BLOG: Crime Without Borders

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I just started reading a book written by a Canadian that takes place in Toronto and it struck me that I barely noticed the change in scenery. Here in America we are known as being self-centered jingoistic snobs about the rest of the world. I’m not sure, but I’d bet most of the globe doesn’t do the same “We’re number one!” grandstanding our politicians and “real” Americans do. Well, maybe in North Korea. Sometimes I get the sense that we also think we invented crime writing, and by extension, we invented crime.


I’ve read several books lately by foreign (to me) authors and I’m amazed at how the details may be site-specific, but crime is the universal language. Right now we are experiencing a surge of Scandinavian crime popularity. Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsen and several others I can’t spell have been invading our shores like Vikings with their snowbound mysteries. Life in Norway or (gasp!) the socialist republic of Sweden is a far cry from our lives of mini malls and fast food, but the core stories about murder and death still resonate. The chief complaint I’ve heard about the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series is the stuff about culture and politics. Once it gets to the central mystery, borders be damned, just tell me a good story.


Americans have long been exporting our culture in books, TV and movies. Writers like Joe Lansdale and Victor Gischler enjoy sales better than their stateside numbers in places like Italy. But anyone who has both seen a Dario Argento movie and read a Gischler book can understand why. Crime needs no translation. A murder in New York is the same as the one in Johannesberg. And I love that.


A slew of my favorite writers these days are British or Scottish. Newcomers like Ian Ayris who is kicking ass with his very British Abide With Me and guys like Allan Guthrie who writes stories set in the British Isles, but could be anywhere. Anywhere with a surplus of body bags, that is. ¬†For me the universality of the story is what makes it work. If the story kicks your ass with awesome, who cares what accent it speaks with while it’s beating you?


I know for some, the thrill of vicariously visiting faraway lands is part of the thrill. Cara Black’s Paris-set thrillers attract a certain romantic readership drawn in by the city of lights. Every now and then a Japanese translation will make it onto our shores and we get a glimpse of a different culture and we notice the way they do things differently and speak differently, until it comes to the crime. Then we’re back to the old unspoken human condition.


It’s the same reason action movies play to international audiences better than romances or dramas. Violence is universal. A chase is universal. The desire to right a wrong or avenge a death is pure human gorilla-brain instinct. Doesn’t matter where you came from. And right now, in film, many of the freshest voices in crime cinema are coming from foreign soil. Australia has turned out some fantastic crime dramas like The Square and Animal Kingdom. And Korea has been on a tear with Oldboy, I Saw The Devil and more.


We’ve even imported several TV shows, and not only from English speaking countries. Sure, we’ve got our own version of Sherlock coming, but we’ve also got our Seattle-based version of The Killing, originally in Dutch. And we sometimes send our crime shows overseas too, as with the long-running Law and Order franchise. Hell, the BBC even started re-importing that one back to us on BBC America. A crime is a crime is a crime. It all comes full circle.


Of course, this opens up the world to a slew of books I want to add to my to-be-read pile, but oh well. This American anyway, won’t be put off by some odd slang or descriptions of a city I’ve never been to. I read stories about made up places just fine, why are the streets of Berlin any different if I’ve never been there? I’m interested to hear if readers on foreign shores find very much uniquely American in our novels. American books sell well overseas. I’d bet, through only anecdotal evidence, that international readers are better at accepting an American product than we are at sharing in what they’ve got to say. But after all, we’re number one! We’re number one! We’re number one!


  1. Hudson says:

    Try Ken Bruen-Galway setting and a totally unique protagonist. Literature with some crime woven into it’s fabric

  2. Terry Butler says:

    This is an interesting topic. I thought about it a lot recently after seeing a movie called Stray Dog. It’s a noir by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, made in 1949 and starring a maybe-mid-20′s Toshiro Mifune as a young patrol cop who has his gun stolen and then used in a murder. That’s all I’ll tell you.
    The photography and actual street settings, the bizarre underworld characters, the tension that builds and builds are no different than in any other great film noir of the period. Its a Criterion Collection product and is available to buy at their site or rent at netflix. It’s a great film.