Maj Sjöwall at the Edinburgh Int. Book Festival

I’m reposting my piece on the Martin Beck series because this afternoon Maj Sjöwall is visiting EIBF for the very first time. I wrote about seven out of the ten books although I finished the series and re-read them last year. What I love about them is the incremental way the characters develop within the context of historical detailing so that I found myself looking out for individuals and thinking, where’s Beck, where’s Larsson, as if they were real, as if the situation was real, as if they could do something real. Writing one book is highly satisfying, but what Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö achieved with the whole series is a towering accomplishment: the Martin Beck Series is a masterpiece.

[repost] This series of crime books are police procedurals set in Sweden; a Decalogue of crime books by the Swedish writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Subtitled, The Story of a Crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö set out to show that ‘under the official image of welfare-state Sweden there was another layer where poverty, criminality and brutality existed beneath the glossy surface.’ The characters develop from book to book, adopting new characteristics and habits, or deepening collegial relationships. These are tightly plotted police procedurals that follow the investigation from grisly discovery to final solution. Each one is completely different and yet the same. Each one follows the same characters uncovering secrets and following dead-ends, but each too uncovers another aspect of the characters, develops Beck’s personal life, and reveals how Swedish society is sliding away from the welfare ideal.

Each of the books is its own individual story but I probably wouldn’t have read beyond Roseanna if I hadn’t received the first three together from ‘InsideBooks’. Roseanna builds slowly, plodding procedurally from the discovery of a woman’s body to resolution of the crime. Looking back at the first in the series from where I am now with no. 7: The Abominable Man, it takes on a whole new aspect. The characters, the murder squad, their families and relationships are introduced but not fully formed. In fact, they’re not all there yet. It’s clear, though, that this isn’t just about Beck but about his team and the individual characters. Lennart Kollberg, Frederik Melander, Gunnar Ahlberg, Gunvald Larsson, Einar Ronn, and the comic double act of Kristiansson and Kvant, all play important individual and integral roles in various novels in the series. Some, like Beck and Kollberg feature in them all, while others, like Gunvald Larsson aren’t introduced until no. 3. Åke Stenström is an important character, both for his own sake and for introducing his wife to the group.

The setting plays a crucial role in each of the novels, while the period detailing enables Sjöwall and Wahlöö to inject cutting social commentary. For example, mention of a Vientamese tourist in Roseanna is a not too subtle reminder of international politics. Christmas, for the Marxist authors, is like the ‘Black Death’, the consumer ‘epidemic swept all before it and there was no escape. It ate its way into houses and flats, poisoning and breaking down everything and everyone in its path… The gigantic legalized confidence trick claimed victims everywhere’ (The Laughing Policeman, p. 119).

In discussing how they planned the series, Sjöwall and Wahlöö describe how they wrote the books one at a time, each writing a chapter after the other. Writing one book on your own is hard, so how much planning must have gone into deciding who would write which scene, what to leave out and what to add, when to change a character (as Beck does in no. 6, Murder at the Savoy) without alienating the reader? There’s also the stringent planning and organisation of material; sorting out the intricate details for ten interconnected books is a feat of great ingenuity. The Martin Beck series is, rightly, an acclaimed landmark in European crime fiction. Here’s a link to an interview with Maj Sjöwall inThe Observer, November 2009.

Originally published in Sweden in the 1960s and early 70s, the edition I’m reading through is reprinted by Harper Perennial (2006-07) from English translations (of mixed success, I hate to report), with an introduced to each provided by a contemporary crime writer, such as Colin Dexter, Val McDermid, and Henning Mankell, who introduces the first, Roseanna.

Martin Beck Series, No 1: Roseanna (1965)

“On a July afternoon, the body of a young woman is dredged from beautiful Lake Vatern”.

The first book of the series is slowly paced but skilfully plotted. The investigation into the brutal rape and murder of Roseanna McGraw stutters from dead-end to dead-end until a final flurry of activity in the closing chapters brings a resolution. In this first book we are introduced to Martin Beck and the team of detectives and to the Swedish landscape and society.

Martin Beck Series, No. 2, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

Beck travels to Prague to track down a missing journalist. Alone and abroad, he muses on his failing marriage. A moody, broody book that builds Beck’s character.

Martin Beck Series, No. 3, The Man on the Balcony (1967)

An uncomfortable and disconcerting read. Someone is attacking and killing young girls in Stockholm and leaving their bodies in “once-peaceful parks”. No. 3 is when the detective characters begin to gel as a team and Larsson is introduced to upset the balance.  Kristiansson and Kvant bring comic relief to a very dark tale.

Martin Beck Series, No. 4, The Laughing Policeman (1968)

Someone murders eight people on a Stockholm bus, including one of Beck’s team. For me, this is where the whole series begins to make sense. If you get this far, read the first one again. What strikes is Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s restraint. They hold back so much from the first three which makes the action of the fourth so affecting and effective. Brilliantly done. The Vietnam War looms again in anti-war protests while Beck’s character deepens at the same time as his relationship with Kollberg and Larsson intensifies.

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, The Fire Engine that Disappeared (1969)

Larsson takes centre stage as hero in a house-fire; there’s a double meaning to the Fire Engine and black-marketeering; social injustice and politicalisation of the police add to the mix to give one of the best plotted books of the series. The action moves from Stockholm to Malmö. Incisive social commentary cuts through the fiction:

“Students put on their white caps and trade union leaders get their red flags out from the moth-balls and try to remember the text of Sons of Labour. It will soon be May Day and time to pretend to be socialist for a short while again, and during the symbolic demonstration march even the police stand to attention when the brass bands play the Internationale. For the only tasks the police have are the redirection of traffic and ensuring that no-one spits on the American flag, or that no one who really wants to say anything has got in amongst the demonstrators.” (pp. 182-83)

Martin Beck Series, No. 5, Murder at the Savoy (1970)

Again set between Stockholm and Malmö. The murder of a businessman during his after-dinner speech at an hotel takes Beck and Larsson into an investigation of seedy corruption. We learn more of Larsson’s background, while Beck lightens up. Kristiansson and Kvant are their usual bumbling inept selves – it’s their unprofessional actions that hinder the whole investigation.

No. 7, The Abominable Man (1971).

Originally published by consistently in print and, as the latest version by Fourth Estate screams from the front cover – with over ten million copies sold worldwide – it’s not hard to see why.

Vintage edition earlier this year [2012]


Let Them Eat [Sumptuous] Cake

Writing Crumbs 2

EIBF Sunday : Sarah Dunant [SD]

cake (c) Italian Cake Shop LeithAccording to tradition tiered wedding cakes date back to the Renaissance when guests brought individual cakes and piled them on top of each other – which is a roundabout way of introducing the sumptuous literary feast of writing advice that SD served up at her EIBF event on Sunday evening.

Blood & Beauty cover image uk editionSD gave a warm, bubbly, yet forensically detailed, insight into her writing and the research process that went into the creation of her latest novel, Blood & Beauty (Virago).

  • research, research, research: immerse yourself in the period and then drip it lightly into the text to add authenticity; don’t layer your research too thickly but serve it in slices, slid in without the reader realising you are teaching them something new
  • do the work and be confident in your knowledge of the period
  • Blood & Beauty is a campaign, written to correct the gossip and slander around the Borgias, especially, Lucretia
  • history is written by the victors and until recently women were left out of official history. With new developments in archival research and feminism, Dunant could redraw these characters with historical truth and depth
  • she must be truthful to history – can’t make it up- except when it comes to interiority, where fiction is key to unlocking thoughts left unwritten and to explain recorded acts
  • scientific and medical advances aid our understanding of events as they unfold – make sure you remain truthful to what the characters would know about their situation [diseases etc]
  • be aware of changing metaphors over the ages, be period-specific and contextual in prose and style; historical fiction mustn’t sound modern

    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013
    Sarah Dunant at EIBF 2013

SD’s website is packed with information about writing as well as topical commentary on her blog and twitter feed.

**I think what impresses me the most about SD is the way she has managed her writing career. She stepped effortlessly from writing serial crime fiction to historical novels and changed her career from criticism and presenting [radio and tv] to writing full time and continues to find new things to say and new ways to say them.

The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 – Longlist

The Orange Prize has transformed into The Women’s Prize for Fiction and they announced the longlist yesterday. It’s a good list full of strong voices, including debut authors and award-winners, although, strangely missing, like the poor fairy at the Christening scene in Sleeping Beauty, is THE big book of 2012. Mantel is there, of course, proving that they don’t really need a women’s prize to promote women’s fiction – they should just pay Mantel to write more books instead of awarding her £30,000 and a bronze ‘Bessie’.

Faber Cover Image Flight Behaviour

For me, though, the most pleasing name on the list is Barbara Kingsolver. Would she expect to win a second time? In all the fuss over Mantel’s nomination she’s been overlooked by the press. The Lacuna is a magnificent, career-making book, but her latest is just as good – if not better.

Her fourteenth book is a compelling story of global warming set in the backwoods of Tennessee on the slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s warm, funny, completely in tune with the modern sensibility but gets to the heart of the issues on global warming without preaching to us– how can we live, invent, use technology, build homes, eat, and not destroy the planet?

Some of the best scenes in Flight Behaviour locate global problems in common, everyday experience. Shopping in the dollar store for food and Christmas presents, the protagonist, 27year-old Dellarobia Turnbow and her dopy husband Cub argue about what their children want and what they should give them, how much to spend and what they can afford. It’s an age-old argument but Kingsolver draws out nuances that resonate beyond Dellarobia’s desire to encourage her young son’s sudden interest in science.

‘If you want them to have a computer and stuff, we need the logging money. Or,’ he spread his hands – ‘we can keep our trees. And be hicks.’

‘Right. We cut down the trees and get ourselves buried in mud like a bunch of hillbillies, because we’re afraid of raising our kids to be dumb hillbillies. Really you’re saying we just do it because that’s who we are,’ she said too loudly. ‘Who are we?’

Indeed … who are we?

You can read my complete review of Flight Behaviour over on The EarthLines Review.

WPF Longlist >> The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013


Book Week Scotland #6

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 6: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner; with a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by The Editor, by James Hogg (1824)

Title Page of ConfessionsI haven’t put up a cover image of one of my most favourite books because none of the versions I have do justice to the contents – they don’t quite get the tone or the image across of how I read the book. There are 77 versions of this book listed on Good Reads – nowadays, it’s a popular 19th-century novel. Popular, because different people find different things to like/admire/enjoy. One of the oft-criticised things about Hogg’s writing is that he wrote too much, too quickly, too wide in his range – he’s hard to pin down. A romantic poet, historical novelist, cultural archivist, songwriter, dramatist, satirist, – all things to all men and nothing particularly brilliant because it’s watered down – so they say, those who ‘know’ about literature. I disagree and this book is the best evidence. No one has been able to pin it down, not because it’s bad but because of skilful plotting and ingenious, inventive storytelling.

I’ve blogged about this book once or twice before.

Book Week Scotland #5

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 5: A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edited by Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh, 1997)

A History of Scottish Women's Writing front cover image

The first comprehensive critical analysis of Scottish women’s writing from its recoverable beginnings …

A magnificent work of recovery research and editorial scholarship, this book is a reminder of how literary history is skewed in favour of the male. Something to remember today – 30 November – Saint Andrews Day.

It’s a huge, thick book – 716 pages of Scottish women’s writing – running from Christian Lindsay c. 1560 to Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s present National poet – our Scots Makar. Packaged – recovered and brought to our attention. Every single woman in this book deserves her own book, her own study, her own prominence.

[extract] ‘From a Mouse’, by Liz Lochhead

Ploughman? That will be right! Heaven-taught?

He drank deep o The Bard, and Gray, and Pope – the lot.

I, faur frae the spontaneous outburst you thought,

Am an artifact.

For Man’s Dominion he was truly sorry? Not!

’T was all an act.

Burns, baith man and poet, liked to dominate.

His reputation wi the lassies wasna great.

They still dinna ken whether they love to hate,

Or hate to love.

He was ‘an awfy man!’ He left them tae their fate,

Push came to shove.

Couldnae keep it in his breeks? Hell’s bells, damnation,

I wad be the vera last to gie a peroration

On the daft obsession o this prurient Nation,

His amatory antics.

He was – beating them tae it by a generation –

First o th’ Romantics.

Arguably I am a poem wha, prescient, did presage

Your Twentyfirst Century Global Distress Age.

I’m a female mouse though, he didna give a sausage

For ma sparklin een!

As for Mother Nature? Whether yez get the message

Remains to be seen.

[extracted from SPL website version. Original published in Addressing the Bard: twelve contemporary poets respond to Robert Burns, edited by Douglas Gifford (Scottish Poetry Library, 2009)

Read the poem in full on the SPL website

Book Week Scotland – #4

A personal rake through my books for Book Week Scotland

Book 4: The Lecturer’s Tale, by James Hynes (1996; 2001; 2002; 2006)

Not a Scottish book, I know, it wasn’t published in Scotland and Hynes isn’t Scottish [so far as he’s admitted] nor does he live in Scotland. But The Lecturer’s Tale says so MUCH about what’s wrong with Scottish literature and literary history and blasts the WESTERN LITERARY CANON apart – that, for me, it’s one of my favourite books. Hynes shows how to look away from the subject under discussion to highlight the glaring omissions. How could I not love this book?

Hynes doesn’t ‘lecture’ the reader. He makes his point with grace and wit and fun. The tale is steeped in the Supernatural and the Gothic [a clever, academically slanted Gothic and daft supernatural magic finger], sometimes, real laugh out loud guffawing humour. He plays stereotypical university types for big laughs (especially the leather-clad dominatrix!). I won’t spoil the fun by giving away the funniest moments (and also I wouldn’t know which ones to give you because they are in abundance) but, be warned, don’t read this book on a bus.

Above the industrial hum rose the steady murmur of lonely women in their thirties and forties, their cubicles lined up like sewing machines in a shirtwaist factory. … In each cubicle a thin woman in thrift shop couture sat earnestly tutoring some groggy student in a point of grammar or the construction of an argument, and each woman looked up at Nelson as he passed with the hollow-eyed, pitiless gaze of the damned. … They combined the bitter esprit de corps of assembly-line workers with the literate wit of the overeducated: They were the steerage of the English department, the first to drown if the budget sprang a leak. They were the Morlocks to the Eloi of the eighth floor.

The serious undercurrent is not over-bearing. Hynes’ novel came out just at the same time that the very serious topic of bringing out a collected edition of Hogg’s works was being discussed in literary circles -or rather, discussed by some but pointedly ignored and belittled by others. The project eventually took off [thanks to the late Douglas Mack, the founding General Editor] and the Stirling/South Carolina Research Edition will run to around 36 volumes when complete. Reviewers don’t mention this fact – which is so telling and deeply ironic, and makes me so angry. A key point is when the books written by authors within the English literary canon are tossed out of the library tower as it burns to the ground. Always on the periphery, Hogg isn’t in the canon and his books are amongst some of the precious few that are saved and form the basis of the new library.

Crossing the Quad on a Halloween Friday, as the clock in the library tower tolled thirteen under a windy, dramatic sky, Nelson Humboldt lost his right index finger in a freak accident. Someone called his name three times out of the midday press of students, and as he turned to answer, Nelson stumbled over a young woman stooping to the pavement behind him. Falling backward, he threw his hand out to catch himself, and his finger was severed by the whirring spokes of a passing bicycle.

Only minutes before, in the shadowy office of Victoria Victorinix, the English Department’s undergraduate chair, Nelson had lost his job as a visiting adjunct lecturer. He had sat on the far side of Professor Victorinix’s severely rectilinear desk, his hands tightly clutching his knees, while she told him with a cool courtesy that the department was forced by budget necessities to terminate his appointment at the end of the semester, only six weeks away.

[grabbed from The NYT ] which has the whole of the first chapter & a link to their review – read them both for a glimpse into Hynes’s joyously absurd book.

Book Week Scotland – #3

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 3. Out of History: Narrative Paradigms in Scottish and English Culture, by Cairns Craig (Polygon, 1996)

… is a thin book but it had a profound impact on the way I think about history and narrative. It is a collection of seven connected essays, ‘Prologue: Peripheries’, ‘the Body in the Kit Bag’, ‘Out of History’, ‘Absences’, ‘George Orwell and English Ideology’, ‘Being Between’, ‘Epilogue: Posting Towards the Future’ – which examine how and why Scotland has been and is out of UK history. It is a bold and imaginative piece of writing – challenging and iconoclastic – which made me question the way I read English and Scottish literature and literary history.

Where are we in history? Ask first whose history, what are its limits. Take your eyes from the stage: listen for the voices from the dark, listen to the mingling of the voices in and out of history. (p. 225)

Book Week Scotland – #2

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all time’ by public vote in 2005 – this is one of my all time favourite books. James Leslie Mitchell  – or Lewis Grassic Gibbon – published Sunset Song in 1932 to global acclaim but parochial narrow-sightedness, which is ironic, as this is a major theme of the book. Writing in 1939 after Mitchell’s untimely and unexpected death (33, in 1935), Helen Cruickshank wrote about its local reception

In 1935 Aberdeen Public Library ‘withdrew “Sunset Song” from the lending department as “unsuitable for general circulation” … “Sunset Song” had not been banned, as one copy was available to anyone in the reference department. In all quarters of Scotland eager moralists seized their pens to tell the world through the local press how filthy and untrue to life Gibbon was.’

The book’s fate since then – on the school curriculum since the 1960s and voted ‘Best Scottish Book of all Time’ – is a testament to Mitchell’s skilful storytelling – the book coheres – language, characterisation, and setting combine to create a vivid picture of early 20th century Scottish farming life in the north-east. That he did so through a female protagonist is outstanding; Chris Guthrie is fiction’s best male-created female heroine [in my opinion]. That he did so by using Scots words and dialect is remarkable. Mitchell was writing during a renaissance in Scottish literature, a deliberate movement away from what went before, from recent couthie ‘kailyard literature’. Neil Gunn speaks for Mitchell; writing in 1927, ” the Renascent [sic] Scot is – must be – intolerant of the Kailyarder, that is, of the parochial, sentimental, local-associative way of treating Scotland and the Scots.’ Sunset Song is steeped in kailyard tropes but navigates a way out of it to expose its shortcomings, to create a new way of thinking and seeing Scots and showing the possibilities of Scottish literature.

So that was Kinraddie that bleak winter of nineteen eleven and the new minister, him they chose early next year, he was to say it was the Scots countryside itself, fathered between a kailyard and a bonny brier bush in the lee of a house with green shutters.And what he meant by that you could guess at yourself if you’d a mind for puzzles and dirt, there wasn’t a house with green shutters in the whole of Kinraddie.’

Sunset Song is the first in the trilogy collectively known as A Scots Quair [Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934) followed] featuring Chris Guthrie. Thomas Crawford’s introduction to Sunset Song (reprinted in the Canongate edition) is still the best – read it in full on the GoogleBooks edition, where you can see the original map of the fictional Kinraddie from the first edition, showing Long Rob o’ the Mill’s Mill and Chae Strachan’s farm, Peesie’s Knapp.

Book Week Scotland – 1#

A personal rake through my favourite books for Book Week Scotland

Book 1: The songs of the Ettrick Shepherd / [James Hogg ; illustrations by Jessie M. King]; Edinburgh : T.N. Foulis, [1911]

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I came across Jessie Marion King’s book illustrations and book designs in the Glasgow Mitchell in 2007 while researching for the James Hogg Songs Project. The Mitchell’s edition still has the paper covers over the seven beautifully coloured plates depicting fairies and angels, idealised country scenes, dreamy, misty-eyed women and bonny wee girls. The illustrations are mostly of scenes in ‘Kilmeny’, Hogg’s most well-known and well-loved lyrics from The Queen’s Wake (1813), oft-reprinted. Closer to King’s time, Hamish McCunn composed a cantata titled Bonny Kilmeny (performed in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on 13 December 1888).

I like Jessie Marion King (1875-1949) for lots of reasons, not just her delicate watercolours, detailed pastel paintings, her Arts and Crafts book covers or her art nouveau pen and ink drawings. A student of Glasgow School of Art (1899-1907), she won a Queen’s Medal for her design work in 1899. She taught book art design at Glasgow from 1902 and in that year she won a gold medal for a gold-tooled while velum book cover year at the International Exhibition of Decorative Art in Turin.  She married the artist E. A. Taylor and with him set up an art school in Paris. They lived in Manchester and eventually, moved to Kirkcudbright in 1914 to deepest south-west Scotland. She had a daughter, Merle, and they lived in the artists’ colony around Hornel at Kirkcudbright until her death in 1949.

King worked across artistic fields – in ceramics, wallpaper, jewellery, textiles, costume design, as well as illustrating cards, books and book covers. She illustrated the book cover for an edition of R. L. Stevenson’s Memories (Edinburgh: Foulis, 1911) and designed covers and illustrated editions of prominent poets and authors, including, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Morris and the Rossettis.

She’s a favourite of mine because she had it all – more than many women manage in the 21st century – wife and mother as well as a commercially successful artist – a free spirit and an independent mind.

There’s an interesting list of her illustrated books (including Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’) on

Quilt, by Nicholas Royle

Quilt by Nicholas Royle (Myriad Editions)

[ – an open letter of appreciation -]

Dear Professor Royle

I’d like to apologise for not paying attention in class. Had I done so, I would be able to appreciate your debut novel, Quilt. It’s a story about death and grief and ghosts and Socrates and stingrays – I think. I find myself unable to review it or talk about it coherently, knowledgeably. I know I really enjoyed reading it – I love the playfulness and energy and above all, the serious purposefulness of the prose. The imagery made me laugh out loud and to nod in agreement at the connections you made. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you why, I don’t have the language to properly express what is so good about this book or why I tell everyone I know that they must read it – it will change their view of literature, of story-telling, of writing.

You won’t remember me – one of eight that dwindled to six in your Wallace Stevens seminar in the spring (or was it autumn?) of 1995 (or was it 1994?) at Stirling. Ten weeks of intensive study of one American poet – what luxury now!; spoilt we were but we didn’t know it. We began in earnest we eight. After week one we started to loiter in the café for longer than the allotted ten minute break. It seemed to make sense to extend the time  – to draw breath – for relief after the tortuous first hour. ‘What is this poem about – do you think?’ you asked – dropped it into the seminar where we looked at each other, the desk, out at the solitary tree in the courtyard, which now I can’t recall whether it was bare or in full leaf, anywhere; we looked, but at the page, at you. We worked together, we eight become six, to ‘get through’ our Wallace ‘bloody’ Stevens Honours course.

I can’t get back time once it’s gone, can I? Once glimpsed, once I recognised the peacock/poem [for he was a peacock, not a stingray] sliding around the corner – he came into full view, there, concrete and real – just that one time. The peacock/poem in full focus – bare, literal. And then the devastating truth – this reality was a lie! A trick of the individual imagination. There is no single meaning, you helped us to understand. We see the peacock/poem, but in our own image. That same moment re-run won’t bring the same peacock/poem back into focus. He is a ghost – or the past calling the future. Did he telephone ahead to tell us he was coming?

Uncanny, is poetry – as all language. I think.

Kind regards