Review: Barry Forshaw – Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV

nordic noirBarry Forshaw is the UK’s expert on Scandinavian crime fiction. His excellent Death in a Cold Climate is a book that I often dip into if I need information about a Scandinavian author that I’m unfamiliar with. Now he has produced Nordic Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, a brief but very entertaining overview of not only Nordic crime novels but also of many of the Scandinavian TV and films that are now appearing on our screens.

The book opens with a look at the beginnings of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the influence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and other early writers on the genre. The following chapters then assess the two great writers Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson and how they led the way for many of their contemporaries and began the craze for Nordic Noir. There is plenty of food for thought here. Camilla Lackberg, for example, has a significant following but has never quite reached the popularity of say, Jo Nesbo. Forshaw comes up with some convincing explanations for this, not least the intimate setting of Fjallbacka which, although harks back to Christie’s St Mary’s Mead, doesn’t have the international feel of Nesbo’s books. Nesbo himself dominates the Norway chapter, although there are also plenty of other writers discussed, including the excellent Anne Holt and Thomas Enger.

The chapters on the other Nordic countries Iceland, Finland and Denmark were particularly interesting as I’m less familiar with some of the writers and you get a strong sense of both the personality of the authors and the essence of their works. The latter part of the book assesses the impact of  Nordic Noir in TV and Film and identifies some emerging writers to look out for which will provide a useful point of reference in the future.

For a short book (around 160 pages) this packs a lot in and shows Forshaw’s knowledge of the subject. His interviews with many of the authors form the basis of the book and there are some amusing anecdotes and asides, including an interview with Henning Mankell who spots mice in an upmarket hotel in central London. But you also get a sense of the author’s preferences and his views on the merits of different writers. So there is plenty to delight fans of Nordic Noir and also those who want an informative but succinct introduction to the genre.

Cheltenham Literature Festival Events

One of the great things about moving back to the UK is being able to attend some of the wonderful book events that take place across the country. On Thursday I attended the Cheltenham Literature Festival, a ten day event that draws an eclectic list of writers, which this year included JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Pat Barker.

Limiting myself to an afternoon, I attended two interesting sessions in the picturesque Imperial Square venue where the rain hammered down on the roof of our tents. Both events (of course) had  a crime fiction element and gave some interesting insights into aspects of the genre. Here’s a brief summary of the two events.

 

Funerals and Mourning: Panel: Thomas Enger, Tim Lott, Kitty Aldridge and Catherine Arnold. Moderated by Nicolette Jones.

The panelists introduced works of literature that contained, in their opinion, moving and thought-provoking depictions of funerals. There were readings from Trollope, Roth and Updike and from Enger’s Burned.

In the ensuing discussion, Kitty Aldridge made an interesting observation that in literature, while death is expected to shock readers, funerals are often used for comical or ironic effect.

A question from the audience encouraged the panel to consider death in the context of the harm we inflict on each other. Tim Lott agreed that fiction can appeal to the sadistic nature in ourselves, although somewhat controversially suggested us crime readers had a deep-seated desire to commit a murder. I shall say no more….

 

Nordic Noir: Panel: Barry Forshaw, Don Bartlett, Thomas Enger, Gunnar Staalesen

For us fans of Scandinavian crime fiction, this panel was an interesting discussion on the popularity of Norwegian crime novels and the issues surrounding translated fiction. On the panel were two crime writers (GS and TE) whose works have been translated into a wide number of languages, one translator (Don Bartlett) best known for his translations of  Jo Nesbo’s books and Barry Forshaw who has written an excellent guide to Scandinavian crime fiction, Death in a Cold Climate.

The panel began by discussing how titles often change during translation. Jo Nesbo’s first Harry Hole book The Bat, which has just been published, was originally titled The Bat Man which was not felt appropriate for an English speaking audience (the second book will be called The Cockroach). The Norwegian title of Thomas Enger’s first book translated into Apparent Death which was changed by his publisher to Burned. He came up with the subsequent titles of Pierced (book 2) and Scarred (forthcoming book 3) himself.

In relation to the credit that translators get for their work, DB suggested that while it’s nice to be invisible, it can be galling when no mention is made of their contribution at all in reviews etc. TE likes it when his translators ask significant questions about the subtleties of his text and worries if they have translated without any contact with him whatsoever. GS can read some of the languages that his books are translated into but doesn’t check-up on the translations. Both GS and TE agreed that it was a significant moment when their works were translated into English, the language of many of the classic crime writers.

DB said he read other crime books and sometimes found interesting phrases which helped him with his own translations. Translations are made in collaboration with editors who usually have the final say over specific words although he does feel responsibility to reflect the language of the original. Expletives in his opinion were notoriously hard to translate as they often have different degrees of offensiveness in a language.

The popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction was attributed to the influence of Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, then Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo. Scandinavian countries have changed over this period  though and the panel agreed that the mass killings that took place in Breivik are likely to have an impact on crime fiction coming out of Norway.

 

An interesting two panels and as usual, having promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books to contribute to my TBR mountain, I came away with Catherine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead, and The Bat which I started on the train home. There were no books by Gunnar Staalesen available for purchase although I probably would have been stuck where to start. Any recommendations?