Two Takes on Borkmann’s Point

I am finally reading Borkmann’s Point because episodes of the Swedish TV show that was based on Håkan Nesser’s Van Veeteren series are, conveniently, being screened at the Scandinavia House this summer. Being a big fan of detective shows (of the BBC variety—not so much CSI-type dramas) and of Scandinavian crime novels, this presented a nice opportunity to not only read the much-lauded Borkmann’s Point, but also compare and contrast two different tellings of the same story.

The basic premise is this: Detective Chief Inspector Van Veeteren of the (imaginary) city of Maarsdam is vacationing in the nearby seaside town Kaalbringen. Although he’s scheduled to go back to work, he’s recruited to stay in town and join forces with the local Kaalbringen police after a man murdered with an ax is discovered. Shortly after, there is another murder—similar in method, although the victims have nothing apparent in common. While he quickly bonds with the members of the Kaalbringen police force (particularly the clever inspector Beate Moerk and DCI Bausen), Van Veeteren sees no solution, even as the case drags on for two months and results in yet another murder.

In all honestly, I can’t say that either the novel or the TV version is all that successful, although if I had to pick, I’d probably opt for the show. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a good ‘list review,’ so here are some general observations about problems in the novel, and the oddly pointless changes that were made in its TV adaptation.

The Novel

1.  Borkmann’s Point now has the dubious distinction of introducing the most transparent killer since my Mary Higgins Clark reading days. I honestly guessed the killer on page 59 (the book is 321 pages total) and while there were moments throughout that were meant to telegraph the murderer’s identity to the reader, it’s clear that the big reveal at the end is supposed to be a shocker. But it isn’t, except perhaps to Van Veeteren, who for months has been dispensing sage advice and telling people that he’ll “only have to set eyes on [the murder’s] type” and then he’ll know whodunit. If this is supposed to be ironic, it doesn’t come across at all.We are later supposed to believe that Van Veeteren was actually on to the killer much sooner, but Nesser purposefully cloaks his hero’s thoughts—and much of his investigative work—in secrecy. We’re told that VV makes calls to follow up on hunches, but we don’t know to who or what he finds out. He takes trips to check out clues, but he doesn’t tell us (or his underlings) where he is going. It’s like reading an Agatha Christie novel, but without the charm. The only thing that makes this any more bearable is that the police inspector who joins Van Veeteren from Maarsdam—Münster—frequently notes that his boss is “sitting there, playing the asshole and being mysterious again,” which does provide a nice bit of relief from The Great Detective’s ego.

2.  Nesser is awful at writing women. There is a chapter in which inspector Beate Moerk is at home, contemplating the case, her weight, and her status as a single woman and a female detective, during which Nesser writes, “She started soaping her breasts…still firm and bouncy; another recurrent thought was that one day she would start to dislike her breasts—the whole of her body come to that. But naturally, that was a trauma she shared with all women.” Ugh.

Later, Van Veeteren meets a woman in the course of the case and makes an empty promise about how long it’ll take him to crack it. The woman leaves, comforted, and VV snickers to himself: “How easy it is to fool a woman…a woman you’ve only known for five minutes.” Again, there might be some underlying irony here—Van Veeteren is arrogant about fooling ladies all while he’s being fooled himself. But even so, the sort of easy chauvinism here only made me like him less than I already did.

3.  These people are investigating a serial ax murderer and yet, not much investigating seems to really happen. Even if there aren’t a lot of clues, it seems to me that it’d be worth spending far more time tracking down former associates, lovers, flat-mates, etc. to get more insight into the lives of the victims. Find possible connections. Right? As is, everyone spends the day kinda-sorta talking about the case at the local pastry shop and they all go home at the end of the day with a bit of a shrug. Van Veeteren spends night after night with DCI Bausen playing chess, eating rich gourmet dinners, and sampling multiple bottles of fine vintage wine from Bausen’s private collection. No one really seems all that fussed, honestly, except for Münster, the skeptical inspector from Maarsdam who wants to go home to his wife and kids. Which makes me think that maybe we’d all be better served if the book was about Münster—who cares even a little about the outcome of the case—as opposed to Van Veeteren.

(For two other takes on the novel, check out Yvonne Klein and Sharon Wheeler‘s reviews on Reviewing the Evidence. Peter at Nordic Bookblog also reviewed it rather favorably.)

The TV Adaptation

There were a number of problems with the novel, but none of them were really addressed by the changes made to the TV adaptation. Rather, the TV adaptation was more successful because it has a slighter scope. It’s an 80 minute police drama—you anticipate that there will be plot holes and smoothed-over characterization. Here are some of the odder choices for adjustment:

1. Van Veeteren is retired.

He does actually retire within the novels, but not in this book. By bumping up the retirement, VV becomes truly inconsequential to the case. He just hangs around, pointing out things that make the local police look dumb. During the show, an up-and-coming Kaalbringen inspector kicks him out of a meeting in frustration one day, and rightly so: ‘What are you even doing here?’ he asks. ‘You’re a civilian.’

2. The victims are actually beheaded, with a normal ax.

The book makes a point of saying that all of the victims probably could have been beheaded if a little less finesse had been used by the murderer. But they are specifically *not* beheaded. Also, Nesser makes a point of saying that the ax used has very unusual dimensions and wouldn’t be easy to purchase in a normal store. To change these details really just simplifies the whole thing and makes it even easier than in the book to suss out the killer. Also, it’s just more gruesome, which is pretty much unneeded in a story about ax murders.

3. The victims are all restrained before they die and made to look at a photograph, the impression of which is found in blood at each crime scene.

In the book, Nesser makes a point of telling us that the victims are all caught unaware by the killer and die almost instantaneously. So again, we’re just making this more graphic. As for the photograph—that’s supposed to help fill in the killer’s motive, but it isn’t in the book at all and is pretty much a cheat. And the fact that Van Veeteren can look at a square indentation in some congealed blood and figure out that it was made from a photograph, well, that just tests the suspension of disbelief a little too much for me.

There were more changes—characters switched around, a whole plot line where the murderer attempts to frame someone else, chronologies changed, but none really for the better. I think I’ll give the rest of the series—both the novels and the TV show—a miss.

Advertisements

BBC Special on Nordic Noir

I’ve had a slew of posts lately about Nordic crime fiction–I suppose it only makes sense as the temperatures spike in North America that we’re all eager to dip into novels set in colder climates. At any rate, a Goodreads friend just recommended an episode of the BBC documentary series Time Shift called “Nordic Noir: The Story of Scandinavian Crime Fiction” that I thought I should pass along.

The program is organized around the work of notable Nordic crime authors, such as Stig Larsson, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Arnaldur Indriðason. Using Larsson’s Millenium series as its starting point, the show leans heavily toward Swedish authors (no Danish or Finnish crime authors are included), and has some strange moments. For instance, there are several tangential discussions of the methods cinematographers and actors use in TV adaptations of popular crime novels to increase tension and convey pathos without dialog. The segment on Arnaldur Indriðason is pretty heavy on flowery talk about Icelandic weather in place of much information about him as an author or crime fiction in Iceland in general. But depending on the author, much of the information is new and interesting. I especially enjoyed Karin Fossum’s segment, particularly her discussion of her different approach to telling a story about a murder, and also the revelation that she was actually very close to a murderer in her own life.

What the program did best, though, was give contextual information about the political climates in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, including the rise of neo-fascism and xenophobia, Norway’s discovery of oil and pursuant national wealth, and the unsolved murder of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. The show does a good job of explaining how these events have effected the political climate of different countries, and by extension, how they have resonated in the region’s crime fiction.

I’ve imbedded the video below–happy viewing!

Vikings: The First Gumshoes

Over at Detectives Beyond Borders, Peter Rozovsky continues an interesting series of posts about the thematic connections between Icelandic sagas and contemporary crime fiction. He’s posted about this a few times, noting that Icelandic crime authors like Arnaldur Indriðason find inspiration in the sagas, and quoting a passage from Czech author Josef Škvorecký’s Two Murders in My Double Life, in which a character suggests that Dashiell Hammett also drew from them.

The Trouble with Harald

‘I’ve posted from time to time about elements of the Icelandic sagas and other world literature that would be at home in crime fiction.  Few, if any, are as noir as a short section from the middle of King Harald’s Saga. Here are a few chapter titles from that section: “Murder.” “The Mission.” “Death in Denmark.”‘

 

Snape Dominates All Other Harry Potter Characters in Incredibly Scientific Study Conducted by MTV

I will not descend into Pottermania, I promise, but in honor of the forthcoming release of the last epic film in the Harry Potter series, I must bring this to your attention:

Severus Snape Crowned Greatest Harry Potter Character of All Time

Well, I’ve been saying it for years, but now there’s this helpful data pool to back me up:

Professor Severus Snape has been crowned the winner of the Harry Potter World Cup. Over at MTV News, 64 characters were pitted against one another to determine who is the greatest Harry Potter character of all time.”

And you have to love The Rickmaster as he accepts the large tin cup award saying, “And it doesn’t weigh nothing.” Also, to quote Sir Deadpan further:

Interviewer: What does that mean to you? The fans–seven and a half million votes said he was the best.

The Rickmaster: It’s a vote for, em…ambiguity. And things where you don’t know quite how things are going to turn out. And all sorts of values that you can’t talk about without ruining the film, but…things like courage, and loyalty, and determination, and love, actually.”

I’ll leave you to watch it yourself–there are many highlights.

Danish Crime Wave Set to Hit the US

Although many Nordic countries have successfully exported their most popular crime authors to the US, Denmark is not traditionally the Scandinavian nation that American readers associate with mayhem and violence. Sweden and Norway have been especially successful promoting their crime authors abroad (think Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg, Åke Edwardson, Håkan Nesser, Jo Nesbø, and yes–Stieg Larsson…you get the idea) but although Denmark certainly has many crime novelists of its own, those authors are not generally as well known here, if they’re known at all. (As a side note, it also seems to me that the Danes tend to export their politically-themed genre fiction more than their crime novels–Leif Davidsen‘s journo-politico thrillers, for instance. But I digress.)

According to a recent article in The Copenhagen Post, however, the Danes are “aim[ed] to kill” in the US, with four Danish crime authors set to make their American debuts in the coming season. Foremost is popular author Sara Blædel whose second novel, Call Me Princess, starring detective Louise Rick will be released in the US in August. As explained in the article, Blædel has sold five of her novels to US publisher Pegasus and will be one of Barnes & Noble’s “…prioritised writers, so she will be sitting with the biggest titles on the tables at the front of the boutiques.”

So keep your eyes peeled at B&N’s in the coming year. There’ll be Danish (crime) novels a-plenty.

Fun Reads for Friday

Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

A must read for anyone who interacts with customers or patrons of any stripe. This six-part blog post (see the continuation at the bottom of the 1st post) was compiled by Jen Campbell, a London-based writer who works at the Ripping Yarns children’s bookshop. A sampling of some of the better gems:

on the phone
Me: Hello Ripping Yarns.
Customer: Do you have any mohair wool?
Me: Sorry, we’re not a yarns shop, we’re a bookshop.
Customer: You’re called Ripping Yarns.
Me: Yes, that’s ‘yarns’ as in stories.
Customer: Well it’s a stupid name.
Me: It’s a Monty Python reference.
Customer: So you don’t sell wool?
Me: No.
Customer: Hmf. Ridiculous.
Me: …but we do sell dead parrots.
Customer: What?
Me: Parrots. Dead. Extinct. Expired. Would you like one?
Customer: What?
Me: Parrots. Dead. Extinct. Expired. Would you like one?
Customer: Erm, no.
Me: Ok, well if you change your mind, do call back.

***

Woman: Hi, my daughter is going to come by on her way home from school to buy a book. But she seems to buy books with sex in them and she’s only twelve, so can I ask you to keep an eye out for her and make sure she doesn’t buy anything inappropriate for her age? I can give you a list of authors she’s allowed to buy.
Me:
With all due respect, would it not be easier for you to come in with your daughter?
Woman: Certainly not. She’s a grown girl, she can do it herself.

***

Customer: I read a book in the eighties. I don’t remember the author, or the title. But it was green, and it made me laugh. Do you know which one I mean?

Swedish Education Minister Pushes for Chinese Instruction in Primary Schools

“I want to see Sweden become the first country in Europe to introduce instruction in Chinese as a foreign language at all primary and secondary schools,” said Jan Björklund, who heads the Liberal Party, a junior member of the centre-right ruling coalition.”

A short article, but certainly one of note. Interesting–although not surprising, perhaps–that the decision to push for Chinese language education as well as English, French, and Spanish is motivated by economic factors. As Björklund is quoted, “Not everyone in the business world speaks English. Very highly qualified activities are leaving Europe to move to China. Chinese will be much more important from an economic point of view than French or Spanish.”

Man Booker International vs. Translated Literature

An article by freelance journalist, editor, and translator Ángel Gurría-Quintana published on Three Percent regarding the frankly surprising limitations of the Man Booker International Prize, which aspires to the same prestige of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The winner of the Man International Booker Prize 2011 will be announced in Sydney on May 18th. Though still a relative newcomer to the world of literary awards –it is only in its fourth edition—the £60,000 prize has already acquired some heft. Unlike the Man Booker, given yearly to an outstanding work of fiction by a British, Irish or Commonwealth author, this biennial gong aims to celebrate “one writer’s overall contribution to fiction on the world stage.”

Its organisers hope that such a global remit might eventually make MIBP a rival to the prestigious Nobel. But is this aspiration compromised by the rule that the award is given to an author writing fiction in English, or whose work is “generally available” in English language translations?

Australian writer and publisher Carmen Callil, one of this year’s judges, admits that the translation requirement can undermine the prize’s claim to rewarding the best of world literature. “There are many writers who haven’t been translated and who are very important. But we agreed that, to be considered for our list, authors needed to have at least three books in translation.”

And also via Three Percent:

The Booker Prize’s International Embarrassment

Oh, the literary drama, delightfully remarked on in caustic British fashion by Robert McCrum at The Guardian. As it begins:

“The latest Man Booker International prize, awarded on Tuesday to the absent figure of Philip Roth, has been a car crash. Or rather, an unfortunate series of avoidable collisions between the Booker limousine and the oncoming traffic on the four-lane highway to the top of Mount Parnassus.

First, there was John le Carre’s refusal to co-operate: the author of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold asked to be removed from the shortlist, on hearing he was in contention for the prize. The London book specialist Rick Gekoski, who was chairing, handled that pretty well.

More embarrassingly, this was followed by one of the three judges, the ex-publisher Carmen Callil, withdrawing from the panel in an outburst of literary road rage after Philip Roth was named as the 2011 winner.

Finally, Jonathan Taylor, chair of the Booker Prize Foundation, proceeded to throw kerosene on the smouldering wreck by claiming, in the course of some snooty and ill-judged remarks to the diners in the London ceremony held in Roth’s absence, that the prize he’s been in charge of for the past several years was now the world’s premier literary trophy, superior in fact to the Nobel.”

And lastly:

Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Shortlist

Head’s up from Mystery Fanfare on the shortlist of a crime novel award I was previously unaware of. The delightfully named prize also includes a delightful award:

“The winner will receive a £3,000 cash prize, as well as a handmade, engraved beer barrel provided by Theakstons Old Peculier.”