Nordic Criminal Fiction


*started this post last night after work, but didn’t finish it until this morning

Yeah, yeah, I know, where the heck are the pictures? Well, Piet has to go through and find what he doesn’t like and nuke it before I’m allowed to post the pictures, so they’ll be here, but not tonight.

As it is I just happen to be home a few hours early due to the nationwide train strike that renders pretty much any business in the train station useless, since there’s no one traveling by train today, so we got to close at 6 this evening instead of 9.

And since I have some free time I decided to do a little review of some books I read while on vacation, namely Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium trilogy and Jo Nesbo‘s The Snowman, the fifth in his Harry Hole series of crime novels. I’d been hearing good things about the Millenium trilogy for quite some time, but ignored it due to the fact that I’m typically not big into criminal fiction, but when we went on vacation I devoured the book I’d brought with me and was in need of new reading material within a day or two of landing in Tenerife. I found Nesbo’s book first and the first thing I noticed was that the book’s covered called him the “next Stieg Larsson”. Nesbo is Norwegian and Larsson was Swedish and while both happen to be criminal fiction authors and Nordic in origin, that really seems to be where the similarity ends. In fact, I’m curious to know how Nesbo feels about being considered “the next” of something as opposed to his own something.

Anyway, The Snowman was decent reading as far as thrillers go. It moved faster and kept me interested more consistantly than Larsson’s books, although I felt like the ties to the real killer were way too vague and obscure until too close to the end. It also seemed at times that the book was not so much about criminal investigation as it was about the personal development, or lack thereof of the main character Harry Hole. Obviously character development is key in a good novel, but when the crime novel becomes more of an examination of the main character and less of an examination of the criminal, I think then the genre choice should come into question.

Larsson’s books…well, I can see the public appeal of them. They are obviously written by an intelligent journalist who understands the underpinnings of investigation and the inner workings of newspaper and magazine publishing as well as the government (or at least the Swedish government). Also, the main characters are relatable to both genders, although I think it comes close to a caricaturization of what the general readers of crime  novels want to relate to. The intelligent, somewhat brooding investigatory journalist who’s suave with the ladies and always comes out on top and the troubled, dark genius woman who is violent and cunning but who has a soft side and is oh so misunderstood by society.

If I compare the writing styles of the two, again, I see no real similarities, aside from the fact that they write about a crime being solved. Nesbo obviously gives the account from the police point of view and sadly falls back on the stereotypic “troubled drunk cop” who is the best in his field but the higher ups tend to mistrust and dislike. His imagination is more focused on the progression of the crimes as perpetrated by the criminal (as opposed to summarizing backstory like Larsson) and the one that really got me: he describes the victims and their thoughts right up to their deaths. That last one, in my opinion, is really what helps to drive Nesbo’s novel because the reader does not know who will die and who won’t. You are shown into everyone’s head and thoughts processes, not just the survivors, so you really have to keep reading to find out who lives and who dies.

Larsson, on the other hand, really gets caught up in explaining the feasibility of his story from a journalistic standpoint. He likes to infuse his story with information that demonstrates the fact that he knows how things work behind the scene. Personally, I skimmed quite a bit when it came to this. Also, he has an odd attention to certain irrelevant details, like every time someone eats or drinks something. I understand every so often mentioning what kind of sandwich a character eats, or what cup they use, but Larsson does this in pretty much any scene where someone is eating or drinking.
As a reader, I really don’t care that Blomkvist made two open herring and cheese sandwiches on rye before fixing himself a double espresso with a teaspoon of cold milk in a Social Democrats mug.
The extent of banal descriptors in his narrative waxes Dickensian.

Also, the predictability factor is a bit higher in Larsson’s writing than Nesbo’s. I was only surprised once by a murder in the entire trilogy, and that wasn’t until the third book. None of the main characters dies or is even put into much of a critical situation, aside from the two main characters and neither of them can die or else the series can’t really be finished, so you know they’re safe, regardless of how many times they are shot or strangled or beaten up.

The only other thing I found remotely common between the authors was their propensity for making several of their characters promiscuous and to treat is quite casually. I’m not sure if this is, in fact, a writing style thing or rather a cultural thing. I know that Norway and Sweden are in the top of the list when it comes to liberal ideology in many socially relevant issues including sexuality, so I’m reserving judgment on this aspect for the most part. However, I do find it somewhat irritating that Larsson’s main male character sleeps with pretty much any female that crosses his path and that somehow, that’s okay, despite the fact that he tends to sleep with people he works with, and often more than one at the same time. In my opinion, it’s the working relationships he has with all of these women that makes his actions unethical, as opposed to the actual fact that he has multiple partners at once. To write a character who has such strong professional convictions but who then compromises said professionalism because he can’t keep his hands off the boobies just doesn’t make sense.
It’s almost as if the author wants to prove that a man-whore can still be a stand up, likable guy who’s sensitive to the opposite gender. This personally took a lot away from my reading experience because I’d be pulled from the story and the action by my exasperation over who Blomkvist decided to bump uglies with next.

So, over all, I can say that if you are the type who like a good old fashioned crime thriller, you’ll probably like Jo Nesbo and if you’re a fan of crime thrillers with conspiratorial edges, you’ll probably like Stieg Larsson. If you’re more a fan of fantasy, historical fiction and narrative fiction (ahem, me) …you probably won’t be thrilled by either, but it’ll do if you’re hard up for reading material.


2 responses »

  1. I do keep hearing good reviews on Larson’s trilogie and the fact that you finished it in such a short time impresses me big time.

    nevertheless from what you’ve written I believe I’ll like Nesbo more. thanks for the tip!

  2. yep, pretty on target, but still good reads and people like good reads. Personally I wanted Lisbeth to beat the shit out of a few people including Blomkvist a time or two and I was also quite annoyed with his childish bedhopping behavior, but then, the women weren’t innocent either (in all cases they were pretty pathetic really) …I plan on rereading Harry Potter since the movie is coming out soon and I’ve pretty much lost book 6 in the folds of my ancient memory.

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