Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Parlez vous crime?

I love Scandi noir as much as anybody out there but that doesn't mean I have to lower my standards. I'm surprised, for instance, by the good will that's greeted Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead, considering it's completely by-the-numbers. "Another in a seemingly bottomless pool of sophisticated and effective Scandinavian crime writers"? Hardly.

The best part about the novel is its atmospheric description of an island community off the coast of Sweden, but this isn't enough to make up for the fact that the plot hinges on a contrivance: It works only because the main characters wilfully avoid sharing crucial information (which they all know the others have) as they try to solve the mystery surrounding the 20-year-old disappearance of a child. Of course if they did the normal thing and talked to each other, the book would be only about a hundred pages long.

Much better is Jo Nesbø's Nemesis. I had quite liked Nesbø's The Redbreast, which I had reviewed for Time Out New York when it came out here last year. Nemesis picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, and once again Nesbø somehow manages to make an alcoholic inspector with unorthodox crime-solving methods feel like a fresh character.

And speaking of classic Scandi cops: Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander has gotten another TV series, after the Swedish one in which he was played by Krister Henriksson. Oddly it's from the BBC and Wallander is played by Kenneth Branagh—which at least means we have a better chance of seeing it here than the other version.

Too bad American channels are as protectionist as American publishers when it comes to international crime, and open up only to English series. I've been catching up with a really fun French drama called Engrenages (on DVDs sent from the homeland) and while it doesn't hold up to The Wire—but then, nothing does—it's good watchin'. Following the British model, there's only ten episodes in a season, so one can watch the 20 Engrenages eps has so far in a relatively short amount of time.

When used to the American system, it's intriguing to see one where judges are very involved in inquiries—they drop by crime scenes for example—thus altering the triangular dynamic of cops, DAs and defense lawyers that drives most procedurals here. Another difference: The French cops are a lot more hands-on (as in, rough) with suspects than they are in American shows that aren't The Shield. But the biggest selling point of Engrenages as far as I'm concerned is the presence of two particularly compelling female characters: inspector Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and crooked lawyer Joséphine Carlsson (Audrey Fleurot).

The first season of Engrenages was shown on BBC4 under the title Spiral and it's now on British DVD; the second season is scheduled to air over there this winter. Check both out.


Barbara said...

Chacun a son gout (sorry for the lack of diacriticals...) I liked the Theorin a lot and really liked the setting. I want to visit the Alvar.

I just finished Nemesis, and totally agree with you on that one. Terrific writer, terrific book.

Engrenages sound delicious. Sadly, my French is unlikely to be up to it.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Ah, but it's good to disagree on books—healthy, even!

As for Engrenages, perhaps the British DVD (under the title Spiral) will make its way over here.