Monday, July 21, 2008

Yet another place for crime fiction

I should have mentioned this earlier, but Norm of Crime Scraps, one of the foremost former dentists in the world of crime fiction, posted a worthwhile interview here and here with Marek Krajewski a few weeks back. Among the remarks from the author of Death in Breslau:

"In Poland between the wars there was a very faint tradition of crime writing, then, during the communist period authors were writing under pseudonyms [most often English, eg. Joe Alex = Maciej Slomczynski, a popular translator of Shakespeare] or created ideologically loaded police novels.

"The situation changed after 1989, now we have many Polish crime writers, including me."
I'm always interested in the origins of crime fiction in a given country, especially if those origins are recent. I have read a theory that German crime fiction did not get going until the 1960s because the country's dreadful recent history made Germans skittish about portraying lawbreakers. And it was Boris Akunin, if memory serves, who said that the Russian public, who had once read and discussed just the classics, turned to crime fiction only after the Soviet Union fell apart. Then there are the Palestinian territories, where Matt Rees has said an interviewer had to explain to readers the concept of investigating a crime and seeking the truth.

What about you, readers? What interesting stories and theories have you heard about national crime-fiction traditions and how they began?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger petra michelle; Whose role is it anyway? said...

Hello Peter, Am not an expert, and familiar primarily with Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Edgar Alan Poe, but I believe interest in crime has its beginnings in the Bible; e.g. Cain and Abel. I suppose humans always had and always will have a curiosity about death; the yang of life. Petra p.s. Thank you for voting, Peter. Yes, Meryl can do no wrong. *laughing* Only in my world, can we be on a first-name basis!

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a nice way of putting it, the yin and the yang of life and death. And the story of Cain and Abel is often cited as the first murder story, which would probably make God something along the lines of an investigating magistrate.

Two stories appended to the Book of Daniel are also occasional cited as examples of Biblical crime.

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for the mention and reference. ;0)

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome, and thanks for posting the interview. I don't think Death in Breslau has been published in the U.S. yet. My patience may extend only so far before I order a copy from your country.

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Lauren said...

Interesting question. I have a good friend from Moldova who likes reading crime fiction, and she did mention crime traditions in various parts of the Eastern bloc over coffee a few weeks ago. I can't remember the details, but I'll run the question by here again. (I do remember her saying that there's a dearth of decent Romanian crime fiction, and I think she'd agree with Akunin as far as Russia goes.)

By the way, my friend also couldn't believe there was enough crime in Scandinavia to justify the extent of the Nordic fiction boom. I'd perhaps argue the flip side of that - it's generally only societies with a certain level of stability that are able to find pleasure in the finding of fictional justice, or worry about the fate of one or two against the establishment, which presupposes the government is at least nominally looking after its people.

July 21, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One might argue that by American standards, there is hardly enough crime in Ireland to justify the boom in Irish crime fiction. But it takes just one killing to get an author thinking and writing and exploring, be the victim Veronica Guerin or Olaf Palme.

With respect to the Eastern Bloc, it's easy to imagine a boom in hard-edged writing sparked by the post-1989 proliferation of large-scale mob crime. But there must be more at work than that. Ruthless real-life Russian mobsters would not explain the success of an author such as Akunin himself, whose own fiction is far removed from that world.

By all means, quiz your Moldovan friend again, and report back with the results, Or have her do so.

Your last sentence sounds similar to what Matt Rees said about the strangeness of the concept of detection and investigation in the Palestinian territories. I believe, in fact, that he extended the thought to much of the Arab world.

July 21, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have absolutely nothing I can contribute to the question (although I'd be the second in the queue to offer to research if a Crime Fiction list ever got started in Samoa or one of those islands), but I have got to say I want that book! Thank you for pointing out the article.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Another stimulating question, Peter. Well done you. A thought re crime fiction in Russia. There are two old rhetorical questions that run through Russian literature: Who is to blame (Kto vinovat)? and What is to be done (Chto delat)? One titan among 19th century Russian intellectuals, Alexander Herzen, made the first the title of a novel for that reason, and another, Nicholas Chernychevsky, did the same with the second. The questions rather lie at the nexus of the Russian psyche and soul, and Russian writers, ever acutely aware of what is amiss in their society, have always been preoccupied with what is wrong, who's the guilty party, and what can be done about it -- and that is one approximation of crime fiction. It was his fascination with a craze for crime stories, both true and fictional, at the time that led Dostoyevsky to write Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. Before the Revolution, translations of pulp, especially Nick Carter and Nat Pinkerton, were hugely popular, and also Holmes. And then, with the coming of Stalin to power, three dogmas: no wasting of time on trivial pursuits; no 'low' culture; and, the one central to Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, 'There is no crime in the Soviet Union!'. The libraries were stripped, and so it remained until the mid-1980s, glasnost and perestroika, and the advent of Russian crime novels (notably by Valentin Rasputin, Chingy Aitmatov, Victor Astafyev), but crime novels of a distinctive sort -- rarely involving murder, nor a great deal of detective work, but great play upon social and political ills, like all Russian literature in the Kto vinovat/Chto delat? tradition. And so it may be that the depth of that tradition makes Russia very fertile ground indeed for crime fiction, though this must raise the thought that if there is a continuation and worsening of the slouch back to totalitarianism of these past years, it may run into trouble, at least in this very Russian mode. Akunin is on much safer ground, I should say.

July 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not an expert,but here's an attempt anyway.
"Il mio Cadavere" (My Corpse,1852) is considered the first Italian mystery novel.
It features the amateur sleuth Dr.Weiss (a physician)and supposedly is a psychological mystery with elements of horror and pages upon pages of forensic pathology.
The much more successful "Il Cappello del Prete" (The Priest's Hat,1877) is instead considered the first Italian noir,dealing as it does with the murder of an usurer priest in the shady background of the lower tiers of neapolitan society.
A veritable best-seller with 6-7 editions in the first few years, unlike "Il mio Cadavere" it can still be obtained rather easily.
Both were originally serialized feuilletons only later collected in book form.
In 1929 the Mondadori publishing house invented the Gialli,biweekly yellow paperbacks which presented translations of the main English and American authors,alternating freely between whodunits,pulps, hardboileds and thrillers.
Nowadays Giallo (Yellow) is a catch-all term for all types of crime fiction,and is used by the press to indicate real-life unsolved mysteries (il giallo di Cogne,il giallo dell'Olgiata).
Though Gialli have always been pretty popular,they were mainly considered a kind of escapist literature,light reading particularly appropriate for the summer holidays :the typical "Letteratura da ombrellone" (beach parasol literature).
While elements of crime fiction appeared in "social" or "literary" novels from time to time,those obviously "trascended the genre".
Sciascia's "Il giorno della Civetta" (the day of the Owl) was a Novel With A Message,and therefore not a mere crime novel.
It is worth noting that "Quer Pasticciaccio Brutto de' Via Merulana" (That Awful Mess in Via Merulana) by Carlo Emilio Gadda, probably the greatest Italian novel of the latter half of the Twentieth Century , is formally a crime novel (though one in which,ultimately,the investigation fails to individuate the culprit).
Nevertheless,with a few notable exceptions (Scerbanenco,Fruttero & Lucentini,Loriano Machiavelli)crime fiction has remained for many years the province of foreign authors.
Gialli readers wanted their crimes set in the rainy English countryside,not in sunny Toscana; in the great American metropolises,but not in Milan;maybe even in the Parisian bistros,but not in Rome's trattorie.
In a scenario which saw the heightening of political conflict, the Strategy of Tension and the Years of Lead,and a dozen or more high-profile assaults, assassinations and other incidents,murder was indeed more fun away from home.
To compound the problem,gialli writers were often too strongly influenced by foreign models,which they sought to directly transpose in an Italian setting.
A neat closed-room mystery in a villa,for instance,lacks any relevance in the context of a period dominated by student and worker agitation.
An English mystery could still have had an escapist value,but in its Italian counterpart the absence of even a passing mention of the pressing issues of the time would have resulted in an odd sense of disconnect.
Massimo Carlotto maintains that the rise of "Mediterranean Noir" stands in direct relationship with the demise of investigative journalism.
The reader who in the 70s and 80s would have turned to the non-fiction work of Sciascia ("The Moro Affair") or Camilla Cederna now looks to authors like Carlotto, Lucarelli,Saviano,Fois, Abate,De Cataldo,who blend together elements of fiction,investigative journalism and social analysis.
To a degree this is could also be said of others,like Camilleri,who do not entirely fit the noir cathegory.
Whatever the reason,it is undeniable that crime fiction remains very hot at the moment,to the point that the flooding of new titles has awakened fears of a drop in quality and subsequent bubble burst.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Karen, it wold be interesting to speculate about what could generate crime fiction in countries where the tradition does not exist.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I'd heard the cry "What is to be done?" of course, though I did not know its origins. (By the way, in yet another indication of the puckishness and intellectual pranksterism of university students, there was and still may be a weekly guide to events in and around Cambridge (Massachusetts) and Boston called The Harvard Weekly What is to Be Done?)

Have you read any of those distinctively Russian crime novels? Your description plays nicely into that old trope of even bedraggled Soviet workers packed into Moscow subway trains reading thoughtful, probing literature.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, your comment is the most informative I have ever received from a non-expert, and I'll probably continue to pester you with questions about Italian crime fiction.

With respect to Massimo Carlotto's comments, I had had the idea that Italy never had much of a tradition of investigative journalism. I also find your comment about gialli readers preferring their crime set elsewhere to be of great interest. It may be time for a bit of probing of the Italiam psyche.

Sciascia may have "transcended the genre," but his superb, disquieting novels ought to have opened Italian eyes to the possibilities of what crime novels can do.

Finally, I'll mention Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels and the old movie Salvatore Giuliano as evidence that Italy's recent history offers fascinating background for crime stories.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

'The Harvard Weekly What is to Be Done'. Delightful. All is not yet lost at Harvard.

Re those three authors I mentioned in the context of the late Soviet period, a Rasputin collection, Siberia on Fire, has been published by Northern Illinois U. Press, and it includes his 'detektiv' novella, The Fire, a tale of a drunken mob, burning forests, local party officials, and a warehouse full of Western consumer goods. Aitmatov is actually ethnically Kirghiz; his The Place of the Skull has been published by Grove. A strange and striking tale of a Moscow journalist, the hashish trade, wolves, and all bound up with the representation of Jesus in the Bible, Aitmatov seeing him as a social revolutionary. Some Astafyev has been published in translation by Moscow Progress and Glas New Russian Writing. His title which translates simply and tellingly as The Sad Detective is quite singularly dark and shocking realism: a tale of a provincial militiaman observing everyday existence filled with routine horrors -- drunkenness, abandonment of children, neglect of farm livestock -- while contemplating the relations among sympathy, kindness and cruelty in the Russian psyche. A bold work even in the Gorbachev era. As I mentioned earlier, the 'detektivy' are crime novels, but of a very distinctive kind.

July 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh yes,there was indeed a notable tradition of investigative journalism in Italy.
The weekly L'Espresso,in particular,published several major reportages on corruption, briberies,housing and financial speculation,prostitution,and unearthed the coup plans of a group of fascist nostalgics allied with rogue sectors of the secret services.
Espresso journalist Camilla Cederna's investigation of the Italian branch of the Lockheed bribery scandal caused the resignation of then- Italian President Giovanni Leone,while her reportage on the Pinelli case was probably instrumental in the targeting for assassination of Commissario Calabresi by the Red Brigades.

After a lull of nearly two decades,a few journalists have recently begun to revitalize this tradition.
Fabrizio Gatti,for instance,denounced the inhuman conditions in the Cpt (immigrant temporary detention centre) of Lampedusa and reported the plight of illegal immigrants forced into slave labor by criminal organizations in Puglia,in both cases disguising himself as a "clandestino".

The "trascending the genre" part was intended as ironic.The dominant schools of Italian critique have always had very strong prejudices against popular literature.A literary novel could not possibly be tainted by the association with second-rate genres like crime fiction or science fiction.
When Luce d'Eramo,whose autobiographical novel "Deviazione" is a harrowing account of her experiences in the Dachau camp during WWII,won a prize for her science-fiction novel Partiranno (They will leave) her friend,the respected intellectual Alberto Moravia, refused to present her with the prize, stating that the novel was "beneath her".
At least since Eco's The Name of the Rose,however,the divide between "high" and "low" culture has been

I know you love Lucarelli,I've discovered your blog through your review on WWB.
Sure,there's a wealth of material for crime stories in Italy's history.
De Cataldo's Romanzo Criminale,based on the true story of the Banda della Magliana,is a prime example.
Until recently however those elements were the stuff of memoirs,reportages,documentaries,but rarely of written fiction (for the movies the case was slightly different).

Oh,my name is Marco
Ciao Ciao

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mille grazie per vostro commento, Marco, e benvenuto in Detectives Beyond Borders. Grazie anche per la lezione giornalistica e historica.

I know your comment about transcending the genre was ironic. American readers and moviegoers complain about prejudice against popular genres, but perhaps American critics have been more open to popular genres than critics in other countries have been.

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, your comments and Marco's have done much to increase my list of books to be sought out, for which thanks to you both.

Bust is once again on its way to you, addressed this time in idiot-proof fashion, I hope.

July 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My pleasure!

July 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have just reserved That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana at my local library.

July 22, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you'll like it,but I have some reservations.
Gadda was a real language virtuoso.
"Quer pasticciaccio" incorporates many Italian dialects,alternates between several linguistic registers (at times,for comic effect,in the course of the same phrase) features extensive wordplay and linguistic experimentation as well as sprawling,Proustian descriptions.
While the end result is,perhaps surprisingly,very enjoyable,I can't think of many works more deserving of the expression "a translator's nightmare".
I'll be curious to hear your impressions on the English version.

July 23, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It sounds like a bigger version of the problems Andrea Camilleri poses for translators, with his extensive use of Sicilian dialect.

I hope the English edition will also have an extensive note from the translator discussing the problems you mentioned.

July 23, 2008  

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