Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: Scandinavian Crime Fiction

The Preacher: Nordic Noir in Clear Prose and Diffuse Plot

The Preacher

The Preacher, a Nordic Noir mystery/thriller by Dagmar Winther and Kenneth Degnbol, a.k.a. Sander Jakobsen, offers a beautiful prose narrative. Not surprisingly for Scandinavian crime fiction, the style leans toward the literary. It tells the story of two murders, each of a woman, apparently unrelated. As the police draw closer to solving the first, they realize the second is indeed closely related. 

Style:

Cover image of Nordic Noir novel The Preacher

The novel opens with the murder of the wife of the vicar of a small Danish village. The writing is evocative throughout. After the investigative team has finished their work, “Then, once again, calm spread its wide blanket over the vicarage.” And as the vicar stands looking over the disarray, “His body had sensed and recorded it, the distance to reality dulled by death itself.” He walks around the house observing all the little memorabilia of his dead wife. They are like “treasures in a museum, when Karen’s death in small incomprehensible bits invaded and claimed him.” The style here reminds me of Thomas Enger in his novel Cursed (See my review here).

Characters:

The main characters—Thorkild, the vicar; Frank, the brother of the second murder victim; Birgitte, the old girlfriend who moves in with the vicar to take care of him after his wife’s murder; and Thea, the detective from Copenhagen, who is drawn into the case emotionally as well as professionally—are well developed, very human, and sympathetic. The reader pulls for them, identifies with them.

Point of View and Plot:

If I have complaints about the novel, they have to do with point-of-view and plot. The point-of-view is third person subjective, alternating between all the main characters and even some of the lesser ones. As a result, the reader struggles to find a sympathetic center. The title, The Preacher, leads the reader to assume that the vicar is intended to be that center. But, in fact, the detective, Thea, often steals that role. The problem becomes that none of the characters take control of narrative perspective. In the end, the point of view is diffuse and unsatisfying.

This diffuse p.o.v. reflects, and to some degree creates, a diffuse narrative structure as the novel attempts to juggle and maintain several competing plot lines—solving the first murder, solving the second murder, the relationship of Thorkild and Frank, the relationship of Thea and Thorkild, and the role of the killer in all of these. I began to feel like a ping-pong ball, going back and forth, never landing on a narrative thread I could anchor everything to. The title role of the novel—the role of “Preacher”—can ultimately apply not only to the vicar, but to Frank, who preaches an angry laissez faire philosophy, or to the killer, who “preaches” a Nietzschean doctrine of the Superman. At times the “preaching” overcomes the narrative drama.

BUT, in spite of all this, I consider the novel a good read. The problems are technical, and perhaps my pet peeves, rather than total failures in the story.

Branagh Ruined My Wallander

Here’s the scene: A detective—about forty, rugged good looks, speaks the Queen’s English as if he were once a broadcaster on BBC radio, dark clothing, fashionable hair, divorced, one daughter with whom he struggles to communicate, aging belligerent father from whom he feels estranged—returns from the scene of a grisly murder. He becomes immobilized by depression, nearly catatonic, weeping, whining, never sleeps, lives with a hangover, brilliant at solving crimes, but unbearable as a person. As I see it, this is an accurate description of British actor Kenneth Branagh’s interpretation of the fictional Swedish detective Kurt Wallander.

Long before I stumbled onto the Branagh BBC series Wallander, I had very mixed feelings about Kenneth Branagh—good in Shakespeare, awful in Frankenstein, and so forth. But as a real lover of Scandinavian crime fiction, I was up for giving the Wallander series a shot. After three or four episodes, I had had enough. Great Swedish settings (cold, dark, wet, but beautiful), interesting stories, good supporting cast, but I could not stomach Branagh’s overblown Existential angst in his interpretation of the title character.

The novels from which the Wallander series was created were written by the late Swedish novelist Henning Mankell, who died in 2015. About a year after I abandoned the BBC series, I ran across an inexpensive used copy of one of Mankell’s Wallander novels and decided to read it. I was not surprised to find really good writing, which is common with the Scandinavian writers, but was delighted to find a title character who was likeable—middle-aged, average looking, a little out of shape, no black clothes, plain hair, divorced, struggling with his relationships with his daughter and aging father. Pensive, a little brooding at times, but a far, far cry from Branagh’s morose, nearly suicidal cop.

Not long after reading the novel, I found a Swedish production of the Wallander series on Netflix and thought, why not? It was a jewel of a series–in Swedish with subtitles. The Swedish lead actor, Kristor Henriksson, an average looking guy, was a perfect balance between pensive and active, brooding and outgoing. No more weeping and whining, just quiet and thoughtful. Still brilliant at solving murders, but also an interesting person. I’d say that Henriksson saved my Wallander.

I may not in future watch a Kenneth Branagh production of anything. I will continue to read Henning Mankell’s Wallander novels. If you like crime fiction, you need to introduce yourself to Scandinavian crime fiction. Henning Mankell would be a good place to start. The Wallander novels are good reading, and as a bonus you get the Swedish production of the TV series, which captures the best elements of the fiction.

© 2017 Gary Guinn

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