Interview with Alistair Rolls and Michael Tapper

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Alistair Rolls, Co-editor with Rachel Franks for Crime Uncovered: Private Investigator

Why do you think the crime genre is so popular?

There are a couple of theses that I find quite compelling. The idea of solving the plot, of competing with the detective is not one of them, I must admit. I prefer the nostalgic edge of crime, much of which, especially when televised, is period drama. I also like crime fiction in contradistinction to what is now often referred to as “literary fiction”, simply because so much of the latter is so affected nowadays, with an emphasis on a simplicity of expression that (all too often, and I suppose this is a personal take) borders on the banal. The need to focus on the intrigue, which is necessary to make the crime “work”, keeps authors honest, I think, and stops them being overly conscious of “being writers”. This is tied in with the idea that crime, as a result of this overvaluation of the objects of our daily lives (turned into material evidence), is the new Realism.

Do you have any favourite crime TV shows, movies or books?

I am a bit of a sucker for most BBC crime drama, what we call in Australia “Friday Night Crime”. I very much like reading Agatha Christie, also Andrea Camilleri. I also like reading the early works of the Série Noire in their French translations, especially authors like Peter Cheyney (who is quite unpalatable in the original English) and James Hadley Chase. My favourite translated novelist of that era is Carter Brown, I think, especially his Mavis Seidlitz novels, which were really well rendered by their French translators at Gallimard. My favourite contemporary author is undoubtedly the French author Fred Vargas, whose works, unlike Camilleri’s (which I find very well translated, I must add), I am fortunate enough to be able to read in the original. Commissaire Adamsberg is the most original detective figure I have come across in contemporary crime fiction. I mustn’t let a chance go by, though, to put in a plug for the Hunter Valley’s own Barry Maitland. (Barry and I both live in the Hunter, in New South Wales, 150 kms north of Sydney.) I have read all of his books (apart from the latest one, Ash Island, which will be on my summer-reading list) and am a big fan.

Why do you think Intellect’s Crime Uncovered series stands out from the rest?

Intellect are keen to find an intersection between the scholarly community and the general public. Crime fiction is an excellent common ground.

If you could be any anti-hero or a detective who would you be and why?

I hesitated before writing my answer to this one. At first, I was going to say Captain Hastings or Dr Watson, both swanning about in a pre-digital era, able to concentrate on the task at hand (and without the ultimate responsibility of Poirot and Holmes). The UK series Sherlock did, to my mind, an excellent job of problematizing my first idea: Watson is plugged into the modern world of social media, and this is built in to the storyline to great effect. I realized that this answer, born of this fairly common nostalgia for a bygone era, is not limited to “historical” fiction, however; all the protagonists of our favourite crime shows appear to have the time to use the tools of their trade (typically their minds, and, of course, an oversized glass of alcohol when looking at scene-of-crime photos on their laptops), whereas the tool of my trade, my computer, seems to be there to exist, perversely, to prevent me from working by bombarding me with email. A “realistic” crime show that focused on investigative admin would have far less success, of course… So, by Friday night I’d rather be any TV homicide detective rather than an academic. This is why it’s called fiction, after all.

Michael Tapper, Swedish Cops: From Sjöwall & Wahlöö to Stieg Larsson

What was the inspiration behind your book Swedish Cops?

The main inspiration was the fact that there was no scholarly book – or any good book – on Swedish crime fiction.  This I discovered to my surprise when I wrote an essay about a crime film – Zero Tolerance (1999) by Anders Nilsson – for a 2006 anthology on contemporary Swedish cinema. Having grown up in the politically turbulent climate of the 1970s I already knew much about the background of the most famous authors and filmmakers in the genre as well as the ideological ideas and real-life inspirations behind their work.

I had but to compile all the references and start writing the book that eventually also became my dissertation in cinema studies. The work itself was also a way for me to go back into my own historical past and try to make sense of the ideological changes that took place from 1965 till 2012.  In hindsight I like to think of the work as a detective work in itself. I had a few clues, but there were also quite a few surprises on the way from start to finish.

What are some of your favourite crime books and films?

Of the authors I wrote about, I would single out Roslund & Hellström and Stieg Larsson. A strange combination, perhaps, considering that they represent two opposites in style: crime realism and crime fantasy. Interestingly both Anders Roslund and Stieg Larsson have a journalist background, but whereas Larsson sat behind a desk rewriting news telegrams Roslund was working out in the streets, making reportages and documentaries (that’s where he met his co-author Hellström, a reformed jailbird).

Stieg Larsson is decidedly the most stylistically apt and genre-savvy. His studies of feminist crime fiction and science fiction gel into the rape-and-revenge terminator Lisbeth Salander. It is a pity, though, that the English translation of his work is so bad (see John-Henri Holmberg’s essay ‘The Novels You Read Are Not Necessarily the Novels Stieg Larsson Wrote’ in the anthology Secrets of the Tattooed Girl), because his literacy in crime and science fiction is a big part of the attraction of his books.

R&H, on the other hand, really transport you to the mean streets of today’s neoliberal dystopia and into the heads of the precariat. The world and the people they describe are largely made invisible by a mainstream journalism catering to the Home Beauty middle-class. But although the stories put you through a raw and horrible experience, the authors always manage to find moments of poetry. Sometimes it comes from the darkest and most ugly places, but it can also come from brief moments of happiness and insight.

Outside of Sweden there are far too many good authors in crime fiction than I can find time and place to mention here. A selection of few would include Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain (of course), Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, James Ellroy and George V. Higgins, but every time I do a list I have a terrible feeling of leaving many more and just as great names out of it.

Unfortunately, there no really good Swedish crime film directors. There are a few good films and TV series, like Bo Widerberg’s Man on the Roof (1976) and Mikael Marcimain’s The Laser Man (2005), but no great tradition. The crime franchises of later years such as the Swedish Wallander, Beck and Johan Falk film series are made on the assembly line. Really terrible from an artistic point of view.

In contrast there is a wealth of artistic talent in both the US and the UK traditions with films such as William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Peter Yates’The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Mike Hodges Get Carter! (1971, I also like hisCroupier from 1998 and I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead from 2003), most of Martin Scorsese’s crime and urban paranoia films (Mean Streets, 1973; Taxi Driver, 1976;Cape Fear, 1990), John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980), Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), Sidney Lumets many police and crime films (Serpico, 1973; Prince of the City, 1980; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2008)… I can go on and on.

Where does your own academic interests lie?

Well, genre studies, obviously, because I consider genre films to be of utmost interest when studying social and political change. For me film is an essential part and reflection of history, perhaps more so in the 20th century than in the 21st as TV series, video games and internet attractions seem to be of increasing importance as zeitgeist seismographs. Recently, however, I have become interested in Ingmar Bergman, and for the same reason. Rejecting the usual auteurist navel-gazing, I plan a series of books on his films from a historical point of view, i.e. studying the films in a historical context.

What do you think makes Swedish crime fiction stand out from other parts of the world?

Exoticism is a crucial element. As I describe in my book, there is a long and ideologically motivated tradition of portraying Sweden as something odd and even bizarre in its so-called Third Way between capitalism and communism. Utopian perfection on the outside, masking a Dystopian chaos on the inside. Strangely, the very fall from this Utopian state – i.e. the social-liberal welfare state – to the neoliberal gutter we are now living in has been taken as a confirmation that the previous social order was something rotten.

How did you become interested in crime theory and fiction?

There are no genres more suited to dissect society than crime fiction. A police is able to penetrate all social levels, open any dark archive and kick down any doors no matter how nice the façade might be. In my mind we have only begun to explore the genre’s narrative and stylistic possibilities. There are so much potential for the authors and filmmakers who are able to break out of the mainstream mold of puzzle detective stories masked as police investigations.  Looking at a world of increasing inequality in which the 85 richest families own and/or control as much as the 3.5 billion poorest there seems to be a good opportunity for those who want to explore white-collar crime, environmental crime and exploitation of labour. Also, we have a huge weapons and military research industry with disturbing political influence. There are many mean streets for today’s detectives to shine a light on.

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