A Critical Casebook
This book includes a short story by David Malcom.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- More than Guilty Pleasure: The Case of Crime Fiction (Stephen Butler / Agnieszka Sienkiewicz-Charlish)
- Part I Genres, Themes and Conventions
- Navigating the Boarders of Reality: Johan Theorin and the Gothic Revival in Swedish Crime Fiction (Kerstin Bergman)
- Beyond Anthropocentrism: Transformations of Criminal Genre in Science Fiction (Maurice N. Fadel)
- Chekhov as Crime Writer: Detecting Intertextuality in the “Safety Match” (Marcia A. Morris)
- A Mirror of Society: Japanese Crime Fiction (Wendy Jones Nakanishi)
- “Mock Turtle”: Dorothy L. Sayers, the Golden Age Detective Novel, and Modernist Fiction (Eric Sandberg)
- Gothic Crimes: Rebus and the Ghosts of the Past (Agnieszka Sienkiewicz-Charlish)
- “Beyond our Illusory Homelands”: Representability, Deception, and Epistemological Angst in John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning (2012) (Monika Szuba)
- Diegetic Border-Crossing in Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple Short Stories (Jadwiga Węgrodzka)
- Part II Characters
- Curious Incident of the Lost Children (Stephen Butler)
- From Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to Donan Coyle’s Shairlock Holtes: The Beginnings of the Italian Canon of Crime Fiction (Marianna D’Ezio)
- Zen, Existentialism and Crime: Janwillem van de Wetering’s Amsterdam Cops (Arco van Ieperen)
- ‘Fuckin’ cheesecake. Of course there’s a contract out on us and all’: Adapting George V. Higgins (Gill Jamieson / Tony Grace)
- Neo-Victorian Revisions of Inspector Abberline: From Hell & Ripper Street (Lucyna Krawczyk-Żywko)
- The Detection of Crime vs. the Crime of Detection: P.D. James’s Uneasy Detectives (Miriam Loth)
- Ethnicity and Criminality in Richard Head’s The English Rogue Describ’d in the Life of Meriton Latroon (1665) (Barry Montgomery)
- Part III Criminal Spaces
- The Stage on the Page: William Shakespeare and Ngaio Marsh (Simon Dwyer / Rachel Franks)
- Stockholm in a Rapidly Changing World as Seen in the Crime Fiction of Sjöwall and Wahlöö (1965–1975) and Jens Lapidus (2006–2011) (Daniel Ogden)
- Tracking Criminal Journeys into the Dark Folds of the Metropolis: Nicoletta Vallorani’s Dentro la notte, e ciao (Anna Pasolini)
- A Criminal Heterotopia of University Libraries or the Doubling “Of Other Spaces” in Academic Mystery Fiction (Elżbieta Perkowska-Gawlik)
- Part IV Readers and Writers
- Crime Fiction and Politics: An Autopsy (Paul Johnston)
- Reading Readers of Crime Fiction? Potentialities and Limits of the Analysis of Online Reviews as Resource for Literary Studies (Janneke Rauscher)
- Emmy (David Malcolm)
- Notes on Contributors
- Series index
“In the last decade of the twentieth century people bought crime fiction like there was no tomorrow – which soon turned out to be the case for many of them.”
Paul Johnston, Body Politic
In the second decade of the 21st century, crime fiction remains one of the most popular genres among both readers and writers. Crime novels sell well and are widely read across the globe. Crime is the central point of an extensive production of not only books, but also films and TV series. Moreover, the worldwide success of Nordic Noir shows that crime fiction is not constrained by national borders, but can be successfully translated into other languages and adapted to different social and cultural milieu. What are the reasons behind this soaring popularity that shows no signs of waning for the foreseeable future? A comprehensive reading of the papers included in this volume suggests a number of possible reasons.
First of all, diversification. There is perhaps no other genre that encompasses so many different forms: from the “sensational” novels of the 1860s through whodunits and hard-boiled detective fiction to police procedurals and domestic noir, crime fiction takes on many disparate styles and modes. Possibly as it is a genre more closely reflective of the societies and cultures from which it originates than other forms of fiction.
Secondly, an extensive roster of highly divergent writers. It is a remarkable sign of crime fiction’s expansiveness that many so-called highbrow or canonical writers, who are not primarily known as crime fiction writers, have taken on the genre. Since the post-1945 period examples abound, such as John Fowles’ The Collector, Georges Perec’s A Void, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy; to name but a few. Julian Barnes wrote crime novels under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh in the 1980s (the first three, Duffy, Fiddle City and Putting the Boot in were reissued in 2014; Going to the Dogs followed in 2015). More recently, the Irish writer John Banville has published crime novels as Benjamin Black and J.K. Rowling started writing detective novels under the pseudonym Robert Galibrath. However, perhaps the most interesting example is Pierre Lemaitre, a French writer who in 2013 won both the Prix Goncourt for his novel Au-revoir la haut and Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger for Alex. ← 9 | 10 →
Thirdly, social criticism. Some of the best examples of recent crime writing are the novels that interrogate the contemporary world and scratch the paint from the pretty façade erected by politicians and spin-doctors. Various critics and theorists argue that one of the features of the contemporary era is its disembeddedness – thanks to technological innovations people are connected on a more global or planetary scale and have thus lost their connection to the physical world at their feet. The global success of crime fiction would seem to confirm this fact, but it also complicates the matter by offering a very strong sense of time and place. Indeed, the descriptive labels currently employed attest to the regional pride of contemporary crime writers: be they Nordic, Tartan, Emerald, Gialli, and so on. The rise in demand for such regional variations reflects the reader’s desire to perceive themselves and those around them in their fictional texts and to ask the troubling question whether everyone around us has the potential to be a criminal.
Finally, the plot. A feature that the modernist, postmodernist and various experimental schools of twentieth-century literature would prefer to have lost (ironically, this was more often true of the author’s life than the text) but that crime writing simply cannot do without. Indeed, modern and contemporary crime writing appears to have reinvigorated Aristotle’s venerable notion that plot is the most important element in tragic writing; it is duly acknowledged that he was referring specifically to Greek tragedy but any writing with a suitably tragic bent can borrow from his principles and definitions. For the Greek thinker, plot was more important than character, due to the reliance on action in a literary work. This is certainly true of drama but in fiction it could be argued that style and thought, two of Aristotle’s other literary constituents, are as equally, if not more, important. The same argument could be made regarding character, especially so in crime writing as people’s reading tastes often show a marked preference for reading books involving characters who have become as iconic as their creators themselves. Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Columbo, Jane Tennison, Dana Scully, and many many more, attest to the bond audiences develop with their favourite detective personae.
Yet, the point remains that crime writing is heavily invested in the machinations of plot and it could be argued that it is its driving force. Whether the text is a who-, why-, when-, or where-dunnit, even if the killer is revealed on the first page, or even in the first sentence, there will always be some unresolved element that leaves the reader hungry for more knowledge and ever eager to turn the page to unlock the mysteries behind the locked page. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries may be philosophically marked as the ages of epistemological uncertainty and confusion but in crime writing this uncertainty spurs both the detectives and ← 10 | 11 → their readers on to expose the truths lurking in people’s psyches and in our social and political structures, which explains the concurrent rise of popularity in the thriller and spy writing genres, as they share with crime fiction the same desire and each of the related genres manifest this in various ingenious ways of getting the reader to turn the page to see what happens next. Hopefully, this volume of essays will provoke similar responses from its readers as academia at times feels like its own locked room with its own “impossible mysteries” to solve. As with Alice down the rabbit hole however, we’re all here to enjoy many impossible things before breakfast.
Abstract: Swedish crime fiction experienced a gothic revival in the early 2000s. Perhaps the best examples are the novels of Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet. Starting from Mattias Fyhr’s definition of gothic texts as texts that present subjective worlds that lack a higher order and are characterised by decay, doom, and unsolvability as well as by labyrinthine qualities, this article explores how Theorin navigates the borders of genre as well as of reality by way of his use of gothic elements.
Keywords: Johan Theorin, Swedish crime fiction, gothic fiction, hybrid crime fiction
Nordic crime fiction has its roots in a number of Scandinavian crime stories from the 1820s and 1830s, stories that mix gothic elements with rationalist logic, and, in doing so, actually predate Edgar Allan Poe’s stories about August Dupin from the 1840s. The most well-known are Danish writer Steen Steensen Blicher’s Prᴂsten i Vejlby (1829; “The Pastor of Vejlbye” 1996), Swedish Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s Skällnora kvarn (1838; Skällnora Mill), and Norwegian writer Mauritz Christopher Hansen’s Mordet på maskinbygger Roolfsen (1839; The Murder of Engineer Roolfsen) (cf. Leffler, Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction 13–14). However, during the late 1800s and the major part of the 1900s, gothic elements came to occupy an increasingly marginalized place in Nordic crime fiction. Instead, rationality became its predominant mode, something that was further emphasized as the police procedural grew to become the dominant crime genre in Sweden, following the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in the 1960s and 70s (Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction 50).
Recently, however, particularly following the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (2005–07), Swedish crime fiction has come to be characterised by increased genre variation and hybridization, and the police procedural as such is in the process of losing its dominant position. Not only are different crime fiction sub-genres now commonly combined, but other popular fiction genres have been introduced into the mix as well, for example romance and erotica, fantasy, horror, and ghost stories (Bergman, Swedish Crime Fiction 136). Kim Toft Hansen, for instance, has shown that religion, metaphysics and the supernatural have gained an increasingly stronger position in Nordic crime fiction in the last decades. I would ← 15 | 16 → like to take his argument one step further and suggest that, with the inclusion of fantasy, horror, and ghost stories in particular, the Swedish crime fiction scene is currently experiencing a gothic revival. Authors like Amanda Hellberg, Åsa Larsson, and Mons Kallentoft are representative exponents of these developments. Perhaps the best example, however, is Johan Theorin.
Theorin’s fame as a crime writer rests primarily on his Öland quartet: four crime novels set on the island of Öland, off the Swedish east coast. The first, Skumtimmen (2007; Echoes from the Dead), was awarded best Swedish crime debut of the year by the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy, and it also received a Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger award for best crime debut. In 2008, Theorin’s second novel, Nattfåk (2008; The Darkest Room), was voted the best Swedish crime novel by the Swedish Crime Fiction Academy, awarded the Glass Key for the best Scandinavian crime novel, and a Dagger for the best foreign language crime novel that year. Theorin’s third and fourth novels, Blodläge (2010; The Quarry) and Rörgast (2013; The Voices Beyond), have so far not received any major prizes, but have been shortlisted for several. Additionally, Theorin has published a thriller, Sankta Psyko (2011, The Asylum), not related to the Öland quartet, and a short story collection, På stort alvar (2012), based on old Öland folktales.
Although Theorin’s four Öland novels have different detective protagonists, there is the constant presence throughout the series of a former sea captain, old Gerlof Davidsson. Even though his part is never the dominating one, Gerlof can perhaps be regarded the main character of the quartet as he collaborates with the other central characters and helps them solve the various mysteries. In Echoes from the Dead, the real protagonist is Gerlof’s daughter, Julia Davidsson, who returns to the island in order to finally find out what happened to her young son who disappeared on Öland in the early 1970s. In The Darkest Room, Joakim Westin’s family has moved down to Öland from Stockholm, but then his wife, who originates from the island, suddenly dies and Gerlof’s niece Tilda Davidsson, who has just finished her police training and taken up a position on Öland, helps Joakim to find out what happened to his wife. The role as protagonist of The Darkest Room is thus shared between Joakim and Tilda. In The Quarry, we also find two people who have just moved to Öland in the main detective roles, namely, Per Mörner, who has inherited his uncle’s old cottage and moved there in order to live cheaply, and Vendela Larsson who, together with her narcissistic husband, has just built a new summerhouse there. Then we find Per’s estranged father is murdered and Per is being threatened, while Vendela simultaneously suffers from her husband’s jealousy and tries to come to terms with events that took place during her Öland childhood. Finally, in The Voices Beyond, we follow ← 16 | 17 → Lisa Turesson, who works as a DJ in a family-owned Öland hotel during the summer season, while supplementing her income from the hotel by stealing from the guests in order to support her drug-addict boyfriend. The second protagonist of the novel is once again Tilda Davidsson, who investigates a number of incidents aimed to hurt the family who owns the hotel.
Theorin has been extensively translated and he belongs among the most highly-regarded Swedish crime writers of recent years, even though his Öland novels are navigating the margins of the genre by incorporating elements bordering on the supernatural. In this article, I will explore how Theorin, in the Öland quartet, moves across the genre lines by his use of gothic elements, and in so doing contributes to the gothic revival in Swedish crime fiction.
Theorin’s Öland Quartet and the Gothic Element
There are many definitions of what “gothic” is, as well as criteria for and elements of a text and/or a story that can be described in terms of being gothic. At the most basic level, a dark and gloomy atmosphere and environment, scary night-time scenes, stormy weather, supernatural elements or hints, and so on, can be described as a foundation for the gothic story. Theorin’s four Öland novels are crowded with examples of these kinds of gothic elements: dark autumn and winter nights, severe storms and mists, hints of supernatural creatures and events, and of the dead being present among the living. Additionally, a more specific definition of gothic that I have found particularly useful and thus utilized as the foundation for this article, reads as follows:
A Gothic text depicts one or more subjective worlds which lack a higher order, are characterized by an atmosphere of decay, doom and unsolvability, and contains devices that lend the text labyrinthine qualities.
Although none of Theorin’s novels fulfils all the standards of being truly gothic according to this or any other definition, they exhibit an abundance of these criteria. Additionally, they are all about mysteries that have an important part of their solutions stemming from the past, and, as Michael Riffaterre has suggested, the gothic novel is built on “linking innocence and threat to that innocence, and linking the threat to the past, with the corollary that the past is secret” (154). Although it is common practice in many contemporary Swedish crime novels to use events of the past as part of the mystery (Bergman, “Beyond,” 295), Theorin tends to put a stronger emphasis on the very connection between past, innocence and threat – the story of Echoes from the Dead constituting an almost emblematic example. ← 17 | 18 →
In accordance with Mattias Fyhr’s definition of the gothic quoted above, all the novels of the Öland quartet portray, to a lesser or greater extent, subjective worlds as they are often narrated through “found” texts – personal journals and letters – such as Ella Davidsson’s personal diary in The Quarry, or Mirja Rambe’s journal in The Darkest Room in which she tells her daughter not only about her own personal history, but also about the history of the house where the daughter lives and of the people who lived there in the past. The passages from these journals and other similar texts are scattered throughout Theorin’s novels, thus giving the stories told a fragmentary quality. Elizabeth MacAndrew points out that in gothic fiction, “[t]he fragmentary manuscript suggests a world of beings so delicate that they were in danger of vanishing without leaving a trace” (36). Although the “fragments” found in the Öland quartet are eventually pieced together into whole stories, stories that in turn contribute to the understanding of what really happened, it is clear that the world, the personal stories, and the truths constructed by aid of these fragments would have risked being completely lost without them. Furthermore, despite the function of these fragmentarily dispersed texts as clues to the mystery (text fragments are commonly used as clues in the crime genre), their subjective nature qualifies them as contributing to the gothic qualities of Theorin’s novels. Additionally, often passages from other texts from, or about the past, are interwoven with the narration of the main chain of events taking place at the present time in the novel.
Furthermore, the novels of the Öland quartet follow characters who perceive their surroundings in ways that are obviously subjective. As Coral Ann Howells has explained, in Gothic novels “the stability of the external world breaks down […] it has become interiorized, translated into the private world of imagination and neurotic sensibility” (26). This is clearly shown by the depictions of the subjective worlds of, for example, Vendela in The Quarry, who believes in elves, and of Joakim in The Darkest Room, who wants to see his dead wife again so badly that he starts believing in, as well as hearing and seeing, ghosts. Some of the things related – whether in journals or by the implicit narrator following the characters around – are undoubtedly “objectively true” in relation to the fiction, while others have clearly been altered to suit the subjective views and preferences of the fictional writers and characters.
Moreover, the world of Theorin’s novels shows no hints of a higher divine order or God actually existing (Fyhr 70) – although it is sometimes hard to completely dismiss the existence of something supernatural. Additionally, the higher societal order is often shown to severely fail and/or to be corrupt (Fyhr 69) – as when the seemingly reliable police officer in Echoes from the Dead turns out to be a ← 18 | 19 → murderer, or when throughout the series it is repeatedly emphasized how absent the police really are on Öland, apart from during the tourist season. People with power are also often described as bad, such as the rich saw-mill owner and the local hotel owner in Echoes from the Dead.
The dark and gloomy atmospheres of the Öland quartet have already been mentioned, and they are further complemented by sentiments of decay, doom, and unsolvability. Fyhr explains this is often expressed by how characters in gothic novels ponder on the past glory of buildings, people, or kingdoms that are now in a state of deterioration (83). In Theorin’s crime novels, the decay is most clearly shown in the continual comparisons of Öland in the present and in the past. In the past, the island used to have a busy working society with fishing, shipping, and stone industries, but now that society has disintegrated and turned into one that is scarcely populated at all, with limited job opportunities and few people living there all year around. There are also repeated examples of how a sense of doom and unsolvability characterize the lives of Theorin’s characters. In Echoes from the Dead, a boy has been missing for over 20 years, and his mother still cannot think of anything else, something that makes her unable to function in society. Both The Darkest Room and The Quarry are also full of old superstitions regarding actions that would cause bad luck and death, as well as of descriptions of people doing these very things, thus “cursing” their own future.
In the Borderlands of Reality
Labyrinthine qualities, mentioned as one of the characteristics of the gothic in the above-cited definition, are frequently present in Theorin’s novels. They are exemplified by having stories within stories (Sedgwick 34) – often stories about past history or people’s childhoods, stories which are intermixed with the main narratives set in the late 1990s. This maze-like effect is further enhanced by doppelgängers, as in the case of Nils Kant in Echoes from the Dead, as well as by protagonists feeling trapped in mental mazes, for example Vendela in The Quarry who is caught up in her own world of elves, Julia in Echoes from the Dead who is obsessed with her missing son, and Joakim in The Darkest Room who is equally preoccupied with his dead wife. There are also many physical mazes found in Theorin’s novels: the farm at Åludden in The Darkest Room with the hidden room; the Alvar moor landscape described in Echoes from the Dead as a “labyrinth of long stone walls, boulders, bushes and endless grassy plains” (86)1 and as impossible to find your ← 19 | 20 → way through unless you have played there as a child. Other examples are the thick mist in Echoes from the Dead and the heavy snowstorm in The Darkest Room that renders everything invisible and ruins every sense of direction, thus making people get lost and freeze to death, or else walk into their death in other manners2.
Sometimes the world’s labyrinthine qualities also relate to aspects of modern society. In Echoes from the Dead, Julia calls the Swedish social security agency, enters her personal ID number, and ponders:
When she had keyed it in, she was put through to the next step in the telephone network labyrinth, which was exactly the same as being put through to total emptiness. […] If Julia held her breath and pressed the receiver against her ear, she could sometimes hear spirit voices echoing in the distance. Sometimes they sounded muted, whispering, sometimes they were shrill and despairing. She was trapped in the ghostly world of the telephone network, trapped among those pleading voices she sometimes heard from the kitchen fan when she was smoking. (13–14)
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- 2018 (October)
- Genre studies Detective fiction Mystery fiction Crime in literature Sociopolitical criticism Literary tradition
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2018. 200 S., 3 s/w. Abb., 19 s/w Tab.