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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENTRSS

© Photo Olga Kirsanova

Fake reviews in fake newspapers hype up new “Swedish” crime novel

by Joy Neumeyer at 29/07/2013 17:39

This article contains information not suitable for readers younger than 18 years of age, according to Russian legislation

If you've traveled on the metro this summer, you've probably seen a poster advertising the hot new Swedish thriller "Tsvet Boli Krasny," or "Red is the Color of Pain." Written by one Eva Hansen, the book has a sultry cover photo of a red-lipped femme fatale.

In a hybrid of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "Fifty Shades of Grey," its plot follows a shocking string of murders of young women. The prime suspect is Lars Johansson, an eccentric millionaire with unusual erotic predilections; to solve the mystery, a young female journalist must go undercover in Stockholm's kinky world of BDSM.

Its cover, reproduced on the advertising poster, is sprinkled with rave reviews from several Swedish publications. "The most impressive Swedish detective novel since Stieg Larsson!" hails Svensk Nyheter. "This Stockholm is a city of sin, feeling and furious passions that Swedish literature has never before known," extols Öppna TV Stockholm.

Except Svensk Nyheter does not exist. Neither does Öppna TV Stockholm. And neither, it seems, does Eva Hansen.

Welcome to the mysterious incident of the fake Swedish thriller.

Although allegedly written by a Swedish author, there is no information inside the front cover indicating that it is a translation, or providing the author's name in Latin letters; even the copyright is written in Russian.

In the book's opening pages, more subtle idiosyncrasies arise. A passage about Stockholm references the rooftop fictionally inhabited by Karlsson, the red-haired Astrid Lindgren creation. Though the character is beloved in Russia, it's only marginally popular in Sweden - a fact of which the narrator seems oddly aware: "Swedes don't care. They don't like Karlsson much."

The book was released by Russia's biggest publishing house, Eksmo, with 20,000 copies printed, a huge figure for a debut book by an unknown author.

It's standard practice for authors to write under a pseudonym, especially in the crime and fantasy genres. The fake names often come complete with a made-up personal story. "Not only does it help the book sell, but it makes it more likely to be nominated for prizes," said Maria Pankevich of the publishing house Amfora, which translates foreign literature into Russian.

Earlier this year, "The Cuckoo's Calling," the debut thriller by Robert Galbraith, was released to positive reviews but little fanfare. The author's bio described him as a retired investigator with the Royal Military Police. Last week, however, the news broke that its author was actually "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling, prompting a massive spike in sales.

It is less common, however, for blurbs from positive reviews to be fake. "It's dependent on readers who don't know too much about the country in question, and aren't going to check," Pankevich said.

With a hugely popular crime genre and language that's not widely spoken, Sweden is ripe for the scam. String together a newspaper title in Swedish - say, "Svensk Nyheter," or "Swedish News" - and odds are Russian readers won't know the difference.

But a few, at least, are on the case.

Among the book's reviewers on Ozon, Russia's version of Amazon, many seemed to pick up the book for its similarity to "Fifty Shades of Grey." Others were attracted specifically to its Scandinavian bonafides. "I bought the book solely because it was written by a Swedish author," wrote one, noting the treatment of BDSM was "tasteful."

One, however, decried its origins: "No author with the name of Eva Hansen exists in Sweden. The book is fake."

While Eksmo published the book, the text was prepared by Yauza, a smaller imprint. Reached by phone, Yauza head Alexander Koshelev admitted that the name was a pseudonym for a Russian writer.

"This person didn't really want to go public because of the content of the book," he said. "A lot of the erotic scenes are described in a very juicy way." Even though the book isn't Swedish, he said, it was written in Stockholm, and its style rings true.

After some prodding, Koshelev also admitted that the newspapers and quotations on the cover are fakes - or, as he put it, part of the "literary game."

"Advertising is advertising," he said. "A lot of books are printed with slogans claiming they had a certain rank on the New York Times Bestseller List, and no one checks whether it's true."

The veracity of the information being sold to readers doesn't matter, Koshelev said. "It's just like the BDSM scenes [in the book]. Some people probably think it's a fantasy, and some people probably think she's describing her own sexual experiences. So what?" 

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #29"
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