France is the new Sweden by Quentin Bates

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The word is that Scandinavian crime fiction is dead, put to the sword by an invasion of French crime writing excellence. Really? Christopher Maclehose, the publisher who brought us Miss Smilla, Wallander and Lisbeth Salander seems to think so, according to a report in the UK’s Independent newspaper. I can’t say I’m overjoyed at the idea, telling us with dramatic overstatement that French crimewriters are about to kill off the opposition. Hell, I write Nordic crime fiction. The last thing I want so see is my genre being branded redundant.

But to wind the tape back a little, France has a crime fiction tradition going back a very long way. Maigret, anyone? Need I say more? In fact, there aren’t many countries that don’t have a crime fiction tradition of their own. Germany is bursting with a pool of talented and popular writers whose work is generally untranslated. The Scandinavian crime tradition was going strong long before British and American publishers finally twigged that there was something good going on there that they might be missing out on. Sjöwall & Wahlöö were translated in the 1970s, but there was precious little after that. It’s worth remembering that Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen was selling by the truckload in Germany for years before he finally appeared, belatedly, in English.

Of course Christopher Maclehose has something an interest in the genre he brought to English being allowed to drop into the background, having snapped up a posse of French writers and brought their work to an English readership, and very good stuff it is. I know, I’ve read some of them; Antonin Varenne, Pierre Lemaitre and Xavier-Marie Bonnot. Their work really jumps off the page and it has every right to a place at the top.

Then there’s the stuff that has been around for a while; Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles books, Fred Vargas’s very popular stuff and my own favourite, the magnificent Dominique Manotti, the now somewhat elderly professor of 19th-century economic history who writes sharp, brutal yet sophisticated and award-winning crime fiction that packs a sucker punch when you least expect it. There are only four published in English and if more of them don’t cross the Channel into English, I may have to make a superhuman effort to upgrade my schoolboy French to read them in the original. Yes, they really are that good.

Then there’s Egrenages, the French TV cop series (Spiral, in English) that for my money puts The Killing in the shade. Sarah Lund may have won a devoted following, but Capitaine Berthaud and her motley crew of detectives are ahead by a long head.

Anyway, I was wrong. I had fully expected the surge of Scandinavian/Nordic crime fiction to start ebb, or at least to gain a little stability after the publishers’ feeding frenzy that has filled bookshop space with work by practically everyone in Sweden who has ever put finger to keyboard. But I had firmly expected an Irish invasion. My feeling was that the muscular, robust crime fiction that comes from the Emerald Isle would sweep the board. It’s fearsome powerful stuff, and has the advantage of being in English already – no translation required. So I was wrong. Or am I? Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Christopher Maclehose’s comments in the Independent that the crime fiction of his French authors being as good as anything that came out of Sweden is hardly a surprise, considering the French literary tradition. He is among the canniest of publishers and tends to forge a path for others to follow, and also commented that publishers are like sheep in pursuit of the next big thing – and now he feels he knows what the next big thing is. In fact, in publishing circles, he’s enough of a kingmaker to be able to decide what the next big thing is and it would be no surprise if other publishers were not already frantically rooting around for untranslated French talent.

It’s interesting to speculate on what the predicted French invasion will bring, either a flash in the pan with bags of hype or something longer lasting. The fact that French crime fiction has apparently has been ignored maybe says more about readers and publishers than it does about the undoubted quality of les polars.

Our beloved crime reading public is a fickle beast, not overly keen on trying something new when its standard fare is readily available. To put it bluntly, crime readers tend to know what they like and prefer to stick to it. Will they be lured away from their current Nordic fare to feast instead on something Gallic and maybe a little spicier? Probably, as long as the marketing is smart enough to coax crime aficionados in the right direction. So I’m caught between the two. It’s firmly in my interest to see Nordic stay mainstream, and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t, or why one thing has to be put out with the garbage to usher something else in. The mania for labelling everything to sit comfortably in a little box has never sat comfortably with me, but marketing loves it.

You liked Ola Sletten’s Inspector Engø mysteries? Then you’ll love the Birkeland Murders by Anne-Britt Torsvik…

On the other hand, I’ve no objection to a Gallic invasion as while I’m a big fan of French crime fiction, I don’t have time to spare to master enough colloquial French to be able to read it. Not yet, at least. Roll on retirement (like that’s going to happen…) and we’ll see.

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