Norstedts, 2010. ISBN: 9789113029573
Reviewed by Tom Geddes in SBR 2011:1
How fitting that this timely satire on the Scandinavian crime fiction wave should emanate from Sweden, home of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. The latter’s namesake, Björn, underrated in Sweden, still hardly known in the Anglophone world despite his Celtic Ring and Long John Silver, yet translated into fifteen other languages and recipient of several respected prizes abroad, sets the plot of his latest novel in Helsingborg and focuses it on a converted fishing boat. This quasi- autobiographical (for those familiar with the author) reference is one element in the jocular weave of fiction and reality used here to far more integrated effect than in his novel Inga Andersson (2002). Dead Poets abounds with meta-fictional allusions, with parallels to the case of Stieg Larsson (a father/brother inheritance and a girlfriend as literary executor), hints of other Swedish crime writers, a barb aimed at one of their Norwegian counterparts and references to actual events (e.g. the murders of John Lennon and Salman Rushdie’s translator); it plays with layers of fiction within fiction, the detective even finding similarities to the unsolved crime in the victim’s unfinished manuscript. Dead Poets is a fine example of a rare sub-genre: a combined police and publishing procedural. A poet, on the cusp of completing a thriller he had been persuaded to write, hangs himself on board his houseboat, where he is found by his publisher. Three murders follow, mostly for literary motives. But this is a more analytical than action novel, driven by the speculations of the poet’s publisher, his novelist friend and a marine police inspector, himself an unpublished poet (!) and given the name Martin Barck, a nod to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, the first internationally successful crime writers from Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. The other main character is the dead poet’s girlfriend, though a small cast of subsidiary characters and a gradual sequence of revelations provide sufficient impetus for the plot, itself often a vehicle for wry narrative humour and censure of the publishing and financial worlds. The novel opens with a satirical portrayal of an editorial meeting about the profitability of converting a lossmaking poet into a crime novelist, to raise the quality of the genre. His book has already been sold to ten foreign publishers before being written, and simultaneous international publication is planned. The hype is to be increased by total secrecy until near publication date, a secrecy which enhances the plot and entangles relationships. Petersén, the publisher, is a representative of his industry, both as a butt of criticism and a mouthpiece for analysis. Chapters shift the focus between single or pairs of characters to allow reflections or dialogues, not only on the intricacies of the plot, but also on the nature of literature, its relation to reality and even its similarities to detection. Police work and poetry, or literature in general, share the eliciting of associations, the search for truth beneath appearances, observation of detail, revelation of the unexpected and the profiling of characters. Barck even employs the technique of novel-writing to experiment with imaginary scenarios in his exploration of possible motives. The novel within the novel bears the humorously allusive title The Man Who Hated the Rich, provides a platform for a condemnation of financial greed and the inequities of directors’ and bankers’ inordinately high salaries and bonuses. Larsson disarms readers who may find it all a somewhat over-explicit addition to his critique of publishing and bookselling: he lets his fictional novelist, commissioned to complete the poet’s crime thriller, talk of rounding out characters and expunging didacticism, ostensibly to homogenise their styles, but in fact also anticipating possible reservations about Larsson’s own overall narrative. Bergsten, the crime writer, even admits he is wearying of crime fiction and lists overexploited categories of criminals, victims and locations. Inspector Barck receives an excursus on the nature of poetry attributed to a (real-life) lecturer in literature at the University of Lund. And having his fictional publisher admit that the fictional novel was not the masterpiece he was expecting may also be an attempt by Larsson to pre-empt his critics! However, this novel is not at all as heavy-going as these features may suggest. It is a light-hearted pastiche of the detective story, and all the more entertaining for that. How many thrillers end with a murder in the very last sentence? Björn Larsson has followed up his humorous short stories, Filologens dröm, with an even more amusing and trenchant novel, nicely balanced between popular accessibility and stylistic and conceptual sophistication.