Monday, June 13, 2011

Arctic Noir: Why Scandinavian Murder Mysteries Are Hot -- And Deservedly So

My appetite for great murder mysteries is never sated. For me they are like eating popcorn and a welcome escape from the heavier foods that make up my literary diet such as historical tracts, biographies and scientific tomes.

Over the years, I've read my way through the great murder mystery writers --
Dashielle Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and P.D. James, to name but a few -- and thought I had pretty much tapped out the genre.

That was until I picked up the English translation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the first book in Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, in 2009. Since then I have been cherry picking my way through Scandinavian murder mysteries, and they have been a revelation.

As fellow travelers Wendy Lesser and Nathanial Rich note in Slate commentaries published in 2009 and last month, an argument can be made that the best Scandinavian mysteries are better than others, which is a bold claim considering that Sweden, Norway and Denmark collectively are just about the most murder-free societies on the planet and seem unlikely to spawn a host of great murder mystery writers.

But part of the power of these novels is their deceivingly tranquil settings, which
make it all the more shocking when a crime occurs. Or, as Rich notes, "A dark bloodstain in a field of pure, white snow is far creepier than a body ditched in a trash-littered alley."

I agree with Lesser and Rich, but with an important qualification.

What the great Swedish murder mysteries have in common with the classics is that they are deeply and grippingly psychological, pitting the fiendish murderer against the dogged investigator.

But compared to a fuddy duddy like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or a hard-boiled period piece like Hammett's Sam Spade, Larsson's eccentric Lisbeth Salander has a steel-trap mind, a penchant for getting back at her enemies, and is positively hip with her arsenal of Mac Books, electronic eavesdropping devices and computer hacking skills, while cohort Mikael "Kalle" Blomkvist is a disgraced investigative journalist who digs deeply into the dark side of Sweden's political, corporate and social worlds. Holmes' Victorian parlor society and Spade's Tenderloin district escapades seem positively quaint by comparison.
I have now plowed through about two dozen Scandinavian whodunits and can say without qualification that Smilla's Sense of Snow (1995) by Peter Høeg is my hand's down favorite. Jo Nesbo's The Snowman (2010) is second, while Larsson's trilogy is a bit further down the list because not even the thrilling plots can overcome his maladriotness as a writer, something that is obvious in translation.

Like Larssen's Salander,
Høeg's Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen is a diminutive loner (minus the electronic bells and whistles) who struggles to live with a fractured past and an uncertain future.

As the book opens, Smilla is struggling to understand the death of Isaiah, a
small boy who falls from the roof of her Copenhagen apartment building. Because of her childhood in Greenland, she has the ability to understand the complex structures of snow (hence the title) and notices that the boy's footprints show he ran to his death. Smilla uncovers a series of ever more bizarre conspiracies and cover-ups as she attempts to solve the mystery, a journey that takes her from Copenhagen to an icebound island off of the coast of Greenland where the book ends in a thrilling concluding scene.

The movie versions of Larssen's Millennium Trilogy include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. All were released in Sweden in 2009. All are terrific movies true to the plots of the books on which they are based, but therein lies a problem.

Dragon Tattoo bristles with subplots and the cast of characters is dizzying, which is to say confusing. This makes the movie version pretty much impossible to understand if you didn't read the book, so do yourself a favor and read it before you rent or download the movie.

Same goes for the second and third books, but the screenwriters apparently understood that they couldn't suffocate viewers and dialed back on the number of subplots that made it to the big screen. None are missed. You don't have to necessarily have read the books, but that still helps.
I don't know if there are dubbed English versions of the Millennium Trilogy movies. If there are, resist the temptation and screen the versions with English subtitles. Swedish is a lovely language, to my ears a softer variation of German, and in each case I quickly fell into having a pretty good idea of what was being sad. The subtitles merely reinforced that.

Hollywood versions of the books are on the way this year and in 2012 and 2013. I plan to avoid them.

The movie version of
Høeg Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997), which stars Julia Ormond as Smilla, is another matter.

The plot is straightforward and unencumbered by a cast of dozens. You don't have to read the book first, but read it anyhow, because the movie does not do it justice. Ormond and the rest of the cast sprint through the plot, which in the hands of
Høeg, whose talent comes through in translation, is beautifully paced.

Alas, Smilla could have been a terrific movie, although it appropriately carried the tagline "Everything is covered in snow -- except the truth.


Wander Woman said...

I have read most of these and did really enjoy Smilla. Given the current heat wave we are having, reading about a cold, northern European area might help! LOL!


Shaun Mullen said...

If you've pretty much read your way through the books and authors I've mentioned, you might try Maj Showall's Martin Beck series. The plots aren't quite as top notch and the writing can be iffy, but they're still decent reads.


Shane Levene said...

Yes, that's all very clever and interesting, but does 'Hubba Bubba' actually rhyme?


joel hanes said...

Dorothy L. Sayers. Start with Murder Must Advertise or Strong Poison to prepare yourself for Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night