“The International Association of Crime Writers Reveals a World of Crime Writing” (by J. Madison Davis)

The International Association of Crime Writers has had a pivotal role, over the past couple of decades, in facilitating access for crime-fiction fans to works in the field beyond their own cultural and national boundaries. Their efforts in encouraging translation, and in bringing together a network of writers and translators, helped to make possible EQMM’s own Passport to Crime department. This week we hear from J. Madison Davis, the current president of the North American branch of IACW. Last August he ended a five-year term as IACW’s world president. IACW is an organization of writers, and Jim (as he is known to us) is notable in the field, with eight novels in print, the first of them, The Murder of Frau Schütz, an Edgar Allan Poe Award nominee. A professor at the University of Oklahoma, he has written a column on international crime and mystery for World Literature Today since 2004. —Janet Hutchings

Like many, if not most, aspiring writers I started out to write the Great American novel. My conception of the mystery was very narrow. When my father finally bought a used television I was eight. Perry Mason, Michael Shayne, Peter Gunn, and The Defenders filled our screen every week in glorious black and white. I read voraciously and indiscriminately, picking up books for a dime at the local Goodwill and encountered Michael Gilbert’s Smallbone Deceased, an Agatha Christie or two, and others. I read the Hardy Boys whenever I could, and even remember reading a Nancy Drew, something boys didn’t do in those days–or at least didn’t want to be seen doing.

Sometime during elementary and high school, I became aware that I had a certain facility for writing, but never really considered it as a profession. After all, everybody knows it’s not a very good way to make money, and when you grow up at the bottom of the middle class, it doesn’t seem like a sensible way to earn a living. And, of course, when I got to college and actually took creative writing classes, I was indoctrinated with the notion that mysteries were some kind of inferior cousin to serious writing, which was the only kind of writing that mattered.

I realize now that many of my disagreements with my instructors in those days came from my attempts to insert such blazons of literary inferiority as murders, plots, twists, and definite resolutions. After all it was the end of the 60s and John Hawkes had declared plot and character the enemies of fiction. Nonetheless, I published several dozen literary stories in the many literary journals that existed then and will probably, unfortunately, never return in such profusion. Yes, I know, on the whole, no one read those magazines, and they didn’t pay anything except copies, but they kept me writing, got me a job teaching English, and kept me starting and restarting Great American novels.

It’s a long story how my first novel, the Murder of Frau Schütz got to publication, plucked from the slush pile at Walker. It may seem incredible at this point that I did not see my novel as a mystery. I knew there was a murder and the solving of it, but I didn’t yet appreciate the range and varieties of this genre loosely called the mystery. When my novel was submitted into the MWA’s best first Edgar competition, I didn’t think much about it. Many are called, but few are lucky enough to be contenders, and after all, I wasn’t really, ahem, a mystery writer. When I did get nominated, I was stunned, forced to confront the obvious: my head worked this way. I had always enjoyed Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown, and so many other stories of this type. I had been fighting my own inclinations. Suffering a crisis of identity, I read dozens of crime novels and saw their great variety and, yes, seriousness. How could I have so underestimated them?

A whole new world had opened to me, and the world was soon to open quite literally. I received an invitation to join the International Association of Crime Writers. They would be having a meeting in Gijón, Spain, at the Semana Negra, a week long celebration of the crime novel organized by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. I joined and made my arrangements arriving in Madrid, taking a long ride on the King of Spain’s personal train, which had been commandeered by Semana Negra to take all the writers to Gijon in the north. We arrived to a band greeting us with music by Nino Rota, which naturally made everything seem Fellini-esque. I was astounded that they were having an entire carnival complete with rides and concerts, but also stalls selling books.

It was unusual to hold panel discussions in tents next to a Tilt-a-Whirl, but the lack of pretension was refreshing. And I, who had been around a number of different kinds of authors, discovered that crime writers were friendly, generally unpretentious, and not worried about their place in the hierarchy of literature. My experiences among poets, “serious” novelists, and science fiction writers had been that they were constantly angry about the fact that they were not taken as seriously as they felt they deserved. Well, of course, they are not, on the whole, and most don’t deserve to be. I noticed immediately that the European writers were concerned that the crime novel was not given the respect that they felt it deserved in European reviews, and imagined that in America there was a paradise of respect for crime writing. I didn’t tell them that I was at a writer’s colony when my first novel was accepted. My announcement at the communal dinner was greeted with a silent frigidity until someone managed to say, “Well, I might write a mystery someday.” As if. As if it’s something you do with your left hand while your right hand is doing something meaningful.

I have always known crime writers to be supportive of each other, with very few exceptions. This held true on the international level. Some nations do not have a long history of crime writing and each one has its own particular tastes. Last year I was asked to do workshops in Romania, which under the Ceausescu regime had no crime—it was official—no crime. So there were novels about defeating bad guys from the CIA, but little along the lines of what we see commonly in our bookstores and have for more than a century. The French have their own extensive history of crime writing, but embraced noir in a way that even Americans didn’t. After all, they named the style and recognized the quality in writers like Jim Thompson while he was languishing in his alcoholism.

Perhaps the French recognized that it’s a noir world after all before the rest of us. And the hardboiled style proves to be the prevalent popular style globally. The Spanish writers I met just couldn’t “get” Agatha Christie and didn’t know what we Brits and Americans seemed to find in her writing. But Raymond Chandler was God. Part of this is that there is much more chance for social criticism in the noir novel. Spanish writers, French writers, Italian writers, Swedish writers are usually much more concerned with using their crime writing as a vehicle for social commentary.

Seeing the different ways that different writers approach similar subject matters is a benefit to any writer. The original purpose of the International Association of Crime Writers was to encourage communication among writers of different nations and particularly across the Iron Curtain. At the time I joined, writers in Eastern Europe were commonly jailed for the content of their writing. This still happens in the world, and we must never forget it, and never cease to oppose it until it ends. Each writer offers something unique and the culture each comes from enriches their offering. We learn from them; they learn from us. As Tony Bennett said, it doesn’t matter what you call the music, it only matters that it is good. Who knows what we will miss because we did not listen? Crime writing is a global phenomenon. Bookstores in Europe have all the latest bestsellers by American authors. The impact of writers like Stieg Larsson, Pierre Lemaitre, and Natsuo Kirino is significant here and growing. The EQMM “Passport to Crime” series became a reality partly because of the encouragement of the IACW, and has introduced us to many foreign authors.

Because of IACW, I have been to Gijon, Saragoza, Berlin, Frontignan, Zurich, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Oxford, Toronto, Reykjavik, and several other places. One time I hosted an international group in Norman, Oklahoma, which can be as exotic as any place you care to visit. But as interesting as places may be, people are more interesting. If I start listing the friendships and interesting conversations here, this blog would never end. There was a bowling match with the Czech police, a shooting match with the Spanish police, the visit to the bar—just the bar—in a Spanish brothel and the prostitutes so impressed to meet authors, the exotic art hotels in Amsterdam and Berlin, the absinthe in a Swiss author’s garden, shrunken heads in Oxford, and Bob Dylan in a bull ring.

“And thereby hangs a tale,” as Bill said. These and many more.

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