The success of Stieg Larsson’s books has showed publishers the potential of Scandinavian thrillers — and so British audiences are now getting the chance to read books which otherwise might never have made it over here.
One of the new crop is Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Danish thriller writer with an appetite for power struggles and suspense. I spoke to Adler about Mercy, the first in his five-part detective series Department Q, on life growing up in a mental institution, and why he can’t be compared with Larsson.
Why have British readers developed such an appetite for Scandinavian fiction?
British readers needed to read something new. In the UK, for quite a period, people were writing more or less the same stuff. I’m talking thrillers or crime stories. We are storytellers in Scandinavia, though I’m not writing as a Scandinavian, that’s not my purpose. I’m not influenced by other Scandinavian authors.
How helpful is the inevitable comparison to Stieg Larsson?
Stieg Larsson was a special person. It was a good story: he died in the middle of everything and that’s good PR — hopefully I will not follow him in that storyline. But try to imagine if Larsson had been published 15 years ago and then I came along. No one would compare us.
Perhaps they’d compare Larsson to a couple of older crime writers, like Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who are the mother and father of crime fiction in Scandinavia. They taught us how to combine social elements, politics, real literature and fantastic dialogue.
I think the good thing about some of the best Scandinavian writers is they need to take care of every element of storytelling: plots are important, as is writing well, writing for every page and creating characters the reader can access. But they are not good at creating empathy.
Many writers in Scandinavia aren’t using points of view, and I am. You’re in the head of [my character] Carl, and the next you’re in the head of Merete, and perhaps you’re in the head of Lasse.
Which key themes arise in Mercy?
One of my important themes is the misuse of power. You see it so often, here and there. Could you connect it to a story where there’s a trauma and you are challenging what people are afraid of? I was a publisher before, and an editor. I read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts that I had to throw away because they didn’t respect the reader, that he or she very often had read more than the author.
You have to do your best to invent new and better locations. Perhaps this was the case in Mercy; having a location that was never seen before and stretching the story without losing the reader. That’s difficult.
Your father was a psychiatric doctor and you grew up in hospitals around patients. How much did you draw on your personal experience of insanity and confinement in Mercy?
It’s influenced me throughout my whole life. I learned a lot from the patients during that period. I was quite close to them, like the other children in the hospital. There were a few of us, we played football, we were normal children, but we felt pity for the patients. Sometimes they were very depressed and of course it was hard for them to see normal families so close to them.
In 1955, when I was five years old, the doctors brought in psychopharmaca [anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs] – you should have seen the screening cages before that point. The women and the men they were almost naked because the nurses were afraid they would kill each other with their stockings.
But we didn’t fear them, even when they spat at us. We feared the doctors because they had the power, and some misused it. With psychopharmaca, suddenly patients could walk around freely and we could be close to them. I met a patient, [Mr X]. He was a “nice little killer”, my father said.
Mr X was kind of a weak person and he had a big, big wife and they always fought but one day it was too much for him and — wham — he killed her. So he was in a mental hospital and the drugs made him very nice and easygoing. I liked him tremendously.
I could see the good and evil in him, and in the other mental patients: very often their actions were an explosion from normality into total insanity. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, which I use a lot in my books.
How significant is the notion of confinement in your work?
I wrote Mercy before news came of [Josef] Fritzl in Amstetten and Natascha Kampusch. And reviewers in Demark said: “Oh come on, how can a woman be kept in a place like that for so many years?”
It was very good public relations for me when Natascha Kampusch escaped. My research about women in the case was based on the notion of what would happen if it was a man sitting there instead? A man couldn’t live with not knowing why he’d been confined and why he couldn’t react to it. He would commit suicide after a few years.
What are your writing methods?
Normally I have a lot of stories to tell. I think I have maybe 20 synopses now that could be made into books. Every time I find a good, original story, I take three weeks off and I write it down like a synopsis and then put it away. When choosing the case [for the Department Q series], I research every little thing for several months. Then comes the stage where I write the book. I have five months in which to do it, which is a very short time so I have to be focused. I have never felt writer’s block. It doesn’t exist in my world because I stay at the desk until I’ve finished what I intended. It could take 15 hours and some days you’re not in the mood. I never finish the last sentence, I always leave half a page to the next day. Then you can sit down and finish the chapter and before you know it you are running onto the next.
Every time I write a book I go to a monastery in Denmark where there are writers. I sit there in a small room and each evening we meet and read the raw text out loud. It’s terrible. I use the old WordPerfect text system because I don’t have to use a mouse. You move your hand away from the keyboard, even for one tenth of a second, and you’ve lost your focus.
Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen is out now.