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the princess of burundi

13 january 2011

Kjell Eriksson's Princess of Burundi is compared by reviewers to Sjöwall & Wahlöö, and also to Henning Mankell: the inevitable touchstones for Swedish police procedurals. Of course, everything's a matter of scale. There are probably intense mystery readers in Sweden who would insist that Eriksson's work is sharply different from those masters. And there are probably twice-a-decade mystery readers in the Americas or Asia who would see Eriksson as roughly identical not only to Mankell but also to Simenon or even Ed McBain. Genres are fractal things, gaining complexity as you get a nearer view of them.

As a developing connoisseur of Scandinavian crime fiction, I was reminded more of Sjöwall & Wahlöö than of Mankell as I read The Princess of Burundi. Mankell's procedurals are organized around a strong central character (Kurt Wallander) that Princess lacks. By contrast, though Sjöwall & Wahlöö nominally center their novels on Martin Beck, the ensemble of the office team is far more important to their work.

The Princess of Burundi is a decentered novel, told in short chapters, from multiple perspectives (including those of the villains). In fact, the leader of the homicide squad, detective Ann Lindell, isn't even in the initial investigation; she's on maternity leave, caring for her newborn son. (As so often happens with overseas mystery series, we come into the story very much in the middle; Princess is evidently the fourth in Eriksson's series of crime novels, but it's the first to be translated.) Lindell can't help but be drawn back to the investigation, though, and ends up essential to its solution.

But she's not really a protagonist. Ola Haver is her deputy, and leads the investigation, but he's not really the protagonist either. Every member of the squad has strengths and weaknesses, and each plays a role in determining the truth. Such novels are probably projections of what we'd like our own workplaces to be. Murder investigations have strong goals and clear truths. People can shine disinterestedly in the service of the public good. When they go home at night, things are a mess, but their work gives their lives meaning. For too many readers, neither work nor home offers much meaning, and crime novels offer some kind of vicarious purpose.

The purpose here is to track down the killer(s) of an inoffensive tropical-fish collector with a petty-criminal past, who's been torture-murdered and tossed into a snow dump. It's Christmas in Uppsala; The Princess of Burundi has the distinction of the most northerly urban setting among the Swedish police procedurals that I've read. Snow plays a big part in the atmosphere, and the plot, of the novel. So do snow removal, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Christmas cooking, and tracks (human and automotive) in the snow.

Ebba Segerberg's translation is strong, a neutral global-English version rather than tilted toward either the UK or the US. (I don't know a word of Swedish, so I can't comment on its faithfulness or special features, but it's good English prose.)

And just as a kind of side-note: I spent 125 pages wondering what on Earth the title had to do with anything, but it makes perfect sense thereafter. The contrast of the exotic tropical title to the snowbound story is actually quite evocative, and well-motivated.

Eriksson, Kjell. The Princess of Burundi. [Prinsessan av Burundi, 2002.] Translated by Ebba Segerberg. New York: St. Martin's, 2006.

French title: La princesse du Burundi
German title: Der Tote im Schnee