Thursday, August 28, 2008

Noir whiteout

Because it's been lovely and sunny here in New York for the past couple of weeks, I sought a bit of a cold draft by tearing through four novels from Scandinavia.

First up was Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, translated from the Swedish. I previewed it in the new issue of Time Out New York, so check that out for more info. Basically Larsson has fitted together financial muckracking + serial killers + a locked-room disapperance, three plots that may or may not be linked, making the book the lit equivalent of Russian doll. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first volume in a trilogy but unfortunately Knopf isn't putting out the next one until summer ’09. I may have to buy the French version, which has been out (and on the best-seller lists) for a couple of years now, as I'm not sure I can wait a whole year to find out what happens next. Yes, Larsson's that good.

Second was Per Petterson's marvelous To Siberia (which my colleague Drew Toal covered in the aforementioned issue of TONY). I hadn't read Pettersson's critically lauded Out Stealing Horses, so this literary novel (which actually predates Horses) was a discovery. Pettersson crams a lot in a small number of pages, and I guess my surprise at it says something about the bloat that's crept into fiction over the past few years, making short novels a rarity.

Third was Henning Mankell's Depths. This stand-alone novel (so no Kurt Wallander) takes place in 1914 and has got to be one of the bleakest things I've read in a while. In fact, it's like a parade of all the clichés people associate with northern Europe: relentless gloom, miserable characters, frozen landscapes, and depression, alcoholism and death at every corner. And yet I made it all the way through, slogging through the tale of Lars Tobiasson-Svartman, an officer reading depths for the Swedish Navy. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the methodical Tobiasson-Svartman is ill-prepared to measure, let alone deal with the depths lurking within himself (I bet you didn't see this one coming), and all's bad that ends badly.

Mankell provided a blurb for fellow Swede Kjell Eriksson's The Demon from Dakar, ie book no. 4 and a return to genre. Nothing special about this one, a by-the-number procedural. I have no idea why I even finished it, considering I had thought the exact same thing about Eriksson's The Cruel Stars of the Night. Recommanded only to hardcore Scandi-noir fanatics.

4 comments:

Mike Wolf said...

I get the feeling you didn't wholly enjoy Mankell's Depths then? If not, any similarly ultramegableak but less-clichéd novels from that region that you might recommend instead?

Grimly,
Emphasis Bleak

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I can't say that Depths is enjoyable per se, but it casts a certain spell, especially among those with a taste for relentless darkness. If you want something bleak and Scandi, I'd say rent Bergman's "faith" trilogy: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence. Hours of fun!

Barbara said...

Norwegians have an interesting take on bleak - Jo Nesbo's books about detective Harry Hole (pronounced "herler" in case the name is too bizarre...) are terrific. And Karin Fossum is both brilliant and often deeply creepy.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I've only read one book by Jo Nesbø but I enjoyed it tremendously, and even reviewed it for Time Out New York: http://www.timeout.com/newyork/articles/books/24931/the-redbreast

I quite like Fossum as well, having read When the Devil Holds the Candle, Don't Look Back and at least another one whose title I'm blanking out now.

But for sheer bleakness, I think the one to beat is Arnaldur Indridason, from Iceland.