The GOS reads a lot of crime fiction. His favourite authors at present are Dennis Lehane, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, David Lawrence, Reginald Hill and Christopher Brookmyre. The trouble with crime fiction – or at least the media assessment of it – is that it is generally judged by people who don't actually read. Or if they do read it, they are too thick to form any kind of rational critical opinion. Or perhaps they just can't be arsed. When Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Prize for Behind The Scenes At The Museum (not crime fiction, this one), all the newspapers could think of was that she was a single mother. Never mind she could actually write rather well and had been judged by her peers to be the best thing since sliced bread, she had a baby out of wedlock. How fascinating was that? It's very odd that sex is something most of us can do or have done at some time, yet we appear to be obsessed with it. Why is that? Most of us can breathe, but no one writes magazine articles about it.
All too often the media's attitude to crime writers is based not on whether they are worthy, but on whether they are newsworthy. And the public, like the sheep they are, bleat happily along behind. Never mind that Stieg Larsson's Salander books are boring and amateurish (as we'll demonstrate in a moment, if you'll bear with us), they have an unusual protagonist with a great tattoo and nose studs and they come from Sweden which is this cool country most of us couldn't find on a map, so they must be the next big thing and we can't get enough of them. Just as well the author died, really, and couldn't write any more.
Did you notice something about that list of the GOS's favourites? They're all men.
There are plenty of female crime writers, of course, and some are good. But again the media claptrap intrudes – women crime writers are interesting because they're women, not for the value of their writing. Ruth Rendell of Inspector Wexford fame is often described as The Queen of Crime Fiction, but her books don't bear out such an exaggerated assessment. We'd tend to compare her to Reginald Hill (Dalziel and Pascoe), and she doesn't come out of the comparison too well.
The other “Queen of Crime” is Agatha Christie, and that's an accolade even less deserved. Her writing is shallow and agonisingly boring, and her plots, such as they are, trite, contrived and illogical. Dorothy Sayers a different kettle of fish; her Nine Tailors is a masterpiece, and the descriptions of the landscape and the church bells, the Nine Tailors themselves, bawling out across the fens, are incredibly evocative. The plot's not bad, either, and the depth of technical knowledge quite awe-inspiring – if you can follow it. But at the end of the day her books are fascinating more as period pieces and technical exercises than as real pulp fiction crime novels, and they aren't at all easy to read either. Most of us don't look to crime fiction for great literature.
There are really good female crime writers, of course. We would single out the afore-mentioned Kate Atkinson for her Jackson Brodie books, including the intriguingly-titled Started early, took my dog. Val McDermid's Wire in the Blood series is also very good, but the more you read them, the more formulaic they become. Mind you, Haydn wrote 104 symphonies all to the same formula. Mozart used pretty much the same formula. A formula's not necessarily a bad thing if it's a good one. The same can be said of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta novels. Sara Paretsky's Warshawski books are better.
Anyway, enough of this outrageous generalisation. This current vogue for Scandinavian crime novels has really got our fictional goat. The telly's full of it, and it's true that both enormously long series of The Killing were pretty compulsive viewing, and Sarah Lund was a strangely attractive heroine for a plain girl who wears woolly sweaters and never smiles. The French equivalent, Spiral, was much better, grittily Parisian. But this was television, not books. The Killing is being turned into novels, by David Hewson, but it started life as television so we don't think it counts.
No, the real criminals here are bloody Stieg Larsson and bloody Henning Mankell, who are on everyone's lips and don't deserve a fraction of the attention they've enjoyed. To be perfectly blunt, when you put their books alongside those of Ian Rankin or David Lawrence, they really aren't much good.
Henning Mankell's character Wallender is intensely annoying. The author attempts to make him seem real by making him moan constantly about how unwell he feels and how hard he is working - but he scarcely ever seems to do any work. A meeting in the morning and interviewing a suspect in the afternoon is a good day's work for Wallender. He eats nothing but sandwiches and coffee (as do most of the characters in Stieg Larsson), and has a habit of asking himself really stupid questions - “I really must catch this murderer ... but how am I going to do it? God, I feel tired. I really must not work so hard. What I need is some coffee and a sandwich, but where am I going to get them?”
Far less well known are the Martin Beck novels by the husband and wife writing team of Sjöwall and Wahlöo. The GOS has only read a couple of these earlier books, but got the impression that Mankell had read them and absorbed them thoroughly, because they have many of the same annoying characteristics.
And so to Stieg Larsson. The GOS has just ploughed through all three of his Salander novels, The girl with the dragon tattoo, The girl who played with fire and The girl who kicked the hornets' nest. By the time he got a third of the way through the last one it was perfectly obvious how it was going to end, and it did. The GOS plodded on more out of a sense of duty than anything else, and was dreadfully bored.
There are dozens and dozens of characters, most of them called Andersson, which is confusing. However, by the time you realise you don't know who half these people are, you've lost interest in the whole thing so it doesn't matter. Larsson tries to make all these characters “live” by describing them, but as his descriptions usually go “she was wearing black trousers, a pink blouse and a leather three-quarter-length coat” it isn't all that effective.
Whenever a new character appears we are treated to a biography ... “as she left the building, a man brushed past her. He wore blue jeans, a white shirt and a dark jacket. He had been born in 1979 in Stockholm and studied in London, leaving with a second-class degree in engineering. He worked for a major car manufacturer in the quality control division. He was married but separated, and his three children aged 5,7 and 10 lived with their mother. She never saw him again and he has no bearing on this story whatsoever”.
The main character, the journalist Blomkvist, is a bit of a wuss but strangely attractive to women, who tend to fall into his bed without any provocation from him. Perhaps that's what happens in Sweden. The other main character, Lisbeth Salander, is rather more interesting. She is the size of a small child but makes up for it by being magnificently violent. She is sexually promiscuous when the mood takes her, but relates badly to other human beings – in fact, she hardly relates to them at all so how she manages to get them into bed is hard to tell. She is immensely rich and a genius, with awesome computer skills, a photographic memory and enormous intelligence that enables her to read abstruse scientific texts for fun and solve Fermat's Theorem in her head. While having a fight. She buys a magnificent million-pound apartment in the most prestigious part of Stockholm, and furnishes it entirely from the Ikea catalogue, all her choices being recounted in tedious detail. You know, the kind of character you can really relate to.
Larsson's powers of description are, frankly, laughable: “The man went straight down into the tunnelbana station at Birger Jarlsgaten and bought a ticket at the gate. He waited on the southbound platform – the direction Salander was going anyway – and got on the Norsborg train. He got off at Slussen, changed to the green line towards Farsta, and got off again at Skanstull. From there he walked to Blomberg's Café on Götgaten.” (from The girl who played with fire).
Riveting stuff, eh? It's as though you were really there. Not.
Compare it to a passage from Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile ... “Kestle Cars & Repair sat across from a Burger King in the part of my neighborhood the locals call Ho Chi Minh Trail, a seven-block section of Dorchester Avenue where waves of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian immigrants settled. There were six cars on the lot, all in dubious condition, all with 'Make an offer' painted in yellow on their windshields. The garage bay doors were closed and the lights were off, but we could hear a loud chatter from the back. There was a dark green door to the left of the bay doors.”
Larsson again, this time introducing a major character ... “Dragan Armansky was born in Croatia fifty-six years ago. His father was an Armenian Jew from Belorussia. His mother was a Bosnian Muslim of Greek extraction. She had taken charge of his upbringing and his education, which meant as an adult he was lumped together with that large, heterogeous group defined by the media as Muslims. The Swedish immigration authorities had registered him, strangely enough, as a Serb. His passport confirmed that he was a Swedish citizen, and his passport photograph showed a squarish face, a strong jaw, five-o'clock shadow and greying temples.” (from The girl with the dragon tattoo).
And Lehane again ... “The fourth guy sat slightly to our right, behind the desk. He had dark hair. His skin was covered in a sheen of sweat, fresh droplets popping through the pores as we watched. He was about thirty-going-on-a-coronary. And you could smell the crank singeing his veins from Newfoundland. His left knee jackhammered under the desk. His right hand patted a steady bongo beat on the top. My laptop sat in front of him. He stared at us with bright eyes pinned to the rear wall of his skull.”
And before anyone writes indignantly that it's just a matter of style, and the whole thing's just my opinion, it ain't: writing style needs to be effective and to do its job. Lehane's prose is annoyingly American, a tough-talking successor to Philip Marlowe, but it does the job of putting you right in the middle of the action: you don't know what size collar the dark-haired man takes or where he was born and bred, but you definitely know he's a wrong-un, a druggie, and that he's wired up and ready to spring. What do you know about Dragan Arminsky, apart from a few dull facts about his ancestry? Is he good or bad? How is he feeling? Do we need to be wary of him or not? OK, it's a question of style: in Lehane's case it's a style very much based on the grand, well-tried tradition of American detective fiction. In Larsson's it's just amateurish.
As for the tunnelbana journey ... well, it's a map, nothing more. We might be in any major city in the world, apart from the Swedish-sounding station names. What does the train look like? Is it old or new? Does it make a particular noise? What about the other passengers? Is it crowded or not? Is Skanstull the sort of place we'd like to find ourselves? Would we frequent Blomberg's, or is it a greasy spoon? Tell us something, for God's sake!
Lehane, on the other hand, paints a picture with a minimum of brush strokes, using a few little details to conjure up a picture we can all recognise. I think I used to have my car serviced at Kestle's in the sixties, only it was in Tottenham then.
It's all just fashion, and trends, and vogues and fads, really. It has little to do with quality or worth, and fär mörë tö dö with fëëling cööl änd intelligënt bëcäüsë wë rëäd bööks with löäds of ümläuts in.
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Copyright © 2011 The GOS