‘There are some signs that the British-American supremacy in crime writing…may be challenged.’ Julian Symons said this when looking ‘into the crystal ball’ at the end of his excellent history of the genre, Bloody Murder. That prediction, first made in 1972, has taken a long time to be realised, as Symons later acknowledged. ‘Little sparkles, at least for those like me who read foreign writers in translation’, he said gloomily in the final edition of his book, published in 1992. Umberto Eco’s remarkable one-off The Name of the Rose had failed to initiate a trend, but Symons was a wise prophet and although he is no longer around to see it, crime fiction in translation is flourishing today as never before.
Above all, crime fiction from continental Europe, or ‘Eurocrime’, has started to achieve a level of popularity previously confined to the likes of Georges Simenon and, for much shorter periods, a few others. These include the Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt (the excellent Jack Nicholson film ‘The Pledge’ was based on one of his books), the French duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ came from one of their stunning albeit implausible stories) and the Swedish couple Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, who made a breakthrough in the seventies.
With hindsight, it seems inevitable that it needed publishers with enthusiasm for crime in translation, coupled with staying power, to enable Eurocrime to gain a foothold. Harvill has led the way. They showed the necessary faith by publishing Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow in English for the first time in 1993 and the Danish author’s book sold over a million copies worldwide even before it was filmed. The recently established Bitter Lemon Press has reminded readers that Eurocrime is not a new phenomenon by publishing Friedrich Glauser’s Thumbprint a few months back – a mere 58 years after its first appearance in Switzerland.
Thumbprint is conspicuously different from the crime fiction that was being produced in the UK and US during the thirties, and is certainly more ‘modern’ in its style and concerns than the typical whodunits of the Golden Age. Bitter Lemon, who promise to publish further titles in the same series, have done British readers a service in drawing their attention to a writer who had a quite extraordinary and unfortunate life. To quote his author biography, he ‘was born in Vienna in 1896. Often referred to as the Swiss Simenon, he died aged forty-two, a few days before he was due to be married. Diagnosed a schizophrenic, addicted to morphine and opium, he spent much of his life in psychiatric wards, insane asylums and, when he was arrested for forging prescriptions, in prison. He also spent two years with the Foreign Legion in North Africa, after which he worked as a coal miner and hospital orderly. His Sergeant Studer crime novels have ensured his place as a cult figure in Europe.’ But even though The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing, published just five years ago, included an extensive series of articles dealing with crime writing in Continental Europe, Glauser did not rate a single mention
The Oxford Companion did, however, describe the Stockholm-born Henning Mankell as having ‘breathed new life into the police procedural’. In some respects, Mankell is a disciple of Sjowall and Wahloo, who also sought to utilise crime fiction in order to depict shortcomings of society. Many of their books about Inspector Martin Beck remain, unfortunately, out of print today, but The Laughing Policeman, recently reprinted by Orion, is especially worth seeking out. In some respects, Mankell’s writing lacks the sheer verve of his predecessors’; their The Locked Room, for instance, cleverly used the formula of the traditional John Dickson Carr ‘impossible crime’ puzzle to make polemical points about police investigation in Scandinavia. Nevertheless, Mankell proceeded to win the Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger in 2001, for Sidetracked. This novel, featuring Mankell’s series cop Inspector Kurt Wallander, is notable less for its plot (the culprit’s identity becomes apparent long before the end) than its atmosphere and the author’s ability to write vivid and memorable scenes. In chapter 2, Wallander is called out after a farmer reports having seen an unknown woman acting strangely out in a rape field. As the detective watches in horror, she pours petrol over herself before applying a cigarette lighter to her hair and bursting into flames. Wallander is an introspective character and in the final pages he responds to his new chief’s congratulations by saying: ‘I made a lot of mistakes. I let the whole investigation be sidetracked. It could have failed miserably.’ But Lisa Holgersson recognises that he has the tenacity and willingness to think along unconventional lines that is the hallmark of the best detectives – and these are qualities that, to judge by Mankell’s sales, are widely appreciated by the reading public.
Mankell’s success was promptly repeated by that of Jose Carlos Somoza, a pyschiatrist who is Havana-born but resident in Madrid. Somoza won the CWA Gold Dagger in 2002 for The Athenian Murders, an extraordinary crime novel unlike anything else I have read in the genre. It appears to be a story about a murder in Ancient Greece, but from the very first page, on which appears a ‘translator’s note’, saying that the first five lines of the original text are missing, very little about this book conforms to conventional expectations. If, as some may think, it is a gimmicky piece of work, it is nevertheless an intriguing and original study of crime in translation itself.
Almost as dazzling is The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez Reverte. The central image of the book is a 15th century Flemish painting in which two noblemen are playing chess. Yet it seems that one of them was murdered two years before he could have sat for the portrait. In modern Madrid, a picture restorer uncovers an inscription that sets up an investigation into an intriguing mystery: Quis necavit equitem? – who killed the knight? Perez Reverte offers a sophisticated spin on the ‘impossible crime’ theme that surely would have intrigued Dickson Carr himself. One of Spain’s leading authors, he has written a number of crime novels as varied as they are impressive, including The Fencing Master, The Dumas Club and The Queen of the South.
Another writer to have made an impact in the UK in the past two or three yeas is Rome-based Andrea Camilleri, whose series about street-wise Inspector Salvo Montalbano has been translated into nine languages and achieved best-selling status both in Italy and Germany. The tone is caught in the first sentence of The Shape of Water: ‘No light of daybreak filtered yet into the courtyard of Splendour, the company under government contract to collect trash in the town of Vigita.’ Food and wine play almost as important a part in the appeal of the story as the investigation of homicide in Sicily, while the first novel and its successors – The Terracotta Dog and The Snack Thief have also been published in the UK - are enriched by Camilleri’s sly humour. Oddly enough, the man rated by The Oxford Companion as ‘the most important Italian writer to have used the genre’, the late Leonardo Sciascia, made relatively impact in the UK. Symons wavered in his view of Sciascia before deciding that his ‘short, savagely ironical explorations of political corruption’ were ‘within the canon, even though the crime is generally less important than the politics’. A much younger Italian writer, Carlo Lucarelli, seems destined to enjoy greater fortune in the light of the success of Almost Blue, which was short-listed for last year’s CWA Gold Dagger.
Another writer who may be destined for stardom is France’s Fred Vargas, whose Have Mercy On Us All earned excellent reviews. As a generalisation, however, Scandinavian writers have, to date, tended to enjoy more commercial success than their European counterparts when translated into English. The Norwegian Karin Fossum, who began her career as a poet, achieved considerable acclaim with Don’t Look Back. Her series detective is the low-key widower, Chief Inspector Konrad Sejer, but Fossum’s interests extend beyond the mere setting-up and resolution of a murder mystery. In He Who Fears the Wolf, the main focus is on three of life’s losers: a boy called Kannick, the bank robber Morgan and, above all, the misfit Errki Johrma. Errki is the prime suspect when Sejer and his colleagues investigate the murder of an elderly woman, Halldis Horn, but in a bizarre turn of events Errki is taken hostage by Morgan. Another Norwegian writer, Pernille Rygg, author of The Golden Section, who writes about an unorthodox psychologist called Igi Heitmann, may also soon be destined for a higher profile. Meanwhile Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridson, who is said to match J.K. Rowling for sales in his home country, is now being published in the UK and Finland’s Kjell Westo has just had Lang appear in English translation.
Publication does not, of course, guarantee commercial success, even for authors of talent. A number of European writers have failed to catch on with the public after having books translated into English. In the early nineties, a number of Leo Malet’s private eye yarns from the forties and fifties featuring Nestor Burma, chief of the Fiat Lux detective agency, were published in the UK as Pan paperback originals, but despite being pacy and readable thrillers, they did not make a lasting impression. Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini are an Italian writing duo whose enjoyable books, including The D Case, have won critical plaudits without, as far as I know, racking up sustained high sales. And Germany’s Ingrid Noll, author of books such as Head Count, published in the UK in 1997, has yet to cement her reputation amongst English-speaking crime fans.
So what explains the current enthusiasm for Eurocrime and is it more than a passing fad? To some extent, the pleasure of reading novels in translation has been enhanced by the work of accomplished translators, such as Steven T. Murray and Sonia Soto, who were responsible respectively for Sidetracked and The Athenian Murders. It may also be that, as people travel more, their approach to literature becomes less insular and they become more interested in reading books set in the places they visit. Successful British writers have, increasingly, been setting their books overseas – think of the Italian-based novels of Michael Dibdin, Magdalen Nabb and Donna Leon. It is a natural development for readers to relish the authentic flavour of books written by those who have spent their lives in the countries in which their mysteries are set. The growing popularity of Eurocrime should not be seen as a threat to English and American writers. Rather, for the way in which it has expanded the range of modern crime writing, it is a phenomenon for us all to celebrate.
This article first appeared in ‘Sherlock’