I have now read crime novels by over 50 authors who are Scandinavian (as widely interpreted). I limit my reading (only) a little. But the following limitations exclude many…
As explained by a character in Jørgen Brekke’s ‘Monsters’ (the character is also ‘addicted’ to crime novels): “I don’t like any sort of fantastic literature: horror or fantasy or science fiction… It’s just too easy for the author [to] make up whatever he wants.”
I do not read books with country-specific political agendas. I also exclude ones (e.g. those by Harri Nykänen) which include too much of international spy-thriller material.
I prefer books that avoid James-Bond-type adventures, especially where the hero appears virtually infallible. This applies, for instance, to some of the Roslund-and-Hellström books which are in other respects really outstanding.
I avoid writers who break the cardinal rules of crime-writing, e.g., Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction”, see this (although his list is outdated and incomplete, it is remarkably appropriate now, 99 years after it was published).
I especially dislike crime novels where the crime(s) is/are “motiveless” — where a murder (it is usually a murder) is committed as an intellectual exercise, with absolute callousness. If there is no motive, then the three mainstays of detection — motive, means, opportunity — are reduced to two: the detecting exercise is like a three-legged stool with one leg missing. Such novels leave me feeling cheated, and I mark then down accordingly. More on this subject in George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Decline of the English Murder”, and see also Lucy Worsley, “A Very British Murder”, pp. 289-91. This for me is another cardinal rule. Of course, any murder may by its nature be callous &/or vicious, but such an emotion or lack of emotion normally accompanies one or more of the traditional motives: envy, greed, hate, obsessive desire and so on. It is when ‘normal’ motives are absent that I believe that a vital ingredient is missing.
Length: there are so many good crime writers, Scandinavian and other, that I simply do not have time for those that drag on and on. I gave up on P.D. James and Elizabeth George for this reason. Books by several Scandinavian authors listed below have been taken back to the library for the same reason — even though previous books of theirs were excellent. Sometimes I am tempted to think, “Who does this person think they are — Proust? Tolstoy?” It is their brevity which makes the novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö so appealing, in spite of their bleakness: they are gems in miniature. Other crime writers, in every country, could imitate them to everybody’s benefit. June 2019: I was very much looking forward to Camilla Läckberg’s “The Girl in the Woods” but when I got my copy form the library I put it aside, to be returned. 490 pages of small print is simply too much. If I were to read this, I would take several weeks, and I do not have the time at my disposal!
Implausibility: when the novel exceeds the bounds of what is plausible, I mark it low. In particular, I dislike what I term obvious or overlong “Dick Bartons” (see my review in ‘CrimePieces’ of Ahnem’s “Victim without a face” here!)
My comments on translations refer only to the extent to which the English version is (a) comprehensible and (b) normal UK or North American English. I can read none of the original languages so I cannot address the extent to which the English acceptably renders the authors’ meaning, their intentions. Where translations are not mentioned (which is most of the time), they cannot be faulted on these grounds: most translators, from all five languages, produce impeccable English. But I shall not be reading any more books translated by (a) Abba Segerberg, (b) Signe Rød Golly. An extended comment on Schepp’s first book:
This is a poorly translated text, perhaps translated by Ms. Schepp herself? I have in the last 50 years edited well over 50 English texts written by non-native speakers of English who speak the language well but make their own written English close replicas of their own language — an approach that is almost certain to fail. For instance: the main character in this book, Jana Berzelius, is referred to *throughout* as “Jana Berzelius”. No native English writer would repeat both first and last names more than occasionally and definitely not over 100 times. And the ‘tired clichés’ I mention may well not be clichés in Swedish… a native English-speaking editor would easily have noticed these. (To make things worse: the spelling is American, but the vocabulary and syntax are British!). Schepp has now (Oct 2018) with her second book joined my “Never again” list.
When a translation is obviously performed by someone who is a good non-native speaker of English but bases their translation on how they speak, I shall label this a FAP translation = a “Falsely Assumed Proficient”.
By contrast, an extended comment on Ahnhem’s “Victim without a Face”:
This mammoth piece of translating was by Rachel Wilson-Broyles; it is in good contemporary English, but loses none of the Swedish-ness. (As a translator myself, I refrain from writing “well-translated”: only fluent readers of Swedish may judge this aspect.) And one other plus: there is no prominent “International Bestseller” blurb on the cover (these annoy me: if it is a bestseller from a Scandinavian country, it will be inevitably “international”!!)
I have read and will continue to read “Scandinavian crime novels” for their setting: I like to be transported to a specific place as well as enjoy what I am reading (which is why certain British crime novels appeal to me). Those not “Scandinavian” enough because of their setting are identified. For Lene Kaaberbøl and Håkan Nesser (see Comments!) I overlook this ‘shortcoming’, they are so good. On the other hand, Sara Blaedel suffers because she does not appear ‘at home’ in Wisconsin… Also, I do not read books set in Scandinavia but written by non-Scandinavians. See my comments on James Thompson!
When the cover is misleading I have to resist an automatic prejudice against the story. Examples: (a) Arnaldur “Strange shores:” a totally misleading cover and title and inside-cover blurb. (b) Brekke “Dreamless”: two pictures: the upper one is of a man running through what looks like a city centre, but I doubt (from maps and images on the internet) that this is actually Trondheim. The lower one is of a recumbent woman’s body, either dead or in great distress, in a well-lit room — there are two women victims in the book, both of them held captive in the dark… The cover does show the old vs. the new distinction, but that is all that it has going for it. (c) Gerhardsen “Last lullaby”: The paperback copy bears a picture of a doll lying on a field. This maybe an allusion to a tangential part of the story — it certainly does not figure in the central plot. It does fit the title, but the title is misleading anyway. (d) Horst “Ordeal”: another really stupid cover. The plot centres on a safe in a cellar which is entered from inside the house. The picture on the cover is of a North American exterior cellar entrance. This is false advertising and should be actionable! (e) Ragnar “Snowblind”: One problem is the overwhelming impact from the 20 or so (!) expressions of flowery praise on the covers and the front pages by famous crime-writers and critics: I was left expecting to be disappointed, and also afraid that I would not appreciate merits that my betters found obvious. His “Nightblind” has no fewer than 56 such quotations. This is taking excess to extreme excess and I was happy to skip all 56 of them. Do the publishers actually expect them all to be read? (f) Schepp “Marked for Life”: Her first book misleadingly quotes a reviewer, “Move over, Jo Nesbo!” My retort is: “Jo Nesbo, stay where you are. Ms. Schepp is no threat to you!” (g) See my review of Lackberg’s “Ice Child”; and (h) Östlundh’s “The Viper” has a windmill on the cover. There is no windmill in the story; a lighthouse does figure prominently towards the end, but these are hardly the same thing!
Excluded from my list: Erik Axl Sund, Anders de la Motte, Lief Persson, …
Finally, I only do not buy any new books (being in the middle if what is called death cleaning in Sweden). I rely on the Edmonton Public Library System, which is outstanding but has the odd gap. For instance, they were lacking too many books by Johan Theorin for too many years…
Icelanders are listed according to their first names, as in the Iceland phone books.
Remarks written in 2016, when I began this list, are identified as such. Those written in 2017 are dated: Jan-Jun and Jul-Dec. Those from 2018 are identified by quarter: Jan-Mar, Apr-Jun, Jul-Sep,, Oct-Dec. — followed by Jan-Mar 2019.
If all of this makes my comments rather idiosyncratic, maybe even eccentric, which they may well be — too bad!