July 8, 2014
Q&A with International Crime Fiction aficionado and critic Barry Forshaw
by Zeljka Marosevic
July is officially International Crime Month. Together with a few of our favourite indie publishers, we’re dedicating a whole month to celebrating the genre. It’s our alternative to trashy throwaway paperbacks; instead we’re offering you beachside reads about murder, fascism, and sleepy Austrian villages where the voice of God narrates (yes really, over here).
To kick things off, all four participating publishers are hosting a launch event at Waterstones Piccadilly this coming Wednesday, which will feature authors and publishers coming together for one night only (reserve your free ticket here).
Chairing the event will be Barry Forshaw, Britain’s leading authority on international crime. During his illustrious career as a writer and critic, Forshaw has written about European, Scandinavian and general crime fiction, as well as editing Crime Time and appearing on TV and radio. His knowledge of the genre is unparalleled, and he’s been championing translated crime for much longer than it’s been fashionable, for which he earns our greatest respect. His newest book, Euro Noir is a guide to European fiction and drama. Who better then, to provide an introduction to the genre?
You’re one of Britain’s leading experts on international crime. How did you come to be so interested in the genre?
Serendipity. I’ve always loved travelling to the other countries in Europe apart from the UK, and writing books on crime fiction films – as well as reviewing the genre for various newspapers—I suddenly realised I was being described as—well, the phrase you use above—one of Britain’s leading experts on international crime. The only problem with that is I’m waiting for a young gunslinger to turn up in town and say: ‘You’re not so hot—prove you’re the expert!’
You review a lot of crime; what do you think about the health of international crime in publishing? Do publishers give the genre enough attention?
The international crime fiction scene in translation is in good health, but has a way to go. Let’s face it, It’s not a hothouse flower that with careful tending can grow to unprecedented dimensions; the reading public is biddable but not that biddable. The Scandinavian crimewave in the UK, for instance, was the result of a combination of circumstances: the right books being published and the cult success of TV shows such as The Killing and The Bridge. That combination is hard to replicate.
International crime is often a way for writers to tackle, and crtique, the political landscapes they see around them. Why is the genre so useful for social comment?
Crime writers can get away with a fair amount of social critique principally because—until recently—it wasn’t noticed! The perception was that the genre was designed as entertainment, and the fact that cogent political points were being made was known mainly to the cognoscenti. Now many people would recognise that the best way to learn about the political landscape of a country is via its crime fiction – although of course the picture we receive is exaggerated for dramatic purposes.
Nordic crime enjoyed huge success in Britain, so why is it hard to convince English readers to try crime in translation?
When the Scandinavian crime shows I mentioned above began to achieve astonishing levels of success, there was still a marked resistance to subtitles – I spent a lot of time convincing quite intelligent people that they weren’t really as daunting as they seemed to think. Something similar applies to translated crime fiction; the very fact that it is in translation gives it a pronounced literary cachet (not always justified!). Which makes the genre attractive for some, but perhaps not so for those seeking simple escapism.
Who, in your opinion, are the leading lights in international crime today?
Ah, there’s an easy answer to that one. Just pick up a copy of the book Euro Noir by… wait a minute, the author’s name will come to me…
Are some countries better at crime than others?
If you mean ‘better at crime fiction’, there is no denying that the Scandinavian nations still rule the roost. But the French are coming up fast on the outside track…
Do you have any favourite detectives? Who would you employ to solve a crime for you?
I have a soft spot for Håkan Nesser’s retired copper Van Veeteren, who’s also bookseller. Not only could he solve your crime problem, but you could have a nice bookish conversation with him.
Crime obviously has clear conventions, but international crime can be so enjoyable because it breaks with those conventions, or experiments with them. Are there any authors in particular who are doing this cleverly?
In Sweden, Johan Theorin. In France, Fred Vargas. And several new authors from various countries are testing the parameters.
You’ve also written extensively on crime and film. Who do you admire within that genre, and which films should readers be watching as an accompaniment to International Crime Month?
Same answer as above, when you asked about the leading lights in international crime fiction! Forgive the plug for Euro Noir, but all the crime fiction films and TV you need to see I’ve watched for you and listed here. You’ll find shopping lists galore… honestly!
Don’t miss the launch event for International Crime Month at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 9th July. Get your free ticket here.
Zeljka Marosevic is the former managing director of Melville House UK.