Northern Depression

Northern Lights Over Greenland, from Flickr
Last year and early this year I took a deep dive into Scandinavian murder mysteries (translated into English, of course), sometimes called “Nordic noir.”  I read the Stieg Larrson trilogy (“The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo,” etc.), all but the latest Henning Mankell novels, and Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren books.

All of them share a bleak climate–not one was set on the beach in Denmark in the summertime, for example.  It is always winter, or spitting freezing rain in what passes for spring or autumn.  They are deeply cynical about politics and the motivations of the police.  Most of them are extremely well-plotted.  Sex varies from plenty and violent/kinky (Larrson) to nonexistent (Nesser).  The characters and stories are compelling.  But I started feeling the winter inside me.

I took a slight detour to Edinburgh, Scotland, with Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus mysteries.  Again, it’s never a sunny day, it’s almost always cold, everyone is corrupt.  Rebus is a barely-under-control alcoholic.  I finally burned out and began re-reading Robert B. Parker and Donna Leon.  It rains in Boston and Venice, quite a lot in fact, but somehow those stories do not depress me like the ones set further north do.

Julia Keller, cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune, wrote about Nordic noir, “The ground beneath your feet dramatically affects your worldview.”  Does a cold climate lead to cold temperaments?  That’s the stereotypical view.  Hot-blooded Latins and cold-blooded Swedes–but love, hate, families, money, envy and intrigue exist everywhere, probably even in the last remaining tribe that has never seen TV.

I’ve decided it’s not the weather that makes these novels so depressing, even though they are beautifully written.  In most cases, the detective (or main character, as in the case of Lisbeth Salander) is estranged from his or her family or has none, has no real friends, is alienated from any sense of community.  The only driving force in his life is sticking with the code of the law (the various inspectors), seeking justice, or revenge (Salander).

Nordic noir is a great place to visit, but I don’t want to live there.  Donna Leon’s Brunetti is deeply cynical about Italian politics and the police force.  It often rains (or floods) in her books.  But Brunetti comes home to his professor wife, a quirky, warm family and a delicious home-cooked meal every night.  That’s a world I’d rather inhabit.

Small Comforts, Part 2

Agatha Christie Plaque at Torre Abbey
Lately I’ve been burying myself in murder mysteries, and I’ve started to wonder why they are so appealing.  I don’t like police procedurals unless they are set in a place I find interesting, like Ian Rankin’s novels in Edinburgh, or some of the older P.D. James’ novels (although hers are much more than police procedurals).  I couldn’t put down the Stieg Larsson trilogy (“The Girl Who”) but have to admit I found it violent and overtly political.  I liked it at the time but won’t read it again.

I like a good “cozy,” but it needs to be either one of the British classics (Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, the immortal Dorothy Sayers), Rex Stout or a well-plotted and character-driven recent addition.  I’m especially fond of Donna Leon’s series set in Venice, and the attention her Guido Brunetti pays to meals and to his former-radical wife.  There are a lot of bad mystery novels out there–anything involving a recipe, a quaint/creepy nonexistent village or someone with a peculiar name is instantly suspect to me.

The big question is, why are mystery novels a satisfying small comfort?  What do they do that romance novels, for example, do not?  What need do they fill?  I think mystery novels work for those of us who love them because they create a small world, people it with characters you can believe in,  ask a question (who killed Roger Ackroyd?) and answer it in a logical and emotionally satisfying way.  In most cases, the guilty are punished and the innocent released.

Some mystery novelists are able to make readers comfortable even when good does not prevail.  Donna Leon’s novels have an extra twist; sometimes the evil are not punished due to the depravities of the Italian government and its corruption.  The “Aurelio Zen” novels feature this as well.

Why is mystery more rewarding than romance?  I’m not sure if it’s because some of us need logic, and others just don’t believe in Prince Charming any more.  Maybe it’s just the pleasure of being lost in a complete, well-formed world with characters you care about, and mortal results.  Maybe it’s that these books have order, in a world of disorder.  What do you think?

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