In the 1960s and 70s, Scandinavian crime fiction was mainly familiar to the world's reading public in the form of the Martin Beck novels of the Swedish husband and wife team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In the late 1970s, some Nordic countries, notably Norway, began to make a serious push for recogition and acceptance of their literature and culture in the outside world. The push was government-subsidized, and in Norway, at any rate, considerable effort was invested in drawing the attention of overseas translators and publishers to the extremely active, though somewhat introverted, Norwegian literary scene. Elaborate seminars and conferences were held, and although these involved representatives from several European countries, it was contacts with British and American publishers and translators that were given special priority. In the early 1980s, much of the Norwegian fiction published in English translation was of the "serious" kind, with a special focus on contemporary women's writing: the work of Herbjørg Wassmo,Cecilie Løveid and Bjørg Vik began to be translated and published in Britain and the U.S. at this time. In particular, the smaller U.K. publishers, like Virago, the Women's Press and Quartet Books played a central role in this process, and it was thought that books which focused on women's issues stood the greatest chance of being sold.
In the mid-1980s the attention of some British publishers, including Allison & Busby, Quartet and the newly formed Serpent's Tail, began to drift towards the possibility that Scandinavian crime fiction might offer a saleable alternative or adjunct to Nordic women's writing. In 1986 I translated for the Quartet Qrime series Gunnar Staalesen's bleak Varg Veum thriller I mørket er alle ulver grå (1983), which is set in Bergen and is built around the ramifications of the post-Nazi era in Norway. As At Night All Wolves Are Grey (1986) it was favourably reviewed, and began to sell a reasonable number of copies. Word of this got out onto the grapevine, and other UK publishers began to show an interest in Nordic crime writing. It was, however, the advent of the Danish writer Peter Høeg's Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne (1992), published in the US by Farrar Straus as Smilla's Sense of Snow (1993) and in the UK by Harvill Press as Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (1993), which really projected Nordic crime fiction into the realm of international bestsellers.
From then on, the world's English-language publishers began to view Scandinavia as the home of crime fiction, in the sense that Britain once was. Interest in the work of Nordic writers who did not adopt the genre began to fall, and among writers of fiction in the Nordic countries themselves there was a growing tendency to to employ the techniques of crime writing in novels and narratives that were not really detective stories at all, in the hope that this might increase the likelihood that their books would receive attention abroad.
It's in contemporary Swedish fiction that the results of this trend have been most marked. In the crime novels of authors like Henning Mankell - whose Wallander series is now a BBC television show - "serious" concerns are blended with entertainment in a formula that is now almost standard for Swedish authors who want to be taken seriously at an international level. As John Crace noted recently about the novels of Mankell and others,
Their leading characters tend to be depressed melancholics with or without a drinking problem, while having a strong sense of Guardianista political correctness.This combination of crime plots and "leftish" sermonizing appears to be the new orthodoxy on the Nordic literary scene. And it's the one that translators are liable to become involved in, willingly or not, as - to put it crudely - that is where the jobs are. It seems a pity that so much interesting and experimental writing from Sweden and the other Nordic countries is going relatively unnoticed as a result (the work of the iconoclastic Swedish novelist Sara Stridsberg is one prominent example). Meanwhile, as Håkan Nesser prepares to address the spring meeting of SELTA in London next week, one must hope that the present developments are merely a passing fad or fashion, and that in time the balance in translated Nordic fiction between entertainment and the vital concerns of new writing will be restored to something of the status it enjoyed in the early 1980s once again.