Comrades or Hooligans? Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist


There was nothing there about their exploit! Not a word. They were furious. At last Faye found a little paragraph in the Guardian that said some hooligans had blown up the corner of a street in West Rowan Road, Bilstead.

“Hooligans,” said Jocelin, cold and deadly and punishing, her eyes glinting. And she did not say — and there was no need, for it was in all their minds — We’ll show them.

Like the subtitle Hardy chose for Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the title of this book promises challenges to readers’ moral assumptions: if Tess is a “pure woman,” then female purity must not be defined by sexual innocence; if Alice is a “good terrorist,” then there must be a way to reconcile goodness with terrorism — either terrorism itself is sometimes a good thing, or being a terrorist doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, even if you commit an evil act. Unless, of course, the title is ironic, or descriptive of competence, not virtue, as it is applied, in fact, to one of Alice’s co-conspirators, who “was studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist.”

I spent most of my time reading The Good Terrorist trying to orient myself in these possibilities. Is the novel at any level about the necessity, the justice, the virtue of terrorism? It certainly does not paint an encouraging picture of modern England: “The relentlessness of it,” Alice thinks, “the fucking shitty awfulness of it.” But though we see plenty of ways in which the “system” is failing, it’s hard to take the “comrades” seriously, with their ideological vagaries, their bumbling incompetence, and their high-flown rhetoric, indistinguishable from parody:

All over the country were these people — networks, to use Comrade Andrew’s word. . . . Unsuspected by the petits bourgeois who were in the thrall of the mental superstructure of fascist-imperialistic Britain, the poor slaves of propaganda, were these watchers, the observers, the people who held all the strings in their hands.

It’s also impossible to take Alice as she would like to be taken: as a revolutionary. Her commitment to the cause is hard to distinguish from her feelings for Jasper, who is not exactly her boyfriend, certainly not her lover, but whom she idolizes and yearns for, whose approval she craves but who actually seems to depend almost entirely on her for money and all domestic arrangements. Her revolutionary zeal is also constantly challenged by her nostalgia for the home and family of her childhood (though one of the novel’s more interesting developments is her realization that maybe things never really were the way she remembered them). How good a terrorist can someone be who steals her mother’s brocade drapes to make her “squat” more cozy, who runs home hoping to make off with the really big soup pot, who can’t bear it when her mother comes down in the world (thanks in large part to her, Alice’s, interference) and ends up in a sad little flat with no one to talk to about books?

So is The Good Terrorist a satire about people who imagine themselves to be both good and terrorists but are really just playing at revolution, for whom épater le bourgeois is more the goal than real political transformation? Is the novel told at Alice’s expense, to expose her as what her mother calls her, a spoiled child? Alice loves to shock her parents, to steal from them and throw rocks at their middle-class suburban windows, but she also runs to them for money (and soup pots) and expects them to stand as references when she applies for permits and loans. She loves to demonstrate and run from the police, but more often she stays behind, transforming the “squat” into as close an approximation as she can of a respectable home. It’s necessary camouflage, she argues to her comrades: keeping up appearances keeps the inspectors and the cops at bay. She’s right, but it’s not easy to tell which goal is, ultimately, the pretense for her.

The house itself is tempting to read symbolically, but of what? Does it stand for England, with its solid foundation but shameful state of disrepair, its squandered capacity to welcome and shelter, its rotting beams at the top that need replacing by stalwart workers? Or is it more specific to the revolution, with its shared spaces regressing into private territories, its pretense of civility barely concealing its buried sewage, its susceptibility to external attack as well as internal rot? Or maybe it’s just the site on which the novel’s conflict between the desire to build up and the forces that tear down is rendered most literally — with a deliberate ambiguity about which side the comrades are on.

I did get mildly interested, by the end, in what kind of terrorist Alice would turn out to be. (I would say that she’s not in fact a “good” one in either sense of the word.) But I didn’t find her a very consistent or believable character: she fluctuates too wildly between cool self-control when dealing with bureaucrats and wild emotional ups and downs in other contexts. I couldn’t piece together, either, a coherent idea about how she ended up where she is when the book begins — not in terms of plot and events, but in terms of motivation. That was one of many things I ultimately found dissatisfying about The Good Terrorist. It seems like a book that could have done something much deeper and more interesting about modern values and political violence. Instead of probing, though, it skipped along the surface, describing in painstaking detail and what sometimes felt like real time what is happening, but not why, not itself entering into the problems its characters are, however superficially or solipsistically, going on (and on) about — and trying, however wrongheadedly and ineffectually, to do something about. I didn’t enjoy Lessing’s writing style, either, which is more an absence of style combined with a failure of selectivity: I really couldn’t see why the book had to include quite what, or quite as much, as it did.

theterroristsThe book I found myself comparing it with is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists. To my mind, the advantage is all with Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They tell a much tighter story that does a much better job at making us think about what it means to be a “terrorist,” or who we label “terrorists.” Rather than being a book about (wannabe) socialists, it’s a book that is, itself, socialist in its reading of society and especially its analysis of the operations of state power, class, and gender. In Rebecka Lind Sjöwall and Wahlöö also offer us someone who really deserves the label “good terrorist,” and in doing so they draw us effectively into the moral paradoxes that label provokes. If we sympathize with her — if we concede that her act of political violence is understandable in the circumstances, though not necessarily excusable — we have come a lot closer to revolution than is entirely comfortable. Lessing clearly did not have that kind of political goal for her novel,* but what exactly The Good Terrorist offers us instead has not only eluded me but also doesn’t much interest me.

*I don’t believe authors are necessarily authoritative on what their books do or are about, but after mulling over The Good Terrorist for a while on my own I poked around online a bit and came across Lessing’s Paris Review interview, in which she says she thinks it’s “quite a funny book” and that she wanted to “write a story about a group who drifted into bombing, who were incompetent and amateur.” The humor was pretty much lost on me. Would I have read the novel differently if I’d known it was supposed to be funny? Shouldn’t I have been able to tell it was funny?

Monday Miscellany: Getting My House in Order, Course Prep, & LA Review of Books

In part, I mean “getting my house in order” quite literally, in the sense that much of my time in the past week has been spent sorting out a household problem of the most unexciting kind. It sounds simple enough: some time ago our dryer began catching items in its edges and scorching them – not a good thing! So I finally set up a “service call” and, after warning me that if he even stepped across the threshold he’d have to charge me at least the minimum for the visit and it might not be worth it for a dryer that is over a decade old, the nice man from Sears diagnosed the problem, “costed” the parts and repairs, and left us convinced that we didn’t want to fix the thing because to do so would cost very nearly as much as a new dryer. And a new dryer, of course, instead of developing yet more expensive problems, would actually be under warranty. And it might (technological advances being what they are) actually dry clothes more efficiently. Thus was launched the great Washer-and-Dryer quest of 2011 — washer too, because our old set was ‘stackers,’ a decision by our home’s previous owner that had seemed odd to us until we started looking for alternatives that would actually fit inside the closet where the laundry hook-ups are. Hours of internet research followed, and then multiple phone calls and then trips to stores (tape measure in hand, eventually, because it turns out you can’t trust the information you find on the internet!). It’s such a boring thing to spend so much time on, and yet it’s just the kind of thing you don’t want to screw up because you need the darned things to work, preferably for years. It’s a boring thing to write about, too! And this is just the kind of thing that gets the snide hashtag #firstworldproblems on Twitter…so I’ll stop, except to say that our new, pretty basic but, we hope, efficient and effective (and non-scorching) set arrives on Saturday. As most of the appliances in our house are at least that old or older, I fear we are living on borrowed time, especially with our cook-top and oven (original, I believe, with the house, which was built in the late 1980s). I promise not to keep you up to date.

I’ve also been getting things in order at work. A couple of weeks ago I laid out the tasks I need to get done to be ready for the start of classes in September: Blackboard sites, course syllabi, and other assorted paperwork and preparation. At this point I am happy to say the syllabi are ready for all three of my fall courses, including details about course requirements and policies, and, most important, full schedules of readings and assignments. I’ll give these one more thorough examination before I make them official, but I don’t expect to change anything major. I’ve also prepared the Blackboard sites for all three courses. I won’t be using these sites for much besides organization and storage of course materials except for in one class, where we will use the discussion boards for questions and responses. Even so, it takes a lot of tedious work to put the various pieces in place, including setting up and testing links to a range of online resources, uploading handouts, and so forth. There are some bits and pieces I still need to draw up, including study questions for novels I haven’t taught before, and I’ll keep puttering away at those, but those can be added easily enough now that the overall system of tools and folders is in place. I do hate Blackboard: every step is so laborious. But it is helpful having course information centralized in this way as well. I know we don’t have the latest version. I can’t say I’ve found the most recent upgrades improvements, but maybe the next level will give us a more intuitive interface and even (dare I dream?) drag-and-drop capabilities. Though I’m not completely finished with class preparation, there are some things it never makes sense to do very far ahead of time (like actual lecture notes, which I find need to be pretty fresh to be useful), and the panic I was feeling at the beginning of the month has more or less abated.

As for my other work, there too I am getting things in order. I’m actually caught up right now on thesis chapters to read. That won’t last – I expect not only another Ph.D. installment this week but an entire M.A. thesis, for which I am serving as 3rd reader. I must make the most of this little lull and … work some more on my conference presentation for Birmingham! I finished a first full draft version of the Prezi I was building for it (if it even makes sense to talk of a “draft” of something as malleable as a Prezi). Looking at it this weekend I felt that I had found pretty much all the pieces I wanted to include (the accompanying commentary, of course, is what will make it all intelligible, or so I hope) but it still seemed kind of linear and unimaginative given what you can actually do with Prezi’s layout options — it looks as if I took PowerPoint slides, shuffled them up a bit, and laid them out on the table in related clusters. I’m going to spend some time working on my speaking notes separately now, and then go back to the Prezi and tighten it up. I’ve been looking at some of the samples on the Prezi site (like this astronomy one: cool!) and getting a sense of how you can use the zooming functions and the multi-directional layout options more creatively to end up with a presentation that lets you step back and display the big picture as well as come in close and explore the details. In the end, of course, what matters most is that your audience understand your points and the relationship between them. What I have been appreciating about Prezi is that it lets me think about those relationships and play with them right there on the ‘canvas,’ muttering to myself as I go. I know that in PowerPoint you can shuffle slides around, but the slides themselves are both harder to set up and fussier to change than the Prezi, where you literally just slide things around. That said, I definitely want to do a trial run in one of our classrooms that has its own ‘desktop’ computer and a data projector, to check how what I see on my own computer translates to that technology. I think I’m also going to prepare a simple PowerPoint version: the conference organizers have told us to bring PPT presentations on memory sticks to use in the conference rooms, and even though I have double-checked that the available computers will have internet access (which should be all I need to run the Prezi right from the Prezi site), I don’t want to be caught short by some factor I haven’t anticipated. The conference program is up and it looks like it will be a very full three days of sessions. With my departure now only two weeks away, I am starting to feel my usual pre-travel jitters, which I will keep in check by focusing on planning. I’ve just started looking more attentively into trains from London to Birmingham, for instance. Both prices and times for the trip seem to vary enormously. Oh dear: something else to fret about!

In other news, I don’t think I ever mentioned here specifically that the piece I wrote on Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series ran on the Los Angeles Review of Books site on August 5th (link). I’m really impressed at what the folks there have accomplished in what seems like a very short time (though I realize a lot of work went on in preparation for the launch even of this temporary site!), and also at their larger ambitions for the review, which reflect a deep commitment to but also a welcome optimism about books and book culture. If you haven’t been paying attention to them, one piece that is well worth reading because of the way it contextualizes their efforts is editor-in-chief Tom Lutz’s “Future Tense.”  Among the many interesting things he says is this, about their editors and contributors: “Many of us are also supported, as I am, by our universities (however much they, too, are shrinking and under siege), and so we can write and edit ‘for free’ as part of our commitment to the dissemination of knowledge that is integral to that job.” As I noted briefly on Twitter, the kind of writing the LA Review of Books represents is not the kind that is usually required or rewarded by universities (I bet most if not all of the academics who are heavily involved in this experiment in knowledge dissemination are tenured), so if they are indeed being encouraged by their institutions to proceed, that’s a promising sign that at least some administrators understand that there are more ways to use academics’ time and expertise than specialized, peer-reviewed publication.

I’ve been taking kind of a mini-sabbatical from Open Letters Monthly, partly to make sure I concentrated on my ‘must-do’ tasks, partly just to regroup and think about my priorities over there, including how best to balance them against the upcoming term, which promises to be one of my busiest in a while. I haven’t forgotten the essay on Richard III, gender, and genre, but my motivation for it rather sagged, especially given how esoteric it is, really — except for my own quirky interest in it, I couldn’t see the point of it, and it’s certainly not time-sensitive, unlike other work I’ve been doing. I’ll take a fresh look at it when my informal leave of absence is over and see if I feel excited about finishing it, and also if, on sober second thought, it seems like something anyone else would want to read! I also need to be ready to steer a couple of incoming pieces from other contributors through for the September issue, so I hope to be re-energized and back in the editing business soon. Watching the LARB take off has prompted some reflections on how we fit into the broader context Lutz describes: as Ed Champion remarks in his response to Lutz’s essay, there is a pretty extensive array of online review publications already, including OLM. (As a side note, following on the issue of how academics might fit into the ‘new’ order, one of the comments at EdRants says “Perhaps the kind of long-form book reviewing that was the rule in the old print world should be gathered into the fold of academia, and it seems like the LA Review of Books model might be the thin end of the wedge here.” The more I think about these issues, the more they seem to deserve a separate post, as they open up all kinds of questions, including about the role of academics in the wider world of books and reviewing – which were, of course, some of the questions that were most on my mind when I first began blogging.)

And now, I must go put some laundry in, as our old set leaves tomorrow and though the four-day interval before the new ones arrive may not seem like much, it’s not negligible with a teenaged boy in the house! Then I’ll settle in to address the next things on my to-do list.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö, The Terrorists

I’ve just finished reading three more of the Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Abominable Man, Cop Killer, and The Terrorists, which are, respectively, numbers 7, 9, and 10 in the series. There are now only two I haven’t read (The Man on the Balcony and The Locked Room)–not by design but because they haven’t turned up in the library or at any of the used bookstores I haunt. I think that the eight I’ve read have given me a very good idea of the series as a whole, and my interest in and respect for what Sjöwall and Wahlöö do in it has only increased as I’ve read along. By the end of the final book the scope and intensity of their critique of contemporary Swedish society has finally become explicit. It is even, finally, articulated at length, rather than gestured at through repeated jabs by the characters and in the narration or through the accumulating examples of incompetence, hypocrisy, and stupidity we got in book after book. It’s interesting that it’s a relatively peripheral character who finally voices the most sustained piece of social criticism in the series. It is carefully prepared for, in The Terrorists, by the juxtaposition of an “actual” terrorist cell that engineers two political assassinations (one of which is ultimately unsuccessful) with a very different kind of attack by someone who, as her lawyer argues, may have committed murder but is best understood as a victim. The terrorists’ attacks are not glorified: in fact, we get a rare close-up of brutality from one of the main characters when two of them are finally cornered (I’m trying to avoid really explicit spoilers, as it is quite a suspenseful story!):

He felt the hatred welling up inside him, a wild, uncontrollable hatred against these people who killed for money without caring who they killed and why. . . . [he] proceeded to smash his opponent’s face and chest repeatedly against the wall. On the last two occasions, [the man] was already unconscious, his clothes soaked with blood, but [he] kept his grip and raised the large limp body, ready to strike again.

“That’s enough now,” says Martin Beck, but there’s no sign that anyone, including Beck, is surprised or moved in any way by the violence shown. In contrast, the alt-assassin is treated sympathetically–during her initial interrogation (which even seems the wrong term to use) Beck offers her food, proposes that they resume after she’s had a rest, and generally gives her every consideration. There’s no question that her action is political, in the broadest sense of the word. She aims (pun intended!) at the head of a state that has shown her only indifference or hostility through its pervasive but ineffective bureaucracies. Nobody in particular has done her any harm: the problems and injustices she faces are systemic. What recourse does one individual have, in such a situation?  “She realized,” her lawyer explains, “that someone must bear the responsibility”–and so she has acted, with a slightly pathetic naïveté. ‘It does seem a bit pointless,” one policeman remarks; “They’ll find another one just like him inside half an hour.”  But her lawyer suggests, that “she is wiser and more right-thinking than most of us.” It’s almost a call to revolution, except that it’s so carefully embedded within the particularities of the case and of the wind-bag lawyer that its risk is contained. Still, it’s out there, as an idea, and the direction of our sympathies towards someone who has basically turned political terrorist because of the repeated small ways she has, in her own private life, been terrorized, is consistent with the overall message of the series that violence generates violence, and that we should not be too quick to equate legality with justice.

There is quite a lot of violence in The Terrorists, some of it quite gruesome. The tone is never sensational, though, only dispiritedly matter-of-fact, even when a head decapitated by an explosion strikes an officer in the chest. The grim potential of these moments is also leavened by Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s characteristic dry humor, which perfectly conveys the attitude of rueful stoicism shown by most of the police officers. The one who is struck in the chest, for instance, is immediately upset about his nice suit. Later the head of a decapitated dog is displayed as evidence and the annoyingly smarmy and incompetent Superintendent, Stig Malm, “at once threw up on the floor,” a moment which gave me more gratification than it probably should have because his bad police work has cost a lot of lives across the series. The cynicism that drives the series is also on full display, as when the proceedings against the apprehended terrorists are described as “among the most farcical that had even been enacted in any Stockholm courtroom.” If we had any lingering idealism about the system that has failed the first accused assassin, it’s dispelled here. After the case and the evidence against the men has been presented, we get this:

“I oppose the arraignment,” said the defense counsel.

“Why?” asked the judge, a flash of genuine surprise in his voice.

The defense counsel sat in silence for a moment, then said, “I don’t really know.”

With this brilliant remark, the proceedings collapsed…

We end the book, and the series, on an ambivalent note. On the one hand, we settle down for a pleasant evening with four of our main characters,

just the kind of evening everyone hopes for more of.  When everyone is relaxed and in tune with themselves and the world around them. When everyone has eaten and drunk well and knows they are free the next day, as long as nothing too special or horrible or unexpected happens.

If by “everyone” we mean a very small group of humankind.

Four people, to be exact.

The restoration of order and domestic harmony promised by the form of the detective novel is offered but promptly rejected or subverted. Even if that harmony is achieved, it is only for the fortunate few, and even they enjoy it only precariously, only until it is broken once again. In the Martin Beck books, such happy moments actually happen often, but it seems to be a law that the more comfortable you are with your aquavit and your book, or your lover, the more likely it is that the phone will ring and pull you back into the corrupt world. What hope does one individual have against all the wrongs, all the injustices, all the stupidity? The one person who has taken a stand in this book has been labelled insane and locked away, destroyed, not helped. Martin Beck’s long-time partner, Lennart Kollberg, offers his friend some consoling perspective: “Violence has rushed like an avalanche throughout the whole of the Western world over the last ten years. You can’t stop or steer that avalanche on your own. It just increases. That’s not your fault.” “Isn’t it?” asks Beck. “Kollberg … looked at Martin Beck and said, “The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’ve got the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.” “Is that all?” Becky drily responds.

The final word of the series goes to Kollberg, and, as has been widely noted, is “Marx.” Certainly there’s plenty of disgust expressed for capitalism, by characters but also through theplots of the  novels and their typical allocation of guilt and innocence. The Terrorists even has a long screed against Christmas, which “had changed from a fine traditional family festival into something that might be called economic cheapjackery or commercial insanity.” The defense lawyer’s statement explicitly condemns the way “large and powerful nations within the capitalist bloc have been ruled by people …  who from a lust for power and financial gain have led their peoples into an abyss of egoism, self-indulgence and a view of life based entirely on materialism and ruthlessness toward their fellow human beings.”

Clearly these are books with a political agenda, and moments like these are didactic, riskily so. I think they are dramatically effective, however, because they are rare, and because the series shows no crusading or utopian zeal. In its world, systems are necessary. Bureaucracies are imperfect but essential. Some good police work is better than none; trying to find a just outcome is better than not trying. Change is slow. Work is hard. Patience is a virtue. Life is bleak, but there are small pleasures, like dinner with friends. Martin Beck has no illusions, but he still shows up every day and does his job. It’s an unimpressive but ultimately quite moving form of moral heroism.

I think I may choose The Terrorists for my class in the fall. Usually when approaching a series I assign the first one, as it often makes most obvious what is going to be different, how this author will bend and reshape the conventions of the genre. That also gets me out of the awkward backstory problem (teaching Gaudy Night, I’m always tempted to [and often do] interject with context from the previous books). But here, though I think all the ones I’ve read are outstanding, and Roseanna would be a really interesting book to read right after studying hard-boiled detective fiction and then Ed McBain, I think this one makes the political work Sjöwall and Wahlöö are doing most evident, and that is something that really does make their series distinct. It shows a conviction (one often echoed by today’s practitioners of the genre, such as Ian Rankin) that the detective novel really be both artistically effective and ideologically significant, and not just as a means for celebrating and protecting the status quo. That doesn’t mean Sjöwall and Wahlöö are necessarily successful or persuasive in every aspect of their project, but I think it will give us a lot to talk about.


“Sheer misery”: Mankell and Scandinavian Noir

Henning Mankell’s most recent (and, as I understand, also his final) Wallander novel, The Troubled Man, is being released in its English translation this week. I’m still enjoying a break from my immersion in Scandinavian crime fiction, though I picked up another of the Martin Beck mysteries during my most recent excursion to Doull’s (The Abominable Man)–now that I’ve decided to assign one for my fall mystery course, I have to figure out which one, so I’ll be back reading them again in a bit. I won’t be rushing out to buy The Troubled Man right away, as I still need to catch up on the rest of the series (I’ve read only Faceless Killers and The Fifth Woman so far). Now that I’ve been thinking more about the characteristics of these books myself, though, the coverage of Mankell’s latest is interesting in itself. I must say that I particularly enjoyed the parodic opening of the review in the Guardian:

The flat, affectless sentences went on. Like rape out of season they stretched to the horizon in grey fields. Wallander found he was in another book. There was no reason for this. There could be no reason except money, but it would take 300 pages for him to work this out. It always did. Later, he would think about this often, but he could not reach any conclusions. Perhaps it was drink. Perhaps it was senility. Perhaps it was just the conventions of a Swedish crime novel. He wondered if any of this mattered.

Another page turned. His daughter rang. She disturbed him. This might be because she was the only human character in the entire book. She tells him he is a self-pitying bore but she loves him anyway. After she has gone he will spend some time looking out of the window and feeling regret while he remembers incidents from other books. Later, she has a baby, but to show she belongs in the book she will refuse to name it for three months. This is a joke that worked better in Doonesbury where the author was aware that people might find it funny.

An old girlfriend turns up. She is dying of cancer. Soon, she will kill herself, although it may have been an accident. Wallander is unhappy for some weeks, and then he decides he will always be unhappy. Life continues.

Spot on! And yet as you know, I have been brought round somewhat by the thoughtful arguments some of you made in response to my criticisms of Faceless Killers, to accept that the surface tedium of this style has its own literary antecedents and justification. (Thanks very much to @Liz_Mc2 for sending me this link via Twitter!)

There’s a longer piece in the Financial Times that is prompted by a recent BBC production, a “Danish-made Copenhagen set” drama called The Killers. The article opens with The Troubled Man (“the first page of the first chapter of Henning Mankell’s … The Troubled Man is sheer misery”) and then moves into a more general inquiry into the current popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction:

Crime fiction has long depended on a sense of dark forces lurking below calm surfaces and it is not unusual for it to have a reformist, critical edge. Critics have pointed to US noir novels and films as an allegory for fears of subversion and communism in the 1940s and 50s. English country-house crime of the Mousetrap genre depended on an assumption that, behind the tennis and the gin, bestial passions waited their time.

But in Scandinavian noir this is frequently married to a revolutionary intent. Most of these writers are militantly left-wing. It is a tradition started by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a couple of Swedish journalists who, between 1965 and 1975 (when Wahlöö died in his late 40s) wrote the 10-novel Martin Beck series. Beck, a Stockholm police inspector who resembles the later Wallander, stoically solves crimes that are often rooted in upper-class chicanery or lower-class desperation.

It’s not obvious why fiction of this kind (novels “from Marxists who write of people beset with misery who either commit or must deal with acts of extreme sadistic violence”) would have any market appeal today. Sex and violence always sell, as some of the interviewees note, and many of the most successful novels (the Stieg Larsson ones especially) are hyper-modern: “the trappings of contemporary technology are much in evidence.” But there’s also the variation these works provide on the consistent preoccupation of crime fiction: the ongoing contest between order and disorder. The Scandinavian countries have long exemplified a certain kind of contemporary social order: “their “model” – one of high taxation funding comprehensive welfare and education, coupled with world-beating corporations – has roused envy and emulation, as have the orderliness of their civic life and the fluency of much of their population in foreign languages.” Such control inevitably (or so the novels persistently suggest) comes at a cost, and has its own dark side:

Rigidity in maintaining surface order, the mark of the Scandinavian social democracies, needs to be breached violently by those who are, ultimately, on the side of order – otherwise it will be breached by the violence of those who would destroy it.

The piece ends with some comments from mystery novelist Joan Smith; I was interested that she describes the Wallander novels as “very old-fashioned,” and points to “Larsson, Arnaldur Indridason in Iceland, Jo Nesbø in Norway” as  doing something much more interesting.”

Maj Sjöwall & Per Wahlöö: The Martin Beck Mysteries

My education in Scandinavian crime fiction continues! After I expressed my doubts about Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, I received some very helpful advice in the comments thread. In particular, Litlove suggested the Wallander books participate in a peculiarly European mood of melancholia (about which, she rightly inferred, I am largely ignorant) and a literary tradition of what she, um, invitingly described as “ugly, grinding prose, empty, bleak, futile.” And Dorian, who added the nice term “effaced personality” to our conversation about how Wallander is characterized, noted that Mankell’s series has an important antecedent in the Martin Beck mysteries by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. If I had been reading Mankell solely for pleasure, I might not have felt obligated to do the extra work of adjusting my reading framework to take these contexts into account, even though in principle I agree that good reading requires situating the book appropriately. I was reading Mankell in part as a professional, though, so I felt I did need to try a little harder to understand what he was up to–and boy, am I glad I did, not just as a teacher/scholar but as a reader. Three books into the Martin Beck series, I am thoroughly enjoying them, and I’m already feeling as if I will read Mankell much better (more aptly, more appreciatively) when I turn to The Fifth Woman, which is waiting here on my desk.

Why am I liking the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books so much better than Faceless Killers? One likely answer is that I’ve already fine-tuned my expectations, so that the features they share with Mankell’s first Wallander novel are more familiar and comfortable. Among these I would include the bleak (grinding, empty, futile) atmosphere–including both the literal atmosphere of cold, wet, miserable winter (as Jonathan Franzen says in his introduction to The Laughing Policeman, the “weather inevitably sucks”) but also the moral and emotional atmosphere, which is grim in a resigned, routine way. There’s also the one-damn-thing-after-another plotting characteristic of a police procedural, where every lead has to be laboriously pursued, every interview methodically conducted. No snazzy locked-room mysteries, these, no death-by-icicle or orangutang, no brilliant ratiocination leading up to a triumphant revelation scene. In these books, crime is a sordid business, no matter which side of the law you are on. No wonder everyone drinks so much–or tries to (in the Beck books at least, the more you are looking forward to your aquavit, the more likely it is the phone will ring and tear you away from it).

To some extent, I would say too that the prose in the Sjöwall and Wahlöö books has the same somewhat clunky quality I objected to Faceless Killers. Those of us who know no Swedish (I’m guessing that covers all readers of this blog!) can’t know how far this is an effect of translation, of trying to capture the cadence of another language in English. There are some tics in the Beck books that do suggest that there’s something deliberate about it, something purposefully exotic, if you like. One small detail that stands out for me is the recurrent reference to ‘Martin Beck’ where I would expect the surname alone, e.g. “Martin Beck looked disbelievingly at Kollberg,” 200 pages in. That’s just the tiniest little bit jarring, as you read along; it lets you know you aren’t quite on your home turf. But more generally, I found Faceless Killers flat, whereas I am finding the Beck books dry–in a good way. They are almost as tersely declarative, but there’s a momentum to the language that I enjoy, and also there’s a wonderful streak of humor, sometimes sardonic, other times more flat-out comical (as with the two beat cops Kvant and Kristiansson–“Ask a policeman,” they helpfully tell a confused woman who asks them for directions).

I haven’t yet seen quite the scope of social criticism attributed to Sjöwall and Wahlöö in the prefaces provided to my editions–one by Mankell himself, another by Val McDermid, another, as I mentioned, by Franzen. Franzen calls the series “a ten-volume portrait of a corrupt modern society; Mankell says “the authors had a radical purpose in mind … to use crime and criminal investigations as a mirror of Swedish society.” I have seen enough, though, to believe that the critique already apparent accumulates over the remaining seven books–and especially in The Laughing Policeman (with its anti-Vietnam rallies and its complacently self-interested corporate villain) I can anticipate how it might proceed. Mankell writes that the authors never intended “to write crime stories as entertainment” and he points to Ed McBain as an inspiration for them, someone who showed how to use “crime novels to form the framework for stories containing social criticism.” McDermid highlights the difference between the Beck books and the “golden age” procedurals of the 1930s, set in a world in which “a bent cop is almost unthinkable; an incompetent one only a little less so.” I was actually surprised that none of these discussions mentioned the possible influence of hard-boiled detective novels: to be sure, one point of these is that their protagonist is not part of the official law enforcement system, but someone like Sam Spade moves precisely in a world of near-universal corruption (or, sometimes worse, incompetence) which very much includes the police. I mentioned the noir atmosphere of McBain’s Cop Hater, and I think there’s something of the same perspective–though illuminated by the flickering flourescent lights of bureaucracy, rather than the foggy fitfulness of street lights–in these bleak cop novels.

As for the cases, well, I didn’t like the graphic violence and sensational bursts of action in Faceless Killers. Two of the Beck novels I’ve read so far also turn on quite violent crimes, and particularly in Roseanna, the details are unrelentingly specific. Having read McBain’s comments about facing up to violence while still trying not to be “salacious” about it, I can see a similar principle at work in the Beck books, though I think the authors flirt with danger in the way they linger over the details of the sexual crimes and, especially, seem preoccupied with women’s sexual histories, or with women who are “too” sexually assertive or demanding. There are only rare cases of women who are something other than nagging/disappointed wives at home, or ‘whores’ shading into victims: here too, perhaps, some fruitful consideration might be given to the influence of hard-boiled novels, or perhaps this is just another reflection of the hyper-masculine world of the police. The standout exception is the woman police officer who helps entrap Roseanna’s murderer…but she too ultimately must play the vamp and then becomes a victim, only to be rescued. That the belatedness of the rescuers’ arrival is caused by the same kind of stupid screw-ups that typify the world of the novels more generally adds only a little painful irony to an exploitive situation.

These remain first impressions, but I feel like I’m making progress. I’ve talked fairly often about blogging as a way of thinking in public; it’s also, wonderfully, a way of learning in public. Thanks for your help so far–feel free to  keep correcting and supplementing my attempts to come to terms with this material!