A grand tour of Euro Noir with Barry Forshaw

7 Mins read

Years ago – even before InterRail – it was the fashion for young aristocrats to enjoy a grand tour of Europe, taking in all the imperial capitals and centres of culture and commerce along the way. With so many excellent European novels available in translation it’s now possible to take your own virtual tour of the continent, enjoying many a mystifying yarn without leaving the comfort of your favourite chair. You don’t even have to convert your pounds or dollars to Euros, or flap around with a phrasebook.

But which are the best books to read if you want to embark on such a tour? To be our guide, we invited crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw to join us. His latest work is Euro Noir: The Pocket Essential Guide to European Crime Fiction, Film & TV. We wrote a summary of what’s inside Barry’s book here. Below you’ll find some key picks, but there’s plenty more in his pocket guide. It features all kinds of background information on how crime fiction has developed across Europe in various languages, and discusses the best books and authors.
Anyhow, let’s begin the tour in…

August Heat

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri
The seal of the best foreign crime writing is as much the stylish prose as it is the unfamiliar settings readers are transported to. When both ingredients are presented with the expertise that is Andrea Camilleri’s hallmark, Micawber’s words are à propos: result, happiness. Camilleri has familiarised us with his Sicilian copper Salvo Montalbano (a laser-sharp mind, and a gourmet whose mind frequently strays to food). Most of all, we know his stamping ground: the beautiful, sleepy territory of Vigata. And the heat. In August Heat (2009), it is omnipresent and crushing. The novel starts with a sleight of hand, cleverly misdirecting the reader. Montalbano is dragooned into a search for the brattish child of friends. The house they are staying in is thoroughly searched, but there is no place the child could have hidden. Until, that is, Montalbano discovers a hole in the ground that leads to a hidden subterranean floor – one illegally concealed to sidestep planning laws. The child is there, alive – but also in the sunless room is a trunk, containing the plastic-wrapped, naked body of a murdered girl.
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The Man Who Watched The Trains

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon
OK, we know he’s Belgian, but Georges Simenon’s name means – ineluctably – French crime fiction. The Strangers in the House (1940) depicts a Simenonian recluse, whose isolation is shattered by the discovery, one night, of a dead man in his house. The subsequent investigation will draw this former lawyer back into humanity, to take the case of the murder himself. But a key book? The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938) shows a man who is very much involved in society, a respectable family man, until the shipping firm, for which he is managing clerk, collapses just before Christmas. A barrier in Popinga’s mind falls and there emerges a calculating paranoiac, capable of random acts of violence, capable even of murder. As he feels himself drawn to Paris on Christmas Eve he enters into a disturbing game of cat and mouse with the law. Rushing towards his own extinction he is determined to be recognised, for the world to appreciate his criminal genius.
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The Sweetness of Life

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer
Should psychological thrillers play by the rules? Surely the best entries in the field achieve their effects by staying within certain parameters? There must be strongly developed central characters (with whom we identify) taking a journey into the darkest reaches of the human psyche, all with a persuasive leavening of psychological detail. Paulus Hochgatterer – who has a parallel career as a child therapist in Vienna – seems to have carved out a literary career by breaking (or at the very least, bending) the rules. Empathy with his protagonists is kept on a tight leash. But this quaintly named author has proved in two highly distinctive books that it can be profitable to throw received wisdom out of the window. Hochgatterer’s The Sweetness of Life (2008, translated by Jamie Bulloch) was the Austrian recipient of a European prize for literature, and marked Hochgatterer out as a writer prepared to employ unorthodox effects. With a cast of troubled individuals in a village in Austria, the author detonated a series of literary incendiary devices following the discovery by a traumatised young girl of the mutilated body of her grandfather.
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The Summer of Dead Toys

The Summer of Dead Toys by Antonio Hill
My own admiration for Antonio Hill’s work was forged by a reading of The Summer of Dead Toys, translated by Laura McGloughlin. A stifling summer’s morning in Barcelona. Inspector Hector Salgado has been lying awake, unable to sleep. He has just returned from Buenos Aires and is not in the best of moods. Salgado has lost his suitcase at the airport, and is deeply depressed after a painful separation from his wife and son. What’s more, he is still recovering after having been brutally beaten by a suspect in a case he was involved in. The investigation had touched upon two provocative topics: paedophile rings and voodoo worshippers. But the beleaguered policeman’s enforced leave of absence, during which his sympathetic boss is attempting to salvage Salgado’s faltering career after the latter’s own violent behaviour, is not to bring him peace. In order to take his mind off the case, his boss asks him to undertake an unofficial investigation into the circumstances behind the death of a student. But things are to get even worse for the embittered Spanish copper…
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Che Committed Suicide

Che Committed Suicide by Petros Markaris
The talented Petros Markaris was born in Istanbul in 1937 and lived in Athens, where he became Director of the National Book Centre of Greece. His bestsellers are published in 14 languages, with The Late-Night News and Zone Defence published in the UK by Harvill Secker, while Che Committed Suicide and Basic Shareholder were published by Arcadia Books. Che Committed Suicide, translated from the Greek by David Connolly, is a contemporary crime novel by the man many consider to be Greece’s leading thriller writer, a book that examines the social fabric of Greece today, a country still very much at the top of the news agenda (for, perhaps, all the wrong reasons). It’s 30 years after the end of the military dictatorship, and former Junta-opponent Favieros is a successful man. His building company is flourishing and preparations for the 2004 Olympic Games are in full flow. What, then, has made him decide to shoot himself on live TV?
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The Sundial

The Sundial by Maarten ‘t Hart
Admired by no less than the formidable Patricia Highsmith, the unconventional writer Maarten ‘t Hart’s novels sold in their hundreds of thousands in his native Holland, where he gained something of a reputation as a cross-dresser, often appearing on chat shows dressed as a female alter ego, Martha. ‘t Hart is the author of over ten novels, and his work has been widely translated. His unusual interest in rats led the writer to assist the equally eccentric director Werner Herzog in his remake of Nosferatu, which featured ‘t Hart’s verminous favourite animals. The Sundial (translated from the Dutch by Michiel Horn) begins with Leonie Kuyper attending the funeral of her best friend Roos Berczy, who has seemingly died of sunstroke. Leonie has always felt somewhat overshadowed by Roos, who had striking looks and was a brilliant pharmacological research assistant to boot. She turns out to have made Leonie her sole heir, provided that she moves into Roos’ apartment and cares for her cats. For Leonie, an impoverished translator, it is an offer she cannot refuse and she becomes the owner of a beautiful apartment… but there is a price. The Sundial reflects the author’s personal fascination with the nebulousness of identity.
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The End Of The World

The End of the World in Breslau by Marek Krajewski
The Polish author Marek Krajewski sets readers a knotty challenge in his rich and idiosyncratic Breslau novels. Atmosphere and piquant period detail positively saturate the pages, and push these books into the upper echelons of literary crime. But Krajewski’s cynical, sybaritic Criminal Councillor Eberhard Mock – with his eternally unslaked appetites and cruel brutality to his beautiful wife Sophie – has the reader wondering: do we really want to spend time in the company of this unattractive protagonist? Krajewski, however, has second-guessed this possible objection. Mock, however unappealing, is not as off-putting as many of the characters he encounters in this privileged, decadent society, so we reluctantly accept him as our conduit. Death in Breslau (2008), the predecessor to The End of the World in Breslau a year later, had critics scrabbling for superlatives, and the new outing for Mock is gleaning similar endorsements (particularly in Danusia Stok’s pellucid translation).
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Attack In The Library

Attack in the Library by George Arion
Attack in the Library (Atac în bibliotecă) by George Arion introduced Andrei Mladin, a committed and public-spirited citizen whose hobbies are drinking and sex. He’s also a counter-intuitive detective, inveigled in this book by a seductive blonde violinist gets him in web of deceit and murder. The CWA Silver Dagger winner writer Mike Phlllips extoled its virtues: “Arion’s Attack in the Library is one of the classic narratives of Romanian popular fiction.”

Written during the dictatorship of the 1980s, it weaves a gripping narrative out of the bars, the housing estates and restaurants of Bucharest. Arion’s characters queue for food, cope with power blackouts, sweat in the heat and struggle with the privileges and influence of the elites. Some critics have speculated that Attack escaped the attentions of official censorship because it was disguised as a humorous crime fiction romp. Whatever the truth of the matter the novel was, in the circumstances, an almost suicidal act of daring.
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Scandinavian Postscript
The unprecedented success of Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (1992) spread before us an intriguing new topography for the crime fiction genre. That book’s stamping ground, vividly evoked, was Copenhagen and Denmark. But Miss Smilla was merely the tip of the iceberg. The Scandinavian territories afforded a new panoply, with the Swede Henning Mankell as the standard bearer, chronicling the darkly mesmerising narratives of Kurt Wallander. Other possibilities in this new literary landscape include an exploration of Åke Edwardson’s criminous Gothenburg, or the Reykjavik of Arnaldur Indridason, or Karin Fossum’s psychologically bleak Norway. As for Sweden, the all-flattening juggernaut that was the Millennium trilogy of the late Stieg Larsson broke all sales records. Exhilarating though this Nordic crime is, it has one over-arching theme: the Scandinavian social democratic ideal is perhaps not dead, but it is fractured. As their writers have demonstrated through crime fiction, the Scandinavians now inhabit the same universe as the rest of us.

For more Scandinavian crime fiction, click here. Or, to continue your grand tour click the link below and check out Barry Forshaw’s guide, Euro Noir.

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