The series started as an idea by Lisa Levy who over the years, in various commissioning personas, had asked me to review translated crime writing from Europe and Asia. She knew I travelled a lot, had lived in various countries, and had somewhat of a languages background that meant I’d been suggesting suitable books for translation to publishers for a long time. So we thought let’s take the world country by country, city by city and see what there is to read, and to coax people out of simply reading American and UK authors and try other worlds, styles, approaches. We started with Amsterdam in March 2017 and from there it just snowballed. –Paul French, Crime and the City columnist
Dwyer Murphy: Of the many crime writing cities you’ve chronicled, which one stands out as having the most eccentric collection of books? Is there one city that stays with you and makes you think, ‘oh, well there’s something a bit odd going on there…’.? I presume just about all the Scandinavian cities would qualify.
Paul French: So, here’s the weird thing. You set out to write about the world’s crime fiction, from Uzbekistan to Buenos Aires, and plenty of places famous and obscure in between, and it turns out that the weirdest, most eccentric oddballs are your neighbours.
Let me tell you, nobody…NOBODY…is half as strange as the British. Britain produces the syrupiest cozies as well as some of the most hardboiled noir. British readers embrace detective-vicars, old lady snoops, gritty urban serial killers and middle class murderers in the suburbs, all in an afternoon. There’s a veritable true crime industry, the phenomenal amount of adaptation of books and characters to TV series, while the national obsessions with Christie and Conan Doyle continue unabated.
Every city, town, village, and remote farming community, has at least a few crime books associated with it. Literally from Ann Cleeves with Jimmy Perez up in Shetland to W. J. Burley’s Charlie Wycliffe down in Cornwall. In a literary sense there is nowhere in the British Isles murder-free. And no period in history remains unmined either, from Ellis Peters’s twelfth century monk-detective Cadfael onwards. Sometimes I think every third person on the street around me is working on a crime novel, every pub is full of people discussing the latest crime TV show or true crime podcast and everyone else is a, obviously, a potential killer.
The British are simply crime mad. Fortunately, the rest of the world seems to like British crime so we might as well just carry merrily on with our obsession.
Murphy: International crime readers—and also the publishing people who try to sell new books to them—are always talking about the world region poised to take off next, the way Scandinavia did for about a decade, or the way Korean thrillers have established themselves more lately. Putting aside prognostication, which country’s crime fiction do you wish would become an international phenomenon, if you had your pick?
French: It certainly goes through cycles – Scandi noir, Tartan noir, a big Japanese wave a decade or more ago I remember getting caught up in. I think there’s been a lot of great crime writing coming out of South Africa that’s been overlooked. Perhaps it’s not surprisingly that many of these books are working through what’s happened in the country since the end of apartheid.
For example, Diale Thlolwe’s novels are set in Johannesburg and really get into the issues that drive the city’s crime rate and social divisions, similarly so Deon Meyer’s Benny Griessel series set in Cape Town. I’ve found these writers, and others such as HJ Golakai, Mike Nichol, Jassy Mackenzie, and Angela Makholwa, all really great authors, but also helpful in trying to understand what’s been going on in South Africa, where the post-apartheid social fault lines lie, and how things now work there. I’m told by readers in South Africa that there’s also a lot of locally written and set “krimis” (the shorthand for crime books in Afrikaans is the same as in German) worth translating that English readers would really appreciate.
Good crime writing is so useful in understanding any given society’s concerns and compulsions, both historic and contemporary. I’d like to see publishers and people translate, publish, and read more African crime writing in general – from right across the continent. I’m a big fan of the Moroccan writer Abdelilah Hamdouchi, originally from Meknes, now based in Rabat, and who usually sets his writing in Casablanca. I am also reading everything I can by the new wave of Nigerian crime writers and their, mostly Lagos-set, books – Toni Kan, Leye Adenle and Chike Unigwe particularly.
Murphy: I always find expat writing scenes to be interesting, especially in the context of crime fiction. Were there any cities that caught your attention in that regard? Places where there were a load of expats (I’m not saying they’re spies; I’m not saying they’re not spies) putting out good books set in their adopted homes?
French: It’s true that there are a lot of great cities that really suit good crime novels but don’t traditionally have local writers exploring the genre for various reasons. I’ve seen this a lot in South East Asia – Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and other regional cities have really big and successful ex-pat writing scenes. John Burdett and his Thai cop Detective Sonchai Litpleecheep, Christopher G Moore with Vincent Calvino private eye series, Stephen Leather with a ton of books set all over Asia, Jake Needham too, are all breakouts from that ex-pat scene. And that’s just Bangkok, though that was a really tight scene in the 1990s and early 2000s with regular readings, events and everybody seemed to know everybody else.
The uber-expat writer is, I guess, Lawrence Osborne who lives in Bangkok and invariably writes about expats getting into some sort of trouble in locations he knows well and has spent time in – Paris, Macao, Morocco, Hydra, Cambodia, and latterly Thailand. Osborne is a great world traveller in his fiction, which leads to all those comparisons with the previous generation’s great globe trotter, Graham Greene.
There are other places that have energetic expat crime writing scenes – from Hong Kong to Amsterdam, while it seems so many of the crime books set in Berlin (a super multinational town) are written by sojourners. It’s also the case that much of the crime writing I’ve highlighted about Indian cities is coming from outside, though often from the global Indian diaspora – Abir Mukherjee’s Kolkata-set Wyndham & Banerjee series, or Vaseem Khan’s Mumbai-set Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series, for instance.
Murphy: Looking at the cities you’ve covered, it’s clear you have a special connection to Asia. For many American readers, that’s still pretty new territory when it comes to crime fiction. (I suspect quite a few readers have discovered new favorite mysteries thanks to your surveys of, say, cities in India or China.) Can you tell me a bit about your own background in the region? I’m also curious to hear if you have any favorite literary cities within the continent, or particular books that you find yourself recommending to people again and again?
French: I did spend many years living in Asia. Specifically, I lived in Shanghai, but spent a lot of time in Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore. So naturally I’m really interested in what emerges from those cities. China, and much of Asia is a problem for traditional North American and European style crime writing and often for those wanting to pursue the genre there. Many people simply don’t intrinsically sympathise with the police, politicians or authority. The idea that a copper will be dedicated to solving a crime without corruption or interference is problematic. However, novels that reveal corrupt police or politicians are even more problematic, censored, banned or often simply unpublishable in many markets. So understandably writers often avoid the genre.
Where we do have some good traditional detective fiction set in, for instance, China it is written by people outside the country and (though sometimes translated into Chinese) mostly read by readers outside the country too. Qiu Xiaolong’s great Shanghai-set Inspector Chen series is an example of what I mean. The author is originally from Shanghai but now lives and works in America where the bulk of his audience are.
But that doesn’t mean writers simply give up. They find other ways around the issues. Chinese writer (and former policeman) A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is about a motiveless murder in provincial China written largely in a Jim Thompson Killer Inside Me first-person pulp psychosis style to avoid dealing with authority figures.
I’m a big fan of crime writing from Manila in the Philippines. There, distrust of some authority figures is a problem; many American or European style crime novels simply transplanted to a Manila setting would just seem daft. But there are alternatives. F.H. Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles, published in 2002, and which some have called the ‘first Filipino crime novel’, is one of my favourite books of the last twenty years. It’s a murder investigation that takes you into the heart of Manila society – cops, politicians, media moguls, the wealthy, the slums – but in the hands of Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero, two Jesuit priests who also perform forensic work, and an anti-establishment investigative journalist, Joanna Bonifacio. Not your traditional crime fighting trio, but a really absorbing book. I’ve recommended it to literally hundreds of people and never had a complaint.
Similarly with Filipino writer Charlson Ong’s 2010 Blue Angel, White Shadow, which has all the noir style of a Chandler or Hammett set within the vividly described nightscape of Binondo, Manila’s Chinatown. It’s a superb book and deserves more fans. It makes me wonder what else is being published in the Philippines, in English or in Tagalog, that I’m missing?
Murphy: What about peculiar mystery traditions? I’m always drawn to countries that have a strong tradition in a particular facet of literature: for instance, the locked-room mystery in Japan. Have you come across any interesting mystery legacies in your literary travels?
French: Japan’s love of the locked room mystery is replicated in many countries, though in Japan it’s really remained in fashion for an extremely long time. The new translations of Japan’s own “Golden Age” master of the locked room mystery, Seishi Yokomitsu, is a great addition to any crime lovers shelf.
I’m interested in how cities and countries express their own fears, obvious or somewhat latent, in their crime fiction. A great deal of Scandi-noir in recent years has dealt with extremist religious cults. I’m not sure Scandinavia has more or less of a problem with religious cults than anywhere else, but they have been working out their angst on the subject through crime writing for some time. Similarly, a lot of western European crime writing from the UK and Ireland, to France, Belgium, Spain and Germany is raising issues to do with inward migration, new organised crime gangs from Eastern Europe, the fear of “lone wolf” terrorism.
Wanting to know more about other places, societies and communities is what Crime and the City is all about. Take our centenary issue – LA. Right there in one town are books about the Korean American experience, the Latino experience in the United States, the African American experience. To read LA crime writing is to read multiple aspects of American life.
Given the rather urban nature of the series (except the occasional summer holiday edition to the Scottish Highlands, the Hamptons, or the French Riviera) I’ve not been able to promote one of my own favourite sub-genres, “grit noir” (or rural noir, or whatever you want to call it). For me it’s a trip to an important part of America I have barely ever seen or experienced, and which I’m wary of ever assuming I understand too much about. But that also means I don’t get to shout about writers I really like and read compulsively – Attica Locke, Steph Post, Chris Offut, Ace Atkins, Michael Farris Smith…they’re all such uniquely American authors writing really original works.
Murphy: Your own books focus on historical true crime. I’m wondering if there are any particular cities you’ve been drawn to in that respect, either because they have a particularly strong nonfiction collection, or because the criminal history of the cities themselves are just so fascinating?
French: That’s easy – Australia. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time down there and each trip I come back with a bag of books, pretty much exclusively true crime. There’s so much – from the days of transportation to local bikie gang wars. I’ve got to assume the local market in Oz for true crime is humungous given the number of titles, as well as the success of tv shows like the Underbelly franchise. I also think that Crime and the City will have to go on holiday to Australia soon to cover all the great Outback crime fiction now selling really well globally from the likes of Jane Harper, Chris Hammer, Peter Papathanasiou, and others.
Murphy: Are there cities you’d like to revisit, now that you’ve reached the centennial?
French: There’s a few where I know I only scratched the surface. Melbourne, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Dublin, Barcelona….With Berlin I decided to focus on just crime writing harking back to WW2 and didn’t really get into the Cold War period or contemporary Berlin at all. That’s partly why I’ve avoided some major crime cities that really do need tackling. Of course I want readers to discover new places, cities they might not be that familiar with, but there’s the biggies too. Trying to squeeze London or New York; Chicago or Paris into the format is near-impossible. If I started on Crime and the City London I’d run out of words half way through Sherlock Holmes and get no further!
Murphy: Cards on the table: what was your favorite place to write about for the series?
French: A better way to think of it, and to bring back a few memories for me, is to think about when I got the chance to write the column in the actual location. Sometimes that really was a treat – the Hamptons in Sag Harbor, Bali by a hotel pool, or Phoenix sitting in the back of the fantastic Poisoned Pen Bookstore chatting to customers for a day. I’m lucky enough as a writer and reviewer to get asked to a lot of crime writing and literary festivals so getting to talk about Tartan Noir novels at the Edinburgh Festival or new Cantonese crime writing at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival is a real treat.
It’s tough for everyone at the moment. During the pandemic Crime and the City has become a vicarious pleasure, a way to travel through the imagination. But let’s all hope that soon we can get back to drawing up reading lists for places we are actually going to visit.
My final plea would be to support all those lovely publishers out there that find the money, get the grants, take the chances, on translating non-English language fiction. It can be a real winner! Some time ago I wrote for CrimeReads about the fantastic publishers Sandstone Press, based in beautiful Dingwall, in the Highlands of Scotland. Sandstone’s boss Robert Davidson took a gamble on acquiring the English language rights to Volker Kutscher’s Babylon Berlin series. He had to hustle for the money to pay a translator, but the Goethe Institut in London (the UK arm of Germany’s worldwide cultural institutes network), with additional support from XPONorth (Scotland’s leading creative industries festival based in Inverness) came through and a bestselling phenomenon in English was created. A big win all round for German crime writing, a Scottish indie publisher, and English language crime readers.
Crime readers are voracious, they’re ever-hungry. We’re addicts, and we always need more product. There’s so much good and inspiring crime writing out there – the bar globally just keeps getting set higher and higher. Crime and the City has been to a hundred locations and recommended thousands of books – noir, procedurals, cozies, “Golden Age”, true crime…and I’m hoping we’ll now go to another hundred fascinating places. I like to think that if the first hundred columns have achieved nothing else then at least they have built a few skyscraper-like teetering TBR piles and maybe also made a relocation, a vacation, or a business trip a bit more interesting.