NOTE: This essay is NOT about Fred Vargas, though I could have digressed to discuss the retitling of the book in English translation, or the fact that the French label the book 'policier' without any evident discomfort. Nor is it a comment on the Daily Telegraph's book pages (after all, I've left my own hard-boiled mark on them) but merely a reflection of the fact that their crossword is the posh commuter's puzzle of choice.
This essay was originally written in 2007, when I was asked for something controversial by a website who then declined to run it because it was, uh, controversial. I was then going to present it at a festival, but family circumstances intervened. The essay then went through a highly-chequered trans-Atlantic journey to another literary website, before settling back into my computer only to be revived now. It remains current, but I suppose one could've written this same lament at any time in the past 50 years (or more) and will be able to do it any time in the foreseeable future. And this shouldn't be controversial by then.
Although crime fiction is generally reserved for ‘ghetto’ columns in British newspapers, the Guardian, which runs two of them, also gives individual novels more space. Which made their review of Fred Vargas’ WASH THIS BLOOD CLEAN FROM MY HAND all the more perplexing. The reviewer, Carrie O’Grady, began by calling Vargas a ‘rising star within the narrow field of good, intellectual crime novels’. She then mentioned that Vargas had written 14 novels, which raises some questions as to just how she defines ‘rising’.
That is probably nit-picking, but some of her other definitions, particularly of the words ‘good’ and ‘intellectual’, are even more bizarre. The comma between them indicates they are being used in parallel, meaning good AND intellectual, ergo, that crime novels which are ‘intellectual’ are ‘good’. She has already pre-judged the field by saying it is ‘narrow’.This is the product of the inevitable syllogism of all genre fiction: if it’s too good, it cannot be crime fiction at all. One might have thought this was debunked neatly at least sixty years ago by Raymond Chandler, in one essay in the Atlantic Monthly, but such debunking has continued to be necessary, sadly, on a regular basis ever since.
Indeed, O’Grady could have been echoing the words of any number of 1930s middle-brow poetasters as she proceeded to encapsulate her literary theory of crime fiction neatly into one telling sentence:
‘After all, detective stories have a tendency to be rather samey, once you’ve read your first few dozen; surely an Estonian puzzle, you reason, would necessarily be more puzzling than a plain old English one.‘
Although she writes in the Guardian, O’Grady has defined what I call the Telegraph Crossword Theory of Crime Literature. Fictional crimes, including murders, exist solely as ‘puzzles’ to be solved. Once solved, the world is meant to be returned to its comfortable orderly state, where everyone knows their place. That comfort is why ‘cozies’ are called ‘cozies’. Let me stress that I don’t mean this to be in any way a criticism of Ms. Vargas, whose work was deserving of more sensible praise from the Guardian, or of any type of detective story in particular.
But read that italicised passage again. ‘A ha!’ one might exclaim, were one the hero of a ‘good, intellectual’ crime novel. Ignore ‘a tendency to be rather samey’. If something ‘has a tendency’ to being ‘rather’ anything, can it really be anything at all? Grant O’Grady the point that there is no reason why an Estonian puzzle would ’necessarily’ be more puzzling than a plain old English one’. But what does that prove, apart from her own innate Xenophobia?
She has, apparently, discovered that translated works are foreign. And although she confesses to being impressed with Vargas’ ‘marvellous way with landscape‘, (after all, the French landscape makes for marvellous English holidays!), it never occurs to her that it’s not the Estonian ’puzzle’ but rather the Estonian landscape, Estonian characters, and even, shudder to think, the Estonian perspective, that might make an Estonian crime novel captivating. The paradox which O’Grady ignores, if not inverts, is that it is the puzzles that are ‘rather samey‘, not the foreign writers.
She even seems mesmerised by the way foreign languages are different. Indeed, when O’Grady mentions that Vargas’ books are ‘translated‘, she puts the word in inverted commas, as if warning about a curious and not quite acceptable practice. She explains: ‘fans of crime fiction are always hearing about thrilling masterworks published in Spanish, or Finnish, or Estonian: the more foreign the language, the more exotic and enticing the book seems.’ I’m not sure which languages are ‘more’ foreign than others, but you might ask the British Crime Writers’ Association, who declared translations ineligible for their Golden Dagger award immediately after Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason won it. They, like O’Grady, definitely prefer Etonian to Estonian.
So why then does O’Grady like Vargas’ detective, Jean-Baptiste Adamsburg? Because he is ‘much less an old grouch’ like Maigret’s Simenon, and much more like ‘our own Adam Dalglish', PD James’ 'sensitive and philosophical sleuth’ (her description). Indeed, that may have been Vargas’ intention, since the name Adamsburg serves as hommage to James, in the same way that his first name carries both Old and New Testament allusions, which must make him philosophical, if not automatically sensitive. For the sensitive detective, streets are clean, not mean, and if they get dirty, his job is to make them spic and span once again.
Philosophical is, after all, only one small step from intellectual, just ask Alain De Botton. And remember, only ‘intellectual’ crime novels are among that ’narrow’ group that are ‘good’. But in O’Grady’s literary world intellectualism is simply an ability to reduce the world to puzzles. The puzzles gets solved by the time the train arrives back in Tunbridge Wells, the paper gets taken home to be thrown away (lest someone who has not paid for their own get a hold of it) and as the intellectual settles down in his Shangri-la with tea, pipe, slippers and a nice concert on the wireless. All is well with the world.
Imagine the Guardian reaction to a critic who argued against translated fiction, or contended that reading Harry Mullish, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Per-Olov Enquist, Leonardo Sciasia, or Mario Vargas Llosa, much less Henning Mankell, somehow short-changed ‘our own’ fiction! So why would the Guardian assign this book to someone whose tastes are so out of touch with their own readership, and much closer to the Little England mentality of the Daily Mail?
In the end, O’Grady’s problem isn’t as much with translation as with a genre whose fiction aspires to reflect real worlds, whatever their nationalities. So little of this argument is likely to make sense to her. Nor would very much of Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Jefferson Parker, Robert Crais, Don Winslow, Alan Furst, Thomas Cook, George Pelecanos, or Richard Stark. Not even if translated from their original American. Perhaps Graham Hurley, John Harvey, Ian Rankin, or Val McDermid could be translated from modern English into the post-Victorian puzzlese with which she’s more comfortable. No, that’s unfair. For Carrie O’Grady, those books wouldn’t be difficult. After all, they do quite tend to be rather samey to a degree, don’t they?