THE WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY FICTION

The Edgar Allan Poe Award nominations for 2012 are out and the staff at EQMM wishes to congratulate Tom Piccirilli, author of the November 2012 EQMM story “The Void It Often Brings With It” and Teresa Solana, author of the March/April 2012 EQMM story “Still Life No.41,” for their nominations for best short story! If you haven’t yet read the stories, don’t miss them!

With the Edgars fresh on my mind as I sat down to write something for this week’s post, I thought, this is the perfect opportunity to say a few words about EQMM’s Passport to Crime department, because the Solana is the first story from the series to earn an Edgar nomination, and one of only a very few stories by non-English-speaking authors ever to get an Edgar nod.

The Passport to Crime department has been a particular pleasure for me to work on over the years. I suppose I have a certain sense of ownership in regard to it, since Passport is the only department in the magazine’s long history that began during my tenure. But that’s the most trivial reason for my attachment to it—there are other, better reasons that I’ll get to. In any case, Passport wasn’t entirely my idea. It grew from seeds planted by two other editors: Frederic Dannay, who brought EQMM into the world as a magazine with a global focus, and who frequently published stories in translation, including—most famously—the first work in English of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges; and Samuel Walker, founder of Walker & Company.

Early in my career I worked for Sam Walker, as Walker & Company’s editor for mystery fiction, and soon discovered I shared with him an interest in British mysteries. Sam was one of the first American publishers to feature books by British crime writers regularly—several on each season’s list. I call him an editor as well as a publisher because it was he who selected many of the British mysteries the company brought out in its early days.

When London was announced as the location for Bouchercon in 1990, I inquired about attending with high hopes. And the trip was, in fact, approved, but on one condition: I was also to see to some other business while in London. It was something that had been percolating in Sam’s mind for some time: He wanted to start a line of mystery fiction in translation. I was to do the rounds of British mystery publishers, talk to their editors, and gather opinions as to whether the project was feasible.

Why approach British publishers with the idea? Because, explained Sam, British publishers and editors, more often than their American counterparts, were fluent in other languages. They were more likely to have read the crime fiction being produced in non-English-speaking countries, and to know whether enough of it was of possible interest to American readers to make a series such as he imagined fly. They were also more likely to know of suitable translators, and agents specializing in foreign mystery fiction. Without a reliable stable of translators and a good idea of which authors we should be trying to sign, we’d have a tough time getting started.

Understand, this was a year before Soho Press started its international crime imprint, which, very slowly, over subsequent decades, helped to make crime-fiction imports a normal and expected part of the American publishing scene. I came back from England with dampening news. No one I had spoken to thought there was likely to be enough good material available to fill a separate imprint. Only a few mysteries in translation were seeing print even in the U.K. Worse, I had been unable to identify appropriate translators, or to make contact with agents specializing in the work of writers from other countries.

The matter was put on a back burner, with Sam presumably turning over, now and then, the prospects for pursuing it. Soon, the excitement of the whole thing—the chance to help launch a new imprint—faded for me; I was absorbed in my work with Walker’s American and British writers, and less than nine months later I’d left Walker for EQMM. Sadly, that same year, Sam Walker died in a canoeing accident.

A decade went by—a decade in which I mostly had too many other things to think about, especially with two changes of ownership at the magazines, to consider again whether it would be possible to do something along the lines of Sam’s idea. Then, suddenly—at least, it seemed sudden, everyone was talking about mysteries in translation. The International Association of Crime Writers, whose focus originally had been on issues such as fighting censorship under oppressive regimes, had shifted to getting non-English-speaking writers into translation for the American and British markets. Imprints such as Soho Crime had grown their lists. Many other publishers were getting in on the trend. I began to think about the possibilities for a short-story translation series, but at first I was skeptical.

Since I don’t read any language but English fluently enough to make literary judgments, I would have to depend entirely on scouts and translators, or already translated material, to identify authors for the series. And we would have to be willing to pay kill fees if, once the translation was done, I didn’t find the resulting work suitable. Then too, we’d be paying a lot more for these translated stories than for our usual fiction, since both author and translator would have to be paid. Would EQMM readers be sufficiently enthusiastic about the series to make it worth the extra work and cost? I had my doubts.

But counterbalancing those doubts was a perhaps justifiable sense that the magazine would benefit if I followed the strong appeal the project had for me personally, just as it had benefitted when Fred Dannay’s passionate search for forgotten mystery stories brought years of wonderful classic reprints to the magazine—passion being as important in editorial endeavors as in everything else. I was curious as to what was out there in other countries. Very curious.

What I found was fascinating. First of all, I noticed many different approaches to the mystery, with German writers more apt to be satirical; Argentine writers more labyrinthine; and the Japanese splitting into two schools—the last practitioners of the pure puzzle and the painters of finely detailed psychological portraits. There were also, of course, many revealing differences in cultural norms and style. My former colleague Cathleen Jordan, at our sister magazine AHMM, always used to say that the mystery story was comparable to the novel of manners. I think she meant that mysteries reveal a lot about societies—their structure, problems, and social dynamics. The point was illustrated particularly clearly for me in the translated stories we began to publish. Mysteries do reveal a lot about the societies from which they emerge, especially when put side by side with stories from other cultures. Nevertheless, more striking to me than the obvious differences the stories displayed were the similarities I discovered again and again in human reactions, motivation, and even sensibility.

Teresa Solana’s story provides a case in point. A few weeks after I bought it, and well before its publication, we received another excellent story set in the art world, by the American author Jonathan Santlofer (“The Muse”: EQMM September/October 2012). The two stories share an obvious similarity of theme, but what is more revealing is that behind both there seem to be eyes that see the world in nearly the same quirky, mocking way—I almost want to say, they’re informed by the same brand of intelligence. The Solana story is lighter in tone and more broadly humorous than the Santlofer, which is full of dark turns. Nevertheless, there appears to me to be much more in common between these two authors than one might have expected with an ocean and a language separating them. For some reason, which I won’t try to analyze here, I find those kinds of commonalities—those glimpses of what is universal in human experience—affirming, sometimes even thrilling. And that, I think, is one of the better reasons why it gives me so much pleasure to publish Passport to Crime.

Getting Passport going wasn’t easy; it was the project of several years. Fortunately, we had the help of Mary Frisque at IACW in identifying translators. And after a while, our network of contacts grew, so that we now have agents or translators alerting us to material in many parts of the world.

I think it’s been worth the effort. I hope our readers think so too.—Janet Hutchings, EQMM

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This entry was posted in Awards, Editing, Ellery Queen, Fiction, History, Magazine, Translation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to THE WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY FICTION

  1. What a remarkable story, Janet. Love these peeks into the EQMM magic. Congratulations to you all on the Edgar noms!

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