Foreign Bodies – edited by Martin Edwards – review

Published by British Library

Publication date – 5 October 2017

Source – review copy

The first ever collection of classic crime in translation. Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue – but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality.

Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

A coronet of the guards is murdered, his body absent from the crime scene. A Countess pleads with Hungarian police to protect her from her revenge seeking brother-in-law. A bed-ridden man manages to procure drugs even though he has no visitors. These are some of the stories to feature in the new collection of translated classic crime short stories.

This is a varied collection and as with most collated works, some of the stories were more appealing than others. There are some that remain in the memory, others that are recalled when the book is picked up again. The stories vary in length and tone, the authors nationalties cover the globe.

There is one name that will be recognisable amongst many in the collection which have passed by English speaking readers. I can finally say I have read something by Anton Chekov as the first story of the collection, The Swedish Match, is by the man himself.

There is an art to writing a good short story, particularly evident in a crime or mystery story. The author has few words to play with, must quickly set the scene, lay out all of the suspects, leave enough red herrings and reveal the culprit, all in the space of what would amount to a couple of chapters in a novel.

Some stories stand out more than others. Particular favourites include Footprints in the Snow by Maurice Leblanc, The Spider by Koga Saburo, The Venom of the Tarantula by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay and The Puzzle of the Broken Watch by Maria Elvira Bermudez.

There are obvious influences from crime-writing stalwarts. Both Footprints in the Snow and The Venom of the Tarantula have shades of Holmes and Watson about them, for example, as does The Return of Lord Kingwood. Be sure to read the introductions to each author by Martin Edwards which provide an interesting overview of the writer, and which often note influences.

These are stories written before the advent of forensic evidence and fingerprints. It was detection and sometimes pure, old-fashioned luck, that solved the case. Many of them are puzzle murders, where logical thinking wins the day. When reading the stories it is easy to imagine the wonder and entertainment they created for contemporary readers. The twists have to be more logical, yet unforseen, though some, as in The Spider, would have appeared almost fantastical.

An interesting collection and a great introduction to translated fiction from the past. I’ll be looking out for more work by many of these authors should they become available.

 

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