Opening new worlds: Mysteries in translation

For those of us who love mystery novels, the quest for the next exciting detective or, better yet, the next series, is endlessly diverting. As it happens, this is a wonderful age for us, with the advent of many new absolutely top-notch works and series from abroad, best-sellers in their own countries, being released here in translation from their original languages. Whatever your area of interest, from Amsterdam to Tokyo, there is a novel for you!

The classic Maigret mysteries, by Georges Simenon, a Belgian writing in French, are the forerunners of this trend. Maigret, who appears in almost 80 novels, enjoys the pleasures of life as he pursues criminals. Another early example is The Fairy Gunmother, also originally in French, which established Daniel Pennac in France as a preeminent comic-thriller writer. His detective, named Malaussène, works as a professional scapegoat, taking the blame for others’ mistakes in Belleville, a racially diverse section of Paris. A series of madcap adventures ensue.

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, was originally written in Spanish and was a runaway success in Spain. Combining Renaissance art and chess in a stylish murder mystery, this book will appeal to those who enjoy The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. More recently, mystery readers are abuzz over the works of the Swedish author Henning Mankell, which are now available in English from the start of the series. His detective, Kurt Wallander, has been described as “gloriously human” and the stories he appears in are riveting (note to film fans: the Inspector Wallander fan site mentions that Kenneth Branagh will play Wallander in the BBC adaptation!). Another European newcomer, Saskia Noort, offers The Dinner Club, set in Amsterdam and translated from Dutch. Noort has gotten international attention for her dark mix of murder and power plays within the apparently safe haven of genteel suburbia.

Moving a little further afield on the globe, we come to The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin, set in Moscow and translated from Russian. Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Chkhartishvili, who was born in the Republic of Georgia. His investigator Erast Fandorin appears in eleven novels (six of which have been translated into English, with fans eagerly awaiting the rest). Erast, who lives in late 19th century Moscow, is a bit of a dandy, and his narrative is companionably prissy and entirely entertaining. Also, if you read Russian, Akunin’s site has the full-text of ten of his novels freely available online!

Asia brings us some wonderful examples of mysteries now available in English. Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto was first released in Japan in 1961, but wasn’t translated into English until much later. This is a police procedural (it deals with the actual steps that are taken to solve the crime) and also depicts a snapshot of post WWII Japan, some aspects of which are now gone forever. In fact, according to one source, the Japanese government had banned mystery stories during the war, and Matsumoto is credited with restoring detective fiction to modern Japan. Another fascinating contemporary Japanese writer being translated into English is Miyuki Miyabe, whose novel All She Was Worth was voted “Best Mystery” in Japan in 1992 and several other more recent works are available. She is known for the psychological complexity of her work.

Finally, two Chinese books, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and Judge Dee at Work, translated by Robert van Gulik, are billed as “translations of authentic 18th-century Chinese detective novels”. They are fun reads, and worth a look!

This list, of course, represents only the tip of the iceberg. An article in Library Journal (“Crime in Translation,” December 15, 2006) offers some further suggestions, and you may want to keep abreast of the latest titles available at the sites of the leading publishers of mysteries in translation, Bitter Lemon Press and Soho Press. Also, the wonderful staff at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop and our very own Seattle Public Library librarians and staff are always glad to assist and make suggestions. Happy detecting! ~ Ann G.

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