K.E. Semmel has appeared before on this site offering reviews and hosting interviews — and then being interviewed himself for his notable translation work. Semmel has recently completed translating one of Karin Fossum’s crime novels (forthcoming in Britain and here in the U.S.), and this new focus on crime fiction and translation makes him the perfect person to interview another notable Scandinavian crime writer, Åke Edwardson, whose own latest book, The Shadow Woman, has recently been released in the U.S. I’m pleased to welcome both Semmel and Edwardson here now.
Swedish novelist Åke Edwardson has written twenty books, eleven of which involve his signature character, Chief Inspector Erik Winter. One of Scandinavia’s most successful crime writers, he has won numerous awards, including the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award three times. Before devoting himself full-time to his writing, he worked as a journalist and as a press officer at the United Nations. The Shadow Woman is his fifth novel to appear in English, following Sun and Shadow, Never End, Frozen Tracks (all translated by Laurie Thompson), and Death Angels (translated by Ken Schubert). His website (in Swedish) is http://www.akeedwardson.se/. An English-language fan site can be found at http://akeedwardson.com/
K.E. Semmel: The Shadow Woman is in many ways a novel about the human casualties of crime—first and foremost Helene Andersén, who was orphaned by crime, traumatized by it, and who seems to have never developed intimacy in her life. The same can be said about Inspector Winter and tough-guy cop Halders: both are consumed by crime, though in different ways. So the novel is as much about crime’s emotional impact as it is about the traditional fare of a good crime novel: the crime investigation. How do you balance the emotional aspect of your characters with the need to create a compelling plot?
Åke Edwardson: That’s the trick really, to find that balance. Characters and plot are equal in any story in any genre. You can’t make do with just the one. A writer’s job is to tell a story, and there has to be someone to tell it about.
Now, I write different kinds of stories in different genres, and when it comes to these novels about Erik Winter, they are—and this is salient in the crime genre—linked together and that link is the characters. I’ve published ten novels about Erik Winter and the people around him, and at the very beginning I decided to start with this guy being a pretty insecure young man, good at his job but bad at about everything else—such as relationships, for instance. He was meant to develop over the course of fifteen years and he surely has, more than I anticipated!
You got to have the same demand on good crime writing as on any writing, and this includes the emotional depth of the characters. They could either be one-, two- or three-dimensional. It depends on how good the writer is.
Being a crime investigator is not any old job. It gets to you if you are not a total cynic. If the investigator is intelligent enough to be consumed by crime, he is my guy, and deserves a novel or ten.
Many a chief inspector in a crime novel is emotionally detached—a very independent person with specific idiosyncrasies that make them difficult to live with. Winter falls into that type, but evolves in later novels by marrying and becoming a father. Is this a deliberate decision to break from the mold or was this simply the direction you saw Winter heading?
As I mentioned briefly above, the evolvement of the character(s) is for me the only way to do it if you write a series. The other way to do it is to have the character staying the same from book to book, frozen in time, and having only the mysteries change.
I dressed Winter in Baldessarini and Zegna suites in the first novel, Death Angels, not because he was a snob but because he was scared and terrified by the horror he confronted in his job as the youngest Chief Inspector in Sweden. He wore his suits like the 12th-century knight wore his armor, and it didn’t help much. Winter understood that after a while, and he understood he could use his empathy and humanism to be a good investigator—and also a good person. Frankly, that is what these books basically are about: how to learn to be a decent human being. It’s a damn hard thing.
I also invented Erik Winter as a reaction to the usual hero in crime novels in the mid-’90s: middle-aged, divorced, drinking too much, hating too much, mayonnaise on his jacket… I wanted someone modern, someone on his way full throttle into the new millennium!
The police work is described here in painstaking detail and really allows the reader to sense how difficult such work can be, and how frustrating. Can you talk about how you became so familiar with police procedures? And how important is this kind of intimate knowledge for the crime writer?
Someone said, if you’re gonna do anything do it well. In an earlier incarnation I was a journalist, doing investigations sometimes like a detective… so when I decided to write these stories, I wanted the cases to be as realistic as possible, simply to heighten the fiction! You know, everything that happens in the novels comes out of my imagination. I never go to existing cases to find material. But if my fantasy is based on realistic police procedure, it has a foundation that makes the reader “trust” the fantasy—it certainly works that way for me whenever I read something. This is not new, in any novel, about anybody—doctors, scientists, plumbers, politicians. The author does a hell of a lot of research before the writing. For instance, I published the novel The Jukebox Man some years ago, about a man who is travelling around the countryside in the early ’60s doing maintenance on jukeboxes and changing the records month by month, a melancholic novel about an era going away, and during the research I learned about everything on the insides and outsides of jukeboxes. Now, the strange thing is that some crime writers I’ve read, and some shows I’ve seen on TV, don’t do the homework, as if the procedure is not that important in crime investigations. Well I tell you it is, it’s about all there is, and one of the biggest challenges for the writer is to integrate it with everything else in the story, and if the reader thinks that the guy who has written this knows what he/she is writing about, then you have a friend.
My method: I spend some time just thinking about an outline, when, where, who, why… I do some preliminary research, maybe a journey. Some interviews. When it comes to the procedure, I go to a friend of mine who is a Chief Inspector. I check my ideas with him. Is it believable, or just plain ridiculous? Could this have happened? He also reads the proof, to kill the last errors.
The novel also tackles a potentially explosive subject—the biker wars. I’m not aware of other novelists writing about this in Scandinavia. Can you talk about how you came to this subject?
I used it as a backdrop in time, but the biker situation never goes away in Scandinavia, it’s just increasing, new biker gangs forming and trying to grab a piece of the cake: Bandidos, Outlaws, Red Crew, you name them, involved in about any crime there is. One of the later Winter novels, Fairest Land, deals with the violent disintegrated parts of Northeastern Göteborg, where the situation is serious to say the least. When the film crew came there last year to film the novel, they had their cars and equipment smashed. They already had security, but it wasn’t enough. They had to hire new security to guard the security!
Scandinavian crime literature is, as you know, very big these days. Why do you think so many people worldwide are enamored of Scandinavian crime fiction right now?
It’s the Vikings, I’m sure. You know, Åke is an old Viking name, meaning “The Traveller.” I think the longing for the brave and beautiful and exciting Vikings never really went away over the centuries. And now I’m back!
What do you regard as the most influential Scandinavian crime novel? I really enjoyed reading Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas, and am curious to know where it might fit in the pantheon of crime novels. Are there true classics of Swedish (and Scandinavian) crime fiction that you find particularly important/interesting?
Doktor Glas is an odd but interesting suggestion. You could add Dostoyevsky, and other great novels that deal with crime. Poe is for me a crime writer. If you stick to the traditional crime drama—a mystery, a search for the answers, a solution—I think the novels by Swedish Writers Sjöwall/Wahlöö in the ’60s and ’70s belong up there. In a way, they started the Nordic genre of crime stories integrated in the society. And, mind, these were novels firstly, well written, literarily top notch, and that is always what must come first, the Gestaltung, and if it’s good enough everything else will follow.
Regarding crime fiction, Danish novelist Svend Aage Madsen recently accused contemporary crime novelists of portraying crime in terms of absolute evil and criminals as excessively evil, abandoning what he [Madsen] thinks of as a more interesting and nuanced perspective on crime that recognizes the criminal as a human being. You’ve written crime novels for at least 15 years, so I’m interested to know what you think about the development of crime fiction. Does Madsen have a point?
To tell you the truth, I’m a little tired of all these critics spreading their generalizations about “contemporary crime novelists.” Does this guy know what he is talking about? Has he read 25,000 crime novels in the past last year? Which books does he mean? Which authors? You know, there is not any genre but crime fiction where anybody anywhere can stand up and generalize and say anything, “crime fiction is this, crime fiction is that”… Everything put into the same mass grave. A lack of nuanced perspective.
Having said that, I do believe there are a lot of bad and cynical crime writers out there who are only in it for the money. To hell with them. I have written 20 books of fiction, roughly half of them crime novels, and I will say that writing a good crime novel is about the hardest thing. It’s not in the first place the plot, though a crime novel is about the last epic still standing in contemporary fiction. No, the challenge is about the attitude of the writer: Why am I writing this, why am I writing about crime, how am I writing? You know, if the writer doesn’t put in a sound of empathy and humanism in the story, then it will only become cynical and cold entertainment, in the line of what Madsen is talking about: the simple way of the absolute and excessive evil, where the writer doesn’t take any responsibility for the writing. I agree with Madsen there, but please count me out. I have spent all my writing years contemplating evil, and one thing I do know is that it isn’t something in its own, like a “thing.” It is very complex behavior, and it always has to do with humans, with people. Nuances. The overall “truth” of my crime novels is that you can never escape the shadows of your past; they will track you down wherever you hide. And it’s all about human behavior.
Right now there is a kind of Klondyke-like flood of crime writing and novels around, especially from Scandinavia, and I can only hope that readers will find the good stuff and that the bad stuff will fall to the ground and turn to dust and blow away in the wind.