The Small World of Crime

Philip Larkin once wrote a poem jokily suggesting that sex began in 1963, and there is a tendency in this country to think that European crime fiction was pretty much non-existent until, say, Peter Hoeg broke through with Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow in the early 90s .

Nowadays, of course, Eurocrime is all the rage. We watch not just one series of Wallander, but two. Stieg Larsson may be dead, but his books are everywhere, and the filming of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will only serve to foster Larsson mania. So will, no doubt, Barry Forshaw’s new discussion of the Swedish writer, The Man Who Left Too Soon. Meanwhile, publishers like Bitter Lemon Press do a great job in producing a wide range of crime novels in translation.

One of Bitter Lemon’s latest titles, for instance, is Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miloszewski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Born in Warsaw in 1976, Miloszewski is described as ‘a journalist and a rising star of Polish fiction. His novel introduces the world-weary State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki, and a sequel is in the works. It’s the very first novel from Poland that I’ve ever read, but I’m sure it won’t be the last.

The list of modern European authors who are gaining a following here is lengthy. There are big sellers like Andrea Camilleri (whose Inspector Montalbano is named in honour of the Spanish writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban - his work appears under the imprint of Sceptre, another publisher with a strong interest in Eurocrime), Hakan Nesser, and so on, as well as promising newer names such as the Dutch writer Saskia Noort and France’s Tonino Benacquista.

But what about European writers of the past? For some reason, their work is rarely reprinted in the UK – if one excludes Simenon. And yet there is a long tradition of fine European crime writing, of which many British readers are only dimly aware, because the books are so hard to find.

Six Dead Men, for instance, by Stanislas-Andre Steeman, is a 1931 novel said by Golden Age expert and blogger Xavier Lechard to anticipate (to an extent) Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It won the French Prix du Roman d'Aventures, yet it has not been reprinted in English for over half a century.

My favourite European crime writers are also French – Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. They wrote the books on which those classic movies Vertigo and Les Diaboliques are based, yet their other work is hard to find in English translation. This is certainly not because it is lacking in quality – the pair were prolific, but had a talent for creating stunning and memorable story-lines. The Prisoner, Who Was Claire Jallu? and Spells of Evil are all wonderfully atmospheric novels of suspense, yet undeservedly neglected. Several of their books appeared in English translations in the late 50s and early 60s, but have long since disappeared from the shelves, while many others remain untranslated.

Bitter Lemon set a fine example to other publishers in 2004 by introducing modern English language readers to Thumbprint, by the remarkable Friedrich Glauser, a drug addict who wrote some of his 1930s mysteries while confined to an asylum. All five of Glauser’s novels featuring Sergeant Studer.are now available. It would be good to think that the hidden gems in the Boileau-Narcejac backlist will one day see the light of day again in English translation. For crime fans unfamiliar with the French duo – if you like dazzling plots and breathtaking suspense, you have a treat in store. As long as you can find the books!

(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)