Copenhagen Noir

My latest review is of the short story , Copenhagen Noir, part of Brooklyn-based Akashic Books’ popular City Noir series. This isn’t the most timely review, but sometimes it’s good to take a peak back at releases you missed initially, right? My review was published on Three Percent here; full text is below.

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Although the current social and political landscape of Denmark make it a natural setting for contemporary crime writing, the country has, until recently, remained in the shadow of its Nordic neighbors in this respect. This is not to say that Denmark is lacking authors of mysteries, crime stories, and thrillers of all stripes—merely that those authors have not generally made their way into English translation, and more particularly, into the American market. But the Swedish/Norwegian (and to a lesser extent, Icelandic and Finnish) choke-hold on the English-language crime market relented last year, with a wave of Danish publications. The Boy in the Suitcase by writing team Lene Kaaerbøl and Agnete Friis, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen, Call Me Princess by Sara Blædel, and, of course, Denmark’s obligatory entry in the astoundingly successful Akashic Noir series, Copenhagen Noir, all were published in the US in 2011.

“You have arrived in Scandinavia. You have just entered a long, bitter winter. Here there are no free rides. Here you are left to your own fate.” So begins Naja Marie Aidt’s “Women in Copenhagen,” the first story in Copenhagen Noir. And while this bleak depiction of Denmark’s welfare state may seem a tad overwrought to an outside observer, it does characterize a general unease that underlies each of the collection’s stories. Copenhagen Noir serves as a sort of shadowy primer to the growing insecurities and upheavals taking place in Denmark today. As Bo Tao Michaëlis (a cultural critic and author of several books on American authors including Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) notes in his introduction to the collection,

Gone is the provincial city appointed as capitol; instead, one is confronted with a metropolis where the food is from the Middle East, the wine from California, the women from Africa, and the mafia from Russia. Mafia! A new word at these latitudes, where crime formerly took place among bands identified with city neighborhoods and regions.

A threat from without characterizes many, if not most, of the stories in the collection. The featured immigrants or “New Danes,” embody a general, though never fully articulated, xenophobic fear. Within the collection, these Others tend to fill three basic roles: victim (underage, illegal sex workers; asylum seekers), small-time delinquents (thieves, drug dealers), and brutal crime bosses. It bears noting that one of the better stories in the collection, “The Booster Station,” was written by Seyit Öztürk, identified in his bio as a ‘New Dane’ of Turkish descent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Öztürk’s story—a sort of Stand By Me tale of two teenage boys finding a dead body by the train tracks in the residential neighborhood of Valby—entirely lacks any ethnic or racial signifiers, as well as the associated dread that these characteristics seem to carry in many of the collection’s other stories.

This is not to say that Copenhagen Noir doesn’t have it’s high points. A skittery tension and ominous atmosphere pervade many of the stories, and are strong enough features in several (such as “The Elephant’s Tusks,” and “Savage City, Cruel City”) to make up for any plot-based shortcomings. The collection reaches its apex with the classically noir tale of a down and out detective called “Slepneir’s Assignment,” which was written by “former public servent” Georg Ursin who “had his literary debut at the age of seventy-one.”

But as Akashic Books has cleverly ascertained with its noir series, a large swath of avid crime readers are also armchair travelers, so Copenhagen Noir is also thankfully peppered with unique, regionally-specific details which subtly convey the cityscape and cultural customs of Copenhagen and Danes in general. Helle Helle has some fine (and completely innocuous) details of this sort her story “A Fine Boy,” in which the narrator stands in for the cashier at a hot dog kiosk (hot dog stands or polsevogns are almost as ubiquitous in Copenhagen as they are in New York City) while the cashier’s baby son, sleeps unattended in a pram outside on the back porch (another Danish custom: babies are often left alone in their prams on the street while their parents go into shops or are otherwise engaged). These small details add to the overall picture of Copenhagen, and balance out the otherwise grim portrait of pimps, prostitutes, and ominous outsiders that frequent the collection.

Melville House’s International Crime Imprint and the Kayankaya Thrillers

It’s been a summer of (crime) series for me. I reviewed the three novels in Daniel Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy earlier this month, and have also just written a review/editorial on Melville House’s new “International Crime” imprint (MIC) and four of this line’s first published novels: the “Kayankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. Arjouni has actually been published in the US before–three of the novels that MIC is releasing were already translated into English and published in the US, only to go out of print. But I’d venture to say that these reissues will basically be introducing his work to most Americans for the first time.

There have been a smattering of reviews of  the series (mostly Kismet) that you might be interested in checking out:

On Kismet:

Peter Rozovsky at Detectives Beyond Borders has also reviewed the whole series. You can see his posts here.

The full text of my review of the series is on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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“Crime=Culture.”So says Dumbo publisher Melville House about their new imprint, Melville International Crime. MIC represents the publisher’s latest venture to expand their existing catalog of fiction in translation, but although Melville House has introduced innovative series before, cultivating a line of international crime novels is not a particularly new idea. Gowanus-based Akashic Books launched its city-specific Noir series in 2004, and Soho Crime was dedicated to armchair travel and murder long before the Stieg Larsson boom. However, it is interesting to see a boutique press like Melville turn its attention to genre fiction.

Among the first books published by MIC are the “Kanyankaya Thrillers” by German author Jakob Arjouni. His private eye Kemal Kanyankaya is a character straight out of Hammet and a quintessential outsider-investigator: an ethnic Turk raised by adoptive German parents, he has always lived between two worlds in his hometown of Frankfurt, never entirely comfortable in either.

Happy Birthday, Turk! (easily the best in the series) finds the down-and-out Kanyankaya hired by a Turkish woman to track down the killer of her husband, a laborer whose death isn’t a high priority for local police. More Beer takes the suspicious conviction of four “eco-terrorists”in a bombing and murder as its premise; in One Man, One Murder, a German man hires the PI to find his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute who was kidnapped while trying to collect forged visa papers. Kismet, the most recent installment, finds Kanyankaya facing off with a violent Croatian gang. All unfold in a matter of days and are laced with Kanyankaya’s engagingly laconic sarcasm. There’s also a frank brutality which affirms the high stakes of each case and the lengths that Kanyankaya will go to get his man: he’s drugged, attacked by rats, suffers joint dislocations, is locked in a room full of tear gas, and is roundly beaten on numerous occasions.

Individually, however, the series is spotty. In both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, the intrigues become so entangled that it’s hard to care when Kanyankaya reveals whodunit—after making several key discoveries to which the reader is not privy. The detective’s understandable bitterness at being treated as an interloper or a fetish object feels increasingly belabored as he subjects every potential client to the same litmus test: “You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kanyankaya, why not Müller?”And while he continues to investigate several cases after being fired and gives an impassioned speech about disenfranchised immigrants in Germany, he’s by no means an idealist. Treating housewives, prostitutes, buddies, and corrupt officials with equal disdain, it’s hard to believe that he ever cares much about the people involved in his investigations—he just wants the satisfaction of winning.

With this new imprint, Melville is capitalizing on their strengths in ways which stand to benefit both their current and potential audiences. Crime fiction fans are generally completists who want to read all of a favorite detective’s cases—even the rocky ones. And Melville has a knack for series—they’ve resurrected the novella as a viable (and marketable) form with their brilliant “Art of the Novella” line, establishing their press as a quality arbiter of taste while also engendering something like brand loyalty.

By expanding into international crime fiction, Melville stands to create a similar loyalty among new readers. Any even marginally good crime novel serves as a shorthand introduction to the social concerns, epochal tensions, and defining fears of its culture, the way the Kanyankaya thrillers address Germany’s struggle with immigration, cultural inclusion, and nationalism. Crime is culture, made accessible.

The Bayou Trilogy

I recently reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s “Bayou Trilogy” for Reviewing the Evidence. Woodrell came across my radar when I saw the film adaptation of his book Winter’s Bone, which was a tense, atmospheric, and evocative story of a young girl trying to step into her parents’ shoes, to save her home and take care of her two younger siblings. I decided to wait for the images of the film to subside a little before reading the book, so the reissue of three of Woodrell’s previous books–all starring Detective Rene Shade–was very welcome to me. And while I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that you sit and read all three books in a row (that gets a bit monotonous), each maintained a very cinematic quality, as well as a flare for regional descriptions and dialog. My full review is below, or you can read it as it was published, here.

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Although Daniel Woodrell has been earning the respect of critics and cultivating a devoted fan base for quite some time, his “country noir” novels, as he has named them, have garnered renewed attention in the last year, thanks to the astonishing success of the movie adaptation of his 2006 novel Winter’s Bone. This spring, three of Woodrell’s early novels—starring his shambling Creole detective Rene Shade—have been republished as The Bayou Trilogy, and are sure to gain the author even more acclaim for their cinematic, gritty, and occasionally poetic portrayals of the perpetually backsliding town of St Bruno, Louisiana.

 Woodrell fills St Bruno with a colorful cast of downtrodden men and women for whom double-dealing and neighborhood loyalty are a way of life. Foremost are the Shade family, who play pivotal roles in all three novels in the trilogy. There’s Ma Blanqui, owner of the pool hall where her itinerant husband, John X., had once made a name for himself before he abandoned her and her three boys. The oldest of the brothers, Tip Shade, owns the Catfish Bar, whose clientele make a habit of avoiding the police. The youngest, Francois, is an up-and-coming District Attorney. And right in the middle is Rene, a failed boxer turned cop who treads a fine line between the law-abiding and criminal worlds of his family and hometown.

Under the Bright Lights opens, as do all of the novels in the trilogy, on an over-confident, back country hood who is already in over his head, although he doesn’t know it yet. Woodrell’s first line introduction of this young would-be hit man provides the reader with a succinct initiation into the dark, subtly mocking humor, drawling dialog, and simmering violence that characterize all of the author’s work. “Jewel Cobb,” we’re told, “had long been a legendary killer in his midnight reveries and now he’d come to the big town to prove that his upright version knew the same techniques and was just as cold.”

Muscle for the Wing, the second novel in the trilogy, finds Rene rekindling the soured friendships of his past in order to track down the killer of a local policeman who worked as a guard for underground poker games frequented by some of St. Bruno’s most powerful men. The Ones You Do introduces Shade’s infamous ne’er-do-well father, John X. Shade, who is on the run with his adolescent daughter (Rene’s half sister) after her momma ran off with a local gangster’s fortune.

The novels are all very similar—especially in tone and pacing—which can lend to monotony if read in quick succession. Woodrell’s plotting is also a bit shaky: in particular, the racially-charged murder and political scandal in Under the Bright Lights quickly becomes muddled and its resolution is a bit over-determined. But plot is really a secondary concern here. Woodrell has a spot-on ear for the patois of his bayou residents and a gift for characterization that extends into the psyches and pasts of both his anti-heroes and their adversaries.

Each of the novels in the trilogy opens at a running start, and Woodrell keeps up the constant, frenetic pace throughout the books. The stories all unfold over the course of a few days, and are staged in a series of iconic locales: the Marais de Croche swamp, underground poker games, a strip club on the edge of town, an elegant and crumbling cathedral. It’s no wonder that two of Woodrell’s novels have been made into movies (prior to Winter’s Bone his book Woe to Live On was adapted by Ang Lee). Reading his novels, one can easily imagine watching them unfold on screen.

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.

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.”‘

 

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.