Scene: Wednesday, November 16
A hard, cold rain. Trenchcoats. New York’s diamond district.
Interior: The Center for Fiction, one of several hosts to New Literature from Europe, an annual festival brought together by eight European cultural organizations in New York that focuses this year on innovations in European detective fiction. The audience is packed tightly, held captive by such topics as detectives, evil, noir, and, of course, crime.
A report of the evidence:
The first of the evening’s two panels, moderated by professor and writer B.J. Rahn, was titled “Unconventional Police Protagonists,” and comprised of Caryl Férey (France, click here to read an excerpt), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany), Stefan Slupetzky (Austria), and Dan Fesperman (USA–but fiction takes place abroad). The authors discussed the traits of their respective detectives, and major commonalities emerged. In each of the novels, the sleuths can be classified as unconventional and clumsy and they use unorthodox methods; in short, they are a break from the “tough guy” image that seems to so dominate the genre. The bumbling Inspector Clouseau was evoked. There were some interesting insights for the amateur writer, such as from the quirky Frenchman, Férey, who boasted of his own dislike for cops, which led to the creation of his novel’s crime solver.
Ms. Rahn argued that the unique construction of the protagonists was what made these novels so successful in their homelands. When your police protagonist can hold his own, the actual caper is secondary. There are only so many stories you can tell; the magic, of course, is in the telling.
A break in the case!
This was all well and good, but thankfully the evening was just getting started. The real throw-down came in the second panel, “The Nature of Evil.” Our rowdy participants were Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Ana Maria Sandu (Romania), and José Carlos Somoza (Spain). Rahn began the second half of the night with the question, What is the nature of Evil? It was as if Rahn were juggling a loaded gun and had just tossed it at the panelists, waiting for it to go off. Miłoszewski, a young novelist and former journalist, suggested that humans are not evil by nature, but that perhaps evil comes from circumstances. Somoza, the Cuban-born Spaniard, countered with a thesis from the other end of the spectrum, proffering that evil comes from deep inside humanity, from a childlike realm, manifested upon shedding one’s civilized veneer. I deduced that Somoza, like Jim Thompson before him, preferred the dark and sinister side of evil—that it comes from the cracked soul within. Miłoszewski , who was seated next to him, appeared as if he was about to burst, and a heated back-and-forth ensued. As Miłoszewski and Somoza continued to rebut each other, the panel developed its own suspense: if the two were to have found common ground, they could have brought true insight to the question. But the argument would have lasted into the wee hours, and finally Rahn had to put her foot down. She turned to the dame on her left, Sandu, who spoke through an interpreter.
The Romanian novelist was a breath of fresh air. She was the only female writer on any of the panels and her protagonist was also the only female out of the gaggle of Europeans. The question directed toward her was the obvious: Why did she choose a female protagonist? Rahn kept pushing, and Sandu skirted the question, saying that the gender of the protagonist (who is also the killer) was not a major decision or primary focus.
The rest of the festival included readings by the authors at the Czech Center and BookCourt, as well as several films screened at the Museum of the Moving Image. Many of the participating novelists have had their works adapted for the screen, which should continue to pique the interest of American readers in this redefining, border-crossing genre.
Gumshoes leave, crime savvy and hot for murder.
That’s all she wrote.
Additional material: Trailers from two of the films that screened at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY.
Aurora (Written and directed by Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2010)
Série Noire (Written by Georges Perec and directed by Alain Corneau, France, 1979)