Tag Archives: Maj Sjöwall

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.


I was going to waffle a wee bit about yet another CrimeFest I’m not actually at. (And half glad I’m not, because of that ‘new-ish’ intolerance to travel and crowds.) The main reason I would have wanted to be there was to hear Maj Sjöwall. But we can’t have everything.

Andreas Norman, Into A Raging Blaze

But you’ll be spared the waffling, because the only other comment I have to make about this Bristol weekend gathering of professional killers – who according to Stuart Neville ‘are generally friendly’ – is that they announced the shortlist for the CWA International Dagger on Friday evening. And they’ve had the good taste to include Into a Raging Blaze by Andreas Norman, mostly famous around these parts for having been translated ‘in-house’ by Son of Bookwitch.

I’m actually reasonably proud.

And in the Short Story Dagger, the aforementioned Stuart Neville has been shortlisted for his contribution to the Oxcrimes anthology with Juror 8, which was my favourite. Well done, there too.

May both my favourites win.

Monday miscellany

I’d – almost – concluded I have no friends, but before you gallantly cry that I have you, I realised how wrong I was. Today is School Friend’s birthday. (Her 60th, but don’t tell anyone. She looks like 29.) And I’m not there. I suppose that’s what I meant, really. I’m not physically surrounded by friends, but I know they are out there, at various inconvenient distances for birthday parties and the like.

I could have gone. But with a future kitchen having just arrived, sitting in the hall (which has not had book boxes stored in it for maybe as long as a couple of weeks, and was beginning to look almost normal), and a sink that needed to be crowbarred free by Son, now seems an unwise time for me to up and frolic.

I typed ’tile’ instead of ‘time’ and that was most certainly a Freudian slip. I’m not 60, nor do I look like 29, but feel rather like 79 sometimes. The Resident IT Consultant and I went shopping for tiles last week. As we walked towards the entrance to the DIY emporium I halted and nearly asked him what we’d come for. Good thing I didn’t, as he beat me to it by a split second. We managed to remember why we’d come (I did have a list in my bag, but you feel that one item should be possible to keep in your brain and not have it slosh around uncontrollably) and the outing was a relative success. I mean, only the day before, we’d also ventured out for tiles but ended up eyeing raspberry bushes at the local nursery, where we’d gone for coffee, instead.

Speaking of gardens, we made some discoveries in ours. The Grandmother found we had a pond. Well, we knew that. But once the weeds went, we realised we have dependants. One duck. Plastic. An otter. Stone. A tortoise. Also stone. Frog. Real. Frogspawn. Also real, and watched over by the parental frog. And some days later, after all that unexpected light and air, we have ‘watery’ flowers as well.

As I said, Son and Dodo were here, carrying kitchens and liberating sinks. And stuff. Then they had to go home again, partly because Son is off to the London Book Fair this week. (It’s unfair! I still haven’t been. And I had to decline an invitation to Canada House. Again.) You can tell it’s that time of year, by how many publicists are already ‘out of office’ in their emails. (So, basically, I can blog as I like, and I am, as you can see.)

Before he left, Son borrowed the complete set of Martin Beck by Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir. Seems he’s going to need the books for some paper or other. (Someone’s been getting their translators wrong…) He asked if we wanted anything from London, and you know, I am sure I was thinking just the other day that there was something. But what?

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.

On the beach

Swedes are mad. Culture mad. At the tiniest sign of a culture offering they break shelter and flock to whatever.


We may be marooned in a small (=quiet and sometimes ‘boring’) holiday resort (though one of the best in the country, I hasten to add, lest you think I’m a nobody), but things do happen. Just look at Harplinge library’s book sale on Monday! Saw the ad in the paper for their table top sale. ‘Harplinge has a library?’ said the Resident IT Consultant.

Library sale

Regardless of the small disadvantage of not knowing where it was, he managed very nicely in taking us to the previously unheard of library. The books were all in Swedish, so I purchased a Maj Sjöwall, and left the rest. But I have to say that when they are ready to part with their old armchairs, I’m wanting first refusal. Daughter couldn’t recall having been there before, and we worked out she may have been 18 months old at the time. On that basis I’m willing to forgive her.

Over the last months I have have come across the name Björn Ranelid several times. Swedish author of ‘normal’ books, i.e. not children’s or crime. With hindsight I know this was a witchy premonition. He was speaking at a Halmstad library event on Monday night. We didn’t go.

Mobile library

The ad mentioned we could catch Björn at Båtabacken the next morning, and this being in Haverdal, we did. Daughter grumbled at being got out of bed (and here you have to consider I’d just had a nightmare featuring Björn), and she said how she hates being the only one at events.

Ranelid's Jag

It was hot. Very hot. The mobile library was in place. So was Björn’s Jag. And there was a stream of people streaming towards the beach area. We streamed along, and Daughter snapped. There were at least 150 people there, frying in the sunshine, and listening. More if you count the dogs.


According to his website Björn has several talks that he is word perfect on.

Björn Ranelid

We left to go swimming.


Björn Ranelid

An hour later, and very slightly cooled off we returned to see if there was action still, and caught the tail end of the signing queue. How Björn and his fans didn’t all faint I don’t know.

We made another hurried escape.

But at least we weren’t the only ones there.


(Photos by Helen Giles)

Doesn’t add up

For a while there I lost my entire teen years. I read the interview with Maj Sjöwall in the Observer at breakfast, and after my first incredulous thought that ‘It can’t have been that long ago!’ I threw myself over Wikipedia to check my facts. And theirs.

I was right. It was a relief to find I hadn’t imagined Per Wahlöö alive – if not well – when I was a teenager. I remembered him dying, and the nine-year-old me wouldn’t have. So the Observer writer making him out to have died 44 years ago was wrong.

Typo, I thought charitably. Well, fairly charitably. I’m a mean old witch, although not as old as they tried to make me. No, I don’t think it was a typo, because the number 44 is repeated in the text, and elsewhere the writer states it’s over forty years since Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote together. Make that over thirty years, please. And 34 since he died.

I was looking at the photo of them, with their children, in typical 1970s clothes and hairstyles. Is it the case that not only is it a little hard to deduct 1975 from 2009 and end up with the correct answer, but that if you’re young enough you can’t tell the difference between 1960s ‘fashion’ and ten years later?

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

It was in ‘sixth form’ that I heard of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, during those radical years in the mid seventies, taking for granted the hopes and the ideals, which we now wonder where on earth they went. When Per died I was a callous teenager who felt that dying was what old people did, and he seemed old to me.

Wikipedia at breakfast is unusual in these parts, so it’s sign of how worked up I became at the thought that all this happened in the mid sixties. Illogical that it should have, as the ten years of writing about Beck would have had to have started in the 1950s to make this possible.

I know, it’s uncharitable to complain, but it really distressed me to think I was ten years out in my own life.

Sjöwall & Wahlöö

We have actually paid for some books! Persuaded the Resident IT Consultant that he could do with the complete Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, so he sent off for them. We now have a tottering pile of ten books sitting around. They look good, with new and matching covers.

Martin Beck pile

They have been translated by about four different people, so I have no idea how they compare. The books also come with introductions by ‘proper’ people, as Son put it. Proper like Colin Dexter, Val McDermid and Henning Mankell.

It’s funny how this growing wave of interest for Nordic crime works. Never thought these crime novels from my past, read by all my leftist friends, would re-surface. But it’s good.

What we shall do with the two or three old Sjöwall & Wahlöö novels remains to be seen. Keep them because they are the real thing, or get rid of non-matching duplicates?