This is how Sweden’s most recent “Queen of crime fiction,” Tove Alsterdal, describes the essence of her thriller debut, Women on the Beach (Kvinnorna pa stranden), published in Sweden last September.
Alsterdal is in Los Angeles not to promote her new crime novel, but to celebrate her 50th birthday. She does it in style: together with her best friends from elementary school she’s on a two-week road trip through California. She doesn’t drive, but her three travel companions are deeply impressed by her map reading skills. During a pit stop in Los Angeles she finds time for an interview and a book reading with a group of Swedish expats hungry for some homeland literature.
The crowd couldn’t be happier about the theme of the book: Sweden has gained a reputation for consuming – and producing – more crime fiction than any other country in the world (per capita that is). The success of best selling authors such as Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Hakan Nesser has ensured that we are no longer known merely for square cars and liberal sex (and yes, some would say, army knives and chocolate), but more so for grizzly murders committed in quaint towns where doors are – or rather, used to be – left unlocked at night.
Add to that a policeman, or more recently, a news reporter, with a messy private life that ultimately solves the case and you have the typical Swedish crime story.
In this crime-crazed nation, Alsterdal has made a name for herself not only as the new Queen of Crime, but also as breaking the unwritten rules of what a Swedish crime story “is.”
Perhaps most obviously, there are no small towns in sight in Alsterdal’s story, and the main character is not a detective or a news reporter or even Swedish. Ally Cornwall, the “I,” in the story, is an New York based theater stage designer looking to find her freelancing reporter husband, Patrick, who has disappeared during a job in Paris. Ally travels to Paris and, using Patrick’s address book, she follows in his footsteps all over Europe and deep into the illegal network dealing with human trafficking that he was investigating.
Even more atypical of the Swedish crime writer Alsterdal stays firmly away from including the business of everyday life into the story. With the notable exception of computer wizard and loner Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Swedish crime solvers tend to spend a lot of time picking up kids from day care, fighting with their spouses, making dinners, visiting in-laws and getting divorced.
Ally Cornwall on the other hand, is all action. Her hunt for Patrick fills the pages, driven forward with a fast paced, action-driven language that reviewers compare to American thriller writers such as Dan Brown and John Grisham more so than any of Alsterdal’s fellow countrymen and women.
– I didn’t really think about it, I didn’t write it that way intentionally. It’s just how I enjoy writing, says Alsterdal about her style. “I get enough everyday life in my, well, everyday life.”
The ending also differs completely from the typical Swedish crime story, something which readers and book critiques alike have been quick to point out. For while Alsterdal’s debut has been highly praised by virtually all Swedish critics and book bloggers out there, the ending has received quite mixed reviews. “Too unrealistic,” argues one reviewer. “Too far out,” claims a second. “Definitely not the typical Swedish wholesome finale,” concludes a third.
– I knew I wanted a ‘big bang to clap at’, she says. “I wanted an action ending.”
She had no desire to write a crime story like everyone else: she’s easily bored and always on the lookout for new, unexplored paths and projects. And she believes that the differing opinions about the end has less to do with nationality, and more so with the ways in which women are viewed, and what sort of actions we like to think – or not to think – that women are capable of taking.
Alsterdal herself has no doubts of the abilities of her main character:
– I believe that once you cross that certain line you are capable of doing pretty much anything. All it takes is a big enough fury. Or that you find yourself in a position where you have nothing to lose, where you are desperate enough.
It is no coincidence that the three main characters in the book are women. Alsterdal, who in addition to being an author is a journalist, editor and script writer, firmly believes that all throughout the history of literature and theater, the big questions, the ones dealing with life and death and power and guilt, have been raised and pondered upon by men, while issues that women are left to deal with are reduced to “women’s issues.” Her driving force is to make room, on stage and in her writing, for women to grapple with the same questions.
It is no coincidence that the main theme of Women on the Beach is human slavery. In a world that has officially banned slavery, there exists today an estimated 27 million slaves. Alsterdal has long tried to find a way to tell their story, and the ones that end up dead on beach, drowning while trying to cross the waters from Africa to Europe, in a fictional format.
With the publishing of Women on the Beach, originally a movie manuscript that Alsterdal rewrote into a book, she feels that she has succeeded. She has received many reactions not only on the quality of her work, but also on the shocking facts about slavery that is woven into the fictional story.
Women on the Beach has already been sold to Norway, Germany and Italy and in May next year her agent will bring it to a book fair in New York. It remains to be seen if Tove Alsterdal will be the next Swedish crime fiction success story in the U.S, pushing Stieg Larsson and the other guys further down the New York Times Best Seller List. It certainly would prove that she practices what she preaches, and that there’s more than one way to write a best-seller Swedish thriller.
Most likely, there wouldn’t be any complaints about the end.
Swedish version previously published in SWEA-Bladet Los Angeles, May 2010