“Not From Around Here” (by Leslie Elman)

A current nominee for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Short Story for her January/February 2020 EQMM story “The Summer Uncle Cat Came to Stay,” Leslie Elman had short stories published in just two other venues—Mystery Weekly and Vautrin Magazine—prior to her EQMM debut. We congratulate her on the extraordinary achievement of being nominated for the field’s most prestigious short-story award so early in her career. The winner will be announced at the end of April. The author also writes the syndicated newspaper column “Trivia Bits.” It turns out that she is a regular reader of EQMM, and in this post she references an important department of the magazine, Passport to Crime. —Janet Hutchings

Scrolling through Twitter (as I’ve been doing entirely too much these days), I came upon a link to “A Year of Reading the World.” It’s a blog written by U.K. author Ann Morgan based on her 2015 book, Reading the World (published in the U.S. and Canada as The World Between Two Covers). The book was the result of Morgan’s “year-long journey through a book from every country in the world.” Over the course of that odyssey, she drew some conclusions about “the big questions . . . such as how translation, censorship, cultural identity and technology affect the way we share and understand stories.”

In a more informal way, considering much smaller questions, I’ve pursued a similar goal: “Reading the World” through mystery and crime fiction—not reading about a country other than my own, but reading from that country. There’s a difference. For while countless ex-pat authors write mysteries set in their adopted homelands, there’s an authenticity that comes from authors writing about the people and places, customs and behavior they know natively and intuitively.

Among my early forays into “foreign” crime fiction were the Alba and Gorodish novels written by Daniel Odier under the pseudonym Delacorta. They include Diva, the basis for the French-language film released in the U.S. in 1982. Short, spare, and [disclaimer] not necessarily politically correct, the Delacorta books helped me understand that a writer can paint a vivid picture and plot a clever tale using a limited number of words, provided they’re the right words.

After Delacorta, I read George Simenon and, much later, Pascal Garnier (“true heir to Simenon,” per John Banville’s cover blurb), both masters of tight, tense storytelling. They took me places I’d never been, introduced me to people unlike those I knew, fed me meals I’d never eaten.

Reading these novels also reminded me that international fiction isn’t limited to the classics we (were supposed to have) read in college. Ordinary French-speaking readers of today weren’t on a steady diet of Victor Hugo. They were consuming popular novels like this.

When the world was all-in for Scandinavian crime fiction, I read the obligatory Stieg Larsson “Girl” books (well, two of them), but found I preferred Camilla Lackberg’s novels set in the small town of Fjällbacka and Henning Mankell’s Wallander books set in Ystad.

I liked Icelandic authors even more. Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City was rooted in concerns about genetic research, an issue that had particular resonance for Icelanders. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir based her novel, Ashes to Dust, on events that might have followed the real volcanic eruption on Heimaey Island in 1973.

The authors rightly assumed that Icelandic readers would be aware of these circumstances and events in the same way an American author might figure American readers are familiar with the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. If I didn’t know about historic volcanic eruptions in Iceland, it was up to me to catch up. I caught up.

I’m intrigued by points of reference: why people know what they know—and why they don’t know what they don’t know.

If you watch Jeopardy!, you’ve almost certainly been flabbergasted when some super-smart player misses a question that seems achingly obvious to you. “That’s common knowledge!” you shout at the TV screen in disgust. But that depends on what you consider “common.”

Through my experience in the world of international quizzing, as a question setter and occasional competitor, I’ve witnessed many instances in which “common knowledge” would more appropriately be termed “local knowledge”—Canadians bemused by non-Canadians who’ve never heard of Nanaimo bars, or a team of Australians chuckling when a team of Americans (that included me) blows a question about Lamingtons. (Nanaimo bars and Lamingtons are desserts I very much would like to sample.)

It all has to do with a person’s background and life experience. The Indian novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup expresses this perfectly. Although it was the basis for the film Slumdog Millionaire, the novel is not a love story but a thriller, whose plot stems from the fact that no one knows everything, but everyone knows something.

Academic knowledge might make us seem smart, but local knowledge defines us and connects us to others.

Years ago, I met a Polish woman at a business event and mentioned I’d been reading crime novels by Polish authors. She responded with a polite nod.

A Grain of Truth by Zygmunt Miłoszewski,” I told her.

No recognition on her part.

“It’s set in Sandomierz,” I continued.

A flicker of reaction from her.

“There are these underground tunnels and . . .”

Her expression changed completely. “Yes!” she said. “The tunnels. That was a school trip for children in Poland—to the tunnels in Sandomierz!” A fact that locals know so well rang true for her. She wrote down the title and author.

On a visit to Maastricht, a bookseller sent me off with English-language translations of books by Esther Verhoef and Saskia Noort. Both were domestic dramas involving suburban women with too much disposable wealth and too much time on their hands. One reviewer called such books a Dutch version of Desperate Housewives. Clearly, some themes are universal. So are some points of reference. As Ann Morgan of “Reading the World” tweeted recently, “. . . . This week I am reading a novel from Cameroon and one from Japan. Both reference the US TV detective show, Columbo . . .

I can’t recall what led me to Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books, set in Sicily, but now I can’t imagine my reading life without them. In addition to the wonderful characterization, wry humor, and the food (my word, THE FOOD!), translator Stephen Sartarelli provides endnotes that explain Sicilian idioms as well as the real-life events that Camilleri refers to in his stories.

London-based publisher Bitter Lemon Press is a superb source of English-language translations of international crime fiction. Through them, I found Esmahan Aykol, who writes breezy contemporary crime novels featuring Kati Hirschel, a bookshop owner in Istanbul. Another standout was A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro, about a Buenos Aires architect whose life is going wrong in every possible way. The Aosawa Murders by Japanese author Riku Onda, released in English in 2020, is a quiet and original thriller that . . . well . . . to say more would risk spoiling the experience of reading it yourself.

This brings me to “Passport to Crime,” my favorite part of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. With its help, in the past couple of years, I went inside an Italian advertising agency, experienced tragic history in a German mining town, took a harrowing drive on a snowy night in Beijing, and made a very peculiar trip to a Japanese carnival. It’s my bimonthly opportunity to continue reading the world through crime fiction in stories told the way only locals can tell them.

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6 Responses to “Not From Around Here” (by Leslie Elman)

  1. Josh Pachter says:

    Fascinating, Lesie! And I was gratified to see that two of the four “Passport” stories you mentioned at the end of your piece are stories I translated, by Italy’s Barbara Baraldi and China’s Fei Wu. I hope you’ll enjoy a trip to Romania with Bogdan Hrib in the current issue … to a guided tour of the underground bunker beneath Belgium’s Gent with Herbert De Paepe in the next issue, and to the Kungur Ice Cave in Russia with Dominique Biebau in an upcoming issue!

    • Leslie Elman says:

      Thank you, Josh! Your translations are wonderful. “Beijingle All the Way” by Fei Wu was a standout story for me.

  2. Marty Stevens-Heebner says:

    What a treasure trove! I’m saving your article and look forward to all these wonderful books to read. A wonderful way to travel and experience other lands – particularly during a pandemic.

  3. Mary Monnin says:

    Great article! We lived near Maastricht for 4 years, and you’ve inspired me to search for English version books by Ester Verhoef and Saskia Noort.

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