by Barry Forshaw
Dark creations of European authors tell us much about our own world
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 Nesbo (The Snowman - A Harry Hole Novel
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 (Silence: A Novel), 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 (Treasure Hunt),
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 (The Damned Season)
and the author and magistrate Giancarlo de Cataldo (Crimini: The Bitter Lemon Book of Italian Crime Fiction),
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
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
Hoeg'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
Other cities in this new literary landscape include Ake Edwardson's menacing Gothenburg,
the Reykjavik of Arnaldur IndriÃ°ason, 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.
Barry Forshaw's latest books are
'Nordic Noir' and
'British Crime Film: Subverting the Social Order'