Nordic noir's sexual violence attacked by British crime writer

Bestselling author Ann Cleeves condemns gruesome scenes and morbid tone of Scandinavian books and TV dramas

A leading British detective story author has criticised the treatment of women by Scandinavian crime writers, saying that they seem intent on outdoing each other when depicting graphic violence against female characters.

Ann Cleeves, creator of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland novels, said she is concerned about a trend she believes has entered ever more morbid territory following the worldwide success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. From the opening episode of the TV drama The Bridge, when the mutilated body of a female Swedish politician is discovered, to the first season of The Killing, which starts with a girl running for her life through a wood, and the serial killer targeting women in Jo Nesbø's The Leopard, violence against females is prevalent in Scandinavian noir.

Cleeves, speaking to the Observer from an event in Oxford where she was discussing her latest Shetland novel, Dead Water, said that, although there had always been violence in crime fiction, it was now "much more embedded". She said: "I especially don't like the graphic violence against women and children, often depicted in novels such as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and others. I'm not sure if it's being done just to entertain, or whether it really is necessary for the characters involved."

In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a character is anally raped. A teenage Larsson witnessed three of his friends gang-raping a young girl, which he said inspired the theme of sexual violence against women in his work. Larsson's original title for the first part of his Millennium trilogy translates as "Men Who Hate Women". Cleeves said she had gone off Norwegian author Nesbø's work too. "I preferred his earlier books, which were much less violent. A lot of it is subjective, of course. My work is less violent because we tend to write what we want to read … and I'm not that interested in gruesome books. Any violence, to fit in well with a crime novel, has to have compassion."

Various academic studies have investigated the much debated issue of violence against women in the genre, questioning whether it is necessary, or simply for entertainment value. US crime writer Sara Paretsky has argued this form of violence reflects sexism in society.

Discussing The Fall, the BBC's crime drama series created by Allan Cubitt and starring Gillian Anderson as an ice-cold Scotland Yard detective superintendent investigating the serial killing of young professional women, Cleeves said choosing a female detective was perhaps a subconscious move to normalise the trend: "I think sometimes people think it's OK to have such violence against women when you have a strong female lead."

Cleeves has had huge success with her Vera Stanhope and Shetland novels. ITV recently finished screening the third series of Vera, with Brenda Blethyn in the title role, and has commissioned a fourth, now being filmed in the north-east and due to be broadcast next year. "I'm aware families sit around the telly to watch Vera, which is making entertainment out of murder," said Cleeves. "But I don't enjoy reading about people's pain. I tend to put myself in that position and it's not somewhere I want to be.

"Somewhere along the line in crime novels, the violence seems much more embedded now. The Millennium trilogy was quite gratuitous at times."

A successful pilot of Shetland on BBC1 earlier this year, with Douglas Henshall as detective Jimmy Perez, has led to a six-part series being filmed now, also going to air next year.

Cleeves praised a number of British and foreign crime authors, notably Swedish writer Johan Theorin and French author Pierre Lemaitre, both winners of the International Dagger award, given by the Crime Writers' Association for the best translated crime novel of the year.

"There are some wonderful British authors out there as well," she added. "Denise Mina is quite hard-hitting, and Christopher Fowler is at the other end of the [violence] scale. His work is very witty and has great substance."


Paul Gallagher

The GuardianTramp

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