On the Trail of the Next Great Crime Novel: After ‘Dragon Tattoo,’ Will Readers Flock to a More Exotic Noir?

These detectives appreciate a different kind of caper.

total chaos coverDetective Fabio Montale is having a rough week. His best friends are dead, he keeps getting beaten up, and his city is descending into, as the title of the novel he stars in suggests, Total Chaos. But he still has time for a little bass. Fennel-stuffed and grilled, maybe, with a lasagna sauce and peppers, “gently fried.” Some friends are coming over for pastis and Lagavulin and gin rummy by the sea, and they expect the copper to cook.

“I was finally calming down,” Montale thinks. “Cooking had that effect on me. My mind could escape the twisted labyrinth of thought and concentrate on smells and tastes. And pleasure.”

The kitchen is an escape for this harried gumshoe, but Total Chaos, part of author Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy, is not mere escapist literature. Mr. Izzo used detective fiction to shine a light on France’s rugged southern port and the corruption that turned his stunning hometown into one of the most dangerous cities in Western Europe. The city loved him for it, and when he died in 2000, Marseilles’s bookstores closed their doors and filled their shop windows with Mr. Izzo’s pioneering novels.

If Kent Carroll, the publisher of Europa Editions, has his way, Mr. Izzo’s brand of Mediterranean noir will soon free the American reader from the icy grip of frostbitten Scandinavian detectives. After almost a decade of publishing literary fiction from Europe and beyond, the ever-expanding Europa is branching out into crime, joining a small group of independent presses that have distinguished themselves by putting out the kind of high-minded thriller that the giants of publishing seem to have no time for. Europa’s World Noir line, which launched last week, features Mr. Izzo and his international ilk: thriller writers who temper their mayhem with serious social critique. Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade this isn’t. These are writers who don’t mind letting their hard-boiled detectives take a break from the straight-faced misery of P.I. work to enjoy the finer things in life, like sipping espresso and contemplating the infinite. Whether or not Americans are ready for this kind of refined crime fiction remains a mystery.

“It’s quite one thing to describe a corrupt policeman,” said Mr. Carroll. “It’s another to describe a dinner in Marseilles with friends.”

Jean-Claude Izzo.
Jean-Claude Izzo.

Europa was founded in 2005 by the Italian husband-and-wife publishing duo Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The couple made a name for themselves publishing English-language literature in Italy and thought they might have success doing the same thing in reverse. To oversee their American operation, they hired the venerable Mr. Carroll, a former editorial director of Grove Press, whom Melville House’s Dennis Johnson described as “old New York literary royalty.”

Mr. Carroll has a long face, thin gray hair and the quiet smile of a prep school English teacher whose student has just made a clever point. After more than nearly four decades running publishing houses, the king of Europa has a bulging Rolodex. It was at his elbow late last month as he sat in a yellow cardigan and corduroy jacket in his office, laying out his theory of crime fiction.

“Most people who read genre fiction—science fiction or romance or crime—they tend to be habituates,” he said. “They tend to buy a lot. And they essentially want the same experience over and over.”

The lasting influence of hard-boiled authors like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain means that American readers will recognize much of what goes on behind the exotic World Noir covers. He may be a detective constable, but a cop is still a cop. Unlike their best-selling American counterparts, Mr. Carroll’s authors refuse to sacrifice moral complexity to the demands of plot.

“In places like Italy, where you have very little investigative journalism, people who write crime novels are really doing what journalists do here,” he said. “They’re exposing corruption.”

The grandfather of Italian crime fiction is Carlo Emilio Gadda, whose 1946 novel That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana treated crime as a gnommero, or tangle. Antony Shugaar is Europa’s go-to translator for Italian fiction, and he said that Italy’s “history of violence and subversion” makes its authors capable of imagining a web of corruption that American crime authors simply cannot fathom. In World Noir novels, answers do not come easy, and the culprit is less likely to be a single villain than the system itself.

“At author events, these guys spend most of their time speaking about what’s going on in their town, in their region,” said Michael Reynolds, Europa’s editor in chief, whose job it is to make sure that these “social crime novels” have not just a conscience but a pulse as well. “Crime fiction has stepped into the void that investigative journalism left behind.”

What Mr. Izzo did for Marseilles, Gene Kerrigan aims to do for Dublin. His sprawling novel The Rage was released in February as part of a soft launch for Europa World Noir, and it shows Ireland as a broken country, its landscape littered with half-finished developments, its jails full of bankers.

“Things have been very exciting in a bad way in Ireland for the last few years,” said Mr. Kerrigan in an interview.

Gene Kerrigan.
Gene Kerrigan.

Mr. Kerrigan is a journalist, and he gives the impression that he has more important things to worry about than who’s publishing his novels. He had never heard of Europa Editions until his agent mentioned its interest in publishing him, and he summed up their relationship succinctly.

“The way it’s been published has been very gratifying to see,” he said. “Beyond that, I pay very little attention.”

On the other hand, Stav Sherez, author of the London-set thriller A Dark Redemption, is “chuffed” to be working with Mr. Carroll. “All my cultural influences tend to be American,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be published in America.” In A Dark Redemption, Mr. Sherez delves into the Ugandan civil war with a gravity that goes far beyond “Kony 2012.” Like the work of Messrs. Izzo and Kerrigan, his novel is tied so tightly to its subject matter and setting that the only American analogue Mr. Reynolds could find was The Wire.

Mr. Johnson, the co-founder of Melville House, reached for an even loftier comparison, the holy trinity of American crime writing: Chandler, Hammett and Cain. “They were really good, serious writers,” he said last week. “They were writing stories based on the troubles of their time. The Great Depression. The rise of fascism. And I think American crime writing has gotten away from that.”

To promote its new line, Europa has joined forces with Melville, Akashic and Grove/Atlantic—all of which have their own noir to push—to curate a month of readings and events dubbed “International Crime Month.” These four houses are, according to Mr. Johnson, “very simpatico.”

“Michael Reynolds roped me into it,” he said. “That’s what they do at Europa, they Europa you into ideas.” (Huzzah!)

The idea behind the joint promotion is that crime readers are hungry for exotic material in a way that literary readers are not, which helps explain why crime fiction mostly appears in regional waves—like a certain Swedish trilogy (ahem) that’s left behind a considerable gap in imported crime fiction. No genre is more rooted in its setting than crime (think of the classic noir trope of a detective driving around a city hunting down clues, making a kind of map along the way). So while it might be hard to sell a literary novel set in the Philippines on the strength of its backdrop alone, a collection of stories like Akashic’s forthcoming Manila Noir is enough to set a crime-fiction addict’s mouth watering. Johanna Ingalls, managing editor at Akashic, said that it’s “a lot easier to get information into the hands” of crime readers.

“There’s so much interest [in] and support of American writers abroad,” she said, “that I sometimes feel embarrassed that there’s not a reciprocal interest from American readers.”


On the Trail of the Next Great Crime Novel: After ‘Dragon Tattoo,’ Will Readers Flock to a More Exotic Noir?