International Crime Fiction: Spotlight on Spain

  • Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz

2016’s been a prolific year for crime fiction set in Spain, ranging from tales of 16th century rebellion against the Inquisition to 1970s punk protests of Franco’s fascist regime. The volumes below remind us that, in Spanish history, just as in the Pyrenees, there are many highs and lows. All make for fascinating backdrops…to murder. 

9781101982730Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr 

The Spanish king sends a trusted converso judge, Bernardo de Mendoza, to investigate a priest’s bloody murder in a region known for the tolerance of the local gentry and the suspicions of the local Inquisition. More murders have occurred by the time the investigating judge and his party arrive – the mutilated corpses of four drovers point a finger at the area’s former Muslim inhabitants, yet Mendoza suspects the murders stem from another force looking to persecute Moriscos, or Muslims forced to convert to Catholicism. This story speaks to the brutality of the 16th century and the rising xenophobia of our own day. With The Devils of Cardona, Matthew Carr has created a visceral historical mystery and a passionate plea for tolerance. You can find copies on our shelves or via bookpeople.com

9781616956288Blood Crime by Sebastia Alzamora

While I normally read about anarchist Barcelona from the other side, I thoroughly enjoyed this bizarre tale of bloody murder, told from the perspective of priests attempting to leave Republican Spain and join their brethren in the South of France. As they negotiate with an anarchist leader whose sister, herself a nun, has convinced him to aid in their escape, a vampire picks off priests and altar boys amidst the chaos. A strangely endearing mixture of gothic horror, murder mystery, and political commentary, originally published in Catalan and brought to US audiences by SoHo Press. Copies are available via special order in-store or via bookpeople.com

9781501131677The Sleeping World by Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

This political thrill-ride of a novel follows a group of teens who attack a policeman at a protest in 1970s Spain, and must go on the run and hope that a regime change happens sooner, rather than later. Along the way, they discover lingering graffiti tags from the protagonist’s disappeared brother, mapping a path of mourning for the unnaturally lost across the landscape. Fuentes vividly recreates a time of massive shifts in Spanish politics and the rebellious power of a punk-rock lifestyle under a fascist regime. You can find copies on our shelves or via bookpeople.com

9781632061096The Winterlings by Cristina Sanchez-Andrade

After beguiling Spanish critics and winning the English Pen Award, The Winterlings, an eerie tale of lingering secrets from Cristina Sanchez-Andrade, now makes its way across the pond by our friends at Restless Books. The Winterlings tells the strange story of two sisters who return to their village after a long exile. Their initial reason for leaving? Their father’s brutal murder during the Spanish Civil War. Their reason for returning? A secret to the curious villagers, but not to the sisters… You can find copies on our shelves or via bookpeople.com

MysteryPeople Q&A with international crime fiction publisher Ilan Stavans

– Post by Molly

All month long here at  MysteryPeople, BookPeople’s mystery bookstore-within-a-bookstore, we’ve been celebrating International Crime Fiction Month in a variety of ways, including book club picks, internationally-themed Crime Fiction Friday posts, and a film screening of Coup de Torchon, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic noir novel, Pop 1280. We also brought you an interview with Danusia Stok, who has translated Marek Krajewski’s Inspector Mock series, among many others.

As June wraps up, we’ve got another interview for you. Molly asked Ilan Stavans, publisher at Restless Books, about what it’s like to work in international publishing. Mr. Stavans was kind enough to send some answers along. Ilan Stavans has had a variety of literary occupations, including essayist, translator, publisher, and short-story author. He is a prominent cultural commentator and public intellectual who is known for his analysis of American, Mexican and Jewish culture, as well as Latino and Jewish identity.

Mr. Stavans has worked as the publisher for Restless Books for the past two years. According to its mission statement, Restless Books is “an independent publisher for readers and writers in search of new destinations, experiences, and perspectives…committed to bringing out the best of international literature—fiction, journalism, memoirs, poetry, travel writing, illustrated books, and more—that reflects the restlessness of our multiform lives.”

Restless Books works to publish great international literature, and that includes science fiction, crime fiction, nonfiction, and a soon-to-be-launched classics line, Restless Classics. Don Quixote, Restless Classics’  first release, comes out in October in a special 400th anniversary edition. Restless Classics will add two titles to the line each year. The next four classics are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, and Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz’s Poems and Protest.

Restless Books has also recently reissued one of my favorite detective novels, Four Hands, by Mexican crime novelist, historian, and prominent left-wing activist Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Four Hands is available as an ebook only and you can find it on your Kobo reader, the e-reader that supports independent bookstores. Read the interview below to find out more about Ilan Stavans, Restless Books, and the world of international publishing.


ilan stavans

Molly O: What are your thoughts about translating crime fiction, and genre fiction, in particular?

Ilan Stevens: I’m a lover of genre fiction: a voracious reader of detective and crime novels as well as SF. Restless Books has just published two extraordinary Science Fiction novels from Cuba, Agustín de Rojas’s Legend of the Future and Yoss’s A Planet for Rent. As you know, SF often focuses in the dystopian future as a metaphor of the exhausted present and these two novels are an extraordinary opportunity to understand the way the future has been approached in Cuba, a place that for over fifty years has stubbornly proposed an alternative, if equally imperfect and mendacious present.

Genre literature is often criticized as formulaic. But there is great talent in bending the formula, making it elastic, more idiosyncratic. That is the impression one gets when reading genre fiction from across the world. Dashiell Hammett is better appreciated against a background of hard-boiled novels from Pakistan, Bolivia, Israel, and Poland. Thus, translating their hard-boiled books is not only entertainment and a good investment(because genre fiction comes with a built-in-audience), but also culturally enriching.

Restless Books will bring out more SF next year. It has already published Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a master of the hard-boiled in Mexico. And it is preparing more detective novels.

MO: Low numbers of books are translated into English from other languages each year, compared to the number originally published into English. What accounts for the low numbers?

IS: The United States, the world’s superpower and a country made of immigrants, is embarrassingly parochial when it comes to literary translation: according to estimates, only around 3% of new books published annually are translations. This is in contrast with countries like Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, and Norway, where the percentage can sometimes reach above 50%. The empire is insular, the empire is shallow at its core. We appear to say to others: gives us your poor, your huddled masses, but once they are here, we’ll make sure they don’t look back because we believe we are better than everyone else. What accounts for this pitiful allergy, this meager literary diet? It also has to do with the dominance of English as a global language. And with the way literary markets work, giving others the impression that what gets translated into other languages is proof of success in English. Restless is part of a small but significant group of small publishers of literary translation in America (Archipelago, Other Press, Melville…) eager to bring change.

MO: What do you think are the languages easiest to translate into English? Which are some of the hardest?

IS: Translation is never easy, no matter the language, although it might appear deceivingly simple in some cases. There are books that have been translated into English twenty times (one example is Don Quixote) while thousands of others merit the journey but linger in oblivion. When translating a book that has already been done, it is important to pay tribute, even to draw from one’s predecessors. And when the effort is the first in line, it is crucial to remind the reader that the work at hand comes from elsewhere, that there is an element of foreignness in it that is essential.

MO: When a book has appeal across many different languages and cultures, what, do you think, accounts for this appeal? What themes and genres translate most widely?

IS: Ours in the twenty-first century is a global culture: we want to know what others in remote places of the planet thinking, what they dream. We want to feel that they are our contemporaries, that we live the same present moment in different ways. Global culture, to exist, depends on an emphasis in local elements. Truth is, books that become universal have a way of emphasizing regional aspects. This is a difficult line to walk: how to reach others beyond one’s confine by focusing on what we know best, our own little corner, our home. Audiences are rather open to genres and themes as long as the author, they feel, is at once original and authentic. The translator’s challenge is to preserve that originality and authenticity while also reminding readers that what they have in front of their eyes is foreign.

MO: This one is kind of a broader question – what is it like to work in the world of international publishing?

IS: It is enormously inspiring. As an essayist, translator, and cultural commentator (born in Mexico), for years I complained that American readers have a disturbingly constrained literary diet. A few years back, when I turned fifty, I decided to stop complaining and do something about it. This has taken me from one side of the page (putting words on it) to another (producing that page). I have been able to understand, from within, the laws that govern international literary markets, to appreciate how fashion is shaped, and, hopefully, to look for the courage to make a difference.

International Crime Fiction Friday, Part 1: SOUTH OF SARAJEVO by Fred F. Fleischer and FOUR HANDS: Chapter I by Paco Ignacio Taibo II


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MysteryPeople celebrates International Crime Fiction month all June long with Crime Fiction Fridays from international authors or with stories set outside the United States. 

– Post by Molly

In June, we celebrate International Crime Fiction Month, and perhaps now is the time to explore the many meanings of “international” when it comes to crime fiction. International crime fiction simply means fiction set in another country. Usually we apply this term to fiction written and originally published in another country. International Crime Fiction Month, in particular, is a collaboration of publishers, including Akashic, Europa Editions, Melville House, Grove Atlantic and Soho Press, to promote crime fiction in translation. The other primary connotation to international crime fiction is fiction which is set outside of the country where it is published and draws readers with a foreign setting.

These two crime fiction windows into other cultures and contexts – fiction by our countrymen set elsewhere, and fiction by authors from that elsewhere – may both fall under the umbrella of international crime fiction, but represent very different interactions between author and setting. When an author chooses a setting within her (their) own context, it serves as a method of total cultural immersion (for the duration of the novel), yet frequently a reader unfamiliar with the setting may miss out on small references and inside jokes – the untranslatable miasma.

When an author becomes adventurous and writes a tale set outside of his context, a reader gains from the extra level of explanation given by an author assuming his readers’ unfamiliarity with their subject or setting, but loses out on the natural feel of a setting the writer herself is immersed within. Additionally, tales by western authors with “exotic”settings carry the potential for revealing more about the deeply embedded prejudice of the author and their culture than about the stories’ setting.

“We risk, as readers, letting any unconscious bias we may have towards less familiar contexts continue to be held, unnoticed, until they are challenged; and the more we immerse ourselves in other cultures, places, and contexts, the more opportunity we may have to subvert our own bias.”

While I enjoy all internationally minded crime fiction, whether written in Marseilles, Dhaka, Singapore or in a motel across town, I try to balance my reading to include authors from other cultures, authors from my own culture who enjoy writing about other cultures, and a healthy number of authors who straddle many cultures. We risk, as readers, letting any unconscious bias we may have towards less familiar contexts continue to be held, unnoticed, until they are challenged; and the more we immerse ourselves in other cultures, places, and contexts, the more opportunity we may have to subvert our own bias.

With this in mind, I bring you the first installment of a month of Crime Fiction Fridays celebrating International Crime Fiction Month. Today, we bring you two pieces. The first, Fred F. Fleischer’s “South of Sarajevo,” I bring to you courtesy of Black Mask Magazine’s selection of classic detective tales from the 1920s and 30s, available here.  In this tale of horse thievery gone wrong, an old man recounts his betrayal and subsequent revenge in a folktale-style story that straddles the crime and adventure genres of fiction.

The story uses its Bosnian setting purely for entertainment, rather than social criticism or a lens into another culture, yet the author’s lyrical style seems to draw inspiration from Arabic and Persian writings, and interferes in interesting ways with Fleischer’s ability to stick to genre conventions. The conventions of genre and of imperialism clash in the story, making for a more subversive narrative than the original date of publication would have led one to believe.

We also bring you the first chapter of Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s literary noir masterpiece, Four Hands. Taibo’s novel ranges over much of Mexico’s turbulent history and contains a vast array of characters, including Leon Trotsky, exiled in Mexico City, working on a detective novel. Restless Books recently republished Four Hands and you can read the following excerpt on their website in full. You can find copies of Four Hands available as an e-book from Kobo

“South of Sarajevo” by Fred F. Fleischer

“It is an old saying, effendi: ‘When the Gipsy comes to the village, guard thy horses and thy women.’ This is not written in the Koran, but is a saying of the people of Bosnia and there is much truth in these words, as I shall tell thee.

I would rather smoke one of thy cigarets, effendi, one of those thou hast brought from Istamboul. There is good tobacco, Anatolian tobacco, in them and the smoke is blue. Those which I must buy from Stefanopoulos, the Greek, are bad. Since the war began, he has mixed tea and laurel leaves with cheap Drama tobacco. His cigarets are poor and so am I. But he is rich.

Ayee, effendi, give me one of thy cigarets and listen to this tale…”

Read the rest of the story.

Four Hands: Chapter One, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

“July 19, 1923, around five-thirty in the afternoon, a man made his way across the international bridge that separated El Paso (Texas) from Juarez (Chihuahua). It was hot. Four carts transporting barbed wire into Mexico had filled the air with dust. From his office, the Mexican customs officer absently contemplated the skinny man, dressed in gray, wearing a black derby and carrying a shabby leather bag, who was approaching him. He didn’t find the man important in the least and went back to submerge himself in the book of poems by Ruben Dario that he was reading conscientiously. He was trying to memorize a poem so that he could recite it later, sprawled out on cushions with a French whore he frequented who liked such things.

The gawky man, who seemed to be walking on clouds of cotton, reached the Mexican customs officer’s desk and deposited his bag on the counter gently, as if not wanting to get mixed up in anyone’s life, perhaps not even his own. The customs officer lifted his head, filled with images of acanthus flowers and brilliantly feathered birds, and carefully observed the gringo. He recognized the face. Someone who crossed the border frequently? A merchant? No, that wasn’t it. An extremely pale face, ears wide apart, a mouth that begged a smile that never came, small flustered eyes. It all made you want to protect him, made you want to invite him to recite poetry in a duet with you…”

Read the rest of the story.