The top 10 crime novels in translationNovelist Ann Cleeves looks beyond Scandinavia for forensic insights into Maigret's Paris, Montalbano's Sicily and beyond
Wed 22 Jan 2014
love translated crime fiction. It gives me the buzz of a good story but a delicious voyeurism too: the same sensation as when I'm walking down a street at dusk and people have forgotten to close their curtains. Snapshots of different domestic lives, the food they eat, the pictures on the walls, the way they bring up their children. We can learn about a country's preoccupations by reading its popular fiction. Scandinavian crime has become so successful that books from other territories can be overlooked. Here are some examples to show that it's worth making wider reading investigations.
1. The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien Georges Simenon (translated by Linda Coverdales)
The French cop Maigret is the father of contemporary European detective fiction, and he was made hugely popular by the 1960s TV series. A green Penguin book was my introduction to translated crime. I loved the exotic setting of Parisian bars and run-down hotels, the economic storytelling, Maigret's understanding of the frailty of men and women whatever their social status. I could have chosen any of the novels, but this one illustrates the detective's compassion for the desperate and downtrodden and has just been re-issued.
2. Have Mercy on Us All Fred Vargas (translated by Siân Reynolds)
We stay in Paris for the first of Vargas's novels to be published in the UK. A modern-day town crier shouts messages from his district's tradespeople and residents. The messages become more menacing, and symbols once used to ward off the plague are found sprayed on doors of local businesses. The book introduces us to the engaging Commissaire Adamsberg, one of my favourite fictional detectives. Vargas is a wonderful writer, quirky, endearing and always surprising.
3. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre (translated by Frank Wynne)
Alex was a sensation last year and joint winner of the CWA International Dagger. Again set mostly in Paris, the book challenges expectations about aggression, gender and the conventions of crime fiction itself. It features Commandant Verhoeven, short, stubborn, and set to become a hero as popular as Adamsberg. This is a book for people who are looking for pace, and aren't upset by graphic violence. The early scenes are gruelling and seem predictable thriller fare until the story twists so dramatically that it leaves the reader breathless.
4. Thirteen Hours by Deon Mayer (translated by KL Seegers)
This is another thriller, set on the other side of the world and translated from Afrikaans. With a background in the new South Africa, the novel is fast and full of suspense. Detective Benny Griessel is too stubborn and awkward for promotion and mentors a team as diverse as his country. An American backpacker disappears in Cape Town. Her best friend has already been killed so politicians are under pressure, and Griessel has just 13 hours to save the girl.
5. The Depths of the Forest by Eugenio Fuentes (translated by Paul Antil)
This book, set in a nature reserve in rural Spain, seemed to pass most people by when it was first published, though when I discussed it with reading groups at Harrogate's crime-writing festival it was chosen as their favourite translated novel. It's brilliant on place, an unsentimental depiction of natural history, but also of the people who are connected to a wilderness, and whose relationship to it can be troubled and disturbing.
6. The Treasure Hunt by Andrea Camilleri (translated by Stephen Sartarelli)
I loved Camilleri long before the fine TV adaptations appeared. In the dark days of winter it's a treat to read about the sunshine, food and wine of Chief Inspector Montalbano's native Sicily. Camilleri has developed a great supporting cast in the accident-prone Catarella and Montalbano's argumentative girlfriend Livia. Here, the detective is led on a strange treasure hunt involving an inflatable doll and rhyming clues until the story reaches its surprisingly bleak conclusion.
7. River of Shadows by Valerio Varesi (translated by Josephh Farrell)
This book has a brilliant start. The description of the rain-soaked Po valley and of local people sitting in a bar watching the water rise pulls the reader in to the narrative immediately. A barge appears on the swollen river and follows an erratic course until it's grounded. Varesi explores the influence of Italy's fascist history on the present both in this book and in its equally atmospheric sequel. His hero, Commissario Soneri, has grown out of an Italian landscape that will be unfamiliar to tourists, but which seems entirely authentic.
8. Voices by Arnaldur Indridason (translated by Bernard Scudder)
It isn't cheating to include Indridason in this list because while Iceland is Nordic, it isn't Scandinavian. A winner of the CWA Gold Dagger, Indridason writes crime novels that are as chilling as the landscape where they're set. Voices takes place just before Christmas. A porter and occasional Santa Claus has been stabbed in the hotel where he works and lives. Detective Erlendur is called to investigate. The contrast between the life of the staff and the Christmas parties that are taking place in the main body of the hotel is a reflection of the social differences in the society at large.
9. Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar (translated by Domingo Villar)
This is a quiet and compelling story, set on the fringes of Europe. A drowned man has been washed up in the harbour of a quiet fishing village in northwest Spain. At first the case is dismissed as suicide, but the man's hands have been tied and Detective Leo Caldas and his team are called to investigate. Villar is great on family, what it is to be an outsider and how the past can haunt us.
10. Badfellas by Tonino Benacqista (translated by Emily Read)
From the quiet and domestic to the suburban gone crazy. A family of mafia informers from New Jersey is given a new life in small-town France. They try to fit in: Fred decides to become a writer, his wife takes up charity work and the kids do what they can to survive in their new schools, but they're never quite part of the respectable community. Add to the mix FBI officers watching over them, former mafia associates desperate for revenge and you have a rollicking black comedy.