[7 September 2009]
The Scandinavian crime phenomenon shows no sign of coming to a halt. With Stieg Larssen’s pulpy airport food selling huge amounts worldwide and seemingly every week a new crime novel with snow on the cover appearing, this strange trend is bound to entertain the fans and irritate the bemused for a long time to come. Kjell Eriksson is a relative newcomer and The Demon of Dakar is his third novel to be translated from the Swedish. Worryingly, snow does feature on the cover and the novel is the third in a series of mysteries featuring the detective, Ann Lindell. One may expect a labyrinthine mystery and a troubled policeperson hot on the trail of a ruthless killer, but the structure is not your typical fare and Eriksson makes efforts to establish a fresh take on crime, one that examines the effects on everyday people more than the mystery and violence of the acts.
The story starts off promising. We follow the grinding, single-parent life of Eva as she struggles to find work, and eventually lands a job at the Dakar restaurant in Uppsala. The revenge fantasies of the deprived Mexican, Manuel, who has one dead brother and another one in prison because of drug trafficking, and the aimless sexual frustration of Johnny also converge in the restaurant, and an interesting dynamic arises between a group of outsiders as they try to make a better life for themselves. All of them are touched, to varying degrees, by the wave of drugs tearing through Uppsala, mostly unaware that their boss and villain of the piece, Slobodan, is a major player in the criminal underworld. There emerges a ripe opportunity to analyse the different reactions to the drug trade as well as the various conceptions of what it is to be foreign and the desire to belong. Unfortunately, Eriksson soon loses grip on such a wide scope, and the novel begins to fall apart.
The most immediate problem is the writing style. If you’ve read any Scandinavian crime fiction before you know not to expect the most beautiful prose, but where one can ignore the odd duff sentence in, say, a Henning Mankell novel because of the pared-down nature of the prose and swiftness of the story, here it is more than just simply the odd clunker like “the large lorry” or “the brown police station”. Eriksson makes a point of slowing the pace in order to linger on descriptions and moods, but the stodginess of the writing and the characters’ general lack of depth mean that all we can see is the uninspiring language, such as this humourously over-the-top chunk of insight: “He wanted, and did not want, to sink to the bottom and from thence spread his inhuman venom, spiked with self-disgust and an increasing animosity, to the people around him who still appeared to nurture hope.” It’s always awkward with translated novels to know where the fault really lies, but I can say that, no matter whose fault, this English translation has some of the poorest writing I’ve seen in any translated novel.
Eriksson even manages to make the exchanges of dialogue languorous and sticky, so that by the halfway point the basic exercise of moving my eyes across the page felt like I was reading the thing underwater. Laughable pearls of wisdom, such as “The devil only knows how long one has to live. One could kick the bucket at any moment” did little to raise my beaten spirit.
If the quality of the language is of no concern to the average reader looking for a knockabout thriller, then the quality of the plot must be. Once again, Eriksson takes things slowly in this area, attempting to gently unwind the plot while examining the hopes, fears, and desires of the characters. This simply makes for a dull novel. As there is no real mystery (we mostly know who did what and for what purpose) there needs to be something else to drive the story forward. Perhaps a genuinely threatening villain or a race against time would be enough to add a bit of tension. But Eriksson forgoes these techniques and instead tries to hinge everything on character development and slow-burning emotional impact. He chooses to do this by devoting equal time to half a dozen characters, which only fractures the narrative and leaves us feeling disconnected from the story, while also inflating the novel far past a reasonable length (a common problem with modern crime fiction).
You may have noticed that I have barely mentioned the lead detective, and that’s because there really is nothing to mention. Detective Ann Lindell is no Wallander, in fact she is probably the blandest character in the novel, which is actually a little perverse considering Eriksson’s idea to base a series of novels around her investigations. Lindell is not unlikeable, just amazingly forgettable.
This really is bad crime fiction. I feel reluctant to demolish it entirely because the author clearly does have a heart, and there are some warm moments of family bonding (particularly between Eva and her kids, and Manuel and his brothers) that ring true and are well-intentioned. But when a genre novel tries to develop ideas above and beyond its confines without mastering the basics of the genre first, a real mess ensues. So yes, it does feel different to a lot of other police procedurals and detective stories, but it is by no means better off for it.