success of these Swedish mystery moguls to the appeal of their dark Northern sensibilities to those who live in similarly cruel climes. But the Dragon Tattoo stories are a worldwide phenomenon. Hollywood money is backing a British remake. 

Perhaps the misadventures of folk who live in northern places seem a metaphor for life everywhere today? Stories that enthrall those who are most gloomy about our globe. That may be why the last Larsson story is set on remote Banks Island way up in the melting Canadian Arctic.

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