commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels


I'm fascinated with crime fiction. I'm not alone. Many people like me – middle-aged, middle-class, addicted readers, with money for books (or alternatively a library card) and with some leisure time (discretionary or enforced) – love to read crime fiction. American writer Heywood Broun said that "in the march up to the heights of fame, there comes a spot close to the summit in which a man reads nothing but detective stories." I'd amend the statment: in the march toward retirement and the grave, there comes a spot where you spend the rest of your life reading detective stories.

For me, it may have come at the age of six. I have written elsewhere about the indelible appeal of the Hardy Boys. I collected a whole cobbled-together set of Hardy Boys, half old beige hardcovers with lurid dust-jackets, half blue-bound postwar revisions. They're on my office shelf as I write.

Across the office is another collection of detective novels, Georges Simenon's numbered set of postwar paperback Maigrets: numbered 1-53. Though here too I have cobbled the set together: most have black and white spines and blurry cover photos, printed c1990, but many are from other decades, their covers – garish or understated as the era demanded – offering a miniature history of French book design.

I'm not alone in loving Maigret and the Hardy Boys. Yet many of my friends, in and out of academia, treat detective fiction as a mindless pastime. It can be mindless, at times, but so are other kinds of intellectual pursuits, even of the highest brow. Our society devotes enormous money and time to consuming detective stories. "Escapism" is hardly why. Crime fiction is a way of understanding the world.

cid is like a blog in that new material will continually appear. The dates at the bottom of the page will show when an item was first put up, and when I've most recently changed it. But I provide no backwards blog-style chronology of postings. The site is designed to look static while constantly changing.

I read English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish; accidentally I also have an interest in Danish and Icelandic literature, though I can't read more than a stray word of either language. Thus I will quote from originals when I can (translating into English myself), and from translations when I can't read the original. Among my goals is to heighten consciousness of translation. Native speakers of English take it for granted that the entire world will eventually come to them. We sometimes think of "foreign" languages as an irrational veneer of gibberish over the universal clarity of the English language. But the global dominance of English means that there are far more English-language writers than English readers can read. As a result, writers of Krimis in other languages face an uphill battle getting their work read in English. A Swedish author may find that his or her work gets into Danish, Norwegian, and German but not into English, or finds a UK publisher but not one in the United States. If it seems at times that American bookstores are crammed with Swedish mysteries, reflect that even at that a relatively small percentage of Swedish crime fiction reaches English translation, and a smaller percentage of that reaches the US.

I have experienced "foreign" cultures and literatures largely via detective novels, and primarily, within the detective novel, via the detective-inspector novel. Der Richter und sein Henker was the first novel I read in German. Maigret was my gateway to French literature, and decades later I have read all of them, and about half of Simenon's novels, which is a lot of novels. I applied my Italian to Andrea Camilleri, where it just about extends to comprehension of his strange hybrid Sicilian, an artificial literary creation that must be the bane of Palermo proofreaders.

If one only reads English, one doesn't appreciate the international breadth of the detective-inspector phenomenon in fiction, even given the saturation of print and video with detective-inspector stories. There are far more polars even in the languages I can read than I will be able to take in in a lifetime – to say nothing of all the languages, like Swedish, that I can't.

I'm obviously writing in English; but in parts of this site I use scraps of many different languages, in the interests of comparative literature and on the principle that we ought to embrace the fact that other languages exist – even as English, that linguistic monoculture, supplants the world's other tongues. I also want to acknowledge the hard work and creativity of translators. I came to this project obliquely by writing about translation and doing some translation that will likely never see the light of day; but that initial discipline has led me to see the entire genre of crime fiction, and the thousands of writers collaborating internationally to share it across borders, in a new light.

As a result, I've put bibliography at the heart of this project, attempting to account for first editions, popular editions, and translations into those languages closest to me, as well as listing selected criticism and scholarship.

Feel free to suggest new books I should read to, and I'll try to get to them. If I write an essay here about a book, I'll always have read the whole thing. Books represented just by bibliographical entries I may have read, or started, or merely glanced at. I am trying to strike a balance between representing my own reading experience, and making cid useful for those who want to have different reading experiences.