Monthly Archives: April 2013

Arne Dahl – Swedish Crime Thriller

Take a group of disparate cops, many of whom take an instant dislike to each other, bring them together in Stockholm, persuade them to work together and create a unit called Team A.  And yes, the writers probably have heard of The A Team and chose the name deliberately, but Arne Dahl takes itself far more seriously than that light- hearted American comedy-caper cop series ever did.  I’ve read that in the opinion of some TV reviewers that the series doesn’t rate as highly compared with The Bridge and The Killing and that it has a curiously old-fashioned feel to it. This, from reviewers in a nation where until recently one of the highest rating cop series on television involved so many elderly ladies and vicars keeling over and dying amongst the rose bushes that the village of Midsomer has fast become the most dangerous place to live in Britain.

Where The Killing and The Bridge differ is that they have fewer characters solving crimes and in Arne Dahl there are half a dozen or so.  So don’t expect to get to grips with all of the characters after just on episode.  Arne Dahl is ensemble TV drama, exploring the lives of its characters in the way that Six Feet Under and E.R. did so superbly well. 

The plots and the situation might not be as finely tuned as its predecessors in the Nordic noir TV genre, but once you get past that, Arne Dahl does a fine job of exploring the sorrows and joys of the characters’ domestic lives.

There is Paul, the trigger-happy cop who was facing an investigation for shooting a kidnapper and was under pressure at home – from his partner and teenage son. Then there is the body builder Arto who has found solace from his troubled past by singing in a choir. Meanwhile the brains behind the unit, Arto is a permanently harassed father of four, who piles his kids into the back of his Volvo estate, and who absent-mindedly drove off one day and left a child behind on the pavement.

Despite their membership of an elite unit, in democratic Sweden, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of pay and perks of the job:  they live in townhouses or apartments, eat at home rather than being able to afford to dine at smart restaurants and generally lead unremarkable lives. And when they want to escape the stresses of city life it is to borrowed log cabins in the countryside, rather than to fancy hotels.

BBC 4 is broadcasting four adaptations of Swedish crime novelist Jan Arnold’s books, the Arne Dahl of the title being an anagram of the author’s name.  The first two episodes, The Blinded Man were broadcast earlier in April and involved masons and Estonian mafia. Viggo, who lives a lonely life and is trying to find love on the internet decides to follow a lead all the way to Tallin, without telling any of his colleagues and nearly gets himself crucified in the process.

The boss of the unit, Jenny, confidently leads her team, without feeling the need to act hard-bitten in the way that Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison did to prove herself to her male colleagues.

Arne Dahl is a welcome addition to BBC4’s Scandinavian crime drama output and will introduce author Jan Arnold’s work to a whole new audience.  If the translations are as good as the TV adaptations, then Stockholm better prepare itself once again for an influx of crime drama tourists, following in the footsteps of the Stieg Larsson fans, eager to cross the North Sea.

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Thrillers versus Real Life Crime Scenes

Crime, violent death and big cities seem to go together, don’t they? Or at least they do in the kind of thrillers that we write, at any rate.  Revolution Earth opens with the death of a cyclist on a central London street in a seemingly ordinary hit-and-run.  We tried to give the reader a sense of what it feels like to witness something so shocking, by showing the impact on passers-by, who just happened to be walking down the street at the time.

But seldom, when you write thrillers do you think about what that street might look like after the event.  Photographer Antonio Olmos‘s pictures of the aftermath of London crime scenes, (Guardian Weekend 20.04.13) reminds me that when you take away the drama, how ordinary these locations seem.  They are by and large, bus stops used by commuters, street frontages of family homes in suburban streets, in short, places that you or I might walk straight past.

As Blake Morrison writes, in his introduction to Olmos’s project, ‘murder sites are spooky places.’  We perceive them to be that way because of a novel we’ve read or a crime drama we’ve seen.  But as there is death on the streets, so too there is life and it is the relentless pace of the latter that ensures that only the family and friends of the victim will remember what once happened in that place at that time.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/apr/19/murder-most-ordinary

The Casual Vacancy – A Novel for Our Time

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults is set in the fictional town of Pagford, an area where the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ grows ever wider with each passing day.  The Casual Vacancy of the title is the job advertisement for the election of a new parish councillor, after the death of the much-admired Barry Fairbrother, who keels over in the opening pages of the book.  Fairbrother, a working class hero, who never forgot about those less fortunate than himself, is one of the few characters in the ensemble cast, that you can really warm to.

The local Parish Council are planning to vote on whether or not to cast off their troublesome dodgy housing estate, with its drug problems and welfare dependent occupants.  Barry was one of the few councillors to support The Fields, but one of those vying for his vacant seat, Miles Mollison, has different ideas and has chosen to stand, not for altruistic reasons but to keep the riff-raff out.

As well as Barry’s devastated family, there is one other character, Krystal Weedon, who has been very badly affected by his death.  Barry seemed to be the only person in Pagford who saw potential in Krystal. He encouraged her to join the rowing team, which was the only thing in her life that she had done for herself. Krystal reminds me of Vicky Pollard of Little Britain fame, although there is nothing remotely funny about the way Krystal lives.

Decisions being made in the UK right now around housing are being made at local government level and something that once seemed irrelevant and dull, suddenly takes on great importance when local government officials have the power to okay or veto large scale housing developments in what were once quiet rural communities. I too have sat through ‘interminable, ill-humoured council meetings,’ where decisions are taken that could have a profound effect on the local community.

The town of Pagford is a microcosm of British life. Many of the characters reflect the current attitudes, which have hardened in recent years, polarising society into ‘skivers’ versus ‘strivers’.  Tabloid newspapers make much of the rising cost of the welfare budget but you don’t need to be an economist to work out that in a recession (caused by the banking crisis and not the poor) that those struggling to get on the jobs ladder and the over 50s, who have been made redundant and replaced by cheaper, younger workers, are having to resort to state handouts.  It is hardly a life of luxury, despite the relentless tabloid headlines of examples of feckless welfare-dependents and their deviant behaviour.

Most of the ‘haves’ in The Casual Vacancy come across as unpleasant, small-minded and in some cases downright vindictive.  Samantha Mollison, wife of Miles, describes him thus: ‘Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.’  Then there is this apt metaphor for rural Middle England life:  ‘Miles, Samantha thought, was looking back at his father like a big fat Labrador, quivering in expectation of a treat.’

If Miles is a Labrador, then Simon Price is an aggressive, menacing, guard dog.  He terrorises his family, not just with threats but with physical violence. He is particularly cruel to his wife: ‘Simon was seized with a brutal urge to punish her for intuiting his own fears and for stoking them with her anxiety.’

The characters on the Left seem to be afforded more sympathy than those on the Right but even well-meaning social worker Kay comes across as someone who sees her clients as a series of case notes and problems rather than as human beings.  Kay is regarded with contempt by both her daughter, who blames her mother for ruining her life by uprooting her from the excitement of Hackney, and her ungrateful boyfriend, Gavin.  Kay, who made the move to Pagford to spend more time with Gavin, is callously cast aside when she tries to take their relationship further than the occasional night in together. Gavin, who can’t wait to be rid of her, reflects on their relationship, thus: ‘there had been Kay; clinging to him like an aggressive and threatening barnacle.’

There is no doubt that J.K Rowling has written a novel for our time, in the way that Dickens and Trollope did in the Victorian era.  Many other writers have had a stab at writing the state-of-the-nation novel, including Jonathan Franzen, writing about middle class life in the US. Where Rowling soars above her peers, is her depiction of the lives of those at the bottom of the heap, in this case, the Weedons. It is at times heartbreaking to read about Robbie’s neglect and his sister, Krystal’s modest aspirations to have her own house, so that she can take Robbie off their drug addicted mother’s hands and try to give him a life.  Perhaps the subtitle of The Casual Vacancy should have been Hard Times because whether you agree with the politics or not, life is only going to become harder for those, like Krystal and Robbie, who for whatever reason, cannot help themselves.

 

The Lasting Legacy of a Good Read

Prolific crime author, Ruth Rendell has been busy recently, promoting her most recent novel, Archie and Archie, the second she has written, aimed at adults that are learning to read.  Featuring a cat and a dog, the book is made up of words of two syllables or fewer. An ambassador for the National Literacy Trust, Rendell says that there are millions of adults who cannot read at all and many more are barely able to read newspaper headlines.

I, for one, would far rather that the UK government put the money earmarked for the Trident nuclear deterrent, into health and cash-strapped local authorities so that they can retain their library services.  Cutting library services in an effort to balance the books is a tragedy for those who suffer the stigma of being unable to read.  The inability to read causes misery for millions. And the long-term effect on the British (and global) economy of improved literacy will have a far greater impact than that of the legacy of any politician.

It might seem odd to donate a signed copy of Revolution Earth to a literacy program in the USA when we live in the UK, but such is the global reach of the reading community that a request from a friend on Goodreads really brought the problem of literacy home to me.  The ability to read is such a fundamental life skill that I for one take it so much for granted. It is tragic that there are still so many people in the world who, for whatever reason struggle to understand written language.

Dawn Lowery runs a youth literacy program in Dalton, Georgia and we were delighted to donate a signed copy of our book to Dawn who, as well as being actively involved in the youth literacy program, lends books out to hospital patients.  Dawn not only volunteers her time to others but does so as a single parent, raising three kids all under 12, the youngest of whom is 10 months….

Here is my interview with Dawn:

Alison: Dawn, can you tell readers a little about the literacy program and the

community it serves?

Dawn: First Alison, I want to thank you for your generosity in donating a book to our program. I live in Dalton, Georgia yet our programs help clients across the United States. If we receive a request for books we will do our best to accommodate the request.

I help to operate a small non-profit organization which has a couple of different literacy programs. One program centers around adult recovering patients in local hospitals. We lend books to patients in the hospitals and before they go home they give then back to the nurse and the process continues on to other patients. I believe that this allows for patients to heal quicker by keeping their mind off of their injuries and/or pain.

The second program promotes literacy to lower income at-risk youth. We help to provide free books to children – particularly teenagers, who live in families that can’t afford to purchase books for their children. We feel that this helps to promote literacy and can take their imaginations and minds off of their current problems and issues, thus creating valuable literacy skills and memories.

Alison: What is the age range of the students you support and do you find that more boys than girls are in need of literacy support, or is it more evenly spread than that?

Dawn: We help children from 3-18 years of age. We find that both boys and girls need literacy support. Often times, the children that need help will surprise you – they are intelligent and have great personalities. Some children that we support, who are now citizens were born overseas and English is not their first language. They are not only learning to read, they must learn the English language as well. When a child like this receives help they then go home and teach their parents and grandparents to read as well.

Alison: Would you have any approximate statistics of how many people in your state or your town cannot read?

 Dawn: I have not seen adequate studies concerning percentages of illiterate people in the state of Georgia. If I had to put an approximate number on it I would guess that 1 in 7 individuals either can not read or are reading at a much lower level then they should be.

Alison: And finally, can you tell us about your work where you lend books to hospital patients. I was visiting my local hospital recently and it got me thinking about how I would feel if I was a hospital patient and was desperate for a book to read. After all, when you are ill, you can’t exactly get up and walk to the nearest public library (if you are lucky enough to have one), can you?

Dawn: No Alison, once you are admitted you are pretty much stuck there. I contact local hospitals (or they contact us) and we offer books to patients who are healing from surgeries and illnesses. There are many people who either have no family or friends who come to visit them while they are in the hospital or they are admitted to the hospital expectantly. These are patients who sit by themselves for hours or days while their bodies heal. I feel like books can help keep their minds busy and allow their bodies to heal much quicker. As we all know, books can also allow us to escape our troubles and problems allowing our minds a chance to clear, relax, and renew. Believe it or not, many patients say they are eternally grateful for the service that we try to provide and often times we are told that we are the only visitors that have come to the patient’s room.

If you are reading this interview and would like to donate a book and help Dawn’s work in youth literacy or hospital program you can contact Dawn at:

everythingunderthemoonwv@gmail.com

You can also ship books or monetary donations to the organization’s address:

Wee Care Community Outreach Inc

C/O Dawn Lowery

2873 Wells Drive

Dalton, Georgia 30721

All donations made within the United States are 100% tax deductible Federal Tax ID Number:  20-5077011

Self published authors share 5 things they learned in 2012

This week, a big thank you to Susanne Lakin for the opportunity to guest on her excellent Live,Write, Thrive blog.

In the three months of 2013 we have: published a Epub version on Kobobooks, created a print version on CreateSpace and found out the hard way that if you try to do everything yourself,  be it book designer, formatter, distributor and marketer, that these jobs use up valuable time, the time you should be spending on writing the next project.  Something to bear in mind for the next book? Here is the link to Susanne’s blog:

http://www.livewritethrive.com/2013/04/01/self-published-authors-share-5-things-they-learned-in-2012-part-12/#comments