One of the first pieces of advice a prospective crime writer gets—usually from his agent or publisher, whoever gets to him first—is to think serial. Not as in serial killers but sequel after sequel, ad infinitum.
I have myself been taking guidance from my compatriot Kjell Eriksson, a leading Scandinavian crime writer whose police procedurals, with the university town of Uppsala as a backdrop, started to get popular with the third instalment. They are now, after 10 books, massive best-sellers that European critics rave about and people such as my mom consume greedily.
This, in turn, allows Eriksson to escape the northern winters and rent a house in South America or South Asia, or anywhere else with a name that begins with “south”, to write the annual 100,000 words that a typical detective novel consists of. Despite this he cautioned me about how market expectations can suffocate creativity and how he would love to write something completely different. But once you’re part of the literary bazaar, it isn’t easy to walk out.
Swedish flavour: Larsson’s The Millennium Trilogy is a best-seller. Bloomberg
As Arthur Conan Doyle famously found out in 1893 when, after two dozen Sherlock stories, he let the detective take a plunge down a Swiss mountain in The Final Problem. The readers were in mourning—20,000 cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine in which Sherlock appeared as they weren’t going to let the author get away with “murder”. So Doyle resurrected the detective; he needed cash anyway to rebuild his home.
A week after Doyle’s funeral in 1930, a crowded Royal Albert Hall witnessed a séance during which the author was expected to somehow rematerialize, like Sherlock years earlier. But it was Sherlock who outlived Doyle and carried on in stories by writers ranging from Ellery Queen to John Dickson Carr, and famously even went to Bombay (now Mumbai) and Tibet in the The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, winner of the Crossword Book Award in 2000. A sadder fate, in comparison, befell James Bond, who keeps being pulped by hacks with a licence to flog 007, as in the latest “Ian Fleming” novel, Devil May Care, which is virtually unreadable and probably makes the real Ian Fleming wish he could return from the dead like a Jamaican zombie and chew off the carotid artery of his publisher.
Now, to come back to Sweden, an interesting case to consider is Stieg Larsson (yes, you guessed it; crime fiction is one of the notable export products of this small Scandinavian kingdom).
He’s currently one of the world’s best-selling authors, courtesy The Millennium Trilogy, which features an investigative journalist and a Pippi Longstocking-type hacker who exposes crime among the high and mighty. The novels are being translated into some 40 languages. And if you’re not a reader, you can catch the films—the first released this year in March.
Larsson himself never got to experience this success because he suffered a massive heart attack a few months short of his debut. This means that he completed three instalments before any of them made it into print, which is rare. But rumour has it that he wasn’t merely writing a trilogy, but had plans for 10 books and was 200 pages into the fourth. Luckily it has been decided, for the time being, that the unfinished novel won’t be given to a ghost writer to complete, despite the lure of millions for the inheritors.
One is reminded of Cervantes who, while halfway through writing the second part of Don Quixote, was forestalled by another author who hijacked his protagonist and published in 1614 a fraudulent sequel to the 1605 original—which had by then been a smash hit not just all over Spain but in Italy, England and France, too. Cervantes wasn’t happy and said so in the preface to the genuine sequel, “Here you have the Knight once more fitted out, and at last brought to his death, and fairly laid in his grave; that nobody may presume to raise any more stories of him.” Because, he continues, while asserting himself as Don Quixote’s only authorized voice, “Too much of one thing clogs the appetite, but scarcity makes everything go down.” And that is, perhaps, how it should be.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based Swedish writer of crime fiction.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org