How do you like your hero…or heroine?

Heroes and heroines in thrillers come in all shapes and sizes, but the one thing they have in common is the enormous baggage they carry, courtesy of the author.

My favourite type of hero is the bad’un who becomes a good’un at the end. A character who repents will always receive high numbers on my scorecard. But then again, I love Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who is really a bad’un, through and through. He’s a wonderfully cultured and sophisticated chap, who also happens to be a psychopathic killer. The trouble is you can’t help caring about him.

But that’s the whole purpose of having a hero or anti-hero: it’s to put a reader in his shoes so that he or she can experience directly the dilemmas and anxieties facing the protagonist. Once that is achieved, then the writer can go to town on the hero, torturing him as well as the reader as much as possible right up to the end.

But the hero has to be real, usually likeable, and must have his own demons if he is to be accepted by readers.

So who are my fictional heroes? Here goes, and in no particular order:

Jo Nesbo’s loose cannon sleuth, Harry Hole, is a wonderful creation built on the alcoholic detective trope. Only this one is from Oslo, in nice Norway. Harry is a slob who courts disaster wherever he goes, but he always comes up trumps.

While Nesbo is best known for his Harry Hole series, I have to confess I have a soft spot for one of his few standalone books, Headhunters. The cynical protagonist, Roger Brown, is a recruitment specialist, headhunting executives for top jobs. He’s smart, wealthy and …er…short. He has a beautiful wife and a spectacular home. And, oh, he steals paintings on the side. Roger is too clever for his own good, and initially is not likeable. But as his circumstances change, so does the reader’s view about him. He’s not the typical hero readers would normally root for, but that’s part of the charm of the book.

Let’s stick with heroes that have Harry as their first name. Apart from Harry Bridger in Hider Seeker, I also like Harry Palmer in the Len Deighton’s series about the working class spy. Yes, I know, he doesn’t have a name in the book, and only receives one in the Michael Caine films (See article 15 Feb 2017), but the character is well established both in the written word and cinematically. The insubordinate working class hero was a reflection of the changing times in 1960s Britain, but the character is not a million miles from the wise-cracking Philip Marlowe.

When it comes to spies, I’m a sucker for John Le Carre’s British agent, Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was brilliantly played by Richard Burton in the 1963 film adaptation of the book, directed by Martin Ritt. There’s no happy ending in this bleak story set in the Cold War. Leamas, weary of his trade, chooses love over loyalty to his country.

However, the hero I liked the most from the Le Carre’s books I’ve read so far is the hapless interpreter, Salvo, in The Mission Song. Salvo, who is half Congolese but educated in England, discovers that a secretly organised British meeting with Congolese warlords is a total sham. But then the unthinkable happens to our naïve Salvo. He transforms from the role of the downtrodden husband to become a spy and lover of the beautiful Hannah. He proves to be a hero of sorts, but as with many of Le Carre’s novels it comes at an enormous cost. Filled with humour and cynicism, Le Carre delivers British treachery in his own inimitable style.

Milo Weaver is also a spy hero of mine who appears in Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 novel, The Tourist. Milo is a former “tourist” – a CIA operative that does the dirty work – and has been given a desk job after retiring from “tourism.” Need I spell out what happens next? Yes, he becomes a “tourist” once again to investigate allegations that a friend of his may have passed secrets to a foreign power. Milo is the reluctant hero who only wants to get back to his wife and kid, but first he needs to sort out some double-dealing by the state. A man with his heart in the right place.

Steinhauer, who cut his teeth on Cold War novels based in Eastern Europe, is often compared to Le Carre, Deighton and Graham Greene.

When it comes to police detectives, I can only say that I have one I really adore, the world-weary communist party member and Moscow policeman, Arkady Renko. Maybe it’s the location of Moscow or perhaps it is Renko’s disillusionment with city’s Prosecution Service, but I feel I want to be there working on his investigations. Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 bestseller Gorky Park, in which he introduced the detective to the world, was highly praised for the portrayal of Cold War Moscow even though the American author had never set foot in the Russian capital.

Surprisingly, Cruz Smith’s publishers turned down the idea of a Russian detective, but Gorky Park became an instant crime classic, and the author was soon being compared not only to John le Carre, but also to Dostoevsky.

And what about heroines? Well, who better than Lisbeth Salander, the enigmatic 24-year-old with a history of delinquency and a genius on a computer keyboard? She’s cool, violent, and not really the sort of girl to be messed with. But nevertheless she gets on with righting wrongs in her own way.

Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t an instant success in Britain, and I can remember receiving my free copy from an Evening Standard newsstand, a ploy used by the publisher to help push sales of the then unknown Swedish author. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at http://www.tomclaver.co.uk

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The Godmother of Nordic Noir

Look up Maj Sjöwall or her late writing partner Per Wahlöö in Wikipedia and you’ll find only a paragraph or two dedicated to each of them. But more than half a century ago these two Swedish crime writers created a form of crime writing that we now refer today as Nordic Noir.

They wrote only 10 crime books together in the 1960s and 1970s until the death of Wahlöö at the age of 48 from cancer. But they recalibrated crime writing based on real social issues and police procedurals. Their books featured Martin Beck, a tenacious Swedish policeman and his team in homicide.

Sjöwall, who celebrates her 80th birthday next month, is hailed by writers like Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum and Jo Nesbø as the Godmother of Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

She was given a standing ovation at the recent Crimefest in Bristol after being interviewed on stage by Lee Child. Sjöwall, a modest and unassuming lady, could have done without the intrusion of her privacy, but it was unavoidable as she was there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Martin Beck novel, Roseanna. She was also followed around Bristol by a Swedish TV crew making a documentary about her work.

Sjöwall, a former Marxist, was brought up in a hotel managed by her father and as a child saw Nazis in the hotel. German soldiers travelling on leave between Norway and Germany were allowed passage through neutral Sweden – the so-called permittenttrafik. “Everything stopped in Sweden during the war,” she told Child. “The borders were closed. There was no traffic.”

When she was a teenager she saw many of her friends travelling to exciting places like Paris, but she was not allowed to go abroad. Then in the 1960s, Sweden, like other parts of Europe, saw its fair share of left wing agitation in the form of student protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam war.

To the outside world, Sweden looked a free and easy place to live, she explained but in reality the country was moving more to the right and becoming a capitalist state. Sjöwall claimed that the country’s reputation of being some sort of “idealistic” state was nothing more than a “PR exercise” that clouded the fact that the country was lurching to the right.

She met Wahlöö while he was a journalist as she needed someone to translate Father Brown stories for the publishing house she was working for. She’d already been twice divorced when she met Wahlöö who was nine years her senior and already married. But he eventually left his wife and they lived together, producing two sons and 10 crime books.

They were influenced by writers like Chandler, Hammett, and Simenon, but she said they did not want to write like someone else. The aim was not to have just a hero but a team.

Ed McBain’s police procedural style was also an influence but Sjöwall told Child that it was not true that they copied him.

Most Swedish crime novelists at that time, according to Sjöwall, were “bourgeois” and did not write about policemen but characters who happen to stumble upon crime. Wahlöö, who was also a Marxist, wanted to do something different. He was keen to show a critique of Swedish society, using the police procedural format as the vehicle.

So they planned a book and allotted each other chapters.They would sit opposite each other writing into the night, having put their kids to bed.

Roseanna, their first collaboration, sold moderately well despite crime books not being a particularly popular genre in Sweden in those days. Martin Beck was the rather typical civil servant who was boring and dutiful, she said. She admitted that it was a gamble to have such a boring character, but the point was to show how real human beings work.

They were criticised for showing the private lives of policemen, something which would today sound odd as so many crime books are about romance. But she feels that the genre has in fact gone too much in this direction as the books seem to now over dwell on the personal lives of detectives.

Their fourth book together, The Laughing Policeman, won an Edgar Award in 1971 from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel and was later adapted into a film starring Walter Matthau.

Sjöwall and Wahlöö had only planned to write 10 crime books together although they saw it as one big novel about crime split into ten stories. The last book was completed before he died.

Child asked her whether they would have continued to write more had Wahlöö lived? Her answer was yes, although it would not have been about crime but about modern warships.

Since Wahlöö’s passing 40 years ago, she has collaborated with other authors from time to time, but she admitted in recent years she does not like to sit on her own to write. “It’s too lonesome. So I write short stories or articles, poetry and texts for my friends. I write when I have an idea but I won’t be publishing again.”

When asked by Child why she thought Nordic Noir was so popular? She said, “I don’t know, it’s not that fantastic.”

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk