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.

Tomas Tranströmer Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature

Three posts in one day! It’s unprecedented, but what can I say–there’s just a lot going on. Not the least of which is this morning’s announcement of 2011’s Nobel Prize winner, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time a Swede has been awarded the prize since 1974, when the prize was co-awarded to Swedish authors Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson. Additionally, there doesn’t seem to have been a poet awarded since 1996, when Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska was the recipient. So, all due credit to Tranströmer: this is a relatively big shift for the Nobel.

To the credit of a poetry-loving friend of mine, I have actually read some of Tranströmer, which is a nice change from recent years when I hadn’t previously read any of the recipient’s work. (Although in the case of Le Clézio, well, that was less my ‘fault’: almost none of his work had been translated into English before he won.) I’m not familiar enough with Tranströmer’s work to write a good introduction to it, nor am I really a good enough reader of poetry to attempt that. But I will say that of the poems of his I have read, I enjoyed the crispness of the writing, as well as the imagery. I remember taking note of his interesting line breaks, as well, for whatever that’s worth.

No need to fear, though, there are plenty of better-qualified people writing on Tranströmer today! Below are some articles I’ve gathered on the author–whose work, I might add, is readily available in English. Additionally, I’ve included the text of one of his poems which I have enjoyed, entitled “The Couple.”

Happy Reading!

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THE COUPLE (via The Owls blog)

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

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The Nobel Prize for Literature’s official page on Tranströmer

Mark Asch at The L Magazine woke up early to post his announcement of Tranströmer’s win, and also includes a representative poem of the author’s, “The Indoors is Endless,” which I think is a fantastic title.

Tom Sleigh at poetry.org posted an introduction to Tranströmer’s work, “Too Much of the Air.”

Two poems of Tranströmer’s available on poets.org: “After a Death” and “Outskirts.”

The Poetry Foundation has three poems here.

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!

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.

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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.

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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.”


Van Veeteren on Screen at Scandinavia House This Summer

I tend to be a bit scattershot with my reading, preferring to read what captures my interest at any given time rather than adhering (at least with my pleasure reading) to any strict schedule or plan. So while I tend not to be bored with my current reading at any given time, I do tend to put off getting to quite a lot of great/important/classic titles on my ‘to-read’ list because I don’t plan ahead, but rather get distracted by something that I pick up at random in the bookstore or library.

One of the series that I’ve long planned to try is Swedish author Håkan Nesser’s Van Veeteren series. His detective–apparently a grumpy gourmet in his 60s–is introduced when he is still working on the police force in the fictitious Northern European city of Maardam, but in the course of the series (10 novels total, I believe) he retires and becomes the proprietor of an antiquarian bookstore. Nevertheless, even in his retirement, Van Veeteren’s expertise is sometimes still required by the police, who ask him to consult on cases frequently.

Luckily, I now have encouragement to dip into Nesser’s oeuvre, because between July and August, Scandinavia House will be showing episodes of the popular Van Veeteren TV series. The first episode they’ll be showing is based on Nesser’s much-awarded novel Borkmann’s Point, which finds the Maardam police on the trail of a particularly clever and seemingly random ax murderer. A bit grim, but perhaps still a worthy summer read.

Like the Oscars (but Shorter): Watch the Best Translated Book Awards

At a beery-cheery award ceremony at the Bowery Poetry Club during the PEN World Voices Festival in April, this year’s winners of the Best Translated Book Awards were announced.

For poetry, this year’s winner was The Book of Things by Aleš Šteger, which was translated from the Slovenian by Brian Henry.

For fiction, I was absolutely delighted that Tove Jansson’s True Deceiver, translated beautifully from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, won the award. I had a bit more stake in this one, I’ll admit: Jansson is one of my favorite newly-discovered authors. I read and reviewed True Deceiver for The L last year (read the review here) and was even more charmed by the new translation (also by Teal) of Fair Play (that review is here).

Teal’s acceptance speech was definitely the highlight of the 13 some-odd minute ceremony–he tells a great anecdote and is obviously delighted by the recognition. And, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you don’t have to rely on the notes I took in the dark–you can watch the whole thing yourself: