Boyd Tonkin: Beyond Mankell: our fiends in the north

The Week In Books

Last Sunday, Kenneth Branagh's first outing as Kurt Wallander for the BBC collected around 6 million viewers. The next evening, Britney Spears appeared on Sky in a dirt-dishing documentary. The channel boasted an audience of 400,000. We have few enough opportunities in Britain to celebrate the potential reach and resonance of fiction in translation. This, down to last bag under Branagh's hollow eyes, is one of them. Now we can realistically expect that Henning Mankell's beyond-genre novels will pick up a substantially enhanced UK readership. They will enjoy the books thanks to the top-level translations by Laurie Thompson, Steven T Murray and Ebba Segerberg.

Apart from Wallander's, and Mankell's, eloquent dismay over the collapse of a social-democratic dream, upscale Nordic crime fiction has dug a deep and relatively cosy niche on these shores. Against the trend, it thrives in the snowbound tundra that is – to most modern writers in translation – the mainstream British bookshop. In fact, I have heard some aspiring authors from those climes complain that their international prospects would start to glow like the Northern Lights if only they could fashion some morose detective and put him – or her – to work in a branded series of mysteries.

No reader should mentally confine the writers of the North to a life of crime. All the same, many gifted novelists have chosen to adopt the form and push its boundaries. Social satire, historical investigation, the psychology of the killer or abuser, a recurrent concern with the fate of damaged youngsters betrayed by a mighty welfare state – most readers expect more from this region than cliffhanging plots in rugged terrain. The publisher who brought Mankell – and so many other global kings and queens of crime – to British notice was Christopher MacLehose, then of the Harvill Press. Now running his own imprint at Quercus books, MacLehose this year published Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the first in a (sadly posthumous) trilogy of epic mysteries that sweep much of modern Swedish history into their addictive grip. Larsson's follow-up, The Girl who Played with Fire, appears in January. Again from Sweden, Mari Jungstedt has begun to do for the island of Gotland what Mankell did for Wallander's patch of Ystad. Her latest book, A Lonely Place, also comes out next month (from Doubleday).

Over the border in Norway, Karin Fossum in her Inspector Sejer novels has brought a forensic emotional intelligence to the vast, noisy traumas that can erupt in small, quiet places. Fossum straddles the frontier between genre and "literary" fiction, but in her non-series novel Broken she went full-tilt into avant-garde territory with a plot that featured a writer scarily pursued by one of her own characters. But then the list of alternatives to Mankell that both chill and bite stretches to the far horizon like the northern forest: Jo Nesbo from Norway; Arnaldur Indridason from Iceland; the promising Camilla Läckberg from Sweden.

Läckberg gave up a career as an economist for crime fiction; in contrast, Matti Joensuu from Finland over many years combined best-selling mysteries with a day job – only recently relinquished – as arson and explosives expert with the Helsinki police. Arcadia has just released one of his earlier novels about DS Timo Harjunpää, To Steal Her Love (£11.99). Plagued by strife at home, at work and – most of all – within, Harjunpää could easily keep abreast with Wallander in the mid-life anguish stakes. But the most striking aspect of To Steal Her Love (in David Hackston's excellent translation) lies in the character of the tormented young lock-picker and nocturnal sneak known as "Tweety". His skills both shape his life and seal his doom. Once more, Joensuu disturbs with the tender but sinister precision of his portrait. As always, the true Nordic underworld lurks somewhere in the cellars of the mind.

P.S.Just when book retailers desperately needed a smooth ride through a chilly Christmas, it looked for a while as if this season's potential bestsellers might not even reach the shelves – let alone be snatched from them. The major book distributor Bertrams, not in administration itself, found its operations frozen by the terminal crisis of its owner – wobbly Woolworths. Now it seems as if a sale of Bertrams may go through soon, with normal service resumed. Digital literati who find these high-street ructions all terribly 20th century should note that their virtual world is far from free of corporate predation. Amazon has just bought AbeBooks, the online marketplace for second-hand dealers: a vast, global Hay-on-Wye. Let's hope that, unlike its new parent, AbeBooks will not now respond to any mistyped search by trying to flog us the latest Nigella, left.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing