When Tattoos Get Serious Ink

This column originally appeared on Open Book: Toronto (now open-book.ca) in January 2011.

As you’re probably aware, a feisty Swedish chick is rocking the charts at the minute. No, not Robyn – though come to think of it a duet of some kind would be…interesting – I’m talking about Lisbeth Salander: tattooed computer hacker and heroine of Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

Crime fiction (and, more specifically, Scandinavian crime fiction, but more on that later) has always been big business, but with the success of the Larsson books something seems to have crossed over. Where there has always been a bit of a “them” and “us” mentality among “serious readers” (“they” read fluff, “we” read literature), the Larsson series has been embraced by both sides. As all three books continue to dominate bestseller lists, publishers everywhere are desperately seeking “The Next Stieg Larsson.” Indeed, it’s become so sexy to seem Scandinavian I was half expecting to find new novels by Linwöød Bårclay and Giles Blönt trumpeted in the spring catalogues.

This isn’t the first flush of Scando-crime mania, however. Some of the “next” Stieg Larssons actually came long before him: the “first” Stieg Larssons, if you will. Back in 2003, Henning Mankell was described by the UK’s Observer as “the best Swedish export since flatpack furniture.”, and his books have borne the endorsement of none other than Michael Ondaatje, who called him “by far the best writer of police mysteries today.” Mankell’s are page-turning police procedurals relished by a Booker Prize-winning novelist of the most serious literary kind.

Mankell himself arrived on English-language bookshelves in the slipstream of a Dane named Peter Høeg, author of international bestseller Smilla’s Sense of Snow (published in English in 1993), and Høeg’s international success arrived a distant 25 years behind that of Swedish crime-writing duo Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Then, in the noughties, following the trail blazed by Mankell and his distinctive brand of crime with a conscience, came writers including Karin Fossum, Håkan Nesser, Åsa Larsson, Kjell Ola Dahl, and Jo Nesbø (more on him later, too).

In 2003, as a junior editor at The Harvill Press, I wrote an article for the UK’s Crime Time magazine in which I talked excitedly about our growing programme of crime in translation. The phenomenon was already alive and kicking then; it was perhaps just lacking a true poster boy. My boss at that time, by the way – a man later profiled in the Bookseller for his role in bringing books in translation to an anglophone readership, and, this year, appointed CBE for services to the publishing industry – was the inimitable Christopher MacLehose: publisher of…Stieg Larsson.

But back to the crossover. Type Books, where I can be found recommending reads two days a week, could be categorized as more on the more serious side in terms of its inventory and clientele. We have a crime section in both stores (and anyone who’s wandered in with a hankering for a good murder mystery has likely had a Mankell, Nesbø or Icelandic Indri?ason pressed into their paw by me), but never have we had a crime title shift like the Larssons. This is partly a matter of economics. Readers wanting Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol were more likely to look online or at Costco before going to a bookshop, and even then it would likely be Indigo where the piles are high and the discounts are deep. With Larsson though, we’ve been selling stacks, at full cover price, to readers who are happy to go to their local bookstore for a top-quality work of fiction. Some customers seem a little sheepish about it, apologizing for needing a “quick fix of junky reading.” Our response is usually, “Don’t feel guilty. They’re good!”

It’s this crossover formula, perhaps, in addition to squatting rights on the bestseller lists, that has publishers chomping at the bit. This type of crime fiction has busted way out of Margaret Cannon’s Globe and Mail column: it’s on the cover of the New Yorker (Jan 10, 2011, “The Stieg Larsson Mystery…why the books are so popular”), it’s the cover story of this month’s Quill and Quire (“The Boom in Crime Fiction”), and it’s been the subject of many a column and feature article. Martin Amis’s editors weren’t looking for the next James Patterson (despite top-notch sales, on a literary list that would be, y’know, lame), but they all have their eyes peeled for the next Stieg.

Closer to home, the crossover power of crime was evident in a crime-writing focus at last year’s International Festival of Authors, and it’s about to manifest itself in the form of a brand-spanking-new imprint. Adding crime and mystery to their stable of very good books, Anansi launches Spiderline [http://www.anansi.ca/titles.cfm?pub_id=1502] in February. Of the two launch authors, one, Elena Forbes, has been published by Anansi before and now creeps into the Spiderline web. The second, whose debut novel will be the first to bear the new colophon, is Ian Hamilton, a Burlington native who came to them with four near-ready manuscripts in his drawer. This is a shrewd move on Anansi’s part. Crime fiction, for the most part, thrives in series format. Get someone hooked on lovable rogue Harry Hole (Nesbø) or crotchety, cardigan-wearing Kurt Wallander (Mankell) and they will want to join them on future cases. This is one advantage to publishing crime in translation, as we were doing at Harvill a decade ago: with translation you can buy into an existing series. Even if you can’t yet read them yourself (depending on how good your Swedish happens to be), you know you have four, five, six already written books with which to build your author, and you can plan your long-term publishing strategy accordingly. In signing someone with a readymade series, this is what Anansi/Spiderline has done.

As I was writing this column I received a text from a former colleague at Random House UK. The new Jo Nesbø hardback, The Leopard, would be going in at #1 on the coming weekend’s (London) Sunday Times bestseller list (by the time you read this, it will already be there). Stieg Larsson won’t be writing any more books (well, unless you count the one his girlfriend may or may not finish from his existing notes), but there are plenty more fish in the criminal sea. Expect to find them on a bestseller list and in a literary-leaning bookstore near you for a long time to come.