Wallace on Screen: The Krimis Films

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Speak to Germans of a certain age and the chances are that they will remember a series of films opening with a voiceover proclaiming ‘hier spricht Edgar Wallace’ (‘this is Edgar Wallace speaking’). A total of 32 films were made as part of a series that has become known as “Krimis” films. Still shown on television and available on DVD and Blu-ray the films have preserved Wallace’s reputation in Germany while he is largely forgotten in his homeland.

Not the first German adaptations of Wallace’s novels. Five German-language adaptations are known to have been produced between 1927 – 34 (there may have been others).  Why did a Danish-German production company decide to embark on a fresh series of screen adaptations? For a country seeking to banish its past and create a new inclusive sense of nationhood what appeal was there in seeing recreations of 1920s England culled from the work of an imperialist?

During his lifetime Germany was a strong market for Wallace.  German publishers were late in discovering Wallace’s commercial potential. The first translated novel was issued in 1925. Discovering the existence of a massive back catalogue of titles publisher Wilhelm Goldmann traveled to London and met with Wallace to secure the rights to issue translated editions of all title that had been published in the UK.

Prior to 1925, Wallace expressed amusement upon receipt of translated editions of his novels. Success in Germany made him more conscious of the dividends earned from overseas sales. For a man whose profligacy had brought him close to ruin the steady injection of revenue from a new market was most welcome.

In common with most authors of his generation, Wallace had written scathing commentary about Germans during World War I. In peacetime he became more amenable and is reported to have had a deep affection for Berlin. In this new market, he was soon to become a major celebrity. Reports of visits to Germany suggest that hundreds of people would turn up to catch a glimpse of him at train stations.

In the post-war era, sales of Wallace’s books in the UK declined while Germany remained a steady market. With sales in freefall, at least in the UK, the estate sold rights to adapt Wallace’s novels for film and the stage to Anglo-Amalgamated for the UK and Commonwealth and Danish film producer Preben Phillipsen for German-speaking territories.

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Wallace’s novels had been a publishing sensation when first published in Germany. Would German audiences who had grown accustomed to American crime thrillers be willing to view domestically filmed adaptations of English thriller novels?

Produced, at least initially, in tandem with the UK’s Anglo-Amalgamated series, the German adaptations retained the novels period settings. Running until 1972, early films in the series were relatively faithful adaptations of the source material. Later films would be more liberal in what elements would be retained and/or discarded.

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Production commenced with the adaptation Der Frosch mit der Maske (The Frog with the Mask). Early entries in the series were filmed in Danish studios. Later films were shot in facilities based in Hamburg and Berlin.

With box office returns healthier than expected it was clear to the producers and distributors that German audiences would be willing to see further installments. Production was ramped up for further entries in a domestically produced franchised that would ultimately comprise of 32 films.

Dismissed by critics, today the films have a cult following. Posts by fans in forums and Facebook groups discuss production details and celebrate deficiencies. In 2004 nearly two million German people saw a parody film, Der WIxxer, during its theatrical run.

For modern viewers, the presence of unconvincing sets and repeated stock footage may enhance the sense of guilty pleasure when watching a ‘Krimi’ film. What appeal did the films have for the first wave of ticket buying cinemagoers? The films blending of genres and increased self-reflexivity in later productions makes it difficult to classify the series. Incorporating themes and elements from film noir, horror, Golden Age detective fiction, comedy, German Expressionism, and the musical the majority of Krimi films forms conform to a narrative template. Critics and academics have noted repeated elements present in most Krimi films; masked killers, an investigator, comic sidekick, castles and/or mansions, and excessive use of fog.

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The imagined version of 1920s England seen throughout the series has puzzled critics attempting to identify why the films were initially popular. Aside from stock footage, location scenes were filmed in redressed German streets. The England represented in the films never existed.

Commentators have suggested various reasons for the films’ appeal including socially conservative ideology, audience enjoying the appeal of identifying the villain before the investigator and seeing foreign generic forms absorbed into a distinctly German cultural product.

 

Wallace on Screen: The Edgar Wallace Mysteries

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Little read today, Edgar Wallace was a bestselling author during the first half of the twentieth century. Estimates suggest that in 1928 a quarter of all books sold in the UK were authored by Wallace.  In America, his books were reported to be selling 250,000 copies per year.  Germany was, and remains, a strong market for his novels. During his most commercially successful period, he was reported to have sold half a million books in West Germany.

In the post-war era sales of Wallace’s novels declined in the UK. ‘The King of Thrillers’ was regarded as old-fashioned by a generation of war-weary readers who had switched their allegiance to hard-boiled American crime fiction. Wallace’s imperialistic, and misogynistic narratives were out of place in an era that saw the British Empire’s dismantling.

All too aware of declining commercial prospects, Wallace’s estate sought to reinvigorate the back catalogue’s commercial appeal through the sale of options to adapt novels for stage and screen. In 1959 agreements were in place for two film series; Danish film producer Preben Phillipsen acquired rights to adapt Wallace’s novels for German-speaking territories, and Anglo-Amalgamated secured an agreement to film ninety books for English speaking territories.

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The 1960s cinemagoing experience differed significantly from its modern day counterpart. A pre-multiplex era may on cursory examination signal fewer films being made available to the ticket-buying public. This was an era when the number of cinemas was greater than today. Whereas today people go to see a single film, in the 1960s and earlier, audiences went to the cinema for an evenings entertainment. In addition to the main feature, cinemagoers viewed a supporting film (usually referred to as a B-movie).

To stimulate the UK’s film industry and protect it from being suffocated by American imports, the government legislated to increase the number of domestically produced films screened in cinemas. In order to meet quotas and qualify for any available subsidies, producers churned out B-movies secure in the knowledge that they would be able to secure some form of distribution for their product.  Disdained by the industry, largely forgotten, many British B-movies were locked away in vaults after their initial exhibition and never screened again.

In recent years seasons at the BFI, Talking Pictures broadcasts, DVD releases, and academic studies have brought renewed interest to the British B-movie, its stars, directors, production companies, and modes of distribution.

Despite the industry’s ambivalence about supporting features, evidence suggests they may have had a core group of dedicated fans. Cinemagoers deciding which “fleapit” to visit for their night of entertainment may have been swayed by the selection of advertised support features on offer. One series of films that received prominent front of house promotion was The Edgar Wallace Mysteries.

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Cinema attendance in the UK peaked in 1947.  In the following years as attendance fell a number of cinemas were demolished or converted into bingo halls.  To protect the domestic industry the Harold Wilson’s government introduced a tax on cinema tickets, known as the Eady Levy. Funds raised were collected by HM Customs and Excise and passed onto the British Film Fund Agency. Revenue was distributed between British film-makers, the British Film Institute, the Children’s Film Foundation, the National Film Finance Corporation, and funds were to be allocated for filmmakers training.

The Eady Levy was a key piece of legislation at a time when doubts were being raised about the British film industry’s long-term viability. By the 1960s the Eady Levy was helping to sustain a culture of second feature filmmaking that included crime dramas, exploitation films, horror, travelogues, and sex comedies. At this time the UK film exhibition and distribution industries were dominated by two chains, the Rank Organisation and the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC).

In 1959 Producers Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy secured the rights to adapt Edgar Wallace’s novels. Cohen and Levy’s production company Anglo Amalgamated is today best known for being the initial producer of the Carry On franchise, and the controversial Michael Powell film Peeping Tom. Despite significant forays into mainstream production, the company’s bedrock was low budget crime B-movies. Owning its own studio, Merton Park, the company’s assembly line approach to production churned 130 films. With production costs subsidized by the Eady Levy revenue the producers realised they could generate extra funds by selling content to the then emerging international television market. To this end, they created several series that would be exhibited in UK cinemas as support features and then sold to overseas television networks. Among this batch of productions were Scotland Yard, The Scales of Justice, and The Edgar Wallace Mysteries.

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Initially exhibited at ABC cinemas, forty-seven films were produced as part of The Edgar Wallace Mysteries. Merton Park Studios was famed for its efficiency. Able to shoot an entire film in 8-10 days, reports suggest its directors were expected to achieve 10-14 camera setups a day. To minimise production costs and speed up the process Edgar Wallace’s novels were updated to take place in the then present day. Despite previously recorded declining sales of the novels, the films were well received by the public, exhibitors, and critics. A cover version of the series’ theme tune by pop group The Shadows reached number 5 in the hit parade. Following theatrical screenings in the UK and commonwealth, the entire package of films was sold to American television where it was screened as Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre.

Viewed today, the films’ use of suburban locations presents images of a country that was still recovering from World War II. Bomb damaged buildings are occasionally seen in the background of shots. The juxtaposition of 1920s thrillers and then contemporary locations creates a discontinuity which suggests that in the pre Swinging London era the nation was trapped by the legacy of its past and unsure about how to define itself in a post-colonial era.

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The “quota quickies”, an earlier form of British B-movie, tended to cast stage actors. Their theatrical performances were required to compensate for static camerawork. The Edgar Wallace Mysteries cast screen character actors. Part of the appeal of watching the series today is spotting actors who would later find acclaim for playing very different roles (Michael Caine, Harry H Corbett, John Thaw, William Hartnell, Wilfred Brambell, Bernard Lee, Paul Eddington).

B-movies are a part of British screen history that has been overlooked for far too long. Series like The Edgar Wallace Mysteries are invaluable documents worthy of greater analysis.

The Edgar Wallace Mysteries is available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: Getting Carter by Nick Triplow

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Comprehensive biography delivers everything you wanted to know about the rise and fall of an influential writer.

Despite being well respected in France and attaining cult status in America, Ted Lewis is largely forgotten in his native Britain. Author of nine novels, his legacy today largely rests on the move adaptation of Jack’s Return Home, filmed as Get Carter.

Fusing techniques borrowed from the hard-boiled American crime fiction with social realism he founded a new school of British crime writing. Continuing to exert a strong influence on contemporary fiction, echoes of his most famous work can be found in Jake Arnott’s underworld novels, Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, David Peace’s Red Riding trilogy, and Shane Meadows’ film Dead Man Shoes. Notable fans of the author include Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Max Allan Collins, Ben Myers, and Cathi Unsworth.

In life and death, the author drifted into relative obscurity. His most famous work has been obscured by the better-known Michael Caine starring film version. Despite being championed by a small but dedicated group of admirers greater acclaim continues to elude Lewis and his work. Currently, most of his novels are out of print in print in the UK. For decades Ted Lewis was one of the most significant British crime authors most people had never read.

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Nick Triplow’s meticulously researched biography is the definitive account of Lewis’ life and his work’s continued relevance. The book is a nuanced study of a tortured soul that is as compelling and rich as anything written by Lewis.

Equal parts social document and crime fiction, the best of Lewis’ novels attempted to stretch the parameters of what it was possible to achieve within the confines of British crime fiction. Defined in the popular consciousness by the Mike Hodges directed film Get Carter, Triplow reveals that the adaptation was largely ignored or misunderstood until undergoing rediscovery and rehabilitation in the 1990s courtesy of Loaded magazine’s aborted attempt to publish a comic-strip version. Triplow suggests that Crime Time‘s publication of a Lewis retrospective issue in 1997 alongside the screening of a restored Get Carter at the National Film Theatre momentarily placed the author, or more specifically his most commercially successful work, in the new laddism zeitgeist. It was particularly apt that the book and film were reappraised in the dying days of Britpop having previously been recognised as signaling the end of the 1960s.

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Interviewing school friends, university classmates, work colleagues, drinking pals, and fellow writers Triplow examines possible causes of Lewis’ self-destructive behaviour and his excessive drinking. Discussing Lewis’ literary output in relation to his life Triplow reveals that the author frequently transposed real events, people, and places into his work. The experience of being tormented by a sadistic headmaster was retold in Lewis’ 1975 novel The Rabbit. Gangsters met in Soho drinking clubs inspired characters and events in Get Carter and subsequently written crime novels and TV scripts.

Getting Carter is an impressive study that shatters numerous half-truths and myths about Lewis that have circulated since his death. Triplow skilfully recreates a long lost era enabling the reader to momentarily walk in Lewis’ path and understand why he stood apart from other crime writers.

Getting Carter is published by No Exit Press

Book Review and Interview: The Angels of Hammurabi by Max Seeck

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Turbo-charged thriller.

The Finnish government is sent into a state of near-panic when a member of its diplomatic staff vanishes. The only clue to Jare Westerlund’s disappearance is a series of anonymous threats sent before he went on holiday.

Frustrated with the local police force’s lack of progress, the Finnish government dispatches armed forces specialist Daniel Kuisma and Foreign Affairs Ministry assistant Annika Lehto to Zagreb. Investigating the missing employee’s trail they uncover a tangled web of secrets.

Former peacekeeper, Daniel served in Croatia during the Yugoslav wars. As the investigation intensifies, dark secrets from his past impact upon the present. During the war he served in secret military campaigns. He soon learns that everyone who participated in the missions is in danger. Daniel is racing against time to discover who is murdering his former colleagues before he becomes the next victim.

Max Seeck’s debut novel is an atmospheric, intense, and cinematic thriller. Masterfully plotted, The Angels of Hammurabi plunges the reader into a dark world where nothing is what it seems. With curveballs hitting the reader at breakneck speed, the author ensures that the book’s ingenious conclusion is dazzling and unexpected. A promising start to a new Nordic thriller series.

Impressed with The Angels of Hammurabi I spoke to Max Seeck about the book and his future plans.

Did you always want to be a writer?

‘My initial dream job has been a movie director and / or screenplay writer. But I guess I’ve been driven by my personal need to tell a story, come up with interesting characters, events and plots and gather them into an experience. Make people react, feel and experience new things.’

What inspired you to write about a former peacekeeper investigating a missing person case in the Balkans?

‘Well, a former peacekeeper suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder is unique for one thing. The crime thriller scene has witnessed an alcoholic policeman, autistic female detective, hallucinating investigators just to name a few. They are all smart and ingenious in their own way. I wanted to create a protagonist with an original background. Also having experienced a battle combat means that he must have seen and experienced a lot of awful things – killing people – without being truly evil.’

History and sense of place is very important in The Angels of Hammurabi. How thoroughly did you research events and regions?

‘I began the writing process during a vacation in Croatia. Many events take place in locations I’ve personally been to. We also made a trip to Mostar, Bosnia and walked around the city with a tour guide. She told us about the war – how it was then and how it still affects thousands of lives in the region. However, many places, historical events and details were researched with the help of Google Maps and Wikipedia articles. I cannot even imagine how much more difficult doing a research for a book must have been 20 years ago.’

The Angels of Hammurabi feels very international in tone. Were you writing for a global audience?

‘As a matter of fact I was. I admire Nordic thriller novelists such as Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson – just to name a few – and I think they have done a wonderful job creating an atmosphere where nothing is too localized. You have people of different nationalities and places from all over the world. Also – if you want to make your living writing novels, you cannot rely too much on the relatively small population of Finland. Obviously the goal is to raise interest also in the surrounding countries and have the novel translated into many languages. Having an international tone doesn’t hurt here.’

How long did it take you to write the novel?

‘I started writing in 2013. The first two years I wrote whenever I had time – basically a few evenings a week. I had a few longer breaks – there was a time when I didn’t write for nine months. Most of the non-writing periods were due to my struggle with my own fears and frustration – what if nobody wants to publish this? Is the manuscript even any good? Am I wasting my time?’

Is there much of you in Daniel Kuisma?

‘Despite the things he has done in the past, Daniel is a good guy. And I’d like to see myself as a good guy too. I guess that’s pretty much it. Daniel – just like anybody else – is far from perfect. I hate characters that have no flaws. And I don’t trust people who are making a lot of effort to hide theirs. I think that there’s nothing as beautiful and genuine in a human being as one’s undisguised imperfection.’

Was Annika Lehto modeled on someone you know?

‘In the book she’s described as “young Cameron Diaz”. But on the other hand she looks a lot like someone who’s very close to me. However, her actions and thoughts have no real life source.’

Do you have any thoughts about Nordic crime fiction’s continued popularity all over the world?

‘I think Scandinavian authors and publishing houses have done an amazing job by elevating Nordic crime fiction as a household concept around the world. I think however, that the Nordic scene constantly needs new players to keep it fresh and on its toes. Now it’s time for Finnish authors to really join the club. Because despite of speaking and writing in a language nobody understands, we have amazing – and believe it or not – sometimes even darker stories to tell.’

Who are your favourite authors?

‘Am I being boring if I say there are so many? Within the crime thriller genre I admire authors such as Stieg Larsson, Jens Lapidus, Jo Nesbo and Dan Brown. The Swedish couple that goes by the name of Lars Kepler also writes great books. I’d also like to mention inspiring authors such as George Orwell, Mario Puzo and Kurt Vonnegut.’

Are you going to write a sequel to The Angels of Hammurabi?

‘Most definitely. I have started the writing process.’

What advice would you give to someone writing their first novel?

‘I’m not sure anyone should give advice after having one published novel. However, I can think of one thing that kept me writing even at times it felt desperate and pointless. Be determined. Once you have decided to write a book, don’t let any excuse or anybody else to stop you from doing so. You need to have the compelling need to finish what you started. Whether your book will be published or not, not finishing your manuscript will haunt you forever. Take your time and enjoy the process. It’s never fast or easy. Writing Angels of Hammurabi took me three years. And most of the time I just loved writing it.’

Thanks to Max Seeck and Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency.

Max Seeck is published by Tammi.

Max Seeck is represented by Elina Ahlbäck Literary Agency.

Max Seeck
Max Seeck

Journey to Death: Leigh Russell Interviewed

 

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Leigh Russell’s latest thriller takes readers on a whistle-stop tour of the Seychelles and introduces a new lead character.

The latest book by the bestselling author of the Geraldine Steel psychological thrillers introduces a new character and marks Leigh Russell’s debut with Thomas & Mercer.

Journey to Death is the first Lucy Hall book and it is your debut with Thomas and Mercer. Will we see further Geraldine Steel and Ian Peterson novels?

I am currently writing the ninth book in the Geraldine Steel series, and have been signed up to write three more after that. So Geraldine Steel will still be around for a while. Although I may be prolific, I can’t write three series concurrently, so the Ian Peterson will be stopping for now, but he will not disappear. Ian Peterson began his career working as a sergeant in the first three books in the Geraldine Steel series, and the two characters have kept in touch since he embarked on his own spin off series. Each plays a cameo role in the other one’s books, and he will continue to play a role in Geraldine’s books. They may even end up working together again, as they did in the beginning.

Do you have long term plans for Lucy Hall?

As it happens, I do, but the first book in the Lucy Hall series, Journey to Death, has only just been published. It is set in the Seychelles. The second, set in Paris, will be out in September 2016, and the third in the series, set in Rome, will be published in February 2017. When my debut, Cut Short, the first Geraldine Steel book, was published, I had no idea that it would be the start of a long running series. I’m hoping the same will happen with Lucy Hall. But so far all I can say for certain is that Lucy Hall will have at least three adventures. After that, we will have to wait and see!

Is Lucy Hall based on elements of your own personality? If not, what inspired her creation?

My plots are worked out fairly carefully in advance, but I like to allow my characters to develop slowly. In Journey to Death Lucy Hall is twenty-two and quite naive. The events of the novel force her to grow up, preparing her for the adventures that she will face throughout the series. I’d love to tell you that her character is based on my own personality, but I’d have to pretend that I’m brave and resourceful enough to investigate crimes and track down killers. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not in the least adventurous in real life. My challenges take place on the page while I’m sitting at my desk at home. Perhaps Lucy Hall is the woman I would like to be, intelligent, courageous and enterprising.

Your previous books have been set in the UK. Does the tropical paradise of the Seychelles lend itself to a different form of crime novel?

Crimes in fiction are perpetrated by characters who are drawn from human nature which does not change, regardless of setting. That said, location adds to the atmosphere of any novel. Journey to Death is set on a small tropical island which is both an idyllic and a claustrophobic location. The tropical heat inevitably slows the characters down, and this is reflected in the pace of the narrative. The characters are also captivated by the beauty of the island. It would be impossible to set a novel in such a beautiful place without showing how the characters are affected by the scenery. In some ways, the location is an integral part of the story.

How thoroughly do you research your novels?

As soon as Journey to Death was acquired by Thomas and Mercer, I arranged a trip to the Seychelles. I had researched as much as possible remotely, engaging in a lengthy email conversations with local officials, and studying images online. But the sounds and smells of the cloud forest cannot be replicated online, any more than the atmosphere of a place can be experienced from a virtual tour. During my stay on Mahé I visited several police stations and spent an afternoon with a detective inspector at the Central Police Headquarters in the capital, as well as making several visits to the British High Commission. In addition I toured around the island, visiting the beaches, the market, and the cloud forest on the mountain. Of course I could not travel back to the 1970s and live through the political coup where Journey to Death starts. However I was fortunate to be able to work from an eye witness account of the events that took place on the island in 1977, and so the background to the narrative is based on actual events. Only the characters and their story are completely fictitious.

Will you be attending any crime fiction events this year? If so, which authors are you excited about seeing?

I will be at CrimeFest in Bristol and Bouchercon in New Orleans, and probably at Harrogate, as well as appearing at several other literary festivals not specifically dedicated to the crime genre. It is always enjoyable catching up with fellow crime writers, but there are far too many to name them all. I’m very excited about catching up with Lee Child, Peter James, Jeffery Deaver and James Runcie who have all been particularly kind to me. But the list of authors I’m looking forward to seeing is far too long to include here – Mark Billingham, Linda Regan, Rachel Abbott, Mark Edwards, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Martin Edwards, Len Tyler, Mel Sherratt…. I could go on for pages… ! I have been around for a while now, and the crime community is so friendly, that I have many friends among my fellow authors. It’s always fun to see them. In fact, I can’t wait!

Journey to Death is published by Thomas & Mercer

Thin Ice: Quentin Bates Interviewed

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Author of acclaimed Icelandic crime series talks about his lead character, translating, and plans for this year’s Iceland Noir festival..

After a decade spent living in Iceland Quentin Bates returned to the UK and embarked on a career as a journalist for a nautical trade publication.

In addition to being the author of a series of novels featuring Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir from the Reykjavik Serious Crimes Unit he has translated Ragnar Jónasson’s Snow Blind and Night Blind for Orenda Books.

Gunnhildur was a sidekick when you started writing your first novel. Did making her the lead character cause any major story problems which had to be rectified in subsequent drafts?

In the original draft of Frozen Out she was the sidekick to the male protagonist who I fairly quickly realised wasn’t working. He was the archetypal grumpy geezer with a bottle problem and a weight problem. I admit it, I’d been reading too much Wallander and he had rubbed off far too clearly. Fortunately I could see what was wrong with what I’d been trying to do, got rid of the bloke who was so unmemorable that I can’t even remember what name I gave him, and promoted his far more interesting sidekick to the main role.

That happened quite early in the process, so replacing him was quite seamless. I hardly noticed he was gone. What did cause problems came at the editing stage and was to do with Gunnhildur’s age. Originally she was an older character, in her late forties. The publisher wasn’t happy with that and wanted a younger character, someone with a career ahead of her and not with an eye on retirement. They wanted to go much younger, so eventually we compromised. That meant re-arranging the ages of her children and fixing all kinds of conflicts in the plot, and one or two items from the original version slipped through the net.

How thoroughly do you research Icelandic policing methods?

Actually, I don’t research that side of it at all thoroughly. I have some friends in the Reykjavík police force and I can take questions to them, so I’ll ask if you have XYZ, what would you do, or what could you do? I’m more interested in listening to them talk among themselves, hearing how they treat each other, what they chat about, what their attitudes are to various things that may have nothing to do with police work. It’s the incidental details rather than the procedure that interest me. But if there’s anything specific I’m unsure of, I can ask.

You have a long standing connection with Iceland. As a “Scandi-Brit” Is it easier for you to be more critical in your writing about how the country has responded to the aftershocks of the 2008 financial meltdown than would be the case for a native Icelander?

We’re into sensitive territory here. It’s incredibly easy to criticise both the run-up to the financial crash and the aftermath. Both have been pretty disastrous. It has to be borne in mind that a country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy like this is a rare event and it’s virtually impossible not to criticise, especially when, like me, the critic has a vast emotional investment in Iceland. I’m enormously fond of Iceland and it hurt watching the place hit so hard. Friends and relatives lost jobs and homes. It was painfully close to home watching it all happen.

It’s easier to be critical as an outsider as being outside maybe gives you a clearer view. But I’m also very conscious that as both an insider and an outsider, criticism from me is going to be taken badly. I can’t get away with being as openly critical as a local writing in Icelandic for a domestic readership could be. Having said that, when I wrote Frozen Out, I was sure I had gone overboard in describing some of the excesses, but for years afterwards things were still coming to light and in fact I hadn’t even come close.

Icelandic crime fiction is flourishing after years of being overshadowed by by its Nordic neighbours. Why has it taken so long for British readers and the publishing industry to recognise the country’s crime fiction scene?

Ask the publishers, both UK and US. For some reason publishers on both sides of the Atlantic are traditionally wary of foreign stuff and we see a far lower proportion of translated material on bookshop shelves than you’d see in a European bookshop.

To start with there were Sjöwall & Wahlöö, plus a few others, then Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, followed by Henning Mankell’s books. The arrival of Stieg Larsson triggered a rush for Nordic crime stuff, but in reality the bulk of what publisher snapped up in the wake of the Larsson phenomenon was from Sweden, plus some Norwegian books. Danes, Finns and Icelanders stayed pretty much out in the cold, although this has finally started to change now.

There are still only five Icelandic crime writers available in English; Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir who are well established. Then Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and Árni Thórarinsson were published by Amazon Crossing, although there’s only one of Árni’s books in English (translated by Anna Yates). Then Karen Sullivan came along and took a punt on Ragnar Jónasson, which was definitely the right thing to do.

There are more to come… Lilja Sigurðardóttir (no relation to Yrsa), Jónína Leósdóttir, Ævar Örn Jósepsson and more. The sooner a few more are snapped by by British publishers the better.

Do you regard translation as an art or a craft?

Technical translation is a craft and literary translation is closer to being an art. Translating a novel calls for all kinds of interpretation, especially with those wonderful untranslatable words, swearing, idioms, nursery rhymes, and so on. These things can’t be rendered directly into English so it’s a process of finding roundabout routes and substitutes that equate to what the author would have written if he or she had been writing in English. It’s certainly a fine way of exercising the grey matter.

When translating Icelandic fiction do you have to make concessions for readers who may be unfamiliar with with the country and its culture?

I try not to. In places I’ll add a line or use one of those roundabout routes if something deserves explanation – although the editor has to approve these additions and may well ask for a few more. But I have faith in the readers of translated nordic crime fiction as being discerning, intelligent types who can use google if there’s something they find genuinely baffling, and who hopefully don’t mind being challenged occasionally by something new and unfamiliar.

What are the biggest challenges facing a translator in the age of ebook publishing?

I’m going to stick out my neck here and say that I deplore the number of foreign authors who translate their work into English themselves. I have read a few of these things and I haven’t seen a good one yet – although I’m possibly more critical than many people would be. It’s an exceptional person who can translate out of their native language and into another one. Fair enough, your conversational or business English is good, even excellent. But that’s not quite enough. I know authors who speak outstandingly good English, but who admit that there’s a crucial 2% shortfall they need to overcome to be able to write English themselves.

But still… when I see those words ‘translated by the author,’ that tends to be as far as I get.

Having said that, Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov both wrote in English which wasn’t their first language. But they were exceptional. They must have mastered that final 2%.

Do you have a wishlist of books that should be published in the UK?

The one mentioned above, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Jónína Leósdóttir and Ævar Örn Jósepsson are prime candidates. Apart from them, I’d like to see more of Dominique Manotti’s books translated from French as her fiction is outstandingly good. Then I’d like to see crime fiction from more far-flung places, the Balkans, North Africa, Greenland…

As co-founder of the Iceland Noir festival you are currently arranging this year’s line up. What are you able to reveal about the event?

This year we wanted an all-female line-up of headlining authors, and that’s what we have. Our stars are Val McDermid from Scotland, Leena Lehtolainen from Finland, Viveca Sten from Sweden and Sara Blædel from Denmark.

Thin Ice is published by Constable

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Book Review and Interview: Sewing the Shadows Together by Alison Baillie

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An intriguing début novel explores the effects of bereavement and the corrosive power of secrets.

Thirty years after the rape and murder of 13-year-old Shona McIver DNA evidence proves that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. A wrongly imprisoned man has his conviction overturned and is released back into the community.

Now living in South Africa, Shona’s brother Tom returns to Scotland to scatter his mother’s ashes. Returning to the city that was once his home he is attends a school reunion and meets former classmates for the first time in decades. Also at the reunion is Shona’s best friend, Sarah.

Married to a TV presenter, Sarah is mother to grown-up twins. Juggling her roles as wife, mother, and daughter she frequently ignores her own emotional needs. Haunted by the memory of her friend, old wounds are reopened when the police reopen the investigation into Shona’s murder.

With the killer still at large suspicion falls upon friends and family. Tom and Sarah expose secrets and lies woven across the decades in their quest to bring the murderer to justice.

Sewing the Shadows Together is an emotionally driven whodunnit. Alison Taylor-Baillie’s densely plotted novel sympathetically highlights the trauma suffered by crime victims’ families. Impeccably researched, the book delves deep into the emotional makeup of people who have been bereaved by homicide and tries to understand how they attempt to reconstruct a normal everyday life.

A promising début, Baillie has delivered a gripping crime novel filled with vivid characters and a powerful sense of location. An author to watch out for.

Impressed by Sewing the Shadows Together I spoke to Alison Baillie about writing the book and Tartan Noir,

What interests you about the crime fiction genre?

I love the fact that it combines a puzzle to be solved, strong character development, where we learn about inner motivation and hidden secrets, and an atmospheric sense of place.

Sewing the Shadows Together is your first novel. How long did it take you to write  it?

It has been in my head for more than thirty years, but it was only when I stopped teaching full-time that I finally found enough time to write it down. Because it had been fermenting in my subconscious for so long it was fairly well-developed by then, so it only took me about eighteen months to actually write. I thought this was quite quick, because I’m a slow writer, constantly going back and rewriting what went before if the characters and plot veered off in their own directions.

You live in Switzerland, Sewing the Shadows is set in Scotland. Do you see the book as part of the Tartan Noir movement or is it Euro Noir?

I think it is definitely Tartan Noir, because of the setting, but Tartan Noir and Nordic Noir are incredibly popular in Germany and the German-speaking part of Switzerland I live in. I’ve already been approached by a German translator who is interested in the book and my Swiss readers have been asking when it will be translated into German so their friends and family, whose standard of English is not as high as theirs, can read it.

What are you working on at the moment?  Will we see a second novel?

 I have started a second novel, also a stand-alone, set in Scotland and Switzerland. Although I wasn’t aware of it at first, I realise now that some of the themes are similar, with hidden secrets, displacement to another country and culture, and family tensions – and, of course, a crime to be solved!

What’s been the most rewarding experience associated with seeing your work in print?

I’ve only been in print for a very short time, but the best thing has been the response – people saying they loved the novel, people who read the story in 24 hours – I find it quite moving. I also like being able to say ‘I am a writer’ – before publication I felt embarrassed about say thing this, but now I feel I can.

Which contemporary crime fiction authors do you enjoy?

I read Scottish and Scandi fiction mainly, occasionally venturing as far south as the north of England. Actually if you google Tartan Noir and Scandinavian Noir you almost see a list of my favourite authors. If I had to pick two who I have been introduced to in the last few years I would say Yrsa Sigurdardottir (I went to all the way to Münich to hear her read) and Lin Anderson.

Do you have any advice for writers working on their first novel?  

The best advice is to read as much as possible; I’ve learnt nearly everything I know about plotting and character development from reading. It is also good to get in contact with other writers, in a writing group or on an Arvon course, as I did. I also benefited enormously from attending crime-writing festivals, not only because I saw my idols on the panels and was introduced to a lot of new writers, but because I met the most wonderful group of supportive people who have stimulated me and widened my horizons in the most amazing way.

Thanks to Alison Taylor-Baillie and Mike Linane for making this interview possible.

Sewing the Shadows Together is published by Matador.

 

 

Book Review and Interview: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

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A compelling début novel puts Derbyshire on the crime fiction map.

On a January morning in 1978 two schoolgirls walking to school are abducted. Rachel Jones manges to free herself from the captor’s clutches and is found a few hours later. Sophie Jenkins is never seen again.

Decades later the missing girl’s mother books into a Derbyshire hotel room and kills herself on the anniversary of the kidnapping. Yvonne Jenkins has spent thirty seven years mourning for the child who never returned home. Paralysed by grief and not knowing for certain what happened to her daughter on that fateful day in 1978 she has been incarcerated by a torment that can never be wiped away. A routine police enquiry establishing cause of death links the disappearance of Sophie Jenkins to her mother’s apparent suicide.

Matters of the past are never far from Rachel Jones’ mind. Now a genealogist she has forged a career digging into other family’s secrets while burying the memory of what happened on that fateful day. The mystery of what happened to her friend has dogged Rachel and events from 1978 are raked over once again as the police connect Yvonne’s death with the kidnapping.

Praised by some of the biggest names in contemporary crime fiction, Sarah Ward’s début is a page-turning police procedural filled with dark secrets and complex puzzles. Long-term blogger and Petrona Award judge she eats, sleeps, and breathes crime fiction. Her affection for the genre is written into every carefully constructed page.

Enthralling, intelligent, and profoundly moving, In Bitter Chill effectively combines a vivid picture of a now lost era when parents thought it was safe to let their children roam free in the countryside with a harder-edged age in which the risk of abduction and abuse is ever present.

Signalling the birth of Derbyshire Noir, Ward’s début is a searing mystery that will delight fans of Scandinavian crime fiction.

Entranced by In Bitter Chill we spoke to Sarah Ward about the influence of Nordic Noir and how she researched the book’s period sections.

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As a Petrona judge how does the Scandianvian school of crime writing differ from its English equivalent?

I think that English crime writing is as diverse as its Scandinavian equivalent. There are crime authors writing hard-edged urban police procedurals, domestic and psychological thrillers and intricately plotted historical whodunits. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I also like to think that the quality of books coming out of this country is of an equally high standard of those from Scandinavia. There are some differences, of course. Writing duos, although not unheard of, are less prevalent here. Landscape is important but less a focus that books from, say, Iceland. But Britain has an excellent crime writing tradition and it’s still going strong.

Did exposure to Nordic novels influence choices you made while writing In Bitter Chill?

Not consciously when I first started writing. Rather, I wanted to work through various events from my past and write a book that followed in the tradition of classic crime writers. But I became interested in the role that landscape plays in a narrative and how certain events couldn’t really happen anywhere else. I also like the focus Scandi crime gives to the impact of traumas on the victim. It’s a powerful message that trauma doesn’t just disappear after a crime has been solved. And I think that some of the best Scandinavian crime writers: Johan Theorin, Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Henning Mankell recognise this.

In Bitter Chill’s narrative structure involves two timelines. For the 1970s sections did you rely on your memory of the decade?

I did very little research in relation to the 1970s as those passages are written from a child’s eyes and I was the same age in that decade. It feels like a time of innocence and yet some horrific child kidnappings took place in that period. So I relied on my own recollections as I wanted to evoke the period through memory and emotion than fact checking.

In addition to contrasting on two decade’s styles of policing, are the 1970s and 2015 sections a reflection on how crime fiction has evolved?

I think that crime fiction has changed substantially between these two periods. Plots have have become more complex with often two or three storylines sharing the narrative, books are generally longer and I think the writing has largely become more sophisticated. Crime fiction no longer easily fits into a ‘genre’ classification as writers reject some of the old truisms and extend the genre in exciting new ways. I’m not sure that this is reflected in my book. If it is, it’s unconscious!

If In Bitter Chill was adapted for TV or film what tracks would you like to be featured on the soundtrack?

That’s an excellent but really difficult question to answer. I find music to be a very personal preference and what I’d like to see featured, isn’t necessarily what would suit the medium. I’m happy to leave this sort of thing to the professionals. Writing fiction is my medium and I’ll happily admit to knowing very little about TV and film production. Can I sidestep the question by saying what I listened to while I was writing the book? Two works that predominated were Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Holst’s The Planets, in particular ‘Mars the Bringer of War’. I like the sense of impending doom in both of these pieces of music.

In Bitter Chill is published by Faber & Faber.

Book Review: The Killing III by David Hewson

In an era before VHS, DVD, and timeshift technology became available novelizations enabled fans to enjoy once again a version of their favourite films or TV series at a time that suited them. Freed from the tyranny of a broadcast landscape only offering three channels, literary adaptation offered portability and control, readers could recreate instances of celluloid and video magic within their imagination at a time or in a place of their choosing. Invariably issued as mass market paperbacks, novelizations were stocked in large numbers by long gone high street chains. Frequently written within tight deadlines, sometimes whilst the film was still in production, and invariably based on early drafts of the screenplay, they occasionally offered up an alternative version due to the inclusion of scenes cut during the rehearsal process or discarded in the editing room.

Once a solid bedrock of the publishing industry, this literary subgenre was abandoned due to perceived redundancy. Considered to be an irrelevance when technology now enabled customers to purchase a copy of a film within months of its theatrical release it was replaced by the tie-in novel and few would have predicted a reversal of fortunes but then something unexpected happened, high profile authors were commissioned to write new novelizations. Issued in hardback and given a healthy promotional push, these fresh titles have received praise from the critical community and shifted sufficient units to convince the publishers that novelizations might have a healthy future within the crowded modern marketplace. A once derided literary form has been rehabilitated by Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of his screenplay for the TV series Neverwhere, Gareth Roberts completion of the abandoned Douglas Adams Doctor Who story Shada, and David Hewson’s translation of The Killing‘s first two seasons into a pair of novels indistinguishable, in terms of quality, from his original fiction.

Formerly a journalist, Hewson became a full-time fiction writer in 2005. Best known for a series of nine novels set in and around Rome featuring the detective Nic Costa, Hewson was approached by his publisher (Pan Macmillan) to adapt The Killing into a book because of his proven ability to write strong female characters and convincing immersive word pictures of foreign locations. Written with the benefit of hindsight, Hewson visited the set of the concluding series whilst researching the first novel and has interwoven elements throughout his adaptations to make them function as a self-contained literary trilogy. For the third, but not final, novel in the series the author has once again rejected the traditional novelization approach of offering a straightforward transcript and gifts readers an alternative version tailored to the strengths of a different medium.

At Nordicana 2014, Hewson gave a fascinating lecture in which he detailed at great length alterations made, stylistic conventions, industrial pressures, Lund’s psychological profile, antagonist’s role, the purpose of specific visual motifs within the TV version and how to communicate their meaning in prose. Citing the Hare Psychopathy Checklist to bolster his argument, he was unshakeable in his belief that in clinical terms Sarah Lund is a psychopath.

A newcomer to the world of Sarah Lund, et al., due to his never having seen the series prior to being tasked with adapting the screenplays, as translated copies of the shooting scripts were not available the initial research strategy involved multiple viewings of the DVD boxsets to identify individual narrative strands, character arcs and isolating plot inconsistencies which would be fixed during the writing process. An enthusiastic advocate of Scrivener, Hewson has written an e-book detailing how it can aid a writer, the package was used to map out primary, secondary, and tertiary storylines, trace the evolution of thematic material and facilitate successful foreshadowing and pay-offs.

Whilst preparing to write the first novel time was spent in Copenhagen becoming acquainted with the city’s nooks and crannies, soaking in the gloomy atmosphere of less salubrious districts, and inspecting the series’ production facilities. Conversations with the creator, Søren Sveistrup revealed insight into Lund’s emotional make-up, the series’ raison d’etre, and confirmed that Hewson was to have a free hand in translating the material into a different medium.

Adhering to the overall story structure familiar to viewers whilst employing literary sleight of hand to shuffle around scenes, create new subplots, and streamline the narrative, The Killing III delivers a composite interpretation that should please devotees of Hewson’s other novels and fans of the originating source material. Those coming to the book expecting the only added texture to be glimpses into character’s thoughts will be pleasantly surprised with the great care given to creating believable motivations and backstories for all core characters. Cementing the air of closure present throughout the text are references to the first volume. Subsidiary figures we encountered in the première installment are mentioned in passing, Hewson’s master-stroke of replacing the political figure with Troels Hartmann creates instant tension and adds multiple layers of meaning to the investigation due to the press and Lund’s recurring doubts about his innocence based on his slippery behaviour during the probe into Nanna Birk Larsen’s murder.

A well-written crime thriller filled with rewards for hardcore enthusiasts and an entirely new ending that places a definite full stop on Lund’s story. Sarah’s career may be over but we will discover how her career in law enforcement began with a prequel novel currently being written by David Hewson.

The Killing III is published by Pan. 

 

Book Review: Nordic Noir by Barry Forshaw

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No longer a niche strand of crime fiction tucked away on a hard to find shelf deep within the backroom of your friendly neighbourhood book store or buried at the rear of a foreign films DVD section, Nordic Noir now has a much greater cultural presence. Its profile is currently strong enough for commissioning editors to be confident that the publishing an image of a Scandinavian actor on the front cover of the Radio Times or a weekend newspaper supplement will promote whatever series is being trailed, not impact upon sales figures, and may encourage fans who otherwise may not have purchased the title to buy additional copies for archiving amongst their private collection of memorabilia. Supermarket chains, famed for their reticence to stock unprofitable brands, routinely sell Scandinavian fiction at heavily discounted prices and frequently give the books a prominent place within its fiction departments

Further evidence of the sub genre’s absorption into the mainstream was provided by a screening of the final episode of Borgen‘s second season at the Edinburgh Playhouse accompanied by a question and answer session with the lead actor. The event proved to be more popular than was initially anticipated, leading to further sessions being arranged to cater for those who wanted to attend the event but thought they might not be able to due to initial plans for a single event underestimating the high number of fans that were willing to travel great distances for the experience of seeing an episode on the big screen, quizzing a member of the cast, and finally meeting those with whom they’ve celebrated and debated the series on Twitter or Facebook. This fan gathering generated a surprisingly level of coverage from media organizations. In a break from an already overloaded schedule fielding questions from enthusiasts and holding a brief private audience with a prominent Scottish politician, Sidse Babett Knudsen was invited by the BBC and Sky to appear on news programmes.

No doubt feeling validated that the event in Edinburgh was successful in terms of promoting the show, Nordic Noir as a brand, and its accompanying fandom Arrow Films capitalized on both the attendant media coverage and its core customer base feeling bereft after relatively recent season finales of The Killing and Borgen by releasing Above the Street, Below the Water. Using this particular title, alongside Unit One, to kick start what promises to be a thoroughly rewarding year in terms of new productions and the distribution of those shows which might otherwise have slipped under the radar is both an award to long term fans that have followed this range since its emergence a few years ago and a play upon the theme of spectatorship that is very cleverly woven into the script’s spine. Fans who have remained loyal to Nordic Noir, both as a subgenre and brand, finally have the opportunity to buy a movie that invites the viewers to draw from their stored knowledge of Scandinavian film and TV series and engage in the activity of “actor spotting”.

The discovery of archival content that had previously not been made available in the UK and its subsequent distribution has been central to the formation and maintenance of several fandoms. Autobiographical and ethnographic accounts from members of several musical subcultures including Northern Soul and Rockabilly have suggested that in the group’s embryonic stages the recovery, exhibition, and rehabilitation of previously unavailable items ranked equal in importance to the consumption of new material as it enabled fans to engage in critical dialogue with each other thereby assisting in the formation of group identity and facilitating participants being able to establish a provisional consensus regarding generic parameters.

Whilst Nordic Noir already existed as discrete cinematic, televisual and literary forms long before UK audiences were first exposed to Jo Nesbo, The Killing and Yellow Bird’s adaptation of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, obtaining information of the key developments within the movement has until now been compromised by insufficient data being made available to English speaking readers about titles that whilst hugely influential within a Scandinavian context have not been distributed in other territories. The publication of Barry Forshaw’s Nordic Noir represents the first attempt by a mainstream imprint to provide a historical and critical overview of the sub genre’s antecedents, cultural influences, political subtexts, gender representations, and possible explanations for the phenomenal sales figures which have repeatedly defied industry expectations. Subtitled The Pocket Essential Guide To Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV, this is a comprehensive work of reference that aficionados will return to repeatedly to enhance their knowledge of a particular book, author, film or TV show.

In the introductory section, Forshaw addresses with refreshing honesty the problematic notion of being designated as an expert in any given field, how he has acquired his knowledge and what he wants readers to do with the information in the book. As a long-time editor of Crime Time and author of several non-fiction titles, including a sterling biography of Steig Larsson, Forshaw has been acquainted with Scandinavian fiction for several decades. The roles of media professional and fan are not mutually exclusive and throughout the text, Forshaw writes as an enthusiast keen to share his discoveries in the hope that readers might feel sufficiently enticed to order some of the tiles he has recommended.

As this remarkable example of scholarship reminds us, Nordic Noir didn’t arrive on our shores as a fully formed subgeneric movement. The earliest titles available to UK readers were appreciated as competently written crime novels and possibly early critical commentary may have primarily focused on the left-leaning political subtext that was prevalent in those books. Scandinavian fiction, as a marketing brand, didn’t exist back then and titles were lumped in with other foreign authors but received less critical praise or sales figures that were awarded to, for instance, Georges Simenon.

Intriguingly, Forshaw’s historical overview references authors and stylistic approaches which were prevalent before Sjöwall and Wahlöö embarked on their influential ten book series.

Wherever possible the author enhances his analysis with appropriate use of interview extracts culled from his many years of researching and writing about crime fiction. This enables the reader to become better acquainted with the cited writer’s working methods, life history, and individual approaches to the movement.

With regards to individual authors, Larsson, Nesbo, Sjöwall and Wahlöö are the big hitters in terms of sales and influence, and whilst they are accorded the greatest scrutiny Forshaw’s encompassing and celebratory investigation references many lesser-known writers.

That a free to air broadcaster would regularly devote two hours each Saturday evening for the screening of a foreign language series would once upon a time have been classed as ratings suicide and yet BBC4 has shown that imported subtitled content can be viable in terms of audience viewing figures and the appreciation index. Similarly, Arrow Films DVD range has been successful enough to warrant the licensing of several titles not currently scheduled for UK TV transmission and has also been awarded a vibrant and critically aware online fan community. This is essentially a second wave of Nordic Noir that feeds from and back into the literary strand. Several notable films and TV series are analysed by Forshaw, including, but not exclusively, BorgenThe KillingWallander. An appreciation of these series is balanced with behind the scenes information some of which may surprise even the most knowledgeable of aficionados.

One thing the book does incredibly well is to draw attention to generic inflections or cultural cues that the reader might have missed out on when they last read a specific book or watched a particular film and TV series. Armed with this new information the reader might want to go back and devour these titles all over again but with an enhanced perspective.

Closing with a section on names to watch out for over the coming months and years one can’t help but wish for this excellent text to be updated at regular intervals to accommodate new perspectives on the subgenre that occur following the release of each book or DVD from Arrow Films.

Nordic Noir – The Pocket Essential Guide To Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Film & TV is published by Pocket Essentials.