George Bernard Shaw once said that Germans had no talent for revolutions and crime fiction novels. Don’t believe a word of it. Well, at least not the bit about crime fiction. Worthy winners of the 2014 World Cup I wanted to end, as promised, with a look at crime fiction from an often overlooked source, Germany. I hope that some of what follows persuades you to dip your toe in this literary pool. In my view, it contains some world-class output. There are many good examples of krimi (crime novels) in existence and we touched on one writer, Jakob Arjounis, a few weeks back, so let’s return to him now.
Jakob Arjounis died in 2013. He was 48. His passing is a tragedy. He created the character of Kemal Kayankayawa who started his literary journey in Happy Birthday, Türke! (1985). Kemal Kayankaya says so much about modern Germany, even from a distance of nearly 30 years. He was born into an immigrant family from Turkey and is, in my view, an embodiment of Germany in the face of reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his novels, Arjounis explores immigration, religion and the concept of nationalism through a crime fiction lens. The crimes that Kemal Kayankaya investigates represent the issues that European society is dealing with today. In 1985, creating an immigrant hero, which was effectively what Kayankaya is, was something of a first for German fiction. However, to create the character as a private investigator was also extremely brave. German culture and society didn’t lend itself to the concept of a private investigator doing the work of paid officials. Why would anyone pay for that? Gun licenses are very difficult to get and collaboration with state police, a feature of American hardboiled fiction, (something which Arjounis was a huge fan of, particularly Dashiell Hammett), was not common. Arjounis tore up the rule book and came up with Kayankaya who was funny, aggressive, extremely self-confident, foreign by birth and nothing like a paid state official. German readers flocked to Kayankaya and the genre never looked back. Happy Birthday, Türke! is about the murder of a Turkish immigrant and the involvement of a drug ring. It was an immediate bestseller and has lost none of its appeal.
A particular feature of modern German crime fiction is lokalkrimi (local crime) where the setting is often in very rural, remote and essentially unfashionable locations. In a way, though this is indicative of a broader trend in crime fiction altogether. There is a plethora of crime fiction from remote locations across Europe, particularly Scandinavia and it never ceases to amaze me how much the landscape of these locations is what appeals to readers and viewers. We know what major cities like London, Berlin and New York look like. They are loud, exciting and passionate. But remote locations are stark, dramatic and often unnerving. To me, this proves two things. Firstly that texture (our old friend) is vitally important, and second, that crime fiction can have mass appeal when translated and in that regard, Scandinavian crime fiction is the best example I can offer. As an author published in translation I am particularly excited about this, although I do worry that the trend of translation is dangerous. The success of writers like Stieg Larrson has created an unsustainable desire to publish European crime writers in translation and I think this is a particular problem for German crime fiction.
Krimi is extremely popular in its domestic market and there are myriad fan clubs, festivals and radio slots devoted to the genre. The problem though is that krimi, and particularly lokalkrimi doesn’t always translate well. Not in a linguistic sense, but more in a cultural one. The more regional and remote the story and the more local the nuance, the harder it is to translate culturally. Jakob Arjounis’ Kemal Kayankayawa works because it is familiar in setting (Frankfurt) and style (hardboiled). I am not convinced that for a lot of lokalkrimi the provincial nature of the setting and the difficult and very local dialect is something that publishers have fully thought through. What worked so well for Scandinavian crime fiction has not seen the same level of success for its German counterpart. Typically, English is the last language that krimi is translated into, whereas for Scandinavian and Nordic crime fiction it is the first. In the US the numbers of German language novels translated into English has been traditionally low, generally under 100 each year. There are a number of factors driving this, from the lack of German translation skills (it is a surprisingly shallow talent pool) to the association of German writing with classic literature rather than suspense-driven crime stories. There is also the concern of krimi being, well, too German.
That said, as Arjounis proved, models, genres and previously accepted ways of doing things are there to be torn down. This is something that German writer Nele Neuhaus is hoping is true. She is one of the most widely read and top-selling crime novelists in Germany and is currently attempting to crack both the US and UK markets with Snow White Must Die, a book that sold over a million copies at home. The novel is faithful to the lokalkrimi style and is part of a police procedural series featuring the characters Oliver von Bodenstein and Pia Kirchhoff. With worldwide book sales of close to 4 million, and publishing deals in 20 countries, Nele Neuhaus is building a powerful reputation, a global following and is doing wonders for German crime fiction in general. Her work has international appeal and could never be accused of being too German.
There are many excellent examples of other writers who are doing the same, and more importantly, they are proving that crime fiction in translation is sustainable and much more than a trend. As an introduction to the krimi genre, I would start with Jakob Arjounis and then widen your search into more lokalkrimi writers. Worthy winners of the 2014 World Cup, modern Germany is confident, cool and vibrant.
So it seems, is its crime fiction. Enjoy.