Tag Archives: Henning Mankell

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.

Depressingly familiar

The Resident IT Consultant suggested we watch a Swedish film (because us dinosaurs have now got access to Netflix), but no, not that kind of Swedish film. He had read a review of it and thought it sounded good.

I lasted half an hour before I asked to be excused. It was simply too painful to watch. While I’m not claiming to have led a life like the girls in the film, it still felt very close to home in a not-so-good way, and to me it wasn’t entertainment. It was revisiting days I’m relieved are over. The characters in the story were not my kind people.

A day or so later, I was scanning the book reviews in my Vi magazine. They are generally never for books that I know (of) so unless the actual writing of the review is riveting, I tend not to spend time on reading them.

But what hit me was much the same feeling as I’d had with the film. I’m glad I’m no longer part of the kind of life that features in these often highly praised novels (all adult books). Somehow it just feels very alien. I like nice, and I like familiar. If I’m to step on to new ground, it has to be the best of new grounds.

Even the new non-fiction collection from Henning Mankell failed to interest me. Perhaps it’s because they made much of his illness, which is depressing. I don’t know what his health is like right now, but assume that the Swedish press have got it covered. The one story that is mentioned in the review is about a ‘leaving’ in Salamanca, of all places. And I have one of my own, so didn’t need reminding.

Sorry to sound so grumpy. I reckon that Britain was just waiting for me. I like the books here better. Or is that because I didn’t go to school here? Not so much for me to cringe over. I don’t know. But thank you for putting up with me.

Nordic Noir

Before I knew what I was doing, I was hauling a Nordic (well, Swedish) crime novel off the shelf to read. That’s how fired up I got once I started on Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir guide book.

He knows a lot about this subject. More than most. Certainly more than I do. And that made me envious and I wanted to begin my new career as a Nordic crime specialist, which is when I discovered the book I’d found was in English. So I put it away again, and I will pick something else. Later.

I will never be an expert on Nordic crime. Barry didn’t set out to be. It just happened to him. Now he has read quite a bit, and he has met most of who’s who in this genre. And in Nordic Noir he shares it with us.

This slim volume is probably more for looking things up in, than to sit down and read from cover to cover. Barry lists books from all six countries, includes interviews with authors, as well as talking about recent films and television shows. There’s not much that’s missing.

The Swedish section is the largest – naturally – and the Faroese is definitely the smallest, with the other four countries nestling in the middle. For a non-Nordic speaker Barry has steered an almost perfect route between å and ä and ö, past ø and ð. The few near misses could be due to printers, and not the author. Only the one Norwegian writer has ended up listed as a Swede, but these things happen.

And when Henning Mankell saw mice, he did so in a posh London hotel. These things happen, too.

Any fan of Nordic darkness could do worse than equip themselves with Barry’s guide. You know, you could show off a little next time you’re in the right kind of conversation.

Leave my archipelagos alone!

In his review last week of Camilla Läckberg’s The Lost Boy, the Resident IT Consultant mentioned the standard clichés you tend to encounter in Nordic crime fiction. OK, neither abuse nor suicides are terribly enjoyable, albeit facts of life and probably quite appropriate in crime novels that tend to deal with death and violence.

But I claim the right to have my motorcycle gangs, and my archipelagos! They are a way of life. They are also common enough not to merit cliché-dom, simply because you expect them.


Motorcycle gangs are rarely young killers in real life, though. They are middleaged and orderly, living their dream. What’s not to like about wearing black leather and driving around the beautiful Nordic countryside? Stopping for coffee and waffles at some scenic outdoor café, and life is just perfect.

But the crime novelist might be better off not mentioning the waffles.

As for the archipelago; we ‘all’ have one. Strictly speaking, it needn’t be an archipelago. A beach will do. Somewhere by the sea. Or the side of a lake. If the water is missing, there will be forests. And in that forest or by that stretch of water – on or off an island – is a cottage.

Your cottage. You either own it or rent it or borrow it or simply visit someone else’s. Preferably with an invitation. Although the urban myth (?) depicts how you just decide to go visit the Nilssons for the day (or the weekend) because they own that nice cottage, and so by default will be desperate for your obnoxious company. You arrive armed with a packet of biscuits, ensuring they will be so dreadfully appreciative…

You don’t have to be rich. Not on the breadline either, obviously, but you can be – and most likely are – completely ordinary.


I have had an ‘archipelago’ all my life, in the shape of a beach on the Swedish coast. The landscape looks like Kenneth Branagh’s Ystad. My first trip I was one week old, and we spent the next eleven summers in the same cottage. It belonged to Favourite Aunt, and the cottage next to hers was Aunt Motta’s, and all the cousins crowded in and slept packed like sardines.

Beach and sardines. Privy. It couldn’t have been more wonderful if it tried.

And it goes without saying that had we been the murderous type, we’d have done the dirty deed in this idyllic and sunny setting. That’s why you set your crime novel in an archipelago. Not because everyone else does.

By my twelfth summer Mother-of-witch wanted her own cottage, so saved and scraped and bought one. (Come to think of it; that’s where the postman thought we’d done the Retired Children’s Librarian in.)

Crab fishing in Steninge

We still holiday there and whenever we go for waffles, the motorcycle gang is sure to follow.

Henning Mankell OAP

Thank goodness someone had the sense to celebrate some kind of birthday at last! I’ve been thinking it’d be nice with a birthday. But it had to be someone special, and I wanted a good number.

Henning Mankell is 65 today, but despite what it says in the heading, I very much doubt he’ll be retiring. Does he look like the retiring type?


Henning Mankell

Here he is, looking a bit grumpy. Perhaps he’s thinking about his presents. Or just ‘when can I get out of this?’ And ‘I want my cake now! With coffee.’

Bookwitch bites #48

I so want to go to the Oxford Literary Festival. And that does sound pathetic. I know. I found this really good selection of events that would suit me perfectly, on Sunday 3rd April. And do you know, the trains aren’t running that morning. This is Britain, after all. Thwarted by a train! Or lack thereof. When I started looking, the fare was even quite reasonable. But you don’t buy a ticket in order not to get somewhere. Candy Gourlay, Michelle Magorian and Meg Rosoff… How can I not want to go? Christ Church College frowned on people sitting on their quad wall last year. I suppose that sneaking in the night before and sleeping on the very same wall wouldn’t go down any better.


Some people are off to Bologna next week. That’s another place I’ve not tried. Not sure it’s suitable for the likes of me, but whenever people say they are getting ready to go I feel a pang. It honestly doesn’t hurt much at all. I’d rather do Oxford.

Henning Mankell

Antibes now, that’s something else. I’m not sure that’s where my guest blogger Declan went to interview Henning Mankell. It’s probably just the Guardian who sent their interviewer there for their Mankell interview. The current glut of Mankell interviews suggests a new book. It’s the end for poor Wallander, in some way or other.

And please note that we have our own Mankell photo from the same session as the Guardian’s. I’ve learned to recognise that green backdrop now.

After this week’s travelling I have an excellent quote from Julie Bertagna. It really should go on the cover of my book, but I haven’t written one yet and it seems like a long wait expecting that to happen. Julie was reading Bookwitch, as any self-respecting author ought to, and found she couldn’t ‘get off the site’. She suspects an entrapment spell.

No comment.

Guaranteed Norwegian

Nordic Noir on BBC4 on Monday was a lesson in many things, but pronunciation was not one of them. The Resident IT Consultant (who fell asleep towards the end) fondly imagined that the Danish Mariella Frostrup would cope well with the Nordic names. Not even the Norwegian-born Mariella could do anything but sound British, though at least she did so in that sexy voice people go potty over.

The programme didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, so was one of those I sometimes moan about, which assumes the customer is new to the topic, and there is no need to take it further. Quite fun to tick the number of people who took part who I’d met. Poor souls.

The wise participants, like actor Krister Henriksson (Wallander) and author Maj Sjöwall, were interviewed in Swedish. It must be tempting to say yes to requests to do an interview in English. When you can. But it’s worth remembering you ‘can’ less than you think. Krister and Maj came across as intelligent, rounded people because there was nothing to stop them from saying exactly what they wanted to say.

Val McDermid

Val McDermid, likewise, sounded good, Scottish accent and all. She knows her stuff when it comes to Nordic crime. And OK, Jo Nesbø speaks good English. But it’s not as good as his Norwegian, I’d guess. It was he who mentioned some form of music (Norwegian metal?) and CDs in Latin America labelled as being ‘Guaranteed Norwegian’.

Karin Fossum sounded somewhat less bloodthirsty in English, so it might have been a blessing she didn’t speak Norwegian after all. After hearing Karin in Bristol I remember having a good look at her books, and coming to the conclusion I wasn’t up to reading them.

They rather skirted past Arnaldur Indridason and Iceland. Some nice scenery. Though speaking of scenery, I wonder whether much of any of it was of what they talked about. Ystad is always Ystad, of course. Even when it’s Yshtad.

That wasn’t the only disappointment. I can see that a non-native speaker may choose to put the stress on the first syllable only. Or the second syllable. You’re allowed to get it wrong (though I have said before that most people would try to get a French name correct, and you can always ask around if you are presenting for the BBC). But how come the stress-on-the-first-syllable words invariably got stressed on the second and vice versa? Wallander and Sahlander rhyme. Stress-on-second-syllable names. Mankell is a stress-on-first-syllable name.

Henning Mankell

With Wallander the programme went a little tabloid over the suicide of an actress. Sad but irrelevant. And Stieg Larsson was fat. Really? Maybe Stieg lived off junk food and smoked himself to death, but I wouldn’t call him fat.

His friend John-Henri Holmberg would have come across much better in Swedish. He was obviously in a position to say a lot about his friend, but could have said more. I dare say he’s saving it for the book about Stieg he’s writing with a few others.

In fact, this whole programme confirmed why we often think foreigners are idiots. They are not. And it’s time British television interviewed more people in their own language. In this case we had a bunch of interviewees who make a good living off their mother tongues. I’d have liked more considered facts, spoken by people who were comfortable with what they were saying.

But other than that, I enjoyed my hour on Nordic Noir. It confirmed why I don’t read more of it, though.