Thanks to fellow blogger and online friend Elena (whom some of you may know as @ms_adler on Twitter), I heard about the Captivating Criminality Network at Bath Spa University (in collaboration with Gdansk University in Poland. When I heard about the 2017 conference taking place on 29th June to 1st July, I was determined to attend for at least half a day. So I drove to the chi-chi Wiltshire village of Corsham on Saturday 1st July and entered the dreamy grounds of Corsham Court, where the conference was taking place. At first, I was expecting Darcy to emerge from the local pond…
Then I was intrigued by the plaintive calls from the true masters of the gardens…
But once I found my way inside The Barn, I attended some fantastic talks. I won’t give an in-depth account, but it is so refreshing to see academia engaging seriously (but not pretentiously) with crime fiction from so many different countries. These were scholars (and audiences) who really enjoyed their reading and analysis, and were experimenting with new ideas and interpretations.
You can find the full programme of the conference here.
The first panel I attended was on Newer Developments in Hard-Boiled Fiction. Arco van Ieperen from the University of Elblag in Poland compared Robert Parker’s Spenser and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, and how both of these authors changed and adapted the Chandleresque hard-boiled detective series. Both of them, for instance, evolve violent sidekicks who leave the hero free to have emotions and face ethical dilemmas. Both Spenser and Bolitar are much more respectful of women and have a grudging acceptance of political correctness. Ilse Schrynemakers from City University of New York gave a fascinating paper demonstrating how Ross Macdonald’s dysfunctional families mirrored the fears of a world living in the shadow of nuclear war. She argued convincingly how the obsessive insistence on ‘truth’ and ‘confession’ in the McCarthy era is reflected in Macdonald’s novels, albeit with a darker current. Uncovering the truth and getting the criminal to confess does not lead to remorse or redemption, but is indeed a journey from darkness to darkness.
The second panel was on one of my favourite topics: crime fiction in different geographical locations. We took a trip through Ireland, France, China and Mexico. Jennifer Schnabel from Ohio State University talked about undercover cops in Tana French’s novels, while Eoin McCarney from Dublin City University made a very powerful comparison between Ireland and Mexico, between bog bodies and bodies dumped in the desert. Both bogs and deserts exist outside the law, outside space and time almost. Finally, Annemarie Lopez from Macquarie University in Australia used psychogeography and Jules Dassin’s Naked City to discuss urban noir. She mentioned two of my favourite authors and the rapidly changing cities they depict: Jean-Claude Izzo and Marseille, Qiu Xiaolong and Shanghai.
The last talk I was able to attend was Professor Mary Evans from LSE (whose work on gender had been required reading on my anthropology course many years ago). In calm, measured tones, she talked about our eternal fear of loners, of people who seem to be content to be alone, and those who are desperate to belong, to fit in. She based her examples on the Stockholm trilogy by Jens Lapidus, so I found myself adding yet again to my TBR list. Being alone is an essential feature of both criminals and the detectives chasing them, yet there is a crucial difference between being alone and loneliness.
I was reminded once more how fun it is to debate ideas, methodologies and interpretations, and how much I miss these kinds of passionate academic discussions which probably sound over-specialised to others (although crime fiction festivals are a good substitute). I came away brimming with new names, new recommended titles and, above all, new ways of thinking about things. Learning as long as you live, being open to questions, trying out new things: isn’t that what life is all about?
Jelena Volić (Serbia), Bogdan Teodorescu (Romania), Eugen Chirovici (Romania), Indrek Hargla (Estonia).
A bit of a clanger at the start of the session! Although the moderator said it was an attempt to escape the dominance of Anglo-Saxon and Western crime fiction, he then proceeded by saying that Volić had been born in Budapest, at which she retorted: ‘No, another capital city starting with B – Belgrade.’ I suppose that just goes to show the ignorance about ‘Eastern Europe’ which is still quite common in the West – but then again, the room was packed, standing room only at the back while I sprawled out on the floor, so perhaps there was genuine curiosity and willingness to find out more.
The reason I put ‘Eastern Europe’ in quotation marks is because all of the authors remarked that this is very much a malleable concept rather than a geographical reality. Nowadays it has become more popular to say Central Europe, but without necessarily meaning it. Meanwhile, it could be argued that Estonia is more Nordic in feel and has very little to do with the Balkanic fellow panellists. So you couldn’t help feeling that the panel had been cobbled together purely because ‘well, you are all from that part of the world somehow’, without much thought or care going into the process or any attempt to find common themes.
The books themselves didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the East, either. Chirovici said his book takes place in the US and is all about the power of memory to falsify our recollections, nothing to do with the history or politics of Romania, past or present. Meanwhile, Hargla said his whole intention was to offer escapism, which is why he had gone for mysteries set in medieval times (the 15th century being also one of the most protracted periods of peace in Estonia’s troubled history).
So it was down to just Volić and Teodorescu to state that their books are making a political statement. Volić has written a crime novel set around the time of Srebrenica, because she wanted to show how ordinary humans cope with individual tragedies at a time of mass tragedy. She co-writes with German author Christian Schünemann and her books are primarily intended for a Western audience, as she thinks the Serbs are all too aware of the subjects she is addressing. There are no easy answers in a book which unflinchingly examines a country’s guilt, and attempts to forget or deny the evil acts of the past.
Teodorescu refers not to Romania’s past but its present-day issues in his novel Spada, which is the story of serial killer who targets criminal gypsies. Through the ambivalent public, political and media reactions to this killer, the author demonstrates just how easy it is to normalise the language of hatred, to raise the spectre of the ‘Demon Other’ and to lose any vestige of kindness and civilised behaviour in a democratic, open society in which 95% of people would describe themselves as ‘tolerant’. The book was published in Romanian a few years ago, but seems very timely with Trump’s America, Brexit Britain and now France and Germany possibly veering down the same path.
Victor Del Arbol (Spain), Marc Fernandez (France/Spain), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Qiu Xiaolong (China).
The panellists started off by joking: ‘Welcome to the most depressing topic of the whole conference’, but in fact it was also one of the most fascinating topics, enabling us to see how totalitarian regimes have commonalities regardless of political leanings or culture. The moderator claimed that perhaps there was a Zorro instinct in each one of them, to uncover oppression and injustice through their fiction. While the authors themselves made no such pretentious statements, it was clear that giving voice to forgotten stories, to the vanquished, to truths which had been buried by the wayside was important to them.
Del Arbol said that espousing or allowing just one single truth is dangerous, that is what kills. He also considers himself Catalan, Spanish and European all at once and does not see why this should be a contradiction. Miłoszewski said that all countries have something in their past that they are less proud of, and that they want to remember only the glory days, but the role of the artist is to offer an alternative to the ‘official’ interpretation of the past, to remember the shameful incidents as well. That’s what true patriotism means. Otherwise, nostalgia for the golden past without any shades is merely nationalism. Fernandez also pointed out the conundrum of the perpetual outsider: in France is considered the Spaniard, in Spain he is considered too French. Qiu described his father’s humiliation as a member of the bourgeoise for daring to own a small perfume factory during the Cultural Revolution – and openly admitted he resented his father at the time for blocking any future career he might have had. He also told us how he was forced into exile in the US and had to start writing in English. This is the sad truth of all-pervasive state interference: ‘People don’t make the choices themselves – they have them made for them.’ He brought all this reluctant collaboration and ambiguity into Inspector Chen’s character.
Books and People
And here is my book haul – reasonably modest this year, as I was travelling with hand luggage only. One in German: the Thomas Willmann I mentioned in the previous post, two French authors (Marcus Malte and the only one I was missing by Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo, which also happens to be my favourite), three translations into French (Victor Del Arbol, Bogdan Teodorescu and an absurdist Russian novel by Olga Slavnikova), Ron Rash and David Vann in English (although they are much more expensive in France, of course, but I was keen to have them signed) and finally another Romanian author, Bogdan Hrib, with his first book translated into English (he is also Teodorescu’s Romanian publisher and there may be some exciting collaborations forthcoming, fingers crossed).
I got to meet many delightful authors, but got a little bit starstruck and forgot to take pictures. Apologies to the charming Ragnar Jonasson and Lilja Sigurdardottir for not pestering them for pictures. I was more than a little awestruck by Victor Del Arbol and David Vann, and I never got to speak to Cay Rademacher and David Young, but I did manage to take some pictures of the truly international Johana Gustawsson, the always bright and funny Dominique Sylvain (I believe it’s the 4th time I see here either in Lyon or Geneva) and newcomer – all the way from Australia – Jane Harper.
I was also lucky enough to receive an invitation to the preview of the first episode of the new (6th) series of Engrenages (better known as Spiral in the UK). I had already heard the main writer Anne Landois discuss her work in Lyon a couple of years ago, but this time she was joined by the producer at Canal+ and the actors playing the police officers Tintin and Gilou, as well as Judge Roban (the two women actors had other commitments). The series has been going strong for 12 years now, and the actors (plus or minus a few high-profile losses) have been together for pretty much the whole time and have become a tight-knit family. Anne said that she was constantly inspired by the actors to develop characters even farther, while the actors said they really felt they were part of something special, an emphasis on the personal lives of their characters as well as the investigation which is quite new to French TV.
Of course I cannot give anything away about the new series, otherwise they would have to kill me. Suffice it to say that the investigation will extend to the troubled Department 93 on the outskirts of Paris. Sadly, it is also Anne’s last season on the show, as it’s been a pretty full-time job for the past 10 years and she understandably wants to try something else. However, a new team of writers are already working on Season 7. Meanwhile, Season 6 will be out in September on French TV and hopefully soon afterwards on BBC4.
Back in February 2012 I had just recently arrived in Geneva and was so busy settling everyone else into the new environment that I forgot to make myself happy. I was lonely, frustrated and feeling uninspired. But then I discovered the Geneva Writers Group and attended their biennial conference. I ‘accidentally’ attended a poetry workshop run by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye and suddenly the words were gushing out of me, after a twenty-year absence from poetry, and nearly as many years of not really taking writing of any kind seriously enough. The first poem was a bit gauche and hesitant, but a clear manifesto. And I haven’t stopped writing since (or only temporarily, because finding the time for it is still challenging, although far less than it used to be).
So you bet that I am excited to be attending my third Geneva Writers Conference later this month! We have some wonderful writers/publishers attending as instructors and panelists: Tessa Hadley, Jane Friedman, Carmen Bugan, Ann Hood, Liz Jensen, Shaun McCarthy, Frederick Reiken, Andrea Stuart, Susan Tiberghien, Jason Donald and Wallis Wilde Menozzi. I expect to be challenged, inspired and kicked into action. After all, who understands writers better than other writers?