"The indefatigable noir series of anthologies (Orange County Noir, Trinidad Noir, Brooklyn Noir 3, etc.) focuses in its 43rd volume on the home of Hans Christian Andersen . . . Based on this collection, Copenhagen may be a great place to visit, but nobody seems to live there, at least not well or long."
"Fans used to the watered-down noir now prevalent in America will notice immediately the much harder edge of these stories, which are much closer to the noir of the 1940s and '50s."
"[This] volume has grim, uncomfortable power."
Joining Rome, Paris, Istanbul, London, and Dublin as European hosts for the Akashic Noir series, Copenhagen Noir features brand-new stories from a top-notch crew of Danish writers, with several Swedish and Norwegian writers thrown into the mix. This volume definitively reveals why Scandinavian crime fiction has come to be so popular across the world.
Includes brand-new stories by: Naja Marie Aidt, Jonas T. Bengtsson, Helle Helle, Christian Dorph and Simon Pasternak, Susanne Staun, Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, Klaus Rifbjerg, Gretelise Holm, Georg Ursin, Kristian Lundberg, Kristina Stoltz, Seyit Öztürk, Benn Q. Holm, and Gunnar Staalesen.
Bo Tao Michaëlis is a book critic and editor living in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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IntroductionThe Seamy Side of Modernism
The French word for black is currently an often (mis) used trendy word for irrational and uncontrollable crime, a melodramatic, spectacular, and thrilling intrigue in an entertaining story that begins well but ends badly. The word gained this interpretation in the postwar world of the 1940s, after the launch of a French series of hard-boiled books, "Série Noire," written by American, English, and French authors, from Dashiell Hammett to Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, to Georges Simenon and Léo Malet. Black on black, death never gives credit and life is short and dirty, like a kid's shirt. Yet, what does noir mean nowadays with regards to concept, style, and genre?
Noir is the story of the fateful coincidence, the precarious absurdity and bitter nonchalance of life. It speaks of loss of control and lack of insight, of irrationality's impact on what seems to make sense—the throw of the dice that didn't win, to put it simply. The style is minimalistic, open, and terse. It attempts to describe an unpredictable calamity rather than any act of clear rationality. Capturing the murderer is neither what's necessary nor important. Because noir is seldom interested in illuminating a valid truth or forming clarity, it rarely seeks a transparent understanding that it doesn't believe in anyway. Noir is the crime genre's bleak nostalgia and, at the same time, its unsentimental vision of modern times; without degenerating into cheap puritanism or bigoted abstinence, it often includes sexuality, and more in the light of being used destructively than as any romantic idealism. A noir story seldom has a happy ending. When it does happen, such as in Chandler's Philip Marlowe books, it is with a bittersweet taste of compromise or bargaining. Life goes on with a wounded soul, and only that which is lost is eternal. Past, present, and future melt into one synchronous now, which cancels out every hope that times change and things will be better. As a famous title from a noir writer, Horace McCoy, puts it: kiss tomorrow goodbye, because nothing will be there at daybreak.
Noir is disillusionment and melancholy in relation to the big city, the melting pot of modernism. Some classic noir stories do take place in the country, but the metropolis appears either as modernism's revenge or as temptations fallen for in the past that now must be paid for; it often involves cold revenge, heated confrontation, old love, or as all three at the same time and place.
The most archetypical noir short story is Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers," originally published in Scribner's in 1927. Two hit men arrive in a country town to shoot a newcomer with a big-city past. It doesn't happen, they don't find him that day, but as the narration progresses, we readers know from reading between the lines that it is only a question of time before the killing takes place. Such is life in noir —you can't avoid your fate; at the most you can delay it and hope that death comes quickly and relatively painlessly as the long sleep that we all must enter at some given point in our lives.
Noir loves flight, ill-fated love, the cold avenger. You could say that Alexander Dumas's classic novel of revenge from 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo, is the first noir novel, with its lengthy and cold-blooded reprisal that can be traced back to the main character's disadvantaged, unfair, and virtually psychopathic past. Others identify Greek tragedy, with its gruesome destinies and lack of redeeming Providence, as the oldest forerunner of the genre.
No matter. The important point is that noir only seems to operate within the crime genre. There is noir that merely touches occasionally on an actual crime story; Paul Auster's novels about New York come to mind, but authors from other genres and other parts of the globe can also be included. Japan's Haruki Murakami, England's Ian McEwan, and Sweden's Karin Alvtegen all can be said to create works resembling noir. The dark style does not require bodies, pathetic sex, or cover-to-cover violence. More a clear literary, late-modernist, and existential sense that in the evil streets of the big city and dark suburbs is found the consummate experience of shock—the confrontation with the seamy side of modernism.
Europe's End and the Gateway to Scandinavia: Copenhagen As noir
Copenhagen: the Little Mermaid, H.C. Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, and Karen Blixen, a big city that perhaps more than any other is the absolute capital, origin, and center of northern European romanticism of the 1800s. Denmark's Copenhagen, with its ramparts and moats forming the shell of the city and suburbs, has retained a glint of back then, that world of yesterday. To be exact, the city's archaic Middle Ages center, with the beautiful buildings, squares, and streets that tourists meet from their hotels, a comfortable inner circle with Tivoli as its midpoint and King's Square its end. At one point our metropolis was presented as an idyllic, modest-sized big city, where police stopped traffic when a mother duck guided her ugly ducklings across the street populated by cars, bicycles, and streetcars. But naturally, and quite unfortunately, such is the case no longer. Copenhagen long ago abandoned its Sleeping Beauty slumber for a cosmopolitan night and day that never sleeps, neither in a good nor bad way. Four-wheel drive vehicles, limos, and expensive sports cars now sail down the boulevards and avenues that were once characterized by girls bicycling on dirt paths and healthy boys briskly walking to work or to girlfriends. Those times are gone forever.
The main character of Naja Marie Aidt's noir story, "Women in Copenhagen," returns to the city after seventeen years and realizes that the place has become more multicultural, turbulent, and global than the Brooklyn where he lives. Everything is in flux, in a variety of colors. Gone is the provincial city appointed as capital; instead, one is confronted with a metropolis where the food is from the Middle East, the wine from California, the women from Africa, and the mafia from Russia. Mafia! A new word at these latitudes, where crime formerly took place among bands identified with city neighborhoods and regions. Beatings were bloody noses from a few punches, not like now with knifings and shotgun blasts in the gut and an unmarked grave out in the sticks or under the deep blue sea. Between the wars, in the 1930s, we in Denmark spoke of "white slavery," poor women kidnapped to a life of prostitution in foreign brothels—today it's called trafficking, and now we speak of the vile import of East European women. And moreover, we are indeed the last country in Scandinavia to criminalize the customer of such activity, the buying of a hooker.
The short stories in Copenhagen Noir deal often with this phenomenon, the introduction of women from the outside—often the third world—to our own little den of capitalist lust, to abuse them. Our northern nation, where Europe ends and Scandinavia begins, and which time and again boasts of its romantic lifestyle and puritanical decency in song, in verses concerning our mellow nature, our hale and hearty men and gentle women. This anthology articulates with skill and resolve the dark side of our romantic identity depicted by our nineteenth-century golden-age literature and contemporary hits on radio and TV, rhyming on love and pain. Here we see the modernist noir, linked to organized prostitution run by criminals from outside our borders. This is a different Copenhagen from what the still lifes suggest in tourist brochures.
But Copenhagen is also something other than the medium-sized capital of the Danes. The Øresundsbro was finished June 1, 2000, connecting Denmark with Sweden—or perhaps more significantly, from a historic perspective, with the Swedish province of Skåne, the former Danish province lost in the mid-1600s after a number of catastrophic wars. We also lost the region's capital city, Malmø, which was largely Danish and which, in the period after the Swedish annexation, still attempted to preserve its Danish character. The bridge to Malmø has not only stirred a renaissance for this "freedom movement"; it has also connected southern Sweden more closely to Copenhagen than to the country's actual capital, beautiful Stockholm. Nowadays, Swedes/Skånings work in Copenhagen and Danes live in Malmø. The bridge has transformed Malmø into a large suburb of Copenhagen; generally speaking, our capital could be seen as a Manhattan to a Malmø that, via one of Europe's longest bridges, has become a northern European Brooklyn! Therefore, it is natural that the Swedish author Kristian Lundberg, who lives in Malmø, is included in this anthology, with a story about his hero, the alcoholic Catholic policeman Nils Forsberg. Lundberg sees Copenhagen as the end of the rainbow, on the other side of the bridge, a big city that in many ways has put Malmø in a different perspective, different from its status as a big Swedish city.
But Copenhagen was once not only the Danish capital. The city was, in fact, the capital of Norway for four hundred years, much longer than Norway's present one, Oslo. Norway justifiably wrested its independence from Denmark in 1814, but long afterward, even to the present day, Norwegians have held a nostalgic and "metropolitan" love for Copenhagen, Europe's end and the gateway to Scandinavia. But for Norwegians it must actually be the opposite: for them Copenhagen must still be the gateway to Europe, for the cultural bonds are strong and persistent via history, the royalty, and, in particular, language, culture, and literature. Danes and Norwegians are like close relatives who meet affectionately after a happy divorce, who get along very well. Norway's greatest crime writer, Gunnar Staalesen from Bergen, naturally sends his hero detective, the sensitive yet hard-boiled Varg Veum, on a mission to Copenhagen. As far back as in one of his first detective novels, Sleeping Beauty from 1980, Varg Veum is at work in the center of Copenhagen, in the district that is more or less red-light, stretching from Central Station toward the "mean streets" where gangsters find their apprentices and hookers their customers. Therefore, it is fitting that this Norwegian author has a place in an anthology about crime and punishment in Norway's old capital, where Scandinavia begins and ends in a metropolis for the entire region.
All the short stories in Copenhagen Noir are about meaninglessness, violence, and murder in various districts of the city. Written for the most part by Copenhageners, but also by authors—Helle Helle, Susanne Staun, and Gretelise Holm—who now live in the provinces but have spent a part of their lives in the Queen's city, having absorbed the city and never completely abandoned it. Denmark's celebrated author from the island of Amager (where the Øresundsbro begins), Klaus Rifbjerg, is of course included, with a historical noir story from that great island, an assimilated part of the capital. But the collection also includes inhabitants of ethnic backgrounds from outside the shadow of the Danish flag. Common for all the writers is a love for Copenhagen and for the dark story of coincidence and necessity, the good and bad luck of humans. In a metropolis that both has a style of its own yet also resembles the other black pearls of cities across the globe: New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Berlin. Enjoy.
Bo Tao Michaëlis Copenhagen, Denmark October 2010
Excerpted from Copenhagen Noir Copyright © 2011 by Akashic Books. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPART I: (MEN AND) WOMEN....................23
Naja Marie Aidt Ørstedsparken Women in Copenhagen....................46
Jonas T. Bengtsson Northwest One of the Rough Ones....................61
Christian Dorph & Simon Pasternak Vesterbro Australia....................82
Susanne Staun City Center All I Want Is My Baby, Woah Woah, Woah Woah Woah Woah....................90
PART II: MAMMON....................103
Lene Kaaberbøl & Agnete Friis Ørestad When the Time Came....................128
Georg Ursin Frederiksberg Sleipner's Assignment....................138
Klaus Rifbjerg Amager Debt of Honor....................145
PART III: CORPSES....................165
Kristian Lundberg Malmø Savage City, Cruel City (Translated from Swedish by Lone Thygesen BLecher)....................193
Kristina Stoltz Nørrebro The Elephant's Tusks....................204
Seyit Öztürk Valby The Booster Station....................222
Benn Q. Holm Frederiksberg Allé The Great Actor....................242
Gunnar Staalesen Central Station Last Train from Central Station....................255