Why do novels in the crime fiction genre become such essential companions to so many of us? Leaving aside any potential literary value, is it because they transport us from an often unfulfilling reality? Or because their use of language is so vivid and stimulating? Or because the more ambitious books tell us something about the human condition? All of those things, yes – but there is another reason. As Ian Rankin has noted, crime fiction is often an unvarnished guide to a country you may be visiting.
Such as the work of a writer who has the full measure of his country. Deon Meyer’s South Africa is laid bare in Icarus (Hodder, £17.99), written — as always — in Afrikaans (and translated by K.L. Seegers); it is as glittering and hard as the diamonds his country is famous for. Grizzled detective Benny Griesell is investigating the case of a body buried under sand dunes north of Cape Town, but he has a handicap: he has been dry for over 600 days, his will power in shreds. The corpse is that of the MD of a tech start-up company, Alibis, which forges appointments, documents and phone calls enabling adulterers to cheat on their partners. Meyer utilises the crime fiction genre as an apparatus to create an unsparing, multifaceted picture of his homeland.
Moving north to Sweden, we’re in the company of a lieutenant colonel in the Swedish air force, with such dangerous assignments as hunting down Somali pirates. But this is not, however, the protagonist of Robert Karjel’s novel My Name is N (HarperCollins, £16.99) — it’s the author himself, whose sedentary engagement with his laptop is in direct contrast to his day job. As this may suggest, the novel (translated by Nancy Pick and the author) is not typical Nordic noir — steadily paced, atmospheric, socially committed — but inhabits the territory of the international blockbuster thriller. Swedish copper Ernst Grip travels to a remote military base in the US to determine whether or not the eponymous prisoner ‘N’ is a Swedish citizen, but the bond between the two men becomes a lethal one.
Still with the Swedes, Scandicrime of a more orthodox nature is to be found in the reliable Arne Dahl’s 2001 Europa Blues (Harvill Secker, £12.99), receiving a belated translation in this country courtesy of Alice Menzies. Dahl’s Intercrime Unit (speciality: violent crime) looks into the macabre murder of a Greek gangster at Skansen zoo, his body devoured by animals.
A very different writer is Johan Theorin, whose fragile, glass-boned narrative style assumes an operatic scale in The Voices Beyond (Doubleday, £12.99). We’re still on the haunting island of Öland, but the tension is screwed tighter than usual, with Jonas Kloss taking a boat out at night to discover a ship with a grisly cargo and personal danger in an excellent English rendition by Marlaine Delargy. And kudos for the Norwegian Nik Frobenius, whose Dark Branches (Sandstone Press, £8.99, translated by Frank Stewart) is a disquieting entry from the author of the twice-filmed Insomnia.
More darkness: German crime fiction has been making steady inroads in terms of international sales (a major study of the field is en route from Katharina Hall), and it has a heavyweight ambassador in Andrea Maria Schenkel. The Dark Meadow (Quercus, £7.99) may not have the gravitas of her breakthrough book The Murder Farm, but in an economical 100 pages, this has concentrated force (in a trenchant translation by Anthea Bell). An unmarried mother in 1947 is murdered for her transgression.
Another brief book is a reminder that although Latin American crime remains terra incognito to many, some startling discoveries may be made. Such as Crimes (MacLehose Press, £16.99) by Alberto Barrera Tyszka (translator: Margaret Jull Costa). These unsettling stories set surreal horror against a cool disquisition on human nature, their precisely judged effects frequently echoing the great Jorge Luis Borges.