The once-closed world of Anglo-American crime fiction has long been infiltrated by foreign agents – in translation, of course. Barry Forshaw has been closely following the Euro invasion, and manages to cover an extraordinary stretch of continental shelf in this brief but comprehensive survey.
He arranges his material more or less geographically and linguistically, sweeping round the Mediterranean, up through German-speaking territory, across the former Communist states and into the chilly heartlands of Nordic noir.
Brief chapters form excellent introductions to the history of crime fiction in various countries. Forshaw notes the importance of Leonardo Sciascia, referring to this anti-corruption campaigner with neat irony as "The Godfather" of Italian fiction. The French section quite rightly includes Simenon (sorry, Belgium!), and Germany sensibly extends to include German-speaking countries, so that Forshaw can include the superb Swiss writers, Dürrenmatt and Glauser.
Differing political histories are reflected in crime fiction, in German from the presentation of the Third Reich in the work of Hans Fallada, whose Alone in Berlin was admired by Primo Levi, to the novels of the Austrian feminist Elfriede Jelinek. In Spain, Antonio Hill commented to Forshaw on the difficulties of developing crime fiction in a nation where, under Franco, any serious attempt at portraying social corruption and brutality was impossible.
Overall, this survey is a bravura performance, though there are points where one might cavil. I am not an admirer of Norway's baggy-plotting author Jo Nesbo and his blokeish bore of a hero, Harry Hole, for whom Forshaw seems to have undue reverence. I missed an entry on the splendid French writer Sebastien Japrisot, whose work took us south from Maigret-dominated Paris. And sometimes we seem to be drowning in a Nordic torrent: one might reasonably think that publishers are cashing in on Scandinavian crime to the extent where any authors with funny vowels in their names make it into print. The question of whether this craze penalises British writers might surely be legitimately raised.
But Forshaw is an inimitable Virgil to guide us through the hellish circles of crime fiction. He has personally interviewed many of the authors involved and his work conveys a comprehensive yet intimate knowledge of the genre. And, unlike many literary pundits, he is supremely readable.