Fiction's Global Crime Wave
Detective novels from Japan, Nigeria, Germany and Korea are pouring into the U.S. as publishers hunt for the next 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.' In pursuit of the new international man of mystery.
A Nigerian detective unravels a web of corruption, suspecting an inside job when a bomb goes off at the mansion of a rich political candidate. A Japanese physics professor gets sucked into a murder investigation targeting a single mother in Tokyo, and tangles with his old university rival. A Turkish-German investigator in Frankfurt takes on a gang of neo-fascist Croatians involved in human trafficking.
It seems a certain Swedish hacker heroine with a dragon tattoo has paved the way for a surge of international crime fiction.
Spurred by the popularity of Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's trilogy, which has sold more than 40 million copies world-wide, U.S. publishers are combing the globe for the next big foreign crime novel. While major publishing houses have long avoided works in translation, many are now courting international literary agents, commissioning sample translations, tracking best-seller lists overseas and pouncing on writers who win literary prizes in Europe and Asia. The result is a new wave of detective fiction that's broadening and redefining the classic genre.
In the coming months, Minotaur Books, a mystery-and-thriller imprint of St. Martin's, will publish new crime and suspense fiction from Iceland, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa and, naturally, Sweden. A few years ago, most of the imprint's international authors were British.
"A lot of publishers are looking at this because they don't want to miss the next Stieg Larsson," says Kelley Ragland, Minotaur's editorial director.
Some have pegged Japan as the next crime-writing hotspot. Literary agent Amanda Urban of International Creative Management, who represents Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, took on Japanese suspense and crime writer Shuichi Yoshida, a best-selling author in Japan, because she saw his novels as literary works with commercial potential. "Crime really crosses over," says Ms. Urban.
Mystery novels translate well across cultures, because they usually prize plot over literary acrobatics. The global influence of American and British crime writing has also led to the widespread adoption of familiar tropes and plot conventions: the gloomy, loner detective, clipped dialogue, the standard plot structure that opens with a body and follows the investigation. Best-selling Turkish crime writer Mehmet Murat Somer, who writes a series about a cross-dressing Istanbul detective with an Audrey Hepburn alter ego, says he's been heavily influenced by Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Penguin published a U.S. edition of his book "The Kiss Murder" in 2008, and has another translation, "The Wig Murders," under contract for 2011.
Many cultures have crime writing traditions that stretch back centuries. Early examples of Chinese crime writing date to the 18th century; Japanese writers were telling crime stories as early as the 1600s. By the 1920s and 1930s, commonly referred to as the Golden Age of detective fiction, British and American crime writers came to define the genre.
More recently, crime writers around the globe have developed their own brands of crime fiction, often blending classic suspense story telling techniques with regional themes and literary styles. In Italy, where there's been an explosion of crime fiction lately, Albanian, Serbian and Asian immigrants have started to replace mafia dons as the favorite fictional crime lords. South African crime fiction tends to be noir-tinged and ultraviolent, with nods to the lingering effects of apartheid. Most Swedish crime writing turns on political and social issues (the original Swedish title of Mr. Larsson's "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" was "Men Who Hate Women"). Latin American crime novels often center on drug trafficking and police corruption; "narco-novels" about drug lords are booming in Mexico.
Some American crime writers are now taking cues from abroad. Best-selling author Michael Connelly says that he's started bringing politics and economic issues into his novels after reading a lot of South African and European crime fiction. He's now working on a novel that touches on the mortgage crisis: an angry homeowner murders the banker who forecloses on her home. "Writers and readers in other countries tend to look at crime novels as social novels," he says.
Much of the crime fiction being imported blurs the line between genre and literary fiction. In Europe, where crime novels take top literary prizes, suspense writing is regarded as a serious literary endeavor rather than a form of mass entertainment. In Japan, top mystery writers Shuichi Yoshida and Keigo Higashino have won multiple literary awards.
Minotaur is betting big on Mr. Higashino with a first print run of 75,000 copies for his novel "The Devotion of Suspect X," which comes out in the U.S. next February.
Keith Kahla, executive editor of St. Martin's Press, described the author as the Japanese equivalent of James Patterson or Stephen King. "He's huge, and he's utterly unknown here," says Mr. Kahla, who had never heard of Mr. Higashino before he was approached by the author's agent. Just one of Mr. Higashino's books, "Naoko," had been previously translated into English and released by a small American literary press in 2004.
"The Devotion of Suspect X" is part of Mr. Higashino's popular "Galileo" series about a university physics professor with an uncanny ability to crack tough murder cases. The five books in the series have sold more than 3.2 million copies in Japan; more than a dozen of Mr. Higashino's books have been adapted into films and TV dramas in Japan. "Suspect X" starts with a murder in a Tokyo apartment complex. A single mother strangles her ex-husband, and her neighbor, a math teacher, helps cover up the crime. A cat-and-mouse game unfolds as the math genius tries to elude the detectives and his old university rival, the physics professor.
The flat, unadorned prose and police-procedural elements of "The Devotion of Suspect X" will likely appeal to fans of American crime fiction, but much about the novel remains particular to Japan, down to the detectives' exceedingly polite interrogation techniques and the murder weapon (the victim is strangled with an electrical cord attached to a kotatsu, a low, heated table common in Japanese households).
"It has a very clean, very primal, and hence very universal setup," Mr. Kahla says of the book's crossover potential.
Pantheon Books has also been snapping up Japanese crime fiction: Pantheon will release Mr. Yoshida's 2007 novel "Villain," a murder-and-manhunt tale set on the coast, this August. In Japan, Mr. Yoshida, 41, has published 10 books—four have been made into films and television dramas—and won several major literary awards for his novels, which often feature rootless, lonely characters in their 20s. He has been published elsewhere in Asia and in France but never translated into English before. "Villain" opens with the arrest of a young construction worker for the murder of an insurance saleswoman. The investigation turns up other suspects, and the moody narrative unfolds from multiple characters' perspectives. Pantheon also bought Mr. Yoshida's 2002 novel "Parade," featuring five young Tokyo roommates whose neighborhood is hit by a string of gruesome murders targeting women, which is scheduled for publication in 2012.
The flood of imported crime fiction is striking given American publishers' longstanding resistance to works in translation. Newly translated books still make up just 3% of titles released in the U.S., according to Bowker, a company that tracks the publishing industry, and translated fiction and poetry make up less than 1%. In many European countries, translated books account for 25% to 40% of titles.
A recent string of surprise best sellers has eroded the notion that Americans prefer home-grown authors. A 2008 translation of the French literary novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" from Europa Editions, an independent press dedicated to European fiction in translation, sold more than 500,000 copies here; Stieg Larsson's trilogy has sold more than six million copies in the U.S.
As focus shifts toward international hits, American editors who used to rely on international book fairs and pitches from literary agents have gotten more proactive. Some are asking translators to suss out rising literary talents and provide plot synopses for books that are creeping up best-seller lists overseas. Ms. Urban, who represents Japanese author and international literary star Haruki Murakami, learned about Mr. Yoshida's crime novels from Philip Gabriel, Mr. Murakami's American translator.
Carol Janeway, a senior editor and director of international rights at Knopf, tracks rising European literary stars by keeping an eye on Germany, which tends to lead the way in translating literature from other countries. Ms. Janeway, who also translates German novels, discovered Swedish novelists such as Hakan Nesser and Arne Dahl by reading German editions. This February, Pantheon will publish the first novel in Mr. Dahl's popular crime series, which has sold more than two million copies in Europe.
Some small presses have also found that international crime can be profitable. Revenue at Bitter Lemon Press, an international publisher that focuses on translated crime fiction, has grown roughly 12% a year since the imprint was created five years ago, says co-founder François von Hurter, who declined to provide overall sales figures. The press's top-selling authors include Italian crime writer Gianrico Carofiglio and Leonardo Padura from Cuba.
In October, New York-based independent press Melville House will launch an imprint devoted to international crime fiction, featuring mostly works in translation. Fall titles include "Cut Throat Dog," a psychological thriller about an ex-Mossad agent by Israeli novelist Joshua Sobol, and "Kismet," a 2007 novel by German writer Jakob Arjouni, which centers on an ethnically Turkish private investigator.
Translated fiction is still a hard sell, and many U.S. publishers remain wary. Foreign rights rarely exceed four or five figures, but translating a book can add tens of thousands to production costs. Marketing a book by an unknown author poses challenges, particularly if the writer doesn't speak English.
Publishers seem increasingly willing to gamble, however, especially on Nordic noir. The Stockholm-based Salomonsson Agency, which represents 36 Scandinavian writers, has sold nearly 40 books to U.S. publishers in the last three years, says co-founder Niclas Salomonsson. Twenty-one went to Alfred A. Knopf, which publishes Mr. Larsson and recently signed Jo Nesbø, who was formerly with HarperCollins. This spring, Simon & Schuster's Atria Books paid more than $500,000 for rights to four novels by Swedish crime queen Liza Marklund, whose books have sold 12 million copies world-wide.
Publishers and agents going after the next big thing say the U.S. market for Nordic noir may have reached a saturation point, and are looking farther afield. Kent Wolf of Global Literary Management, an agency that focuses on international fiction, says he's focusing on suspense novels from Asia. Mr. Wolf represents five writers from Asia, including South Korean novelist Young-ha Kim, whose spy thriller "Your Republic Is Calling You," will be published this September by Mariner Books. The novel, a "24"-like thriller, unfolds in a single day and features a North Korean spy who is activated after spending 21 years undercover in South Korea.
The explosion of crime fiction overseas could come at a price for U.S. publishers. Danny Baror, president of Baror International, which sells foreign rights for more than 100 American authors, says his sales have dropped by 25% in Germany and 15% in France and Italy in recent years because publishers there are focused on local writers. His worst market is Scandinavia, where sales have dropped by 90% since 2000: local stars like Mr. Dahl and Ms. Marklund now dominate there.
"We used to sell our entire catalogue in Sweden," Mr. Baror says. "These days, they only buy Robert Ludlum."
Write to Alexandra Alter at email@example.com