Sanantonio Mondadori

Dominique Jeannerod, Queen’s University, Belfast

Jean-Marie Le Ray, Translator, Rome-Paris

With our thanks to Gianni Rizzoni and Daniel Magennis

Italy was not the first country to translate and adapt the investigations of Detective San-Antonio, the French bestseller whose 183 novels have sold more than an estimated 100 million copies in his country of origin. Initial translations into English, in 1954, did not meet with any success and faded almost without trace. San-Antonio had greater success in Francoist Spain, where translations were published, and sometimes reissued, from the early 1960’s. The first translation of the Italian “Sanantonio” was not until 1970, the first title being La Gioconda in blu (Pass me the Mona Lisa). What sets Italy apart from other countries is the large number of translations published there and their high quality. 120 of the 183 original novels were translated there, as well as two comics. Including reissues and reprints, the total number of San-Antonio books published in Italy from 1970 to 2015 amounts to 190. Throughout these 45 years—by no means uninterrupted— San-Antonio was picked up by five different Italian publishing houses. The most significant of these was Mondadori who, between July 1970 and the end of 1977, published 90 original translations at a rate of one every month.

The present article tries to put into perspective San-Antonio’s apparent success in Italy. It seeks to reassess the Italian San-Antonian corpus, following the recently published book San-Antonio International (Artiaga & Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020) which challenged the narrative of San-Antonio’s success abroad, a narrative that so often blurs the realities of its reception. Far from being an unqualified success around the world, the story of San-Antonio in translation takes the form of a series of mishaps and commercial disasters. In fact, the number of Italian editions imply a success that appears to be at odds with an otherwise depressing worldwide tendency; an exception to the observations made in all the other countries investigated in this study.

Certainly, several valid explanations to this Italian idiosyncrasy are highlighted in the book, not least the exceptional skills shown by the Italian translators, with their ear for French slang and their flair for finding equivalences in the Italian language. Success in Italy was further bolstered by the long tradition of circulation of French popular fiction in Mediterranean countries; the cultural proximity between France and Italy, reinforced in the 1970s by Franco-Italian cinematic co-productions, most notably comedies and crime films, two genres to which the universe of San-Antonio owes a great deal. The covers of the Italian editions of San-Antonio recall the striking figure of Jean-Paul Belmondo. San-Antonio also responded to the wide demand for entertaining and “light” literature and, perhaps the most significant factor of all: with Mondadori the San-Antonio novels found in Italy what had been the key to their popularity in France: A powerful publisher that dominated the popular fiction market. Fleuve Noir in France, Mondadori in Italy. In many ways the more prestigious, better established and more internationally connected, Mondadori offered a better platform than Fleuve Noir. So ideal, in fact, that San-Antonio in Italy may have become a victim of its own success. After all, what series’ characters can keep pace with a new novel released every month for 90 straight months?

This was the rhythm adopted by publisher Fayard (“Le Livre Populaire”), for the original Fantômas series by Souvestre & Allain. But it had lasted “only” for 32 novels, from February 1911 to September 1913. The 1970’s Italian public was offered more than three times this number of San-Antonio novels for almost an entire decade.

Is some modicum of readers’ fatigue not to be expected? By 1978, Mondadori had called it quits and handed San-Antonio over to two successive publishing houses, Editoriale ERRE and Edizioni Rosa & Nero. Neither would ever recapture the early commercial success of Sanantonio. Both houses were directed by Gianni Rizzoni, who had played a decisive role in Mondadori’s translations of San-Antonio. Of the eight translators who were responsible for translating San-Antonio to Italian between 1970 and 1986, Rizzoni ranks second behind only Bruno Just Lazzari for the quantity of texts translated.[1] However, Rizzoni’s activities in the promotion of San-Antonio in Italy far exceed translation, and it is no exaggeration to see in him the series’ main Italian “fixer”. In a 1986 article in Il Corriere della Sera, Alfredo Barberis presented Rizzoni to its readers, on the occasion of his second creation of a publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) with a view to once more attempt to revive Sanantonio’s fortunes[2].

The publication of “Champagne per tutti” (…) celebrates the return of Frédéric Dard, Sanantonio under his pen name, the most phenomenal mystery writer of recent years. In a totally invented language – a mixture of Rabelais, Céline and Merlin the cook – which his Italian translator-tutor, Gianni Rizzoni, makes particularly funny thanks to his entertaining glottological research, Sanantonio tells of a Roman adventure of Béru & Co. with a cocktail as improbable as it is irresistible of scientists, light-hearted girls and mafiosi. Just a detail: for the first time the author also addresses his well-known digressions (which are not really in the style of Montaigne or Alain) to a hypothetical female reader. Such is the power of feminism.

By calling him a translator-tutor (i.e. also a guide, protector, support), Barberis finally chose to blow Gianni Rizzoni’s cover, and to reveal to readers of the Corriere della Sera that he in fact is the man behind Sanantonio’s success in Italy; the mediator between the commissioner and his readership, the intermediary without whom Italians likely would have never heard of this French detective, and the man who has invested the most in his adventures over the years. Above all, Rizzoni is cemented as the “father” of Sanantonio’s language in Italian, and the true “memory” of the Italian Sanantonio.

Gianni Rizzoni was a professor of French literature, who had written on Baudelaire, Delacroix, and the Dreyfus Affair. He translated Signé Furax, a trilogy by humourists Pierre Dac and Francis Blanche, and a crime trilogy by master of slang Auguste Le Breton (the author of Riffifi) published with Mondadori, in the Giallo series.[3] For the screen, Rizzoni adapted the Italian version of Bertrand Blier’s Valseuses. His name, however, is not mentioned in any of the first three Sanantonio books published from July to September 1970: La Gioconda in blu (Pass me the Mona Lisa), La quarta zucca è bianca (Don’t eat the instructions) and Sanà fra i duri (Gentlemen!). The translation/adaptation (Traduzione e adapamento dal francese) is credited to Jean Barbet and Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, a French teacher and a young Italian teacher.

In her 1990 dissertation on “Il caso San-Antonio”, Luciana Cisbani, discovered that when Mondadori bought the rights to publish the San-Antonio series, Alberto Tedeschi, director of the Crime Series submitted them to Gianni Rizzoni, who ended up completely rewriting  them. Rizzoni described this process in an interview with Cisbani :

… they had struggled to translate literally, they had looked for literary solutions for each sentence, but the result was very heavy. (…) So I rewrote the whole translation and anchored the use of certain slang terms. Notably because neither Pisani Futacchi nor Barbet had any idea what Italian slang was, while I had gained some knowledge of terminology in the matter, from my experience as a translator of Auguste Le Breton.

Indeed, having under his belt translations of Rififi sulla Senna (Du rififi à Paname), Il Clan dei siciliani (Le Clan des Siciliens) and Brigata antigang (Brigades anti-gangs), Rizzoni had developed an extensive Italian-French vocabulary based on Le Breton’s slang. The fourth San-Antonio translation published by Mondadori, Siamo logici perdiana (Faut être logique) was entrusted to Bruno Just Lazzari, a “Triestinian ex-cavalry officer” who went on to become the most prolific Italian translator of Sanantonio, with 85 translated novels, as well as 2 comics, over nearly 10 years. Gianni Rizzoni’s name as a translator of Sanantonio appeared for the first time in January 1971, on the seventh translated novel, Il filo per tagliare il burro (The Thread That Cuts the Butter).

Rizzoni recently gave us more details on how the work was divided for subsequent Italian translations.

I must admit that – as the documentation indicates – first as an editorial manager, then as a collection manager, I used a lot the translations of my friend Lazzari, who had an extraordinary gift, that of fluidity. The narration, with him, was flowing freely. But this actually had very little to do – nothing at all – with any “translation strategy”. Let’s just say that I was the expert on French culture; at the same time, I was interested both in French slang (which Lazzari did not know) and in Italian slang. Having already translated the novels of Le Breton, I felt I could create neologisms and bizarre constructions to accommodate San-Antonio’s style: the Italian language of Sanantonio was my own. Bruno would translate the novels at full speed, in just a few days – that was one of the main attributes for which we liked so much working with him – and then I would step into the editing by inserting or emphasizing the Sanantonian language and stylistic features. I’ve always written the blurbs on the back covers in a Sanantonio style.

This echoes his 1989 interview with Luciana Cisbani :

with one or two exceptions, I have always revised all of Sanantonio’s Italian translations. (…) When the translator translated in another way a typical Bérurier sentence or one of the many bird names of Pinaud, I tried to standardise the term or the sentence with reference to the more traditional form in use. This, chiefly because the logic of these kinds of repetitive novels is to always provide the reader with new elements while maintaining a series of recurring gags and terms, which create an atmosphere of familiarity.

Rizzoni’s concern for continuity in the language used is one that guided his translation of Sanantonio. While San-Antonio in French rarely revisited the “neologisms” he created, the Italian translation was able to build a basic vocabulary that spanned the entire series that was identifiable to its readership, thus creating over time the idiosyncratic Italian language of Sanantonio.

Despite all this, it is quite clear from 1978 that Sanantonio’s popularity in Italy was in decline. The falling numbers of original translations offers an indication.

  • 1978: 7 original translations, including 1 “Hors Série” (Le vacanze di Berù / The holidays of Bérurier)
  • 1979: 7 original translations, including 2 “Hors Série” (Berù I ° il leone d´Africa + Sessualità / Béru-Béru + Sexuality)
  • 1980: 2 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (Il galateo secondo Berù / The standing according to Bérurier)
  • 1981: 4 original translations, including 1 “Hors-Série” (La saga dei Cojon / Les Con)
  • 1982: 1 original translation
  • 1986: 3 original translations
  • 2001 – 2004: 6 original translations in 4 years

From 2000 to 2004, the publishers Casa Editrice Le Lettere published 6 original translations (by the couple Domitilla Marchi and Enzo Fileno Carabba) and a reprint of a translation by Lazzari and Rizzoni. Between 2013 and 2015, Edizioni E / O published 17 reprints of translations by Bruno Just Lazzari (assisted by Gianni Rizzoni), bringing the total number of Sanantonio releases in Italy to 190 (120 original editions, 68 reprints and 2 comics, published by Mondadori in 1973 (Olé! Sanantonio) and 1974 (Sanantonio in Scozia), respectively, both translated by Bruno Just Lazzari).

1980, the year after Mondadori decided to give up the series, marked the turning point for Sanantonio: a single novel in the series came out, in May, Bagni & Massacri, in addition to one novel outside the series, Il galateo secondo Berù. Around that time, a survey was conducted to celebrate the first 10 years of publication of San-Antonio in Italy (1970-1980). Apparently only 98 readers responded, and keeping this low response in mind, here are a few statistics which can be extrapolated from their responses.

A majority of respondents (88%) were either teenagers or under 40 years old; 72% were men; most were living in northern Italy (65%); 3% lived abroad: the Italian Sanantonio was also distributed in Switzerland, Germany, Australia and Canada, and in Arab countries (where volumes were often seized because of the “obscene nature of the covers”), Latin America, Belgium and the United States.

Predictably for such a cohort, readers rated their loyalty to San-Antonio’s adventures at 95%. Readers main motivations for reading San-Antonio were first the humorous content (84%), then the language (80%), and lastly because of the Giallo (crime) content (43%)…

Despite the support of a commercially robust publishing house and an outstanding team of translators, San-Antonio collapsed in Italy after 10 years. What explanations can we find and what lessons can we learn from them?

First of all, San-Antonio was possibly victim of a kind of bottleneck effect. By publishing practically one book per month for several years against three or four books per year for the French San-Antonio, soon the French production could not keep up the pace with Italian translations’ rhythm, resulting in an “exhaustion” of new material to translate.

The Italian reprints of the first volumes translated were a solution to keep pace with monthly publications as much as possible. At first it worked, but then reprint sales started to decline, dropping from monthly print runs of around 30,000 copies at the peak of the series, to 8 or 10,000 (still not a bad figure, although not enough). At that time, the main problem for Editoriale ERRE was inventory management of around 150,000 volumes (since the sale of novels in newsstands required a large inventory), in other words, significant management of costs.

Faced with declining sales, the collection’s accounts began to fall into the red. Any publishing house must pass on a share of overhead costs on each product but, above all, it cannot afford to waste its time and resources on a product that is difficult to relaunch, except by investing heavily in promotion (i.e. a cost recovery estimated at around 3-400 million lire for the time, more or less 150-210,000 euros of today). The only alternative would have been for all remaining prints to be remaindered. To spare San-Antonio this indignity, Gianni Rizzoni decided to throw everything he had in the fight.

When Mondadori’s senior management decided to stop the publication, Rizzoni managed, albeit with difficulty, to convince the company and its director, Leonardo Mondadori, to allow him to create the publishing house Editorial ERRE, whose sole purpose was to ensure the survival of Sanantonio, where he was director of collections.

While responsibilities for the printing of volumes, warehousing and distribution remained with Mondadori (which could thus better control the flow and still derive some profit from it), Rizzoni assumed all of the entrepreneurial risk.

Rizzoni then left Mondadori to move to Fabbri, while being authorized to retain his editorial autonomy and being responsible for managing the translation rights contracts (mainly entrusted to Lazzari), proofreading, printing, as well as storage, distribution, promotion, etc. At this point, Rizzoni had become the one-man band on whom Sanantonio’s survival depended.

Faced with the ever-pressing issue of unwanted stocks, Rizzoni came up with the idea of ​​combining the unsold items with the summer promotions of Rizzoli magazines, in particular “L’Europeo” and “Playboy“.

But in the end, none of this was enough and Rizzoni’s impressive personal commitment became increasingly impossible to justify and in 1983 he too decided to throw the towel.

Il Mondo, in its September 5, 1983 edition published an article titled “Sanantonio è KO”. It alludes to another development which could have prolonged the life of Sanantonio after all: over its last few months, the series had been kept on a drip in the hope that RAI (the Italian public radio-television) would broadcast a radio-play based on Sanantonio (for which contracts had apparently already been signed), as part of an international production. This venture, which had the possibility of allowing the series to survive, ultimately fell through.

But Gianni Rizzoni still held the translation rights. He decided in 1985 to try once more, with yet another publishing house (Edizioni Rosa & Nero) and a new formula: neater, large format books, printed on better paper. The Sanantonio books were no longer to be distributed in newsstands but in bookstores, with photographic clichés on the cover. This was all accompanied by large-scale advertising campaigns in the main newspapers of the time.

This new venture found support with some journalists, such as Alfredo Barberis, who wrote:

Dard-Sanantonio is far from being as “naive” as he wants us to believe: he is a cultivated writer, who has his roots in the learned tradition of the buffoons of French and European literature.

And again, Gianni Rizzoni did not shy away from the venture, getting directly involved not only in terms of editorial, intellectual, translation work, but also financially, investing a lot of his personal resources and time in the publishing of the novels of Sanantonio. It cost more than it earned, leading Gianni Rizzoni to conclude:

I ended up completely losing interest in Sanantonio…. A kind of exhaustion after so much effort and fatigue …

This disinterest and fatigue, coupled also with his other editorial responsibilities (editorial director at Fabbri, managing director of Sole 24 Ore editions, editorial director at Giorgio Mondadori) resulted in Gianni Rizzoni never really claiming paternity for his invention of the Italian language of Sanantonio. But even if San-Antonio is hardly read today in Italy, it would be interesting to rediscover and study this language. And beyond it, to reflect on the invention of a popular transalpine language for the communication between French and Italian cultural industries in the second half of the twentieth century, and thus on an original contribution to an imagined European Community.

To discover more about the Italian Sanantonio, see http://www.commissariosanantonio.it/

San-Antonio in Russia : http://san-a.ru

For a selection of translated works see :http://francois.kersulec.free.fr/

For a timeline of San-Antonio translations worldwide see : https://ahssqub.padlet.org/djeannerod/arahc6wt83z6gvhc

See also: San-Antonio International – Circulation et imaginaire d’une série policière française, by Loïc Artiaga, Dominique Jeannerod (dir.), PULIM, 2020: http://www.pulim.unilim.fr/index.php/notre-catalogue/fiche-detaillee?task=view&id=958


[1] The other six translators were Jean Barbet, Giuseppina Pisani Futacchi, Ersilia Borri, Guy Kaufmann, Gigi Rosa and Salvatore Di Rosa

[2] Corriere della Sera, Wednesday, May 28, 1986. Alfredo Barberis has conducted interviews with Pier Paolo Pasolini for the daily Il Giorno and with Primo Levi for Il Corriere della sera, and directed several newspapers, as well as the literary magazine Millelibri published by Giorgio Mondadori, until 1993. He is also a crime fiction specialist.

[3] Auguste Le Breton, Brigata Anti-Gang, Giallo Mondadori, n. 1085, 16 novembre 1969, 250 Lire


A concise history of Cuban crime fiction

Emilio J. Gallardo-Saborido

Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

Jesús Gómez-de-Tejada

Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL)

Universidad de Sevilla

In 2015, the Princess of Asturias Award for Literature winner was the Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes. The jury’s report highlighted, among other achievements, his interest in listening to “popular voices and the lost stories of others” and described his work as “a superb adventure of dialogue and freedom”. For crime fiction lovers, the granting of this award was a real boost since that genre had been questioned many times in different academic circles. Besides, although Padura has cultivated various genres, he stands out especially for being the creator of a series of detective novels starring an unusual hero or anti-hero, Mario Conde.

From his initial appearance in the 1991 novel Pasado Perfecto, Conde will be the key element around which Padura turns the tables on the crime novels written mainly in Cuba during the previous two decades. His critical, sometimes disappointed, but also lucid vision invites readers to review Cuba’s past and present, starting precisely in such complicated years as the early 1990s.

Even though crime fiction had not been profusely cultivated in Cuba before the revolutionary triumph of 1959, some texts deserve at least a brief mention. In 1926, the Social magazine published the collective novel Fantoches. Its plot is focused on the attempted murder of a young woman from a wealthy family. It is interesting to highlight how this work, written by eleven different authors, close to the grupo minorista (Alfonso Hernández Catá, Carlos Loveira, Jorge Mañach, etc.) to a greater or lesser extent, constitutes an avant-garde detective literary entertainment. In fact, it chronologically precedes a similar initiative carried out by members of the London Detection Club, such as Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers, captured in the 1931 novel The Floating Admiral.

Among the pioneers of Cuban detective fiction, the work of Lino Novás Calvo also stands out, especially known for the literary biography El negrero. Vida de Pedro Blanco Fernández de Trava (1932) and the non-generic volumes of short stories La luna nona y otros cuentos (1942) and Cayo Canas (1946). Between 1948 and 1952, Novás Calvo published eight crime stories in the Havana magazine Bohemia, of which he was editor-in-chief. These stories are characterised by a noirish flavour, a modality that he had defended in theoretical articles and his collected letters with Professor José Antonio Portuondo –another of the fundamental voices in the conceptualisation of the Cuban detective genre–. In addition, he gives a leading role to crime news and places the narrative focus on the revenge of the victims against their repressors. In 1991, José María Fernández Pequeño compiled these stories in the volume 8 narraciones policiales.

After the symbolic date of 1959, we had to wait until 1971 to find a detective novel that would achieve a broad resonance and serve as a pillar for future productions within the genre. We are referring to Enigma para un domingo, by Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña, a book awarded in the 1969 Cirilo Villaverde Novel Competition. Strongly inspired by the American hard-boiled novel, Cárdenas knew how to combine this foreign influence with the ideological defence of the revolutionary project. From now on, a new version of crime fiction (both detective and espionage –or counterespionage, as it is called in Cuba) would rapidly develop, adopting an apologetic tone. Thus, throughout the early 1970s, we witnessed a singular phenomenon: the creation and evolution of a new genre, that we could label as “Cuban revolutionary crime fiction”, sponsored by various government bodies (through literary competitions or mass editions). Furthermore, a corpus of critical texts that defined the genre’s features appeared at the same time, or even earlier, as the publication of the most representative works of this generic modality; works that, indeed, multiplied quantitatively in an outburst that had its epicentre in the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, this multiplication of pieces contributed to its quality reduction. Another reason for the impoverishment of this literature was the excessive weight given to the ideological message. Nevertheless, among this extensive post-revolutionary production, some authors showed enhanced literary skills, as is noticed in novels such as Joy (1978) by Daniel Chavarría and Y si muero mañana (1980) by Luis Rogelio Nogueras.

Present-day contemporary Cuban crime production is characterised by both the survival of the revolutionary and the emergence of neo-noir fiction. For its part, the revolutionary modality prolongs, in essence, the features outlined since the early 1970s and privileged in the competition Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution (sponsored by the Home Office), which since then has acted as one of the main instances of legitimisation and is still in force today. Among the authors faithful to this trend, Leonelo Abello Mesa stands out, having won the competition several times with titles such as Miami: otra vez (2006), Misión en Langley (2007) and Nieve en La Habana (2010).

Alongside this continuous revolutionary detective novel, a crime fiction linked to the Spanish-American neo-noir trend emerged and developed that, in Cuba, was initiated by Leonardo Padura Fuentes by creating the National Revolutionary Police officer previously mentioned, Mario Conde. His kinship with the neo-noir side of the genre places him alongside other detectives in Spanish and Latin American literature, such as Héctor Belascoarán, by the Mexican narrator Paco Ignacio Taibo II; Heredia, by the Chilean Ramón Díaz Eterovic; or Pepe Carvalho, by the Spanish Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. This aspect would grow, especially in the 1980s in the Hispanic peninsular and Latin American sphere, when the revolutionary model was still maintained in Cuba, albeit on the wane. The main features of neo-noir fiction allow the reader to look into the depths of the most corrupt and muddied side of the societies in which the crime stories are set. These plots usually place readers in front of a dark and perverse authority, ultimately responsible for the torn situation of, generally, a large city that is harassed by the economic and political upper spheres of the State.

Mario Conde made his name in the tetralogy “Las cuatro estaciones” (1991-1998), in which he had to solve four crimes committed in a Havana marked by corruption and famine in the crucial year of 1989. Subsequently, the trajectory of this character persists through five more titles: Adiós, Hemingway (2001) and La cola de la serpiente (2001; 2011), La neblina del ayer (2005), Herejes (2013) and La transparencia del tiempo (2018). While La cola de la serpiente adds a new case set in the recurring year 1989, the rest of the titles are projected forward in time to the 21st century. These works present various stories where the detective and historical genres intertwine with the life adventures of an increasingly aged Conde, who, having resigned from his job as a police officer, works as an old bookseller and occasional detective.

Other names such as Amir Valle and Lorenzo Lunar Cardedo also enrich the Cuban neo-noir scene. Valle’s biting novels comprise the “Descenso a los infiernos” series (2001-2008), which, through five titles, tells the story of the adventures of the police officer Alain Bec and the old delinquent Alex Vargas in the marginal neighbourhood of Centro Havana. On the other hand, Lunar’s raw vision is reflected in the trilogy “El Barrio en llama” (Que en vez de infierno encuentres gloria, 2003; La vida es un tango, 2005; Usted es la culpable, 2006), set in a suburb of the provincial city of Santa Clara, a series of novels starring police lieutenant Leo Martín. Finally, other writers and animators of the genre, such as Rebeca Murga, Rafael Grillo and Vladimir Hernández, stand out on the current Cuban scene.

In conclusion, the trajectory of Cuban crime fiction shows some distinctive features and others that are common to other Latin American countries. At the beginning of the 20th century, crime fiction, in a relatively incipient way, encountered its first exponents on the island. In this pioneering phase, the influences of the British tradition were mixed with the hard-boiled style, both marked by their desire to adapt the foreign patterns to the island’s atmosphere. In the 70s of the last century, the revolutionary, strongly ideologized, style emerged, which, after a solid hegemony for two decades, from the 90s onwards, shared the stage with the neo-noir style. This last version of the genre in Cuba has grown in line with its treatment in other Hispanic spheres, to the point of having acquired a significant national and international projection.

Further readings:

Braham, Persephone. 2004. Crime against the State. Crime against Persons. Detective Fiction in Cuba and Mexico. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fernández Pequeño, José M. 1994. Cuba: la narrativa policial entre el querer y el poder (1973-1988).Santiago de Cuba: Editorial Oriente.

Gallardo-Saborido, E. J., Gómez-de-Tejada, J. 2017. La literatura policial del Bloque del Este en la revista cubana Enigma (1986-1988). Revista de Letras, 57.2: 53-71.

García Talaván, Paula. 2014. La novela neopolicial latinoamericana: una revuelta ético-estética del género. Cuadernos Americanos, 2.148: 63-85.

Padura, Leonardo. 2000. Modernidad, posmodernidad y novela policial. La Habana: Ediciones Unión.

Sánchez Zapatero, Javier, Martín Escribà, Àlex. 2014. La novela criminal cubana. Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica, 40: 171-189.

Simpson, A. S. 1990. Detective Fiction from Latin America. Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Uxó, Carlos. 2021. El género policial en Cuba. Novela policial revolucionaria, neopolicial y teleseries. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien: Peter Lang. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3726/b17689

Wilkinson, Stephen. 2006. Detective Fiction in Cuban Society. Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien: Peter Lang.

Translated by Laura Cabeza Muñoz

Acknowledgments:

The authors of this piece would like to mention the kind contribution of the Instituto Universitario de Estudios sobre América Latina (IEAL), University of Seville, Spain, in relation to its translation from the Spanish original version. A shorter version of this text (in Spanish) has been used as script for a podcast of the series “Háblame de CSIC”: https://delegacion.andalucia.csic.es/hablame-de-csic/. We gratefully acknowledge that the cover of the magazine Misterio proceeds from an original from the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, Havana.


Three Notes on Argentine Crime Fiction

Hernán Maltz

Universidad de Buenos Aires, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas

With thanks to Ciara Gorman (Queen’s University, Belfast)

Argentine literature could be characterized as peripheral in the global domain (at least compared to the literary traditions of European countries). This marginal status could be valid as well when considering crime fiction in a worldly way. However, this country presents a vigorous and complex tradition in the genre. In this sense, the following notes do not intend to provide a complete review of crime fiction in Argentina. They are just some aspects about its history, its problems, authors and works.

I. Main writers of national literary system are linked to crime fiction

One significant aspect of crime fiction in Argentina is that some of the main national writers practiced it. Jorge Luis Borges, the most well-known, not only wrote short stories, such as “El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan” (1941), “La muerte y la brújula” (1942) or “Emma Zunz” (1948), but he also meditated on the genre in brief essays and personal texts: for example, he established his own rules for creating crime fiction (in “Leyes de la narración policial”, available in Spanish here, on pages 48-49: https://ahira.com.ar/ejemplares/hoy-argentina-no-2/), and he even debated about its origins in his controversial argument with Roger Caillois regarding the latter book Le roman policier (Buenos Aires: Editions des Lettres Françaises / Sur, 1941; and Borges’s polemical review and Caillois’s answer are collected in the book Borges en Sur 1931-1980, Buenos Aires: Emecé).

During the twentieth century, other central writers approached the genre in novels, short stories and essays: Roberto Arlt, Rodolfo Walsh, Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, Juan José Saer, Ricardo Piglia, and many others. In this respect, researcher and critic Sandra Contreras, in her book on César Aira’s works (Las vueltas de César Aira, Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2002), even posited the presence of a sort of “crime fiction imperative” (the need for any aspiring writer in the Argentine literary field to publish crime fiction).

But despite all this accumulation of literary capital, it is still also true that Argentina was not an exception, in the middle of the previous century, to the sort of sentence that considered crime fiction not to be “real” literature: we can find a proof of this kind of judgement in Adolfo Prieto’s Sociología del público argentino (Buenos Aires: Leviatán, 1956), in which he conceives of the genre as “infraliteratura” (infra-literature, as opposed to high literature). However, crime fiction in Argentina proliferated, as it was given a sense of legitimacy by those writers mentioned above. By the end of the century, in the introduction of his anthology Cuentos policiales argentinos (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 1997), the critic Jorge Lafforgue stated that crime fiction is deeply bound up in the roots of all Argentine literature.

II. Three significant periods of the genre

Without being exhaustive, we can mention at least three important periods for the genre in Argentina.

The first one surprisingly started in 1877 (a very early date for such a “young” literature as that of Argentina), when Raúl Waleis, pseudonym and anagram of Raúl V. Varela, published La huella del crimen, the first crime fiction novel written in Spanish (Buenos Aires: Imprenta y Librerías de Mayo [Biblioteca Económica de Autores Nacionales]; and re-edited only 132 [!] years later: Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2009). During the last third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the next one, we can find short stories in the pens of Paul Groussac, Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, Vicente Rossi, and Horacio Quiroga (who, despite being born in Uruguay, spent most of his adult life in Argentina, and his works are usually recognized within the Argentine literature). Some of the short stories of these significant contributors to the genre can be read in an anthology edited by Román Setton: El candado de oro: 12 cuentos policiales argentinos (1860-1910) (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo, 2013). In this period, there is a variety of styles and the genre is still not quite institutionalized (although we can find quotations of international authors: for example, Raúl Waleis, in the introduction of La huella del crimen, notes the inspiration he drew from the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau).

We can identify another important period in the decade of 1940, with Borges’s success in implementing and spreading an abstract model of crime fiction (such as the one exposed in “La muerte y la brújula”). Other figures, all of them close to Borges, contributed with works in the line of British mystery fiction: Los que aman, odian (1946), by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo; El estruendo de las rosas (1948), by Manuel Peyrou; and even some fictions by Rodolfo Walsh, such as those included in Variaciones en rojo (1953) (soon Walsh concentrated on non-fiction and published Operación Masacre [1957], a few years before Capote’s In Cold Blood [1966]). But the abstract model defended by Borges also included a parody of the genre, with the primary example of Seis problemas para Don Isidro Parodi (1942), by Honorio Bustos Domecq, pen-name for the duo of Borges and Bioy Casares. Additionally, they both directed the collection El Séptimo Círculo (for the publishing house Emecé), which was a significant vector for the spread of crime fiction in Argentina (the editorial side of crime fiction in this country has other important collections, such as La Serie Negra, directed by Ricardo Piglia in the 1970s, among dozens of collections and publishers specialized in the genre).

A third significant period surrounds the decades of 1960 and 1970. During this time, the hard-boiled genre (originated in the decades of 1920 and 1930 in the United States) had its own representation in Argentina, in the form of “tough narratives” (which often contained parodic features). Just to mention some of them: Triste, solitario y final (1973), by Osvaldo Soriano; Los tigres de la memoria (1973), by Juan Carlos Martelli; El agua en los pulmones (1973) and Los asesinos las prefieren rubias (1974), by Juan Martini; “La loca y el relato del crimen” (1975), by Ricardo Piglia; “Orden jerárquico” (1975), by Eduardo Goligorsky; Noches sin lunas ni soles (1975), by Rubén Tizziani; Últimos días de la víctima (1979), by José Pablo Feinmann; and (once again, without being exhaustive) “Versión de un relato de Hammett” (1984), by Juan Sasturain (Piglia’s and Sasturain’s tales are included in the above-mentioned anthology, Cuentos policiales argentinos, probably the best and most complete anthology of crime fiction in Argentina to date).

III. Three conceptual issues

Among the conceptual problems regarding the possibility of an Argentine crime fiction, we could think about three nuclei: the nationalization of the genre; the representations of the police institution and State forces; and the rise of feminist perspectives and gender studies.

In the mid of the twentieth century, many writers posited the question of whether or not “Argentine crime fiction” existed. In the introduction of Los casos de Don Frutos Gómez (1955), a book of hilarious short stories starring the superintendent Don Frutos Gómez, Velmiro Ayala Gauna established that, indeed, it was possible to create a national genre: he expresses that the figures of the rastreador (pathfinder) or even rural men have as much as capacity of observation and knowledge as the European detectives.

Second issue: here we should remind readers that one of the usual names of the genre in Argentina is “policial” (for example: género policial, cuentos policiales, or just policial). This label implies some sort of (debatable) proximity to the name of the police and its adjective in Spanish (noun: policía; adjective: policial), and in extension to the Army and other State forces. This is a very sensitive point: the last military dictatorship in the country (1976-1983) caused many obscure deaths (among many tragic consequences), and, in this regard, many writers, in their critic essays, tend to question the possibility of the genre in Argentina, at least in the form of the traditional whodunit: is it possible to reach the truth if the State hides information and causes deaths? Among many writers and critics, José Pablo Feinmann and Carlos Gamerro addressed this problem and its implications (for example, the trouble of an investigator who belongs to a terrorist State and the need to look for other detective figures separated from public institutions), in two intelligent articles: “Estado policial y novela negra argentina” (by Feinmann, and included in a book edited by Giuseppe Petronio, Jorge B. Rivera and Luigi Volta, Los héroes “difíciles”: La literatura policial en la Argentina y en Italia, Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1991) and “Para una reformulación del género policial argentino” (by Gamerro, and included in El nacimiento de la literatura argentina y otros ensayos, Buenos Aires: Norma, 2006).

Last but not least: the rise of feminist perspectives had its consequences also in crime fiction. During this century, some women writers gained visibility. Probably the most important of them (at least in terms of sales and international circulation) is Claudia Piñeiro, with novels such as Tuya (2005), Elena sabe (2007), Betibú (2010), or the most recent Catedrales (2020), which includes the topic of abortion (linked to a sensitive and recent issue of the public agenda: its legalization). More female writers, with works close to crime fiction, are Mercedes Giuffré (Deuda de sangre, 2008), Tatiana Goransky (¿Quién mató a la cantante de Jazz?, 2008), María Inés Krimer (Sangre Kosher, 2010), Selva Almada (Chicas muertas, 2014) or Alicia Plante (Verde oscuro, 2014), among others. In some cases, fictions even include a feminist perspective, as in the case of Krimer’s 2019 novel, Cupo.

Who Took Eden Mulligan?

A review by Matthew Munro, QUB, Belfast

Murder mystery writers love their settings. Some are as fictional as their detectives – like Ruth Rendell’s Wexford in Kings Markham, or Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and St Mary Mead. Others put their protagonists in real places, Ian Rankin’s Rebus stalking the streets of Edinburgh or Tana French’s Dublin Murder squad prowling along the banks of the Liffey. Few though, like Sharon Dempsey elevate their real life setting to the status of a character.  In Who Took Eden Mulligan, Belfast seeps through the pages in all its bloody history, the crime and the detectives haunted by unanswered questions of the city’s troubled past.

As with her debut crime novel Little Bird Dempsey’s tale is a police procedural pursuing an investigation through the eyes of a detective and a forensic psychologist, though Chief Inspector Danny Stowe and Psychologist Rose Lainey are a fresh pairing. The two met as fellow Norn Irish in exile at Liverpool University but travelled in opposite directions until a family death brings Rose back to Belfast just as Danny is being released from the purgatory of Historical Enquiries Unit with a chance to resurrect his stalled career.

The lives of the detectives are as much a part of Dempsey’s tale as the deaths of the murder victims. Rose delves into the past of the mother she fled from, the siblings she abandoned and the name — Roisin – that she repudiated. Danny fears to admit the crumbling state of his marriage. Completing the quartet of plot threads are the present time multiple murders in a household of student friends on the threshold of fully employed adulthood and the past story of Eden Mulligan, the mother of five from the markets who disappeared one night in the midst of Belfast’s troubles.

Dempsey’s writing flows enjoyably making this an easily devoured book – I finished it in a little over twenty-four hours.  As is the nature of crime fiction, the story starts very much in media res with the lone survivor and self-confessed perpetrator fleeing the bloody scene and throwing herself into a police station. One consequence of this is that backstory and context are filled in with reverie and reflection, each protagonist reminiscing about their shared pasts and more individual angsts. However, Dempsey handles that necessary exposition smoothly enough that it doesn’t distract from the narrative.

There are also plenty of nice lines that caught my eye.

When Danny and Rose are filling in the gaps

“Not much to tell really. I’m one cat away from being a crazy cat lady.”

When listening to the patronising pathologist

It occurred to Danny that, like some doctors and surgeons, Lyons possessed a bit of a god complex and was lacking in bedside manner. He had found his calling working with corpses, that was for sure.

A sister’s insight into their mother

‘She was our Ma, what else do you need to know? Children never really know their parents, not as separate people.’

Eden’s grown-up children facing another swathe of press hypotheses raking through their mother’s past

‘Every time they rewrite who she was, a bit of who she really was vanishes. We can’t afford to lose any more of her.’

Who Took Eden Mulligan is not so much a murder mystery as an examination of people’s relationships with their individual and their shared pasts. Dempsey’s characters refer explicitly to the notion of cross-generational trauma – that even in a time of peace ‘young people in Northern Ireland are affected by the violence of the past.’ That is what makes the Belfast setting not just more real than KingsMarkham or St. Mary Mead but more entwined with the story than Rebus’s Edinburgh. It is a story about Belfast’s past and present as much as it is the murders’ resolution or even Rose and Danny’s development. In that sense Dempsey has crafted something a hybrid novel – with the central crime providing not just the narrative focus, but the lens through which to interrogate troubled times whose ghosts still stalk the familiar streets.

See also the portrait in https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-writing-s-on-the-wall-for-the-north-again-1.4510973

Fictional Crimes/Factual Crimes. European crime fiction and media narratives of crime (CFP)

International conference

Paris Nanterre University, 7-8 October 2021

The close relationship between crime fiction and authentic events is a crucial aspect of popular culture, in Europe as elsewhere. On the one hand, crime fiction has always drawn from news stories and social issues as a source of inspiration to deal with and reveal the most unspeakable practices or hidden aspects of our societies. On the other, news media have regularly borrowed the devices of fiction to increase their dramatic appeal: among the most notable examples are the serialization techniques adopted by the 19th century press to report police cases, the “true crime” programs of cable and satellite television and the multitude of articles or reports that make use of fictional intertexts. A number of recent studies have shown the importance of these exchanges, highlighting how the communicational dynamics of news media and the narrative structure of crime fiction have displayed strong reciprocal affinities since the advent of modern media culture, ever since the appearence of the 19th century literary genre of the urban mysteries and up to the contemporary ambitions of much crime fiction to occupy the space of journalistic investigation. Such exchanges, which can be found everywhere in the western world and beyond, also thanks to their broad international circulation, play a significant role in the ongoing homogenization of European imagination.

Moreover, the relationship between media culture and crime narratives is not limited solely to the ways in which fiction borrows some of its plots from the news, or the news imitate the stylistic devices of fiction. Rather, it calls into play the discursive structures that underpin both the journalistic discourse and crime fiction (in all of its different varieties: mystery, investigation, revelation, sensationalism…). Such proximity suggests that the two domains share not only a common social (as well as political and psychological) sensibility to the world, but also similar hermeneutical and rhetorical strategies in their respective interpretations and reconstructions of reality. More generally, their complex interplay, far from being anecdotal, suggests the existence of a profound complementarity between discourse and imagination. Assuming the existence of a much closer relation between fictional and factual accounts of crime may help explain the parallel evolution undergone by the two domains during the transformation of the media ecosystem. In fact, each new medium has invented its original modes, both fictional and factual, of representing crime, reformulating earlier forms inherited from the past and adjusting them to its own logic and means of expression.

In this conference, we would like to examine the porosity of media discourses on crime, both fictional and factual, and their meanings in terms of cultural imagination, ideology and/or social discourse. We invite proposals from all fields of media studies–literature, press, radio, television, cinema, internet and social media–particularly in a European perspective. Emphasis should be placed on the contemporary period and the ways in which media contexts impact textual forms and formats. Proposals are welcome that interrogate the ambiguity between fiction and factual events: for example, case studies that analyze the ways in which fictional stereotypes, forms and styles are adapted into factual statements or, conversely, the ways in which true crimes are transformed into fictions. Investigations on cases that blur the boundaries between the fictional and the factual after a process of media adaptation or migration are also welcome as well as more theoretical, global, transversal or historical approaches.

Possible topics include, but are by no means not limited to, the following:

  • The circulation of figures and stereotypes between the fictional and the factual within the same medium: contamination of forms, genres and modes of expression; borrowings, adaptations or appropriations. Examples: political fictions, true crime documentaries, fictionalized authentic events, journalistic and documentary productions using fiction.
  • The transmedia circulation of forms and content, and its effects in terms of reconfiguration or shift of meaning from the fictional to the factual, and vice versa: how does the process of intersemiotic translation affect the limits of representation, and how does the process of content reconfiguration occur within the different media ecosystems, according to their uses and the generic boundaries they prescribe between fictional and factual? Examples: journalistic investigations converted into TV series or film fictions, factual re-readings of works of fiction in social media.
  • The dissemination of the same figures and motifs through different media, and the ways in which their different occurrences cohere at the intersection of the fictional and the factual. Examples: the recurrence of criminal motifs across the media sphere, the emergence of phantasmatic criminal figures, standing halfway between fantasy and reality (the female cat burglar, the criminal network, the white slave trade, the Satanist ritual, etc.)
  • The cultural, social, political or, more broadly, ideological meanings produced by processes of contamination, circulation or homogenization between fictional and factual narratives. The role of fiction in structuring the ideologemes of contemporary culture; the use of mixed forms, such as political fictions, documentaries or counter-cultural productions to express either hegemonic or counter-hegemonic discourses.
  • Comparative approaches of cases from different European countries: comparison and constrast of different media ecosystems, legislations, specific linguistic characteristics or cultural practices; investigation of particular national case studies.
  • Analyses using digital tools that will be able to superimpose several corpora (factual and fictional, different countries, etc.) and bring out common lexical and generic registers, and patterns of transformations and appropriations according to genres, languages and countries.
  • The circulation of imaginative content and forms across the different European countries, according to its effects: homogenization vs relocation or appropriation, variations in the imports distribution of such different globalized forms as the true crime, the thriller, etc.
  • The historical dimension of this circulation, with respect to both the collective imagination and the media sphere: archaeology of crime representation across the media (pastiches, reuse of documents or archives), persistence of forms inherited from other media (e.g. the urban mystery, the melodrama, the whodunit.), resurgence of forgotten motifs (urban legends, expert discourses shaped by serial stereotypes, and so on).

The conference is organized as part of the H2020 DETECt project and the ANR Numapresse project. The conference will be held at the Paris Nanterre University.

Proposals should be sent before 31st March 2021, in English or French, to matthletourneux@gmail.com and marie-eve.therenty@univ-montp3.fr.

Download the Call for Papers in English and in French.

Arabic Crime Fiction

Arabic fiction has thematized crime ever since the classical period. However, the existence of detective stories or, more generally, of crime fiction as a genre within Arab culture has yet to be fully acknowledged. This book therefore offers both a theoretical reflection on this genre in its context and a set of studies on instances of crime fiction in the Arab world. Covering a vast historical and geographical range, it tackles famous writers as well as authors of young adult fiction, deals with the current practitioners of noir as well as with classical detective stories, and also focuses on the adjacent fields of film and television production.
Arabic Crime Fiction / Le récit criminel arabe thus fills a theoretical and historical gap in current scholarship. Bringing together specialists of Arab literature and cinema and/or crime fiction, it provides an overview of a rich and varied genre, at the crossroads between the narrative, philosophical, and legal traditions of the Arab world, the realities of contemporary society, and the international forms of crime fiction. It thus demonstrates that Arabic crime fiction does, indeed, exist, even though it is not yet fully recognized by the publishing market and academic institutions. (From the publisher’ s website;)

A table of contents and introduction to the volume can be found at https://www.harrassowitz-verlag.de/Le_r%C3%A9cit_criminel_arabe_/_Arabic_Crime_Fiction/title_6742.ahtml)

Agatha Christie : One hundred years of confinement

by Sebastian Beck & Dominique Jeannerod

Exactly a 100 years ago, on the 21st January 1921, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the first novel by Agatha Christie was published in the UK. It had been published first in the USA in October 1920 by John Lane, who also co-founded Bodley Head, the UK publisher. Since then, Christie’s two most prominent detectives, the Belgian Hercule Poirot and British Miss Marple have been investigators in 45 novels for 46 years and all over the globe: in the Caribbean, in the Middle East, but most of all in Europe and especially in England. We took this anniversary as an opportunity to have a closer look at the different dimensions of space in these 45 novels and how the places where homicides were committed have evolved over the course of Christie’s career.

Although Poirot and Marple both applied their unique skills in different parts of the world, a predominant number of Christie’s novels are set in England, most of them in Devon (10) or London (7). Besides Three Act Tragedy (1935), set partly in Cornwall but for the most part in Yorkshire and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) also in Yorkshire, all other novels are set in the Middle or South of England. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of the investigated murders happened in London (19) or Devon (15). Only 8 murders were committed north of England’s capital (Three Act Tragedy (1935): Bartholomew Strange, Margaret de Rushbridger; The A.B.C. Murders (1936): George Earlsfield; The Big Four (1927): Mr. Paynter; Elephants Can Remember (1927): Dorothea Jarrow; After the Funeral (1953): Cora Lansquenet; Sad Cypress (1940): Mary Gerrard, Laura Welman).

With regard to the distribution of locations in Poirot and Marple novels, it is noticeable that most novels are set in a rural location (41,66%) and only 22,91% take place in an urban environment. Miss Marple has an even higher percentage of rural settings (66,66%), which is due to the fact that her small hometown, St. Mary Mead, in fictional Downshire, South-East England, is located in a rural area and the crime scene of several murders. Famously, ‘there is a great deal of wickedness in village life’. By contrast, Hercule Poirot lives in the metropolitan area of London and consequently moves in more urban settings (27,77%) than his female counterpart.

When looking at the rural settings, one English county stands out: Devon, home of several Agatha Christie landmarks, from her native Torquay, to Greenway House, to Burgh Island (And then, there were none), Hampsley/Kents Cavern (The Man in the Brown Suit) and Elberry Cove (The A.B.C. Murders). Unlike Poirot and Marple, who always manage to find the solution in the end, readers and researchers find it often challenging to try and locate the places of murder in their cases. Many locations, for starters, are fictional. While some fictional locations like St. Mary Mead, functioning as the typical English small town (the TV adaptations have located it in Kent) are the setting for multiple novels (The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), The Body in the Library (1942), The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)) others refer to actual cities like St. Loo (in Peril at End House (1932) and Evil Under the Sun (1941)) which is most probably the famous bathing resort and Christie’s hometown Torquay.

Regardless of the geographical basis of their settings, there are recognizable patterns for the places of murder. Only about a quarter of the crimes happened outside (27,27%), most of them happened in confined space (53,72%), such as houses in the countryside. And inside these houses, as to be expected, locked rooms and confined spaces do indeed feature prominently: the library, the bedroom. Also, while travelling, quarantine-like situations, with passengers locked in a train, on a boat or a plane, and separated from the outside world. The trademark combination of rurality and separation manifests itself already  in the first chapter of the first novel:

I descended from the train at Styles St. Mary, an absurd little station, with no apparent reason for existence, perched up in the midst of green fields and country lanes […] The village of Styles St. Mary was situated about two miles from the little station, and Styles Court lay a mile the other side of it. It was a still, warm day in early July. As one looked out over the flat Essex country, lying so green and peaceful under the afternoon sun, it seemed almost impossible to believe that, not so very far away, a great war was running its appointed course. I felt I had suddenly strayed into another world. (The Mysterious Affair at Styles)

The apparent serenity of such microcosms is deceptive. It contrasts with the affects of those  who inhabit them. Christie explores how people interact when confined together: resentment, passions, violence, and ultimately murder. As in And then there were none, hers are novels about being locked down with quite insufferable and potentially hateful and harmful people.

Her novels, even when set in distant countries she knew very well such as Iraq (1936), Egypt (1937), and Jordan (1938), or in the Caribbean (1964) on the whole, do not really engage with exoticism, as they are more inward-looking, focused on the psychology of very vivid characters and their interactions. Characters nearly always seem more colourful than settings. 

Does this make Christie’s work essential reading during confinement? As Walter Benjamin perceptively observed, Crime Fiction works as an exorcism and an antidote to our fears, by projecting them. It is not only the fear of the unknown, the outside and the intruders that are coded in Crime Fiction, but as Christie exemplifies, family abuse and domestic violence can also be projected in this way.

The seemingly high number of murders perpetrated in domestic, confined spaces in Christie’s novels should not be dismissed as pure fantasy either. These are actually eerily similar to today’s official (pre-confinement) numbers. The Homicide Index which shows where victims in England and Wales were killed from March 2018 – March 2019 confirms this for the male victims (39%). Female victims were killed in or around the house at an even higher percentage (71%). Of course, account needs to be taken here of the spread of urbanization since the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019

The meaning of confined spaces, houses, dwellings on the one hand and boats, trains or planes on the other, is inverted in Christie’s world. They are changed into places of danger rather than shelter, and of stasis rather than movement. From tokens of wealth and freedom, they are turned into symbols of restrictions and closure. They epitomise the feeling of being trapped. Nobody can get out. Additionally, vehicles are most often in motion and project their occupiers in life-threatening spatial environments (sea, sky, etc.). These circumstances confront the possible victim with a situation where there is no escape. Christie used those settings in her novels The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death in the Clouds (1935) and Death on the Nile (1937).

Despite Benjamin’s intuition, reading about confined family murders (often the case in Christie’s books) while confined with your family actually might not always help to keep tragic projections and domestic fears at a distance. But because of the focus on interiors and interiority, her novels, which have been branded as “escapist”, seem on the face of it to represent rather the opposite, a sort of ‘captivism’. Not so much a literature of escape but one of captivity.  One which thrills readers with literary fantasies of captivity. What captivates us here is the very dysfunctional society of very strange characters stuck together for the duration of the novels. And also the fact that there is a release on the horizon, provoked first by a crisis, the crime, and then by its resolution. Reason and lucidity always triumph over madness, even if justice is not always served. So as a “Captivist” literature, Agatha Christie’s novels seem to be very apt confinement literature, addressing both the perils of this unnatural proximity to other people and the hope for the restauration of a form of normality.

The Christmas List

By Sharon Dempsey

He’s making a list,
He’s checking it twice,
He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice

Since we are in the throes of another quasi-lockdown, and with Christmas shopping in mind, I thought I’d blog about my favourite reads of 2020, the year that shall never be named henceforth. While we battled a pandemic – every dystopian novel I have ever read seemed to come alive before my very eyes – books were my go-to safe place. As a child of the Troubles I was used to seeking refuge in between the pages of prose. During the seventies I lived in Enid Blyton safe places of ginger beer, bouncy heather beds, caves and coves and boarding schools. Come the eighties I progressed to Stephen King and a different type of horror while Belfast blazed around me. While the world burned, I have found my reading time has decreased – but hey ho we’re in the midst of a pandemic and have probably experienced the most important election American has ever seen. Yet, still I have found solace in my beloved crime fiction genre, reaching for old favourites and finding new loves among the face masks and hand sanitiser.

Here’s my recommended reads from the latter half of 2020:

I read True Story by Kate Reed Petty during the hottest summer week and loved it for being inventive in from and its meditation on what it means to reclaim your own narrative following sexual assault.

Chris Whitaker’s, We Begin at End, near enough broke me during the first lockdown. A murder mystery with a big heart and an unforgettable heroine in the form of Duchess Day Radley ( my kids should be relieved that they already exist for I would have named one of them after Duchess) is the kind of book that transports you and makes you feel on a whole new level.

One of my all-time favourite writers, Tana French, has gifted us The Searcher, a much-lauded mystery set in Ireland that offers both atmospheric and character-driven storytelling driving towards a devastating ending.

Northern Irish crime fiction has a huge place in my heart so in no particular order these guys distracted me through the great toilet roll rush of 2020: Kelly Creighton, with special mention for Problems with Girls, a sharp, insightful read that has made me hunger for more DI Harry Sloane.

Brian McGilloway’s The Last Crossing, a book that made me ache for the sins of our past and reminded me what Northern Irish crime fiction does best – calls the ghosts of the past to account for their sins.

Claire Allan with Ask No Questions (coming to a bookshop near you soon) a lose yourself in the dead of the night type read that showcases the character of journalist Ingrid Devlin and has a heart-racing dénouement that made me gasp.

The Traveller by Stuart Neville, a collection of short stories and a novella that oozes the macabre and tingles with horror just below the surface.

Other notable releases in 2020 were Steve Cavanagh with the pulsating Fifty-Fifty, taking Eddie Flynn to a whole new twisty level. The Chain by Adrian McKinty was a plot-propelled exploration of chain styled kidnappings. Liz Nugent’s My Little Cruelties showcases her trademark style and preforms a psychological autopsy of the worst of human nature.

My Dark Vanessa, by Kate Elizabeth Russell, a disturbing book exploring a relationship between a teacher and his student, which I listened to on audio book while on my lockdown walks.

Coming this month, Anthony Quinn’s Turncoat promises to be haunting and unsettling, and is set on the pilgrim island of Lough Derg and I am looking forward to reading it.

Shout out also to NI crime fiction comrades Simon Maltman who published Witness, James Murphy who concluded his Terror trilogy with Dark Light, and Catriona King who is on her twenty-fourth Craig Crime Series novel.

What’s to come: Looking to 2021 I can promise you that there are some amazing books waiting in the wings.

I have been fortunate enough to get my hands on a copy of Abigail Dean’s Girl A and believe me, it lives up to the hype. Part true crime feeling and memoirish it takes the reader to place of pure darkness that is impossible to turn away from. 

Jane Harper returns with The Survivors, a book that promises to consolidate her as one of the best crime writers around.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn asserts itself to be the Mean Girls of our time with a college reunion, slick with secrets. I am really looking forward to reading it.

Kate Bradley’s forthcoming book, What I Did is an addictive and emotional psychological thriller about the darkest family-held secrets. I had a proof copy of this intense, heart-racing story and it kept me reading through the night. The Shadow Man by Helen Fields, claims to be a tightly plotted tale of obsession and manipulation, and is out in February.

The Last House on Needless Street claims to be the Gothic thriller of 2021 with Stephen King declaring it ‘a true nerve-shredder that keeps its mind-blowing secrets to the very end. [I] haven’t read anything this exciting since Gone Girl.’ Yeah, I’m sold Stephen so if Viper want to send me a proof copy, as an early Christmas present, I’m waiting beneath the tree.

Also look out for Who Took Eden Mulligan? my new release in Spring 2021, with Avon Harper Collins, described as ‘Readable. Addictive. Edgy. Intelligent,’ and ‘a crime novel that is as insightful as it is addictive.’

Female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction

by Ciara Gorman, Queen’s University Belfast

Ciara Gorman gave a paper on Female Villainy at The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)  and kindly shared the video with us; please watch it here:

Video linkhttps://www.sas.ac.uk/videos-and-podcasts/culture-language-and-literature/representations-female-villainy-21st-century

IMLR Video Recording Transcript

Hi! My name is Ciara Gorman and I’m a first-year PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, in the department of French. My research is focused on the representations of female villainy in twenty-first-century French crime fiction.

I’ve been fascinated by crime fiction my whole life; I grew up reading Agatha Christie, watching detective serials on TV, playing Cluedo… This might be relatable, because crime fiction – in all its multi-media forms, from film to TV to podcasts – is attractive to many people. In France, crime fiction is an institution; in 2014, one in every five novels sold there was a polar,[1] and sales of crime novels account for around 17% of all novels sold per annum in France.[2] The ‘crime novel’, like the genre itself, is wonderfully diverse, and all of its subgenres are popular in France – from the classic roman policier or detective novel, to historical mysteries, to noir thrillers. General literature has also been infiltrated by crime tropes, as they make appearances in books not technically or typically classified as ‘crime fiction’. Several of these crime subgenres are represented in the corpus of my thesis. I’m working with four books, the covers of which you can see on this slide, all published in the last ten years or so. Fred Vargas is one of the most prolific and popular crime fiction authors in France, same with Karine Giebel; Pierre Lemaitre, who wrote Alex in 2011, is a Prix-Goncourt laureate and so is Leïla Slimani, who won that same prestigious prize in 2016 for this novel, Chanson douce. All of these novels tell different stories, all of them have different generic forms, but they’re all united by one character: a female perpetrator. That character, too, exists on a scale in these novels: in one, she’s a serial killer, in another a murderer of children; she’s a young woman, an old woman, a nanny, a professional assassin. I’m interested in three specific aspects of the representation of these female criminals: why and where they commit crime, and what imagery is associated with them.

My thesis currently has a four-part structure, as you can see here. Chapter One evaluates the role of villains, and of villainy itself, in crime fiction. Villains are really an integral component of any narrative: they throw the heroine’s ‘goodness’ into relief by their ‘badness’, and their evil deeds are often the motor that propels the story forwards. Their actions cause us to reel back in horror, and yet we are compelled to keep looking. This is right at the heart of what makes crime fiction itself so popular; Louis Vax describes it as a simultaneous process of attraction and repulsion.[3] If you’ve ever watched a crime drama where a murder is shown, you’ll know what I mean: you want to look away, because it’s uncomfortable, but you can’t, because it’s part of the story, and you want to know the story ends. This sort of morbid fascination with villains in crime fiction can be increased when the perpetrator is a woman because it’s not what we might be used to seeing – we need only look at the popularity of shows like Killing Eve, or Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as evidence. We know that fictional characters often reflect or interrogate societal realities, and teach us lessons about how to be in the world – that’s why we talk about characters as ‘role models’ or ‘examples of what not to do’. So what do female villains, specifically, have to say about issues like gender, justice, policing, capitalism, desire, hatred, love? What messages do we, the reading public, glean from their behaviour as we unconsciously evaluate it for tips, tricks, limitations, warnings – as we do with all characters in fiction? These are the questions at the heart of my thesis – questions about representation, feminism, fiction and reality.

In Chapter Two, I want to look at the motives assigned to our female perpetrators; put simply, why do they commit their crimes? The answer is double: vengeance and breakdown. In Alex and Quand sort la recluse, our female villains murder six and ten people respectively, as an act of vengeance for unspeakable abuse, vengeance that was long in the planning and exquisite in the execution (if you’ll pardon the pun). In Chanson douce, Louise, our perpetrator, murders the children she cares for as a result of a breakdown in her mental health, which has been slowly collapsing over the course of the novel. Louise’s motives for murder have as much to say about capitalism, motherhood and the exploitation of care workers as they do about crime. None of our female villains have ‘simple’ reasons for murder; this is part of what makes their characters so complex.

In Chapter Three, I shift my focus to the places associated with female villains in the novels: where do they commit crime? What spaces do they move through, and what can we learn from this? There are three important places to consider in my corpus: the carceral space, the domestic space, and the city. In the hardboiled crime novel, the city – in its anonymity, its violence, its corruption – is as central a character to the story as the private eye. In Alex, the anonymity of the city harms her when she is kidnapped right off the street and it’s almost impossible for the police to track her down, amongst all the people who go missing in cities every day. Later, that same anonymity hides her, when she’s trying to escape detection by those very police. This is particularly striking when we consider that Alex is a woman, and the city is so often coded as dangerous to women – but here, Alex is the danger. She’s as anonymous and unpredictable as the city, and that’s a significant element in how we understand her as a villain.

Finally, there’s Chapter Four, which will examine the particular imagery associated with each of our female perpetrators. A great example here is Irène, the villain in Quand sort la recluse. She is closely linked to the image of the recluse spider, not only because her weapon of choice is spider venom, but because she remains mostly out of sight in the novel, lurking in the background in her web of deceit. What can we learn from this association between spiders and women – a long-standing one, with its roots in Greek mythology – resurging in contemporary crime fiction? How does the animalisation of Irène contribute to her character as a woman seeking justice outside of the law?  This leads me to the larger questions which inform my research work. We might use this particular notion of the vengeful woman as an example – because Alex and Irène are taking long-planned revenge against a group of people who participated in their rape, assault and prostitution as young children. Does that knowledge change how we think about their crimes, about their likely punishment? I think it does, and this is significant considering that how we deal with allegations of historical sexual abuse is a topic very much in the limelight. Engagement with this issue in contemporary crime fiction is channelled through the figure of the female villain who is also a survivor of abuse. This is what Di Ciolla and Pasolini (2018) describe as the ‘two-way traffic’ between crime fiction and real life; as the fiction draws its inspiration from real life crime, criminals and general society, so we learn to think differently about that real life through engagement with the fiction. And so these contemporary female villains seem to push us beyond the film noir stereotype of the beautiful, deadly, shallow femme fatale; they push us into the territory of philosophising on what justice looks like, what a society that continually disbelieves and denigrates women who speak up about sexual violence has to reckon with when those same women decide to seek their own kind of recompense, outside of the system that pays only lip-service to the ideals of equality and the zealous pursuit of justice that it claims to uphold. It’s my firm belief that these characters move the dial in discourses of justice and accountability in crime fiction, and that we need to pay attention to where the needle is now pointing


[1]Julie Guesdon, ‘Dans l’édition, le polar tient bon’, France Inter, 20th October 2017  <https://www.franceinter.fr/culture/dans-l-edition-le-polar-tient-bon> [accessed 11th June 2020].

[2]Équipe BePolar, ‘Les chiffres et le palmarès des ventes du genre polar dévoilés par l’Observatoire de la librairie’, BePolar, <https://www.bepolar.fr/Les-chiffres-et-le-palmares-des-ventes-du-genre-Polar-devoiles-par-l-Observatoire-de-la-librairie>, [accessed 11th June 2020].

[3] Louis Vax, ‘Le sentiment du mystère dans le conte fantastique et le roman policier’, Les Études philosophiques, Nouvelle Série, 6(1), 1951, p 65. Please note that in the video recording, I mistakenly attribute this citation to Marc Lits, another scholar of crime fiction studies.

Georges-Jean Arnaud (1928-2020)

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By Daniel Magennis (PhD candidate)

It is with sadness that we read of the recent passing of veteran French crime fiction author Georges-Jean Arnaud, who died at the end of April, aged 91. Arnaud was the author of over 400 novels during his lengthy career and wrote under various pen names. His first novel, 1952’s Ne tirez pas sur l’inspecteur (Paris: Hachette), won the Prix quai des Orfèvres in the same year. An enormously prolific author, Arnaud wrote on average 15 novels per year (once writing more than 27 in a single year) and his texts cross numerous genres; crime fiction, spy thrillers, adventure novels, fantasy, sci-fi, suspense, as well as erotic fiction.

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‘La Compagnie des glaces’ which first appeared in 1980, was republished in 2018 by French Pulp.

Arnaud’s varied and imaginative narratives brought several of his protagonists to Ireland over the years. First in 1958, with the opening novel of the popular ‘Luc Ferran’ series Luc Ferran du N.I.D. (Paris: L’Arabesque) written under the pseudonym Gilles Darcy. Arnaud returned to the Irish subject matter during the years of the Troubles, with his serial secret agent hero Commander Serge Kovask in 1972’s Le Commander et le Révérend and 1980’s Colonel Dog, both part of publisher Fleuve Noir’s long-running ‘Espionnage’ series. Writing as Ugo Solenza, Arnaud published 15 erotic novels between 1974 and 1976 that were set in Ireland during the 18th century featuring sensual revolutionary, Marion.

Perhaps the most celebrated of Arnaud’s works is his science-fiction series ‘La Compagnie des glaces’, which comprised almost 100 works published between 1980 and 2005. Several works of this series, along with other crime fiction texts and thrillers have recently been republished by French Pulp

Regardless of genre, however, Arnaud’s works stand out for their astute political critique

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Arnaud’s espionage hero, Serge Kovask, in the 2014 edition of ‘Le fric noir’, originally published in 1981.

of the French state and Western society. The CIA, America’s guard-dog of the West, was a particular target for Arnaud: “Qu’est-ce qui m’intéresse au départ ? La CIA, démolir la CIA, montrer son rôle néfaste dans le monde.” (“What was it that interested me at the beginning? The CIA. Demolishing the CIA and showing its harmful role in the world”) Writing during a time when many of Fleuve Noir’s authors were politically far-right, Arnaud’s novels stand out for avoiding the reductive representations and reactionary political stances that were commonplace among his contemporaries. However, in light of more than healthy sales and a favourable critical reception, Fleuve Noir continued to publish Arnaud’s many texts. 

Arnaud’s work stands out equally for its humour and readability, imaginative plots and characters. His contribution has enriched fiction for many years and will be sorely missed.

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The 2018 edition of Arnaud’s 1982 thriller ‘Bunker parano’.

More on Georges-Jean Arnaud:

http://leslecturesdelonclepaul.over-blog.com/2019/11/le-multiple-georges-j.arnaud.revue-rocambole-n-88/89.html

http://leslecturesdelonclepaul.over-blog.com/2020/03/georges-jean-arnaud-virus.html