Entertainment Books

Sunday 19 May 2019

What next for crime book fans after Emerald Noir?

There's a big world of international crime fiction out there waiting to be discovered, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Nordic Noir first came to the fore thanks to TV dramas like The Bridge starring Sofia Helin
Nordic Noir first came to the fore thanks to TV dramas like The Bridge starring Sofia Helin

Eilis O'Hanlon

When it comes to popular fiction, the next big thing can quickly become yesterday's news. The upsurge in Irish crime writing, so-called "Emerald Noir", shows no signs of slowing yet, but Ireland is a small country, and it's only natural for readers to cast their eyes further afield in search of the new.

That's part of the reason why Scandinavian crime fiction enjoyed a massive surge in popularity in recent years. For a while, it wasn't possible to move for blond manic depressives in chunky knitwear, and the shortlists for the Crime Writers Association's International Dagger prize still tend to be dominated by Northern Europeans.

Now, though, even "Nordic Noir", as spearheaded by Henning Mankell (who posthumously won last year's Dagger for his valedictory final novel, After The Fire) is starting to feel somewhat predictable. There is still fresh writing being published, not least from Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir, whose latest instalment in her Freyja and Huldar series, released in English at the end of April as The Absolution, probes the (very) dark side of social media.

Other countries are not so well represented. Italy is one exception, most successfully in Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, of which The Overnight Kidnapper is the latest instalment. For readers tired of Montalbano - that was his 23rd investigation, after all - Ilaria Tuti's Flowers Over The Inferno introduces a very different detective in the shape of Superintendent Teresa Battaglia, a lonely overweight sixtysomething.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of French historian Frederique Audoin-Rouzeau. Her Paris-based series centred on Commissaire Adamsberg began in the early 1990s with The Chalk Circle Man but is still going strong. Some find her hero's meandering vagueness a little frustrating, but, without peddling national cliches, the books couldn't be more pleasingly French.

A newer name to look out for is Tanguy Viel, whose refreshingly brief Article 353 recounts a trial arising from the death of a property developer.

The search for novelty in fictional settings has been stimulated by the rise of streaming, with networks such as Netflix desperate for new content that might work as long form series. Nordic Noir first came to the fore thanks to Danish and Swedish TV dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge; the publication in January of the English translation of The Chestnut Man, the first novel by Soren Sveistrup, creator of The Killing, brings things full circle. It was a bit over long, but striking in its telling.

The risk is that the promotion of international crime fiction can make it seem like an offshoot of the travel industry. That would do serious disservice to the range of themes that a country's best writers are tackling in their work.

Of course being able to read in a second language helps. "Factoring in the internet and ebooks, access to original language texts for those with linguistic competence to read them is no longer limited by geographical location," notes Dr Kathleen Quinn from NUI Galway's School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

Regrettably, most readers are still restricted by what's selected for translation. Asked to offer some pointers for Irish readers dipping a toe into unfamiliar waters, Dr Quinn generously provided a long list from her own field of interest in Latin America, from Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes's Havana Quartet, whose four novels about detective Mario Conde provide, in her words, "a disillusioned perspective on the sacrifices his generation were asked to make on behalf of the Revolution", to Columbia's Santiago Gamboa and Juan Gabriel Vasquez, who both produce novels that "engage with the socio-political reality of their country and the legacy of violence". Increasingly, Kathleen Quinn also points out, "well read fans don't just want to read Spanish crime novels, for instance, but rather Catalan or Basque crime novels, or novels linked to specific settings".

One of her own areas of expertise is Chilean literature, in which vein she suggests the novels of Ramon Diaz Eterovic. The central character of his best-known series is a private detective, Heredia, whose investigations shine a spotlight on "crimes linked to the aftermath of the Pinochet military dictatorship, with the legacy of human rights violations and the state's response to this". The first to appear in English, Dark Echoes Of The Past, is "a particularly interesting read for anyone interested in recent Chilean history", Dr Quinn says.

Dark echoes of the past could almost be a description of crime fiction itself, and it's telling that some of the best international examples are now coming out of those parts of the world where official secrets, corruption and lies have left their mark. The capacity of crime fiction to explore those interconnections is what keeps it so endlessly renewable, not to mention such fertile ground for scholarship. Queen's University Belfast's International Crime Fiction website, presided over by French specialist Dr Dominique Jeannerod, organises regular conferences and publications, and is an indispensable resource for those looking to expand their criminal horizons, as it were.

There's still plenty of the world to discover, as last year's breakthrough by Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite's original, hilarious debut My Sister, The Serial Killer proved.

Right now, publishing seems to have its eyes set on the Far East. The hero of You-Jeong Jeong's The Good Son wakes up covered in blood with his mother's body downstairs; knowing that he will be suspected of her killing if he calls the police, he chooses to hide the body and solve the crime himself. Fellow South Korean Un-su Kim's The Plotters also bagged a six figure US deal. He has predictably been called the "Korean Henning Mankell", proving that there's no escaping the shadow of the Scandinavians yet.

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