Tuesday, July 21

Riding the Scandinavian Crime Wave

These days, it seems to me that everywhere you look (around the web, at least), people are talking about Scandinavian crime novels. In his Slate essay, Nathaniel Rich claims that the most peaceful people on earth write the greatest homicide thrillers. He offers a few reasons why the genre flourishes in the region: "The crime novel, and particularly the British crime novel, has been enormously popular in Scandinavia for decades. And the famous Nordic pragmatism is well-suited to the intricate mechanics of crime investigation plots. But the best explanation is the most mundane: Crime novels sell." Rich proceeds to list down the writers who started their careers in a more literary vein, but eventually, the poets, playwrights, novelists and translators found a bigger audience--and a bigger paycheck--in writing about crime.

If crime novels sell and the writers profit from it, there must surely be a very good reason why readers like it as well. For this, Rich points out that the allure of the Scandinavian crime novel from others is "not some element of Nordic grimness but their evocation of an almost sublime tranquility. When a crime occurs, it is shocking exactly because it disrupts a world that, at least to an American reader, seems utopian in its peacefulness, happiness, and orderliness." There something a little bit troublesome about Rich's assertion. Rich fetishizes the blood on snow image as something close to the divine.

On the other hand, Larisa Kyzer of The L Magazine looks deeper into Rich's assertion that Scandinavians write the best crime novels. Kyzer believes that there is more to it than just the inherent creepiness--or even exoticism--of having blood spreading against pristine white snow. The narrative concerns of the Scandinavian crime novel do not stray too far away from those of the established literary tradition. It still finds its roots in the police procedurals and detective stories. However, "more often than not, the gruesome goings-on in Scandinavian crime novels have their root in everyday societal tensions and shortcomings: racial/ethnic/religious prejudices, the marginalization of 'outsiders,' governmental corruption, unacknowledged domestic abuse."

The Nordic countries are peaceful because of homogeneity. If everyone is like everyone else, then it would be too hard to disagree with the public sentiment. But because each of these countries started seeing more faces different from their own in the last several decades, change started to seep in. And according to Kyzer, "more often than not, [it] created quite an existential crisis for societies which have for so long been able to claim a fundamental sameness in traditions, language, and cultural outlook." They cannot sustain their unofficial motto, "Be like everyone else. Thus, this disturbance is articulated in their fiction: the rise of neo-Nazi gangs, Swedish townspeople getting all antsy because of their Sami neighbors, arson in refugee camps, shutting down child prostitution rings.

The writers of crime fiction are holding up a mirror to the welfare states' shortcomings. If so, then the uniqueness of the genre comes from its "unflinchingly honest stock of its failures. So often, these are novels of conscience and reflection. Novels which, in their own small way, take responsibility for a social system which makes earnest promises of inclusion and protection, but continues to fail so many of its constituents."

The curious question is this: the Scandinavian countries have a social system that works, the citizens are among the world's happiest even if they perceive their governments can do better. The low crime rate pushes the writers to imagine "tawdry crimes." On the other hand, the Philippines has a government that cannot be trusted to deliver even the basic services, most of the population live in dire poverty and yet steadily confesses that they are a "happy" people, and crime is so prevalent that you only have to step out of your house and see it happen to someone you know, perhaps committed by someone you know. We have seen all manners of killing people--the usual ice pick stabbing, boys playing basketball and on the way home they get riddled with bullets, a woman's body chopped into pieces, left to be discovered in several plastic bags, or a man killed and body sealed in a drum filled with cement and dropped into the river. Sometimes there is a desperation to the crime: I am thinking of that mother who cannot afford to feed her children, and so takes them in a Jollibee in the mall and then poisons them all.

Scandinavian crime fiction functions as a critique of a society that has its ills, is only starting to feel the disturbance of having a varied society. It also offers a way of escape, a different reality from their "we're all the same, modular Ikea" existence. But crime fiction is also a very straight forward kind of narrative: here is a body, thereafter lies a solution as to who did this and in what manner. Problem, solution. All is right in the world.

However, if crime is all around you, so desperate and gruesome that you want it to be something that you merely imagined, is it even possible that you would want to write about it? Of what use is fiction then for our collective imagination? Does this explain why crime fiction isn't flourishing in the country and yet we have stories about dragons and dwarves and a strong fantasy-oriented community of writers? If we have chosen our manner of escape, it seems we have favored magic over material explanations. But we must also have a venue for critique, something that forces us to consider our ills, and even if only imagined, a way to make things right in the world again.

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