Thursday, March 9, 2017

On Writing an Encyclopedia (The Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction): Guest Post by Mitzi M. Brunsdale

Mitzi M. Brunsdale:
On Writing an Encyclopedia 

Like many of what Mark Twain called “the damned human race” facing an important and hitherto unexperienced life experience— Wagnerian opera, a root canal, marriage—I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. For many years, I had lived among decent, hard-working, honest-as-the-day-is-long descendants of Norwegian settlers in eastern North Dakota, learned to bake their sandbakkelse and Berliner kranser, knitted those gorgeous Nordic sweaters, edited an exhaustive academic study for a redoubtable Swedish professor of comparative literature and field trained Labrador retrievers who boasted heroically stubborn Nordic lineage. I had read and taught and published on Ibsen’s unflinching plays and Sigrid Undset’s implacable realistic fiction. I had reviewed mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly for many years. How hard could writing a little book treating contemporary Nordic mysteries be? But as with Wagnerian opera, a root canal, and marriage, I discovered there was considerably more to writing my Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction than I in my innocent ignorance had suspected.

While teaching full time at a small North Dakota college and carrying on full-time farm wife duties (like producing dinners from five p.m. to eleven p.m.; doing machine-breakdown errands RIGHT NOW or better yet, yesterday; conveying men and machinery over forty miles at a moment’s notice), I read and wondered at Henning Mankell splendid Wallander novels. A little later, I began to sense with the 2008-9 appearance in English of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that the crime fiction emerging from those northern nations once collectively called “Scandinavia” had something absolutely crucial to tell the world.

In the first place, common denominators existed. Many, though not all, of the Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Finnish, and Danish crime novels I encountered from then on reading used the police procedural format. Many of their protagonists were world-weary, aging , and brutally flawed physically and/or psychically, even alcoholic, alienated, suicidal, battling evil in their societies. In spite of their debilitation, those central figures defy their fates with the kind of courage the old sagas celebrated: a captured Viking chieftain laughing at his enemies while they tore open his lungs for the crabs to devour. Frequently their monstrous opponents are creatures born out of governmental corruption, those welfare states originally intended and developed to be the shining perfect-world examples of societal evolution socialism promises but cannot deliver, because as George Orwell put it, animals may all want to be equal, but some animals will always manage to be more equal than others.

So by 2014 or so, while moving from the farm where we’d lived for decades to Fargo, North Dakota, where both my husband and I grew up, I began to see an ominous pattern to many of those northern crime novels: contradicting the sunlit illusion of Scandinavian national socialistic bliss, the failures of the northern welfare states apparently cause lethal stresses among their citizenry, and since the 1970s their governments’ importation of thousands of third-world immigrants who frequently refuse to assimilate is shaking their nations’ very foundations, draining financial resources and inspiring increasing numbers of their aging native populations to turn toward neo-Nazi political parties. While many of the Nordic authors sympathize with the problems faced by individual refugees, those authors generally present the overall situations with clarity and evenhandedness. I tried to showcase as many of them and their work as possible in short essay-entries, so that this reference work could lead non-Nordic readers to delve into their fiction for themselves. I chose the 1967 publication of Rosanna, the first Martin Beck novel by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as the opening date for the fiction covered in the Encycliopedia.

Important differences in treatment among the mystery fiction of the five Nordic nations also exist. Here their translators, usually successfully, must try to overcome the enormous challenge of conveying those singularities to Anglophone readers, most of whom, at least in America, cannot read the original texts. Danish noir humor, Finnish laconic understatement, Norwegian taciturnity (especially regarding emotions), Icelandic saga-enriched insights, Swedish cosmopolitanism—all these make the experience of their crime literature unique to their cultures. Because I was writing primarily for American readers, I felt I had to supply each section of the Encyclopedia with an introductory essay covering the development of that country’s mystery fiction in the context of their individual history and culture. Within each individual author’s entry, too, I tried to incorporate his or her own reflections on his or her writing process, showing how and why each responded to their nation’s contemporary social and political issues.

With more than a few sighs of relief, I sent the Encyclopedia manuscript off to McFarland & Co. in 2015, prior to the current gigantic influx of Mideast refugees into Europe. Now, as I watch news from the North unveil today’s pressures there from the harrowing conflicts in the Mideast, I am even more struck by the scope, depth, and experimentation in the Nordic crime fiction that continues to appear. These stark unsettling books represent far more than entertainment for a long winter’s night. I think they scaldingly reflect the suffocating coils of that world-serpent the old pagan northerners believed was destroying their universe, so that all that mattered in human life was how well one faced one’s fate. My Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction provides only a snapshot of one phase in that struggle as illuminated between 1967 and 2014 by the crime authors of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, whose message, voiced in so many powerful modalities, is one I believe we in the United States ignore to our distinct peril.

Mitzi Brunsdale's Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction is nominated for an Edgar Award. While Mitzi Brunsdale taught English in a small North Dakota college close enough to her farm to be accessible during the long and sometimes bone-rattling winters, she first published academic papers and presentations for conferences. She then settled into book-length projects intended for general readers: Sigrid Undset: Chronicler of Norway; Dorothy L. Sayers: Solving the Mystery of Wickedness; James Joyce (a study of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ); James Herriot; and George Orwell. Bigger studies followed, addressing one of her private reading passions, crime and mystery fiction: Gumshoes: A Dictionary of Fictional Detectives; Icons of Crime and Detection (two volumes); and now The Encyclopedia of Nordic Crime Fiction—all of which were produced while she was farm-wifing, raising three daughters with one of the best farmer-businessmen in the business, field-training a succession of fantastic Labrador retrievers, teaching full time and reviewing fiction and non-fiction initially for The Houston Post and briefly for The Chicago Tribune, and then mystery fiction for The Armchair Detective, The Strand Magazine, and for quite a few years now, Publishers Weekly. Since she retired to Fargo, she's being trained by an apricot Standard Poodle with whom she does therapy work at assisted-living facilities, and she's contemplating a new Big Obsession (as her husband has learned to call her periodic fits of composition). She says, "Celebrating good books is such a splendid thing!"


Keith Raffel said...

Wow, your encyclopedia sounds great, Mitzi, as I start my reading for a course at Stanford Continuing Education on Scandanavian murder mysteries.

Katherine Hall Page said...

Spot on with your descriptions of the differences among these countries (yes, Norwegian taciturnity! Know it well as a Norwegian-American who enjoys trips back). Am looking forward to the book. Have thought for many years that Nordic crime fiction was, as a whole, taking the lead for excellence in writing—and I'm reading it in translation.

Kathy Linn said...

What a huge and fascinating undertaking, Mitzi! At the moment, I am enjoying Snow-Blind, an Icelandic work by Ragnar Jonasson. The cold Nordic countries boast such terrific writers!