CBTB Chats Crime Fiction with Jakob Melander
There's nothing like picking up a book from a totally new author and feeling like you've just stumbled upon something that's right up your alley. That's how I felt when I began reading Jakob Melander's THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. In this character-driven crime novel, readers are drawn into a fast-paced, addictive world of deceit and darkness surrounding Copenhagen detective Lars Winkler, a troubled and totally sympathetic man who you can't help but care for. With a gripping plot and a big heart, Melander's first Lars Winkler novel totally drew me in. Today it's my pleasure to share a conversation I had with the talented Jakob Melander. Read on for Jakob's insights into creating Lars Winkler, his reading recommendations, and his fascinating perspective on why the world loves Scandinavian crime fiction!
Crime by the Book: What kind of research went into writing a story that depends so heavily on describing a police investigation? I’m especially curious to know how you learned about some of the medical angles in your story - for example, the details of how an autopsy works.
Jakob Melander: Well, not much, really :) Google is indeed a great friend. Plus – I must admit – my father-in-law is a retired narcotics detective, so I learned a bit from him as well. But I think the trick lies in describing only the really essential parts in order to let the reader fill out the blanks with her or his own imagination. As for the ancient authopsy methods, the glutharaldehyde parts, that was the internet again. Thank you, Google! What I really used time on was how the characters relate, one-on one as well as between the three different stories that is the total of The House that Jack Built, the one from WWII, Christian’s story and how Lars and his daughter relate to each other. That really had to feel true, in order for the book to work. The good part of that was, that since I’d spent so much time on Lars, he felt so real to me, that the second and third books came to me while writing the first. And I realized I had a series on my hands :)
CBTB: Lars is a fantastic character – he’s troubled, sometimes aggressive and headstrong, but also so committed to protecting his daughter and rebuilding his relationship with her. He’s such a compelling character to read about! I really felt like I got to know him and care for him over the course of the book. What inspired you to create this character?
JM: Well, thank you. I’m really happy you feel that way about Lars, since, as I stated above, that was something I really worked hard on. I’ll have to confess, I used myself as a blueprint. I’m not Lars, and he’s not me, but I know his emotions – I might have turned my own emotions way up or a little down, but I know how he feels. I’m normally a rather private person, but I came up with a device to trick myself: I inserted small things that wasn’t me – like smoking, for instance. I don’t smoke (any more, I smoked when I played rock’n roll, though), but Lars’ does. A lot! And I found that was a device I could hide behind. If (I imagined while writing) readers would say, “But that’s you, Jakob!” I would be able to say: “Well, actually, and thank you for asking, but that’s not me. It’s just like Lars smoking. I don’t smoke, either!” So I could hide behind that – and as I went along, I realized that this trick allowed me to be even more open, when I’m writing about Lars. Does this make sense?
CBTB: The ending of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT was so suspenseful and scary! I loved it. When you began writing this novel, did you already have an idea of how you wanted it to end? Or did it develop as you were writing the story?
JM: As a rule of thumb I start out with the beginning, then somehow – as an image or a sequence – the ending comes to me, and then I build from there, before I start writing. I’m an educated playwright and have an MA in comparative literature, so I build the story the way a scriptwriter would do: Three acts, plot points and so forth. And it seems to work for both Lars and me. And then I’m always particular to really beef up the ending of a novel - and in the case of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUIL I also wanted it to have just a little horror quality. Too often novels end too fast, as if the writer just wants to get it over with. I want to milk it for everything it’s got :)
CBTB: Along the same lines, how do you plan your novels? (For example, do you start with an outline?)
JM: In keeping with above, yes, I do have an outline. After the initial idea, I spent the first two-three months on the sofa, thinking, imagining. Or I might go for long walks to drive the story out. Then I build the story with index cards - one card to each scene. I move them around, flip and change. Then I’ll write it down in a document on my computer, usually ten-twenty pages. Read it and ask myself: Does it work? I might tell another writer, a friend or my wife the outline of the story. Then it’s back to the index cards, more thinking, more flipping. Then a new document and back to the index cards. As I said, this will usually take around two months. Then, at some point in this process there’s that feeling that I have to start writing – now! Or else it’ll all disappear. So – I write. Then, after a solid three months (approximately) of typing, I have a first draft, which I’ll then rewrite the shit out of!
CBTB: What’s next for Lars Winkler? Do you anticipate releasing more books in this series? (I hope so – I love them!)
JM: The fourth book in the Lars Winkler series is out in Denmark tomorrow the fourth of March. Then I have a one-off, non-Lars Winkler crime novel, that will be out in Danish in October. I’m editing that novel right now. Then, by May or June this year, I’ll start writing the next Lars Winkler-novel. So, yes: I’m definitely going to write more Lars Winkler books!
CBTB: Has it always been a goal of yours to write crime novels? If you weren’t a crime author, what would be your dream job?
JM: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a kid. Then music and Rock’n Roll intervened, and I went on a 15-20 year hiatus. I’ve always loved what’s not in good taste: Comic books, rock’n roll, science fiction, fantasy and – of course – crime fiction. I always felt that the humdrum of everyday life was dull, so I imagined I’d write science fiction or historical novels – but then, when I conceived the story that became THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT and the character of Lars Winkler, I realized that this was the perfect vehicle: I can write about my native Copenhagen, where I’ve lived for most of my life – and then have a fictitious layer on top of that that’s just slightly off. If I didn’t write, well, I guess I would either be a failed academic or a happy guitar player :)
CBTB: Who are some of your personal favorite crime authors?
JM: Americans? I love James Elroy for his hard, edgy language: Every sentence seems to jump at the reader, filled with suppressed violence and yet with a sinister poetry all of it’s own.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whom Jo Nesbø calls the god mother and god father of Scandinavian crime fiction for their great stories, their discussion of the role of men in Scandinavia and an all-encompassing melancholic Nordic tone.
Fellow Danish crime writer Sara Blaedel: Her stories and characters are always impeccable - plus my father-in-law (the retired narcotics detective) say she’s dead on with police procedurals!
Edgar Allan Poe: Creator of the first modern (and metropolitan) detective – and also, since he was primarily a horror writer, his stories often has that extra bit of horror added.
Berlin Noir: The English thriller writer Phillip Kerr’s series about German police officer Bernie Günther in Berlin during the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany from 1928 to just before WWII. A great picture of Berlin, the evolution of the Nazi regime and top-notch crime stories. After the first three novels Kerr has written several more, but it’s the first three that really stands out. As they say in German: Gefundenes Fressen!
CBTB: As you know, I have a huge amount of respect for Scandinavian crime authors. Scandinavian crime novels continue to impress me, and will always be my favorite! Do you have any personal opinions on what has made Scandinavian crime novels so popular worldwide?
JM: In his book Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Novel from 1985 Ernest Mandel proposed the thesis that the more secure a society was, the more prone its citizens would be to read crime fiction. Or, adversely, that the more corrupt and violent a society is, the more its citizens would be disinclined to read crime fiction. And I do think there's something to it. After all, Scandinavian countries are rather safe and controlled societies compared to many places around the world (sadly).
In Denmark we used to have a poster advertising Copenhagen (and Denmark) to tourists: It depicted a police officer holding back the traffic, so a duck and her ducklings could pass the street unharmed. And we do have a welfare state, and we do tend to take better care of the weak and sick (though I might add, in recent years, a duckling or two might have been run over). But an image is telling, not only in what it depicts, but also in what it tries to suppress. We too have corruption, suppressed desire, prostitution, misconduct of power and of course murder and violent crime. And as a crime writer I love to smear all of this – that which we don't normally want to see – across the pages of my novels.
And then, don't forget, we have a common very bloody and violent past! It's in our blood – the vikings, you know :)
So that's why we read and write crime fiction in Scandinavia! But why do readers in other countries want to read it? Well, it might be better to ask you, the readers abroad, that question, but I'll try to give you my thoughts on it – which may of course be entirely far fetched and wrong. But here goes: First I think it has to do with trends. First Henning Mankell, then Stieg Larsson paved the way, so to speak. Opened up the interest for our brand of crime fiction. So Scandinavian crime fiction has been trending for the past ten years, and maybe it's about to change. I hear crime fiction from Latin America is on the rise (and the countries there are increasingly becoming safer and richer, to link with my opening argument). Then, not only are Scandinavian countries safe and harmonious societies, they are also known for being so abroad (or maybe we fool ourselves!), and consequently these bloody revenge stories from these small countries in the far icy north feel exotic. If that's the case, then it's the clash between the notion of fairy-tale countries of ever lasting peace and harmony still harbouring blood-lust and mayhem. I don't know, but feel free to discuss this rather lengthy answer!
And thanks a lot, Abby, for letting me take part in this Q&A. It's been a lot of fun :)
A huge thank you to Jakob for kindly and thoughtfully answering my questions, and to House of Anansi Press for facilitating this Q&A! For my full review of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, click here. Stay tuned for more Jakob Melander reviews soon - the next novel in his Lars Winkler series, THE SCREAM OF THE BUTTERFLY, is coming up on my TBR!