A Week In Books: Crime novels Maigret would approve of

Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 08 February 2003 01:00

In 1972, a Unesco survey listed the world's most frequently translated authors. In those remote Cold War days, Vladimir Lenin emerged on top. Behind the creator of the USSR, however, came one of the few famous Belgians that all pub-quiz buffs can name: Georges Simenon. The inventor of Inspector Jules Maigret made his bow in Liège a few minutes into Friday 13 February 1903. And Simenon's creation – born in Détective magazine in 1930 – has outlived Lenin's. The pipe-chewing policeman's 75 cases have sold more than 800 million copies globally, despite falling out of print in Britain. (To mark the centenary, Penguin Classics will re-issue half a dozen in May.) These days, Simenon's copyrights belong to the Chorion agency, which also controls revenues from Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton. Lenin has expired in more ways than one.

Simenon perfected a psychology-driven alternative to the plot-heavy intrigues of British and US crime writing. And legions of English-speaking readers (not to mention TV viewers) embraced Maigret, pongy pipe and all. Since his departure, no translated sleuth has enjoyed an equal impact here. True, the odd continental operator makes a killing: Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla, or Umberto Eco's William of Baskerville (although he's a Geordie). Lately, Henning Mankell's fine Swedish series featuring dour Inspector Wallander – the Sven-Goran of slaughter – has adorned Harvill's list. But there remains a talented squad of foreign fictional 'tecs whose acquaintance British readers should make – once publishers trust us enough to translate them.

A few do, and have. A pair of new mysteries showcase the current wealth of investigative talent lurking beyond the stations and precincts of English-speaking crime. The latest inheritor of Maigret's (or Morse's) gaberdine mantle of gruff, bruised decency even arrives from beyond the shores of "old Europe" itself. The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (translated by Benjamin Moser; Picador, £16.99) is the first, prize-winning novel by a Brazilian professor of philosophy. Set in the smart apartment blocks and scruffy semi-slums of Rio de Janeiro, it sketches that fabled townscape with far more grit than glamour. The Rio that lonely, bookish Inspector Espinosa navigates, on the trail of a moneyed executive's killer, feels like a working city. In no sense an exotic tourist backdrop, neither is this the squalid killing-ground relished by film critics who hailed the shanty-town bloodbath, City of God. Garcia-Roza shows himself a classicist of crime: strong on atmosphere, short on idealism, skilfully forcing a few extraordinary events to shine harsh light on ordinary lives.

Garcia-Roza transforms sunny Rio into a workaday burg. In contrast, the Norwegian novelist Pernille Rygg gives her chilly Oslo such an avant-garde makeover that it ends up looking like Hoxton-on-the-Fjords. The Golden Section (translated by Don Bartlett; Harvill, £10) stars Rygg's psychologist heroine, Igi Heitmann. Igi has an edgy relationship with the local cops, a circle of highly strung artistic pals, a four-year-old daughter – and a sweet, if unfathomable, transvestite husband. If all that sounds too Scandinavian for words, it makes strong narrative sense.

A modish, shocking Oslo artist has exhibited what looks like an authentic "snuff" movie. Igi's Pakistani client, Javed, takes the rap at first. To clear him, she must explore the emotional crossroads where creativity and psychosis meet. Dark questions of porn and perversity, reality and fantasy drive this stylishly written, tautly plotted walk on the Nordic wild side. Maigret, I suspect, would feel quite at home.

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