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ingebjorg9: (O RLY?)
Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 01:47 pm
Mari Jungstedt is a Stockholm-based journalist who for about ten years has been writing crime thrillers based on the island of Gotland.  Her detective, Anders Knutas, is a happily-married family man who gets on well with his wife, has a great relationship with his kids and is happy with his life.  The opposite of Kurt Wallander, then.

Gotland is a beautiful, peaceful island, marred (if Jungstedt is to be believed) only by the ocassional brutal murder.  Knutas is a highly functional individual, as are most of his team, and while I really like the noir-ness of Wallander it's refreshing sometimes to come across a protagonist whose life is not a depressing mess.

So what's the problem, then?

Apart from the fact that, compared with writers like Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indriðason, some of Jungstedt's writing feels like noir-lite, the main flaw in her work is her insistence on inserting into her stories two of the most unlikeable author avatars I have ever met.  First of all we have the ladies' man, Stockholm journalist Johan Berg.  Then we have the vaguely neurotic teacher Emma Winarve.  In the first novel of the series, Unseen, Johan is a TV news journalist sent to Visby by his irritating boss to investigate a series of violent murders of women.  It's not surprising that Jungstedt would choose a journalist as her author avatar, as you tend to write about what you know, but there's so much description of how a TV newsroom works and how to be a journalist that it derails the narrative a bit.  However, it gets worse when he meets Emma, wholater ends up being kidnapped herself, and nearly finished off by the murderer, who was a boy who she was mean to in school
.  Although Emma is married with two young children, she falls for Johan's somewhat dubious charms, and he for hers.  He's not put off by the fact that she's a got a family and commitments, and she doesn't seem to care that he's been round the block a few dozen times.  They end up besotted with each other.  Of course.

In the next book, Unspoken, they're back again, derailing what is actually a very compelling plot and providing distraction and annoyance all round.  Emma finds out she's pregnant and wants Johan to give her some space so she can decide what to do, Johan agrees, then turns up at her house anyway.  In the middle of a family meal.  Despite the fact that she's asked him not to contact her for a month.  Sigh.  Then they turn up again in the next novel.  And the one after that, and the one after that, and so on.  I had to stop reading after the third, as I was getting tired of their constant intrusions.  The flat affect of the prose and the added-on angst were also not helping, nor was the standard of the translation, which is diabolical.

Quite what Emma's appeal to Jungstedt is, I can't quite figure out.  She obviously identifies closely with her for some reason, but I'm sure that the real life Mari Jungstedt is a much more pleasant person than Emma appears to be.  Emma is self-centred, whiny, clingy and, for a teacher, not very smart.  For some reason, though, Johan (and Jungstedt, for that matter) finds her fascinating and can't get her out of his head.  He's no great prize either.  I may have described him elsewhere as charisma-free.  Quite why Emma is so taken with him is something of a mystery to me, I'm afraid.  He too is self-centred and lacking in insight.  He butts into the police investigations, yet somehow gets away with it, whereas in real life he'd probably have been hauled over the coals by the authorities.  He knows Emma is married and needs to think of her kids when she's deciding whether to commit to him, but he can't give her the space she needs to make the decision.  Taken individually, each of these characters is irritating.  Together they're actually a little nauseating.

The worst of it is, had they both been bumped off at the end of book one, nothing would have been lost from subsequent books.  In fact, if they were removed from the stories there would be an instant improvement.  Fewer narrative derailments.  Less needless angst.  More time spent with Detective Knutas, who actually is a likeable and interesting character.  The fact that they keep turning up again when they're really not needed points to them being Jungstedt's favourites; characters that she just can't bear to be separated from.  A lot of beginning writers do this.  Hell, a lot of experienced writers do it too, but they tend to be able to get away with it more because they can create likeable or at least interesting characters.  Although Jungstedt has been doing this for ten years, I understand she's still primarily a journalist – and unfortunately it shows.

I would really like to enjoy this series of books more, as there are also a lot of positives about the stories, Unspoken in particular being a compelling and thought-provoking study of how vulnerable young people can be victimised.  But I just can't get past these two characters, or indeed the clunkiness of the translation, which makes everything even worse.  However, for my own writing, I now have more of an idea of how not to create readable characters.  And it begins with not having them derail the plot every chapter or two.