Author: D. Magennis

Crime fiction in Soviet Russia.

 

Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927, an influential example of Russian Crime Fiction

Leonid Leonov (1899-1994) Вор, 1927

There is a tendency in Western histories of crime fiction to present the evolution of the genre throughout the 20th century as a purely Western phenomenon.  Crime fiction from Eastern bloc countries is little known about and conspicuously absent from contemporary assessments of the genre. Crime fiction from these areas seems truly to have been consigned to the dustbins of history. This process of oblivion is not really surprising; after all, it is the fate of the immense majority of works of crime fiction to sink without leaving much bibliographical traces. Most crime novels, including best sellers, are forgotten about within years. In addition, there has been a widespread suspicion that,  until the 1960’s, much crime fiction from outside the main innovators of the genre (France, England,  and the USA) was derivative rather than original, seeking to reproduce the Western models rather than reinventing the genre in their own terms. Also, the new social, economic, and ideological agenda set by new regimes following the collapse of the Eastern European peoples’ Republics have encouraged cultural industries in these countries to emphasise a sense of a caesura separating current production from that from the previous era. There is some complicity on the part of contemporary authors from these areas to liquidate a literary past they consider burdensome and with which they do not want to be associated.  Thus, one of Russia’s most successful modern crime fiction writers today, Boris Akunin is predictably keen to dismiss such past, stressing that crime fiction in the USSR existed only in “embryonic form”[1]. “In Soviet times having a crime take place in literature was simply unthinkable, for how,” he asks, “could there be a crime in the land of triumphant socialism?”[2] Writing crime fiction dissecting society’s ills, as did many examples of American noir, in Soviet Russia may not have seem expedient. Continue reading

Blood and Sex: Violence and sexuality in Greek crime fiction series of the 1970s.

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By Nikos Filippaios (PhD candidate, University of Ioannina, Greece)

Since its beginning, crime fiction in Greece has usually been distributed by publishers in multi-volume series. The first series of crime fiction translated into Greek were published from the 1910s to the 1930s, initially outside of Greece, in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where many Greek-speaking people lived, and some years later in Athens (Kassis, 165). Before long however, it centred exclusively around publishers, translators and writers based in Athens. In addition to series of novels and short stories, many magazines appeared dedicated exclusively to crime fiction and the successful family magazines of the era often featured detective stories. Following the difficult decade of the 1940s, in which Greece was wracked by the Second World War and a civil war, the crime, and popular fiction publishing industry in Greece in general, prospered. After the mid-1950s however, something of a “golden era” for popular literature in Greece, a slow decline began, culminating in a defeat by the cinema, TV and, finally, digital media (Filippaios 2015, 5-19).

Cover of Greek edition of 'Berlin, Check-point Charlie' by Gerard De Villiers. It was published in 1975 as volume 533 of the “Viper” series by Papyros. Translation was by Tasso Kavvadia, an actress, radio producer and translator. She was an important figure during this time in Greece.

Cover of Greek edition of ‘Berlin, Check-point Charlie’ by Gérard De Villiers. It was published in 1975 as volume 533 of the “Viper” series by Papyros. Translation was by Tasso Kavvadia, an actress, radio producer and translator. She was an important figure during this time in Greece.

A compelling phenomenon visible in the evolution of Greek crime fiction of this time is an increasing shift towards violence and sexuality, a trend which began during the early 1970s and lasted at least until the end of the decade. This shift became evident between 1968 and 1972, with the appearance of three new series. The most important of these was the “VIPER Series of crime fiction novel by Papyros (English: “papyrus”) Publications, a publishing house established in 1936 in Athens, which expanded into the crime fiction genre in 1968. This series was so successful that, not only did it continue publishing until the early 1990s, but some volumes can still be found in kiosks and bookshops around Greece today (Koskinas, 21/01/2014). “VIPER” initially followed the trend of other famous crime fiction series, including mainly classic writers such as Agatha Christie and James Chase. But from 1975 onwards, its publisher turned chiefly to Gérard De Villiers’ SAS novels. After Ian Fleming’s James Bond, SAS’s Malko Linge was the next most famous literary spy who fascinated Greek readers with his violent and erotic adventures.

The Greek edition of SAS à l'ouest de Jérusalem by Gérard De Villiers. Also translated by Tasso Kavvadia, it was published in 1976 as volume 610 of the “Viper” series. Its weathered cover shows the connection between popular literature and the everyday life of its readers.

The Greek edition of ‘SAS à l’ouest de Jérusalem’ by Gérard De Villiers. Also translated by Tasso Kavvadia, it was published in 1976 as volume 610 of the “Viper” series.
Its weathered cover shows the connection between popular literature and the everyday life of its readers.

In fact, Papyrus Publications’ interest in a more hard-core subgenre of crime fiction, such as the spy novel, probably influenced two other, smaller series. Although both featured fewer volumes and were distributed by smaller publishing houses, they followed the trend of “blood and sex” from inception. The first of these was “Fascinating Pocket Books” and was published by Panthir (English: ‘panther’) Publications. Probably active between 1970 and 1973, Panthir Publications was created and curated by Dimitris Chanos, a writer and publisher who began his career in the iconic crime fiction pulp magazine Mask (Chanos, 221-240). From its very first volumes, Panthir adopted a very specific approach: (a) focusing on “hard-boiled” crime fiction writers, mainly Mickey Spillane, and (b) replacing older cover illustrations, usually with photo collages of scantily clad women, an aesthetic which borrows elements from soft-core pornography. Along the same vein, “Modern Pocket Books”, one of the first attempts from Kampanas Publications and also circulating during early 70s, adopted a similar approach to its covers, but with slightly more conservative images. The main writer featuring in “Modern Pocket Books” was Anthony Morton, a pen name of John Greasy. Particularly popular were his spy novels featuring “the Baron”.

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Piero Chiara in English

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara (2015: Pushkin Vertigo), cover design by Jamie Keenan.

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara (2015: Pushkin Vertigo), cover design by Jamie Keenan.

The first and to date only novel by Italian author Piero Chiara’s (1913 – 1986)  to be translated into English The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (Italian: I giovedì della signora Giulia), tells the story of the investigation into the disappearance of a country lawyer’s wife. While suspects seem easy to come by in this short novel, solutions are another matter entirely. This procedural was initially serialised in a Swiss newspaper in 1962 and is set in the dramatic milieu of the northern Italian lakes, where Chiara spent his childhood. The life of the author himself is no less interesting than the events of his novels. Working during WWII as a court employee, he was arrested by the Fascist Italian government in 1944 after he was rumoured to have placed a bust of Mussolini in the dock. He fled to Switzerland where he was interned in a camp for Italian refugees. After the war he taught history in a Swiss high school. His first writings – a collection of poetry, Incantavi (1945) were published there.  Returning to Italy, he became a post-war literary star, winning over a dozen Italian literary prizes. After his death, The Premio Chiara award was established in 1989 as an annual prize for short story writers.

The novel was published in English for the first time last year by  Pushkin Vertigo.  A new crime imprint of Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo offer a number of foreign crime novels from Asia and Europe, from the 1920s to the 1970s. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is the third book in this promising collection. Click here for more.