Sunday, 6 March 2011

Libraries- Scandinavian Crime Season- Part two

Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen travelled from rainy Bergen to chilly Willesden Green last thursday night to take part in Brent's World Book Day celebrations.  The wine was delicious, the crisps disappointing (Gunnar was a bit delayed- clearly he'd brought his own delicious.... I can't guess what, as food was barely mentioned in "The Writing on the Wall", no, hang on, there were some open sandwiches, offered to Varg Veum, the private detective who stars in many of his novels, in rather awkward circumstances).

Back to the Willesden Green Library centre, where Gunnaar - in excellent English of course - told us that he'd wanted to be a writer since he was a boy, writing his first detective story when he was 12 or 13.  His first novel was published when he was 22 and he's been writing as a living (and living as a writer, no doubt) ever since.  "I love writing almost more than anything else in my life...I write the sort of books I like to read myself... starting with the Hardy Boys, the Hound of the Baskervilles, moving on to Dorothy Sawyers, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Agatha Christie...the Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (who started the Scandinavian wave in crime literature)...communists who had a political mission... also very good writers..."  I have to write about this rather than tell anyone because although Gunnar mentioned their names several times I couldn't possibly pronounce them  (sounded like Shirl and Virl, but that can't be right).

The Scandinavian crime fiction is distinguished by its quality (typically Scandinavian, then), "and by reflecting so deeply society and the times we live in - even though Scandinavian societies are often looked on as ideal societies they have their dark side, their problems, and those problems create the crimes...we also have nature very close to us... even in Oslo, in Bergen... this is very specific for all nordic literature...".  This is certainly true of "The Writing on the Wall" where the topography of Bergen is as important in the story as the underworld of seedy bars run by dodgy characters and apparently respectable family men visiting teenage prostitutes.  It's great stuff!

So, Varg Veum, the imperfect (but not quite as imperfect as Stieg Larsson's Blomqvist in the Dragon Tattoo novels) private detective is mixing with the Bergen underworld and the police and victims' families in a series of well constructed novels.  He's ageing along with his creator (unlike Hercule Poirot or James Bond), bumping into old girlfriends and old enemies along the way, getting into fights and solving crimes.  Other characters are well developed too.  Gunnar wanted him to be a Norwegian Philip Chandler - read one of his novels and see whether you agree.  The three shown above can be ordered through Kilburn Library.

Gunnar was asked about the translation of his novels and he told us, worryingly "I'm in a coup (queue) for my translator...I cannot write in English...I cannot see all the nuaunces in the English language (but then neither can quite a few English writers... it's that Scandinavian quality shining through again)... the translator in a sense has to rewrite..."

Read more about Gunnar's books here

And, by the way, did you know that before he started writing, Stieg Larsson was mostly known for his struggle against racism and right-wing extremism. Starting in the late 1970's, he combined his work as a graphic designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism. In 1995, when 8 people were killed by neo-Nazis in Sweden, he was the main force behind the founding of the Expo foundation, to expose neo-Nazi activity in Sweden. Maybe I've judged Blomqvist too harshly... Stieg (living under the threat of some nasty right wing violence) needed his detective to have fun in his private life...a stable (but open) long term relationship with Erika who was happily married to a friend...but also Lisbeth....Cecilia...

John Lanchester in yesterday's Guardian magazine wrote  "In cooking as in crime writing, the global trend is Scandinavian", not that we'd care if it wasn't, but it's always good to be up there with a trend, so see you in Kilburn Library's crime fiction section very soon....

Read Scandinavian Crime Season part one here

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