Reviews: Crime writing in translation

Dark creations of European authors tell us much about our own world

The World Today Published 3 June 2013 Updated 7 December 2018 2 minute READ
After the Breivik killings Jo Nesbø was the pundit called in to discuss the Far Right. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

After the Breivik killings Jo Nesbø was the pundit called in to discuss the Far Right. Photo: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

So you think crime novels are simply whodunits? If that’s the case, then you are not paying close enough attention to the text. Among the rising body count, you may be missing incisive socioeconomic and political guides to the writer’s home country.

The growing success of crime fiction in translation is built on the awareness among readers that the best writers are social commentators with as acute a grasp of the way their country works as journalists.

After the Breivik killings in Norway, the pundit most often called upon to talk about the influence of the Far Right in that country was not a political scientist, but Norway’s leading crime writer, Jo Nesbø.

It is hardly surprising that Germany, a country whose troubled past is now counterbalanced by its weighty influence on European affairs, is producing a crop of socially cogent works in the crime genre.

One of its key writers, Sebastian Fitzek, repeatedly references his country’s engagement with the past, refracted through an analysis of the way time and memory inform the present. It’s a more Proustian approach than might be expected from a young bestselling German crime writer.

‘Crime fiction can be pertinent,’ Fitzek told me, ‘dealing with themes which are relevant to the way society functions; more pertinent, in fact, than any other entertainment media.

‘In Germany, viewers are served up dozens of crime movies every day on TV, most of them in German, and these can pull in more than 10 million viewers. But the narratives rarely deal with edgy subjects such as paedophilia or modern slavery. The latter is a significant issue in Germany because prostitution is not illegal there – a fact that is exploited by organized crime rings. On TV such difficult issues are often a no-go area because producers think that female viewers don’t want to hear about those “hard topics”. Crime writers, however, are more ready to tackle these themes.’

Another German writer, Jan Costin Wagner, who sets his books in Finland, sidesteps the conventional imperatives of the crime novel to confront the reader with a more complex experience. ‘Literature,’ he has said, ‘can anatomize society. And crime fiction is able to channel the basic fears and hopes of our fraught contemporary life.

‘I don’t trust newspapers,’ he continues, ‘and I believe that an intuitive analysis of the modern world is possible through fiction.’ His global connections have allowed him to present a truly pan-European vision of society.

French crime fiction still lags slightly behind in the social relevance stakes, but Italy’s crime writers are coming to terms with their country’s fractured political situation. The doyen of Italian crime writers, Andrea Camilleri, rarely engages directly with politics or social issues, except during the Berlusconi era, where he quotes Dante: ‘The country has the wrong helmsman.’ While his books accept endemic corruption as part of the fabric of Italian society, they are, generally, elegantly written escapist fare. Other writers, such as Carlo Lucarelli and the author and magistrate Giancarlo de Cataldo, engage more directly with the way society works. Neither however, tackles such issues as bloody-mindedly as Roberto Costantini.

In The Deliverance of Evil, Costantini presents an unvarnished picture of an entire society vitiated by corruption. It is a state-of-the-nation work, and the failure and stasis of his compromised hero might be read as a metaphor for Italy’s untrustworthy authority figures. The background of Costantini’s protagonist is keenly drawn, from his devotion to Mussolini and the Ultra Right to clandestine work for the security forces at the time of Aldo Moro’s murder by the Red Brigades. Religion is in the mix too, although the picture of Church power as irredeemably corrupt will not please those hoping for a re-energized Catholic Church.

It is the crime fiction of the Nordic nations that is most forensically analytical. It is frustrating for many residents of Scandinavia that Sweden is often considered a catch-all generic term for the various countries. The reasons are clear: the Swedish successes in terms of cultural and commercial exports, and the long-held view that the country’s enlightened politics represent a perfect exemplar. This is repeatedly challenged by the country’s crime writers.

The relocation of the crime genre to the Nordic countries was initiated by the unprecedented success of Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992). That book’s setting, vividly evoked, is Copenhagen and Greenland, while the half Greenlandic heroine is a true outsider in well-ordered Danish society. Miss Smilla was merely the tip of a literary iceberg: the Scandinavian territories afforded a great depth of talent, with the Swede Henning Mankell as the standard bearer, chronicling the darkly mesmerizing narratives of Kurt Wallander.

Other cities in this new literary landscape include Åke Edwardson’s menacing Gothenburg, the Reykjavik of Arnaldur Indriðason, and Karin Fossum’s bleak and emotionally frigid Norway. As for Sweden, the juggernaut that was the Millennium trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson broke sales records. Exhilarating though Nordic crime is, it has one over-arching theme: the Scandinavian social democratic ideal is perhaps not dead, but it is in traction. The Scandinavians now live in the same sinister world as the rest of us.