Wednesday, January 29, 2014

trippel deckare - touring Sweden with Olle Villner

I'm reading a "deckare" (i.e. whodunnit) by Stig O Blomberg (1922-99), to brush up on my Swedish. Blomberg was a reporter and 1950s crime novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Olle Villner.

In fact this is an omnibus triple published by Semic. (Incidentally, I have noticed this book in IKEA bookshelf displays.)

In the later crime novels published under his own name, such as Dödens Pilar (Death's Arrows) (1987) - which is the one I'm reading now - Olle Villner has morphed into the fictional hero: a former reporter and crime novelist, now the author of non-fictional books about Provence.

Anders O Blomberg has put up the following web page about his father, with some fantastic images of the jackets of the earlier books.

Dödens Pilar (1987) is set in a guest-house in a small  fishing village on the coast of Bohuslän. (Olle Villner has decided to take a relaxing holiday break....)

Bohuslän is apparently a good locale for crime stories. Camilla Läckberg comes from Fjällbacka and her books are all about the "Tanumshede" force and are usually set in these parts. The appeal might have something to do with Bohuslän being the closest part of the west coast to Stockholm, a natural and scenic destination for week-ends away.

But back to Blomberg's book. In the early pages Villner makes friends with another guest, the elderly Hilding Sand. Good chance to witness old-style Swedish manners at work. The pair meet in the corridor and go down to lunch together, each addressing the other in the third person  (If Min Herre has no other plans, may I suggest a walk to the harbour?). Sand becomes quite confiding, but the third-person form is retained all through lunch. Afterwards, when he comes down to the garden after changing his shoes, he says formally: "As the eldest, may I propose that we lay aside titles?" After that they talk normally. This is about two hours after their initial meeting.

Dödens Pilar just about predates the mobile phone and the PC. This makes quite a big difference to the feel of it.  The world is considerably more spacious. It's much easier to "disappear": just walk out of your door. It's impractical to gain information about lots of things. The other thing that stands out to me is that everyone is reading books and magazines. (Though as the tension mounts, they are sometimes only pretending to read them.)


I've now read the other two novels in this omnibus. It's clear that in Blomberg's maturity the Olle Vilner novel has become a highly formulaic vehicle. But in a good way, I think.

Olle is the hero and gets involved in investigating a murder that happens to occur in some interesting part of Sweden that he happens to be visiting. He isn't a policeman himself, but he's first on the crime-scene and gets involved in investigating it. By around the half-way mark he's calling in his good mate Kent Alm, who's a senior detective in Stockholm. In  each book Olle meets a different good-looking girl; and through a series of shared scrapes and adventures they inevitably get close and are in full-on relationship mode by the time the novel ends. But each girl disappears in the gap between books, clearing the way for a new pursuit.

So we get the eternal story with eternal freshness, like a mummer's play or a James Bond movie. Olle gets to discover the new location and the new woman, both of whom tend to be rather more interesting than the murder mystery itself.

Brottplats Bergslagen (1989) is set in the distinctive mining area of Bergslagen (it traverses several county boundaries) north of Lake Mälaren. Murders in a secretive technology factory deep in the woods. Girl: red-haired, judo expert, police. This one is excellent, even better than Dödens Pilar.

Döden tar studenten (1988) is set in Uppsala on Valborgsafton (the spring festival; it takes place on April 30th). Endless night of student celebrations (plus a murder) in Olle's old stamping ground. Girl: trainee doctor. It's great fun to visit Uppsala in Villner's company; this, by the way, is the iconic picture-postcard Uppsala and is thus in amusingly stark contrast to Kjell Eriksson's Ann Lindell novels, also set in Uppsala but on the other side of the tracks.  But Villner's Uppsala novel makes the mistake (in my view it's a mistake) of drawing attention to its own conventions. We meet Olle looking back with some melancholy fondness to his student-days of 20 years ago; hence we're made uncomfortably aware of the age-gap between him and his new girlfriend, who is (as she remarks) young enough to be his daughter. When Kent Alm arrives, he jokes that Olle is never far away from the prettiest girl in the place. I think Kent intended a clumsy compliment, but the girl not unnaturally starts to wonder what kind of serial womaniser this Olle must be. Meanwhile, Kent starts to probe Olle about what the girl is doing in the story at all? How come she's helping to clear up a mystery that she isn't even connected with? Is she, perhaps, playing a double-game?  It doesn't take much of this prodding before Blomberg's fictional construction begins to totter.


Interview with the author, from 1998. In which he speaks out against immigrant hostility, already a disturbing and exploitable reaction of some elderly Swedes. (Optimistic predictions that such attitudes would disappear naturally along with the older generation seem to be contradicted by their subsequent spread across the western world.)



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