Boyd Tonkin: Beyond Mankell: our fiends in the north

The Week In Books

Friday 05 December 2008 01:00

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.

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