Stefan Ahnhem - Making It Big in the UK

Written by Stefan Ahnhem

I would love nothing more than to add the words “How to” to the beginning of this article’s title. But the truth is that I have absolutely no idea. How can I make someone choose my crime novel instead of, say, Denise Mina’s latest or Tony Parsons? Will my book ever get placed on one of the nice spots at those crime tables in the book stores? Or perhaps I should count myself lucky to be right at the back, on the top shelf, where you’ll need a stool just to reach ‘Ahnhem’ (if only my grandfather had the sense to be called Laarson or Mankeel.) I expect there’s a possibility that my book won’t make its way to the stores at all. In Sweden, more than one Swedish crime novel is released every other day, and I can only imagine how formidable the number is in the UK. You can spend years crafting a suspense-filled book, only to see it vanish without trace like an aircraft crossing the Bermuda triangle.

 It’s been one-and-a-half years since I debuted in Sweden with Victim Without a Face and – despite my fearsthe book received good reviews and found its way to the readers. In August 2015 it won the Crimetime Specsavers’ Award for Best Debut and has now sold more than 100,000 Swedish copies. A few weeks ago, as an early Christmas present, my Swedish publisher handed me a golden book as a token of my success. But that’s Sweden, my own backyard, and I’m not sure if that will count here. In Denmark, Victim has also been riding the charts for more than six months, but that’s probably because I have a Danish wife and part of the story takes place in Copenhagen. In Norway and Finland the local success must have spilled over the boarders and we all know that the Germans just love Swedish crime writers more than anything else. The same goes for the Dutch. In other words, my foreign publishers are happy (or at least that’s what they’re telling me!)

 But the UK is not like the rest of the world. In the UK, you drive on the wrong side of the road and use the wrong measurements (I’ve given up trying to understand how yards and feet work – and God knows I’ve tried). You have a rug in the bathroom, and use a door handle to flush the toilet. You eat pudding. So much pudding! But above all you are the masters of crime fiction. No other country even comes close, if you ask me.

 Ever since I was young I’ve been reading and watching British crime. Everything from Sherlock Holmes to Prime Suspect has kept me spellbound for years. At the moment I’m reading Tony Parsons' Murder Bag – when I’m not glued to the TV watching the BBC drama River. Much as we love our homegrown Swedish crime writers, we never thought to compare them with their British colleagues. It just wouldn’t be fair. At least that’s how it was until Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy entered the scene. After that everything changed. The Swedish Wallander-series (of which I wrote a couple of episodes) was suddenly sold to the UK and reached a large audience. Shortly after that the Danish crime drama The Killing made it big, followed by The Bridge. Happily for us Swedish crime writers looking to break into the UK,  ‘impossible’ has been upgraded to ‘almost impossible’.

 I started writing my first chapter in 2009, not sure that I would be able to finish it, let alone allow someone to read it. Would the characters ring true? Would I be able to write something that felt fresh and daring with a surprise ending that was at the same time completely logical? The mere thought of sending it to publishing houses made my stomach drop. So instead I tried to focus on the story and the characters, the twists and turns. My intention was to write a big, fat novel, that once you started reading you wouldn’t be able to put down. To accomplish this you need to know your reader, and luckily I was that reader. Four years and 600 pages later I finally reached the end. I made a zillion backups before I finally closed the computer.

 My wife was the first one to read Victim Without a Face and I couldn’t have dreamt of a better reaction. We were visiting my mother at the time, and sleeping in the guest room in separate beds. It was late and while I was already asleep, my wife – in the other bed – was reading the book on her iPad. At one point the suspense became a bit too much for her and she crept into my bed for a hug. Then she realised that I was the one who had written all the atrocities … and that was when she got really scared. Her reaction gave me the confidence to send the book out to professionals, and shortly afterwards, I had an agent who started selling it around the world.

 Since then my life has been turned upside down. I have been incredibly busy, traveling to meet my readers and at the same time writing two new books starring my detective Fabian Risk. I’ve been invited to meet the Finish president and I’ve been on stage alongside some of my favourite Swedish authors. Recently my wife and I went Christmas shopping in a small-town Danish book shop and when I introduced myself the staff were delighted and told me they had all read my books. That made my day, and to be honest I’m still walking on clouds.

 And now the time has come to the UK, which is a completely different ball game. It’s like mastering Guitar Hero on Medium and then skipping straight to Expert. It’s not just overwhelming; it’s almost impossible (at least to hit that last fret button). When I was young I saw a documentary about baby turtles trying to cross the sand beach and get down to the ocean without being eaten. There were so many evil things waiting to take the cute little turtles one after the other, and in the end it was just a few that managed to swim out alive. It’s the same thing with a debut. Regardless of how well written and good it is there are so many things that could go wrong before it’s in the hands of the readers. The numbers and figures, all the statistics are totally clear, it will not survive. It will crash and burn, or more likely vanish into thin air without anyone noticing it.

 But if I were to put my faith in statistics I wouldn’t have become an author in the first place. So instead I try to convince myself that anything can happen when my book is published in hardback on 16th January this year (it is already out as an eBook). I can dream that Victim Without a Face will be the must-read of the year, and sit on everyone’s bedside table. I imagine how I will be invited to crime festivals to meet my readers, that I will shake hands with Paula Hawkins, trying to act all normal although I’m having the time of my life. I think about how I will learn to drive on the wrong side of the road, and eat lots and lots of pudding. And then I come back down to earth again. I really don’t think I’ll ever learn to like pudding.


Published January 14th 2016, Hbk  Head of Zeues £11.89

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