Culture / Editor's Own / Interview

“I Thought It Would Be Fun to Turn ‘Nordic Noir’ On Its Head”: Alexander McCall Smith in Conversation

Alexander-McCall-Smith

ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH is one of Britain’s most prolific authors. Though based in Scotland, he travels regularly, and many of his most famous characters live abroad. His most recent creation, Detective Ulf Varg, works in Malmö…


Alexander Brett

The creator of 44 Scotland Street and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detectives Agency, Alexander McCall Smith is today one of Britain’s most prolific authors, turning out around a thousand words a day. He has written or contributed to over a hundred books and his work has been translated into over forty six languages. Alongside writing, his diary is divided between projects that include working on film scripts, attending literary lunches and giving talks and book signings. He is also an amateur bassoonist, an Emeritus Professor of Law and a former chairman at the British Medical Journal.

McCall Smith settled in his native Scotland in 1984 and now shares time between Edinburgh and a house on the west coast. But, though firmly based in the UK, his outlook has always been international. He grew up in Rhodesia and has worked in Botswana. Furthermore, though much of his work is set in Scotland, some of his most famous characters live abroad. Mma Precious Ramotswe, for example, heroine of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detectives Agency series, lives in Botswana, while Professor Dr von Igelfeld lives in southern Germany. His most recent series, following the work of Detective Ulf Varg, takes place in southern Sweden.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes, the first novel in the Varg series, sees our hero investigate such crimes as the stabbing of a market trader, the disappearance of a man who may or may not exist and a rare case of lycanthropy. They are certainly different crimes to the ones investigated by Henrik Sabroe and Saga Norén in The Bridge, though, set in the same city in which much of The Bridge is filmed, it’s tempting to the Varg novels as a parody of their work.

“I invented Varg because I had, like many other people, enjoyed ‘Scandi noir’,” McCall Smith tells me. “I thought it would be fun to write something that paid homage to the genre and, at the same time, turns it on its head.”

He and his publishers decided they would initiate a new ‘Nordic blanc’ movement, parodying ‘Nordic noir’ while at the same time channelling something new.

“Though the novels are not intended as parodies,” McCall Smith explains, “they explore themes common to ‘Nordic noir’ in a humorous way – internal moral debate, various anxieties and the desire for a certain social conformity.”


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“Though the novels are not intended as parodies, they explore themes common to ‘Nordic noir’ in a humorous way – internal moral debate, various anxieties and the desire for a certain social conformity.”


These themes are particularly prominent in The Department of Sensitive Crimes. Varg’s personal problems – his unresolved feelings for Anna, impatience at irritating colleague Blomquist and concern for his dog Martin (the only dog in Sweden able to lip-read) – are dealt with in a similar manner to the way in which Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander repress their angst. But, despite his interest in ‘Scandi noir’, McCall Smith says he was not particularly inspired by Beck and Wallander, and is in fact yet to discover them properly.

“I am ashamed to say that there are vast swathes of Swedish literature I am yet to explore,” he says, “though I will certainly be doing so over the coming years.”

But, though he is yet to explore Swedish literature, it would be wrong to say he skipped research.

“While I was writing The Department of Sensitive Crimes I read a lot about Swedish art,” he explains, “as well as books about Swedish culture and politics more generally, including Kajsa Norman’s Sweden’s Dark Soul: The Unravelling of a Utopia. Furthermore, though I didn’t go during my research, I have been to Malmö in the past, so I am aware of the environment.”

Living in Scotland means McCall Smith feels a particular proximity to Scandinavia. I ask him if there is some truth in the idea that Scotland has more in common culturally to Scandinavia than the rest of the UK.

“I think there is certainly some truth in that belief,” he replies, “particularly when one goes to Orkney or Shetland. There are many people in Scotland who identify as quasi-Scandinavian and, of course, many Scottish place names speak to that affinity.”

The warm reception Detective Varg received suggests that, though it will take time for ‘Nordic blanc’ to outdo ‘Nordic noir’, Varg and his team are here to stay. With projects that include collaborating with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, alongside his twelve honorary doctorates and awards from Botswana and the United States, so, it seems, is Alexander McCall Smith.


The Department of Sensitive Crimes is available to buy now, published by Little, Brown.


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