Friday, September 04, 2009

Unspoken: Swedish mystery offers two neat solutions

That ABBA song finished, and so, a few hours later, did Mari Jungstedt's novel Unspoken. Though both have their moments, I liked the book better.

As a mystery, Unspoken is just fair. Jungstedt plants some nice red herrings, but her choice of perpetrators for the novel's two main crimes is surprising to the point of feeling rushed and arbitrary. Elsewhere, though, she comes up with elegant solutions to a pair of problems I've occasionally found in mysteries. I'll call one of these the domestic problem and the other the professional.

The first happens when an author tries too hard to flesh out a character by giving him or her a domestic life. The second happens when an author, often a reporter, assumes that his or her profession is sufficiently interesting to constitute a compelling plot element. Either or both can often be too big a burden for a protagonist to sustain while still moving the story forward.

Unspoken avoids this simply by allocating the domestic and professional angst to subsidiary characters, with a just a brief hint of domestic discord in the life of the chief police investigator, Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas. The burden of professional griping falls to Johan Berg, a television reporter sent to the Swedish island of Gotland to cover the crimes Knutas and his team investigate. The domestic travails fall to Emma Winarve, a teacher with whom Berg has had an affair. This lets Jungstedt, herself a television reporter, air her frustrations and hold forth on the heroism of conscientious reporters without slowing the narrative pace or sinking into whining or self-pity. The novel's structure of short sub-chapters, each told from a different character's pont of view, helps.

This construction is one of the more intriguing and practical I've seen in a crime novel, and it encourages me to seek out more of Jungstedt's work. (Read another discussion of the book here.)

And now, a question for readers: What crime novels can you think of where domestic description or other non-mystery elements got in the way of the story? What novels did a good job of integrating these elements?

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(Mari Jungstedt's English translator, Tiina Nunnally, will be a member of my panel on crime fiction and translation at Bouchercon 2009.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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21 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

What popped immediately into mind as "too much" is Adam Dalgliesh's serious relationship with what's her name in the more recent volumes. I'm sure James thinks that we all want Dalgleish not to die alone, but the truth is that we don't really care. As with all great detectives, it's their life in detection that matters, nothing else. The only person that they can really happily 'marry' from our point of view is their companion in crime solving--their Watson, so to speak.

But I'm sure there's a dissenting opinion and numerous examples to prove me wrong--so bring them on.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, very interesting answer. I can't comment on your example, since I've never read P.D. James, but you get right at the heart of what we want from our fictional detectives. It's not necessarily reality, I'd say.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Barbara said...

John Harvey's ensemble cast in the Nottingham series (Charlie Resnick) is great for having just the right amount of domestic detail. The characters are memorable because of their quirks and occasional (not overdone) personal issues.

Helene Tursten has lots of almost cozy domestic scenes in her books, but they provide a nice balance that offers a contrast between criminal violence she encounters at work and ordinary life, which gives you a chance to think about the virtues of ordinariness.

Camilla Lackberg in The Ice Princess does a goodish job except when the romantic stuff intrudes. Makes her leads seem to have suddenly drunk a case of Mills & Boone peach wine cooler and turned stupid.

I haven't read much of Liza Marklund, but I thought her personal life to interrupt the story in an annoying way. Jo Nesbo's characters' lives interest me and are well integrated into the story.

I have only read The Inner Circle of Jungstedt's series and my review at LT was "A police procedural involving a pagan cult and gruesome murders in a picturesque tourist spot. M'eh." Maybe I picked a weak book, but I'm not tempted to read more.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

What crime novels can you think of where domestic description or other non-mystery elements got in the way of the story?

I agree with Barbara that Jungstedt´s novels are more private life than crime mystery, but I think her first novel was the weakest. Here is a quotation from my ´non-review´: "Page 190. If an author knows so little about police work she should not write a police procedural on 400 pages."

I have not read the second, however, but I know many readers think it is much better than the first.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Arrrgh! Blogger ate my comment.

I tried to say that I agree with Barbara that Jungstedt is more into personal relationships than crime fiction, at least in her first and third novel.

A quotation from my notes to the debut: "Page 190. If an author knows so little about police work she should not write a police procedural on 400 pages."
I must admit I thought that if Jungstedt had not been a personal friend of Camilla Läckberg, she would never have won so much fame for her books.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Reg said...

Jeez, Blogger ate mine too. Oh well, how do people think Stieg Larsson, master of digressions, did on these questions? I personally found the magazine publishing passages the most tedious to translate, even though I used to be a publisher (of books) myself.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Books in Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series always succeed in deftly integrating the detective's personal life and the rest of the story. A reader feels as though he or she has gotten a bonus: there is, of course, the mystery, but there is also the world of Bruno and Paola and their family.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbara, I'm glad you picked the examples you did. I have not read John Harvey or Camilla Lackberg, but I had the other authors you mentioned in mind when I posted the question. I found the domestic subplot in Detective Inspector Huss -- that of a daughter's flirtation with neo-Nazism -- obtrusive. Tursten handles a similar subplot much better in The Glass Devil because she abbreviates it, which makes the narrative sketches all the more interesting. In the first book, she followed the subplot through every detail, as if it were the main plot. This detracted from the real main plot. It's a nice touch, too, that Irene Huss' husband is a chef. That's a small reversal of expected domestic roles.

Even though I like and have cited the newsroom rants in the one book of Liza Marklund's that I've tried, I found them not terrible well integrated. And, yes, I agree with you, too, on Jo Nesbo.

I'll keep your comment about Mari Jungstedt in mind when I read another novel of hers. I have no idea if the narrative practice that caught my eye in this book features in her other novels.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, just to make sure everyone is straight on what Mari Jungstedt's first, second and third novels are, here is her bibliography from Wikipedia (always a good source, because it give publication dates and titles for both original versions and translations):

(2003) Den du inte ser; English translation: Unseen (2006)
(2004) I denna stilla natt; English translation: Unspoken (2007)
(2005) Den inre kretsen; English translation: The Inner Circle / UK title: Unknown (2008)

You found the first weak, Barbara was no fan of the third, I liked the second. You wrote that the first novel displayed no knowledge of police work. Perhaps the author realized this and constructed her second novel differently. It's also shorter, about 240 pages in English translation.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I must admit I thought that if Jungstedt had not been a personal friend of Camilla Läckberg, she would never have won so much fame for her books.

Dorte, Blogger appears to have regurgitated your comment. In any case, it sounds as if Camilla Lackberg might be worth reading.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Reg, I thought Stieg Larsson did fairly well on these questions, and I enjoyed the magazine-publishing passages in the first book. I thought they were sprinkled judiciously throughout the novel and did just what a subplot ought to do: provide a respite from the main action without threatening to overwhelm it. Other than an occasional chunk of speechifying, the one tendency of Larsson's that occasionally slowed me down was that to wordy sentences: "He stopped him by laying a hand on his shoulder" when "He lay a hand on his shoulder" would have been sufficient. The context made it clear that the gesture's purpose was to stop the other person.

What interests me is that some other Swedish crime writers show this tendency as well. This makes me wonder whether Swedish prose style is less willing than English to let context speak -- whether Swedish authors, in other words, feel a greater compulsion than those in other languages to spell out each step of a sequence. And that makes for an interesting question for translators.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., the one complaint I have read about the domestic aspects of Donna Leon's books is that Paola Brunetti is too perfect -- too beautiful, too talented, too smart, too good a cook.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Paola Brunetti may be too perfect? Perhaps you are correct. However, when she went berserk and vandalized the windows of the tourism agency in one of the novels, I began having my doubts about the too-perfect Paola. She is not your run-of-the-mill professor, wife, mother, and domestic vigilante.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

Paola Brunetti may be too perfect? Perhaps you are correct. However, when she went berserk and vandalized the windows of the tourism agency in one of the novels, I began having my doubts about the too-perfect Paola. She is not your run-of-the-mill professor, wife, mother, and domestic vigilante.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a creepy opening scene. Leon does a nice job of keeping the reader in the dark about the reason for the vandalism.

One of my fellow bloggers, and a fan of Donna Leon's, noted the occasional comments about Paola's talents. These might even be just, he said. But Paola's culinary talents were not overstated, he added. Why, his own wife, he said, could cook fish just well as Paola Brunetti.

"I may asked you to prove that," I said.

"Please do," he replied, and the result was a very pleasant two-day visit to Devon.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Peter, I certainly think that Camilla Läckberg is the better of these two though she also writes "femikrimi" - the subgenre I wrote about in February where the private lives of the female protagonists take up quite a lot of the story.


Reg, it is true that Stieg Larsson digresses now and then, but there is always plenty of excitement and no cinnamon buns in his novels.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, this may be a good time to go back and read those "femikrimi" posts of yours. I admit that to a brief apprehension that criticizing a novel for overemphasizing domestic questions might be taken as evidence that I lack sensitivity. In the end, though, I'm confident that my complaints have less to do with domestic issues than with how the author integrates these issues into her book (or his. One of the better examples of a crime series that integrates domestic questions is Stuart Kaminsky's Abe Lieberman books).

I take it that you are suspicious of cinnamon buns as a plot element rather than as a pastry. As a food, I find them delicious.

September 05, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Janet Evanovich is another author who juggles what might be called a whole three ring circus of domestic elements, and usually very well. And I don't think the crime element usually gets submerged, either, although it is really much more an aspect of the plot than the plot than in most mysteries.

September 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think you're right that the crime element is more an aspect of the plot than the plot iself in Janet Evanovich, which may make her an exception to this question. One might differ on the merits of the constant romance subplot, but the family set pieces are often hysterically funny.

September 06, 2009  
Blogger Reg said...

Peter, yes I think it is a tendency of many Swedish authors to be wordy. Partly because they don't have as many synonyms as we do to choose from, they tend to use more words quite a bit. We do try to shorten sentences when they go overboard, but when you're paid by the word...

And maybe it should have been "He LAID a hand on his shoulder" -- check out the new video State of Play for an amusing view of newspaper copy editors...

September 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"He LAID ... " is right, of course, which only proves what newspapers are increasingly failing to recognize: that writers need copy editors. This is true even when those writers are themselves copy editors. Ah, well. At least I can console myself in the knowledge that this blog is far better-written than is my newspaper even though I have to fill both roles.

I have not seen "State of Play," but I remain highly skeptical that any work of fiction will offer an accurate view of copy editors from a copy editor's point of view until I write it.

Reg, that's an interesting answer, and I hope you'll be prepared to repeat it next month.

September 08, 2009  

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