Jumpers at the ready: The Killing is back

<em>Forbrydelsen</em>, along with other Scandi whodunits, harks back to a more artful age of crime d

ITV once announced the comeback of Columbo by playing Mark Morrison's Return of the Mac -- a whole detective represented by a crumpled old raincoat. This weekend, a similarly feted piece of clothing returns to our screens -- along with the sleuth who inhabits it -- as Danish detective Sarah Lund reappears in the iconic Faroese jumper for series two of The Killing (Forbrydelsen), starting Saturday on BBC4.

I should state at this point that this is in no way going to be an objective piece of writing. I write as an unashamed fan. I absolutely loved the first series of The Killing, and I've been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the second. As luck would have it, I'm away in Copenhagen (pretending to stalk Troels Hartmann in the town hall) this weekend, but I'll make sure I catch up during the week.

What's so great about this latest piece of Scandi Crime fiction? Are we just interested in our Nordic cousins meandering around because it seems foreign and cerebral to us; a notch up from Midsomer Murders or the standard detective shows on our major channels? As someone once said to me, there are probably Scandinavians sitting down to a subtitled episode of New Tricks, marvelling at Dennis Waterman's subtle characterisation and the psychological pacing of the drama. But I think it goes beyond that: the Scandi shows like Wallander and The Killing hark back to a more exciting, more artful age of crime drama.

Look back at an old episode of Bergerac, for example, and you'll find the pacing is so different. Fires in the Fall, the fabled creepy Christmas special of 1986 is well worth a look (though don't watch it right before going to bed) for several reasons. The plot really takes time to get going, almost as if you're not going to turn it over after 10 seconds if you get bored. As well as that, shows went 30 or 40 minutes before anyone even got killed; it seems John Nettles had a lot less death to deal with in Jersey than he does in Midsomer, where the corpses stack up before every ad break.

What The Killing's first series combined, over 20 hour-long episodes, was a whodunit with a drama about the effect of the crime on those who were left behind, along with a political thriller. It was like 24, but without the torture porn and the need for explosions. No mean feat for a bit of Sunday night telly, but there it was. We had time to learn about the various suspects and characters, to rule them out and then think they might have done it after all. Who knew? No one knew. Even the actors didn't know.

Unusually, The Killing is written as the series is filmed, with the main writers taking account of the actors' interpretations and including them in future episodes. It's this relationship between actors and their characters that makes it feel like a real collaborative effort -- plus no one knew who would be the killer or whether they would live or die until they got the next script, so they were as much in the dark as we, the audience were.

Catch the first series if you can, but keep your head down and don't mention it to anyone who might have seen it; you won't want the revelation of the killer and the noir-heavy denouement spoiled for you, that's for sure. Best to just lock yourself away.

At the heart of Forbrydelsen was and is Sarah Lund, the flawed detective played by Sofie Grabol. If The Killing had been set in England, you just know Lund would have been a ballbreaker or a bitch, power-dressed and full of that ghastly "feistiness" that all female leads are forced to have nowadays. But no: instead, the protagonist is quite passive, almost annoyingly so at times, thinking rather than articulating. She's not even brilliantly deductive: like Morse, she gets to the truth by simply wearing it down. What she has, above all, is patience and persistence -- the kind of qualities that are rewarded with this kind of superior crime drama.

So, jumpers at the ready. Series 2 is here. Just don't tell me who did it, or there'll be a real crime.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era