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April 8, 2016

Best Contemporary Crime Novels from Europe

Here is a look at crime fiction from Europe, a genre characterized by atmosphere and character development above plot. Of course, there have been European authors in the past like Agatha Christie who wrote pure plot puzzles, but this was an aberration which only took place in England - after all, such novels are about just as engaging as the average crossword puzzle. The crime novel as a literary phenomenon about character was created in the 1930s in France by Georges Simenon (see my post about this author) - a writer who, as Andre Gide said, should have had the Noble Prize in Literature, and whose influence can still be felt today, for his manner was picked up by many different European authors after WWII. Somewhat older "character" authors are for example P.D. James and Ruth Rendell in England, or Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in Sweden.

European crime writers in addition learned how to add atmosphere from Americans as Hammett and Chandler (and write in the noir style), but there are two big differences between both cultures: European crime fiction is generally less violent than its American counterpart, which especially in its contemporary form only seems to focus on psychopaths and serial killers. And while in American crime novels the private eye rules supreme as a "lonely wolf" investigator (typical for American culture), European authors (like Japanese ones, as Matsumoto Seicho) prefer the police procedural - most European sleuths are police inspectors who work within the framework of an organization. 

So what are the best contemporary crime novels from Europe? Or, in other words, who are the most interesting fictional police inspectors from our time?


[Ian Rankin (Photo Wikipedia)]

1. "John Rebus" by Ian Rankin (so far 20 novels, from 1987)
My mother had a special link with Scotland and when I was a kid, my parents several times took the family on trips to that wild and melancholic country. Nowadays, my interest in Scottish culture has shrunk to the enjoyment of Scottish whisky, especially the single malt peat whiskies of the Scottish Isles, but recently I also had to add the Rebus novels (and the TV series with Ken Stott based on the novels) by Scottish author Ian Rankin to that small list. Ian Rankin (1960), a graduate of Edinburgh University, who spent the time he should have been writing his Ph.D. on English literature producing his first crime novel Knots & Crosses, has written 20 Rebus novels, winning the Gold Dagger in 1997 with Black and Blue. The stories belong to the genre of police procedural detective fiction, with a decided hard-boiled aspect that has led to them being dubbed "Tartan Noir."

Set in Edinburgh, the novels depict a stark, uncompromising picture of Scotland, characterized by corruption, poverty, and organised crime, a far cry from the holiday country I saw in my youth. Rebus is a misanthrope made cynical by the job he does. He is a maverick cop who drinks, likes to flout authority and ignore the rules. He struggles with his superiors and colleagues and suffers from internal police politics and office politics. He is a lone wolf, a flawed character, but also someone obsessed with his work. He is happiest when he can sit in hus favorite pub with a glass in his hand.

The inventive plots show a broad spectrum of Scotland, from business districts to dying mining towns, from nightclubs and prisons to some better-known pubs and streets of Edinburgh (these latter based on real places, there is even an Ian Rankin tourist guide to Edinburgh!).

Another important aspect, that is also present in the work of the other writers discussed here, is the continual linking between the books, so that we follow Rebus through the various ups and downs in his career and personal life. He has a daughter, but is separated from his wife. His immediate boss at work is a woman, Gill Templer, with whom he had a one-time romantic relationship, and his protege is DS Siobhan Clarke.

The novels can be read apart, so it may be a good idea to begin with one of the best, Black and Blue, or pick a recent one, such as Saints of the Shadow Bible. You may also want to start with the first one, Knots & Crosses, when Rebus is 40 years of age and a Detective Sergeant working on the case of a serial killer who has been abducting and strangling young girls. Rebus receives anonymous letters containing knotted rope and matchstick crosses…

[Henning Mankell (Photo Wikipedia)]

2. "Kurt Wallander" by Henning Mankell (12 novels, between 1991 and 2009)
I have only been to Sweden once, again when I was very young, and only to the Gotenburg area (unfortunately not to Stockholm, which I love because of the early 20th c. novels by Hjalmar Söderberg, as Doctor Glas). Ystad, where the Kurt Wallander novels are situated, is a small medieval town at the southernmost tip of Sweden, close to the large city Malmö. Copenhagen is only 1.5 hrs via the Øresund Bridge, so closer by than Stockholm (which is 5.5 hrs away). There is also a ferry connection with Poland.

The author Henning Mankell (1948-2015) was born in Stockholm. He had an adventurous youth (traveling around the world and joining the student protest of 1968 in Paris) and first worked in the theater. He was a left-wing social critic and activist, and shared his time between Sweden and countries in Africa, mostly Mozambique. He constantly highlighted social inequality issues and injustice in Sweden and abroad. Also in the Wallander novels the overarching question is: "What went wrong with Swedish society?" But happily, Mankell never gets preachy.

His protagonist, Kurt Wallander, is a police inspector living and working in Ystad. His wife Mona has left him and he has since had a difficult relationship with his rebellious only child, Linda. Linda later will follow in the footsteps of her father as a police officer. Wallander also has a difficult relationship with his father, an artist who thousands of times just paints the same landscape for money, and who disapproves of the career choice of his son.

Inspector Wallander drinks too much, consumes junk food, doesn't take exercise and struggles with his anger. He is always very much emotionally involved in the crimes he investigates. Over the years he has also become disillusioned with his work, not in the least because of office politics and the censure by colleagues and bosses of his brusque manner and aggressive tactics (as in the case of Rebus). Mankell puts the character development of Wallander central in the books. We follow his daily life and thoughts about family, or about getting older and his fear of Alzheimer, also when this is not related to the immediate plot - and that is what makes the books so interesting. Like the Rebus novels, they follow Wallander's career and life trough time. These are all passionate and committed books.

Although the novels can be read separately, it is a good idea to start with the first one, Faceless Killers, in which an elderly farm couple is brutally murdered with as only clue the word "foreign" - Wallander must find the killers before anger towards foreigners boils over...

[Fred Vargas (photo Wikipedia)]

3. "Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg" by Fred Vargas (so far 8 novels, since 1991)
The character of Paris-based Chief Inspector Adamsberg was created by Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of medieval historian, archaeologist and folklorist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau (1957). She became a two times winner of the International Dagger award. Vargas' police thrillers are a way to relax from her job as an academic and to combine her interests, such as Medieval legends and various types of folklore. The device of imposing fearful old myths and legends (such as werewolves, the plague or the "furious horde of phantoms") into a modern setting often leads to a supernatural background for human fear and paranoia, and results in surrealist scenes (but can also be a bit far-fetched).

Like the two previous authors, also Vargas leads her readers in the series through the life and career of Adamsberg, his depressed personal relations, and the not always friction-free work relation with his colleagues, such as Inspector Danglard. Where the quixotic Adamsberg takes an indirect approach and relies on his Zen-like intuition, Danglard is the rationalist.

Vargas breaks every rule of detective fiction and it is sometimes difficult to empathize with her strange characters, but she manages to win her readers by the universalism of her themes. It is best to read her novels in order (one point of criticism is that she assumes knowledge of the previous books and doesn't sufficiently fill in the background of Adamsberg for each individual book) and start with The Chalk Circle Man (L'Homme aux cercles bleus) from 1991, where we first meet Adamsberg and Danglard. A solitary man drawing blue chalk circles at night around stray objects in Paris streets manages to create a media sensation, but Adamsberg senses evil behind the act. When the corpse of a woman is found encircled in chalk, he's proven right...

[Andrea Camilleri (Photo Wikipedia)]

4. "Inspector Salvo Montalbano" by Andrea Camilleri (so far 23 novels, since 1994)
Andrea Camilleri (1925) has created one of the most popular crime series at the moment with his Inspector Montalbano series. The books have a mischievous sense of humor and a lovable hero in the compassionate, but also cynical person of Montalbano. Interestingly, Camilleri, who studied stage and film direction and worked as a director and screenwriter as well as TV producer for RAI, started writing this series when he was almost 70 years of age, and he has already managed to finish 23 volumes!

Salvo Montalbano is a detective in the police force of Vigàta, an imaginary Sicilian town, based on Camilleri's  home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast. The novels contain a substantial sprinkling of Sicilian phrases. The name Montalbano was selected by Camilleri as homage to the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, who wrote a series of crime novels about a fictional private detective called Pepe Carvalho. Like Carvalho, Montalbano is a great gourmet, and we even get some interesting recipes.

These are light and bubbly books, full of Italian sunshine, although the criminals are deadly and cruel and the police officers working for Montalbano not very efficient. In contrast to the previous novels, there is little character development, Montalbano remains the same bon vivant, who never misses a good lunch, or the delicacies prepared by his housekeeper (he lives alone, but has a girlfriend who now and then visits from the Italian mainland). So you could in principle pick any novel, although The Potter's Field excelled by winning the 2012 Crime Writers' Association International Dagger. Generally speaking, I prefer the earlier novels when Camilleri's inspiration was still fresh, so the first novel, The Shape of Water, also forms a good start. These are books that will always put you in a good mood.

[Arnaldur Indriðason (Photo Wikipedia)]

5. "Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson" by Arnaldur Indriðason (so far 15 novels, since 1997)
These novels with their stony Icelandic settings are bleak and dark books, indeed a form of Scandinavian noir. Author Arnaldur Indriðason (1961) was born in Reykjavik and after taking a history degree, worked as a journalist and freelance writer. He wrote the first book in the series with detective Erlendur in 1997, and has gone on to become the most popular writer of Iceland.

Enigmatic Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, at roughly 50, is a brilliant police officer, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who jealously guards his privacy. He keeps stubbornly brooding about his cases and is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The stories reflect the silent, glacial progress of Erendur's battle with his own inner storms. Decades ago, he got divorced, and his son and daughter still can't understand how he could abandon them. His daughter, Eva Lind, suffers from a drug addiction, his son is an alcoholic. Erlendur's investigations also provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new, from the criminal justice system, racism and immigration to genetic diseases. Interestingly, the characters in the novel also show little respect for the police and are often shown lying to them. It is the background atmosphere more than the plots which is interesting.

The novels can be read separately, although here, too, they make up something like a life story (in fact, the first two novels have not yet been translated into English), good ones are Jar City (the earliest one translated into English) and Voices. However, compared to Rankin and Mankell, Indriðason writes more superficially and never digs very deep, resulting in books which are enjoyable, but not much more than that.

[John Banville (Photo Wikipedia)]

6. "Pathologist Quirke" by Benjamin Black (so far 8 novels, since 2007)
These books are not police procedurals, but a series about a consultant pathologist in the Dublin city morgue. They have been set in 1950s Dublin, and were written by Irish literary author John Banville (1950) under the pseudonym "Benjamin Black."

John Banville is known for his precise prose style, Nabokovian inventiveness and for the dark humor of his (often immoral) narrators. He won the Booker Prize with The Sea in 2005. In 2007, Banville wrote his first crime novel, Christine Falls, set in buttoned-up 1950s Dublin as the author remembered it from his early youth, "a poverty-stricken but also beautiful city, dingy and ramshackle with a melancholy beauty." Benjamin Black's Dublin is full of fog, coal grit, whiskey fumes and stale cigarette smoke. His protagonist is a troubled man, who is hard-drinking and intolerant, in many ways a damaged person - more at ease among the dead bodies in his pathologist's lab than among other humans. He lives alone, and his depression is made worse by his longing for his dead wife's sister, or the difficult relation with his daughter Phoebe.

Banville was inspired to write these novels by Georges Simenon - not the Maigret books, but the "romans durs," such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes or Tropic Moon. Banville felt these were masterpieces of existential fiction, far better and less self-consciously literary than anything by Sartre or Camus.

They inspired Banville to try his hand at crime fiction and he has eminently succeeded. Here, again, we have a life story of the protagonist, especially in the first few novels of the series, so it is best to read them in the order of publishing, starting with Christine Falls.

[Written with some input from the Wikipedia articles about these authors and detectives]