Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Fear of the Foreign

Sandra Parshall

I deplore xenophobia in others, so I’m not happy to acknowledge any form of it in myself. It’s especially embarrassing to admit that my fear of the foreign applies mostly to mysteries and suspense novels.

I’m a great fan of English, Scottish, and Irish crime writers -- Ruth Rendell, Stephen Booth, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and many others are among my favorites. I also enjoy Canadian crime novels, especially the work of Giles Blunt, and I’m mystified when readers in the U.S. show indifference toward the wonderful authors who live and work just to our north. The language is the same, the legal system is mostly the same, social customs and everyday life are similar. A cop chasing a killer in Toronto is not all that different from one doing his job in Detroit. But that border between the countries makes some residents of the lower 48 see Canada as a place too foreign to visit in fiction.

But who am I to criticize Canadaphobes when I’ve just confessed to my own form of xenophobia? I have read and enjoyed many literary novels and classics set in France, Italy, and other countries, but for some reason I usually avoid crime novels translated from foreign languages. I pick them up, read the flap copy, put them back on the shelf. Why? Sometimes I don’t think I’ll be able to appreciate the police and court procedures described in the books. Sometimes I don’t think I’ll be comfortable with a setting that’s totally unfamiliar. Neither of these statements make sense, though, when I consider how much I enjoy foreign films.

Clearly I have a problem that needs to be dealt with. I made a start recently, when I picked up a library recording of a Japanese crime novel, Out by Natsuo Kirino. This book was nominated for an Edgar Award a few years ago, but even so, my first impulse was to put it back on the shelf. How can I enjoy a book about crime in Japan? But instead of passing it by, I checked it out and began listening to it. I was hooked from the start. The book reminded me a lot of A Simple Plan in the way the ordinary characters are inexorably drawn deeper and deeper into a dark secret life. I could never have imagined myself becoming a fan of a Japanese crime writer, but I will seek out more books by this author.

Now I’m feeling positively adventurous. Where shall I go next in my exploration of crime on foreign soil? Give me some suggestions. Name your favorite translated-into-English crime novels and tell me why I should read them. If I can find them, I’ll try them, and I’ll let you know what I think.


Carol said...

Sandy, you just described me (minus your newly found sense of adventure). Of my ten favorite movies this year, four are foreign: The Lives of Others (#2 -- Germany), Pan's Labyrinth (#4 -- Mexico), Volver (#6 -- Spain) and The Aura (#10 -- Argentina). My avoidance of the same culture via books would seem to make no sense because I'm still dependent on translation, except I read it at the bottom of a screen.

Maybe it's partly because movies are essentially a passive experience and reading is an active one (read, more work). From time to time, I vow to add foreign books to my diet but, like New Years resolutions, no action ever follows.

Almost ten years ago, a friend gave me Cosi Fan Tutti and I haven't read it yet. It won the Gold Dagger and, based on the back cover synopsis, it sounds delicious. So, okay, you've talked me into it. I just moved it to the TBR pile.

Euro Crime said...

Natsuo Kirino's next book is available (just I think) called 'Grotesque'.

I'd recommend anything by Fred Vargas (French) or Andrea Camilleri (Italian) or Karin Fossum (Norwegian) - especially 'Don't Look Back' which is superb. The Scandinavian stuff can be a bit grim but I enjoyed 'The Torso' by Helene Tursen which has a 'normal' woman juggling career and family.

Fred Vargas won the International Dagger last year for 'The Three Evangelists' and it was my favourite book of the year. Witty with a great 'puzzle' crime as well.

I've got lots more authors listed by country via this page of my website -

Sandra Parshall said...

I saw a rave review of Kirino's new book in, I think, Publishers Weekly. I'm certainly going to read it. I actually own a copy of Don't Look Back -- and have never read it. Something about the book description must have appealed to me, or I wouldn't have bought it. I'll have to take it off the shelf and get started on it. And I'll check out your other suggestions. Thanks! I'm feeling more broad-minded already.

Euro Crime said...

I hope you enjoy 'Don't Look Back' as much as I did :-). It took me a while to break into reading crime in translation. Now I go from one translated book to another - can't get enough! This year I've particularly enjoyed 'The Redbreast' by Jo Nesbo.

Roberta said...

Sandy, you must try Arnoldur Indidason--Jar City and Silence of the Grave. they are translated from Icelandic and set in Iceland. a little dark, but i just love them!

Sandra Parshall said...

Roberta, I've actually been to Iceland -- well, I spent a few hours in the airport during a layover from Glasgow to NY, to be honest, but just the view from the terminal and what I saw from overhead told me that it was a strange, intriguing place. I'll add your reading suggestions to my list. I'm very curious about the kind of crime fiction an Icelandic writer produces.

Carol said...

I just remembered an Icelandic mystery that I utterly loved...Smilla's Sense of Snow (Peter Hoeg).