Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Friday, 24 February 2012

On the original Scandinavian noir

Don't read this...
On a recent trip to Sweden, it was practically impossible to dissociate actual places from the Sweden of my imagination, thanks to the success of recent books by those such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell - part of the wave of so-called 'Scandinavian noir'. Indeed my hosts in Stockholm took me to the neighbourhoods and even streets where the fictional Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (from the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series) had lived in the novels, and where certain incidents took place. (There are also, I believe, more organised tours for those with an interest in such things). In certain respects I find the success of the Stieg Larsoon novels puzzling. They are entertaining thrillers, but in other ways unremarkable - and indeed it is arguable that, beyond providing a backdrop to the action, there is nothing particularly Swedish about the character or sensibility of the books. (The same might be said of Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels, set in Edinburgh). This might even be the secret of their international success.

The same cannot be said about a series of books which can lay claim to being the 'original' Scandinavian noir, and which are vastly superior in quality and complexity to the more recent novels. These are the Martin Beck novels, a series of ten procedural crime stories written between 1965 and 1975 by the husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. These are little known now, though they were popular at the time they were published - and one (the Laughing Policeman) was even made into an American film set in San Francisco and starring Walter Matthau in 1973 (though I have not seen it).

Read this instead!
There are a number of remarkable things about these novels. The first is that they were written by Sjowall and Wahloo together - apparently writing alternating chapters (see the description of the process here in an interview with Sjowall). Their achievement is that it is not possible to see the gaps as the style is genuinely seamless. Second, the whole series was plotted from the start, conceived as a series of books that would have an underlying theme ('The Story of a Crime') and in which the character lives would develop. The books are essentially police procedurals, where the detectives and the interaction between them was central to the plot. There is thus a real interest in character, not only the lead detective but in the lives of the others who make up the team. And finally there was the distinct Marxist or left wing sensibility that pervades the novels. According to Wahlöö, their intention was to "use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideological, pauperized, and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type." This comes through in the underlying theme of 'the Story of the Crime', where the crime was ultimately conceived of as the poverty, criminality and brutality that underlay the Welfare State - and to give some indication of where they thought the system was heading. (Interestingly this theme also comes through to some extent in Mankell's Wallander novels, concerned as they are with such things as the pressures of immigration and organised crime on the Swedish model). This critique is sometimes a bit formulaic, but at other places offers genuine insight into the the relationship between criminal law and the welfare state.

Above all else, though, they are excellent crime stories, entertaining and well written, and worth reading for that reason alone.

[The books were reissued by Hodder & Stoughton in 2007 and seem to be available on Amazon]

No comments:

Post a Comment