‘Foreign Bodies’: New fifteen-part Radio 4 series on European crime fiction begins 22 October 2012

This major new series showcases the best of European crime fiction and will be an absolute treasure trove for fans of international crime. Entitled ‘Foreign Bodies: A History Of Modern Europe Through Literary Detectives’, and presented by Front Row’s Mark Lawson, it will air on Radio 4 over three weeks, at 1.45pm from Monday 22 October to Friday 9 November (accessible here). In addition, we’ll be treated to dramatizations of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Swedish Martin Beck novels (1965-75), and Swiss crime writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman (1950). What riches.

Many thanks to @_alisongray for alerting me to the following BBC press release:

“BBC Radio 4 begins a fascinating season of programmes this month featuring a 15-part examination by Mark Lawson of European crime fiction.

In ‘Foreign Bodies: A History Of Modern Europe Through Literary Detectives’, Lawson investigates the tensions and trends of Europe since the Second World War by focusing on some of the celebrated investigators from European fiction, and their creators.

The series accompanies dramatizations of all the Martin Beck novels, starring actor Stephen Mackintosh in the title role. Written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö the novels are widely acknowledged as some of the most important and influential crime fiction ever written. The authors paved the way for subsequent generations of crime writers to illustrate society and its most dysfunctional elements through crime and criminal investigations, future fallible heroes – Kurt Wallander and John Rebus to name but two – making the best fist they can of their own lives, whilst trying to tackle the violence and crime around them.

Gwyneth Williams, Controller BBC Radio 4, said: “This Autumn we explore the mood and mores of European cities in the company of eccentric detectives. And what better way to take a Radio 4 journey through Europe than to travel with the likes of Martin Beck, Inspector Rogas, Pepe Carvalho, Kemal Kayankaya.

The first of the Turkish-German Kemal Kayankaya series (1994)

“And at the heart of the series we bring you a complete dramatization of the little-known but hugely respected Martin Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö – all ten of them. These are the stories that inspired the Scandinavian explosion of crime writing we have seen in recent years and are referenced by many eminent writers such as Ian Rankin. Stephen Mackintosh plays Martin Beck and he is sure to hook you in.”

In crime fiction, everyday details become crucial clues: the way people dress and speak, the cars they drive, the jobs they have, the meals they eat. And the motivations of the criminals often turn on guilty secrets: how wealth was created, who slept with who, or a character’s role during the war. The intricate story of a place and a time is often explained in more detail in detective novels than in more literary fiction or newspapers, both of which can take contemporary information for granted.

In ‘Foreign Bodies’, Mark Lawson focuses on some of the most celebrated investigators – everyone from popular modern protagonists including Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander; Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole; and Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano; through to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus; Lynda La Plante’s DCI Jane Tennison; and Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck; back to a Belgian created by an Englishwoman and a French cop created by a Belgian – Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Georges Simenon’s Jules Maigret.

Through the framework of cases investigated by these fictional European police heroes and heroines, ‘Foreign Bodies’ pursues the shadows of the Second World War and the Cold War, conflicts between the politics of the left and right, the rise of nationalist sentiments and the pressures caused by economic crises and migration. Among the writers helping Lawson with his inquiries into their characters are: Jo Nesbø, Andrea Camilleri, PD James, Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund, Ian Rankin and Lynda La Plante.

The ten Martin Beck detective novels featuring Detective Inspector Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm will air in two parts. The dramatizations of the first five novels will start on October 27th, 2012 with the second five airing in Spring 2013. The radio dramas are written by Katie Hims and Jennifer Howarth, and directed by Mary Peate and Sara Davies.

Accompanying the dramas and Mark’s series, Radio 4 Extra will broadcast a reading, in five parts, of The Judge and His Hangman in October. Originally published as a novella in 1950 by Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, it explores the themes of guilt and responsibility following the Second World War, and shows protagonist Inspector Bärlach finding his own solution to bringing a career criminal to justice.”

#21 Friedrich Dürrenmatt / The Pledge (first review of Swiss crime!)

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Das Verbrechen), translated by Joel Agee (London: Penguin, 2001 [1958]). A master-class in crime writing that doubles as a meditation on obsession and the impossibility of closure 5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Last March I had to give a lecture in Chur on the art of writing detective stories.

There are very few crime novels that I keep coming back to, but The Pledge is one of them. Written over half a century ago in 1958, it’s one of three crime novels by the renowned Swiss dramatist and writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (the others are The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951)). The Pledge is my favourite of the three, for its fine writing and penetrating critique of the crime genre. Its tantalising subtitle is Requiem auf den Kriminalroman or ‘Requiem for the crime novel’.

The Pledge tells the story of Swiss police inspector Matthäi, who just is clearing his desk prior to a secondment in Jordan when a young girl’s murder is reported. After breaking the news to the girl’s parents, Matthäi is asked by the mother to promise on his ‘eternal salvation’ that he will find the murderer, and this, after a brief hestitation, he does: the pledge of the title. Thus begins a long investigation, which eventually tips over into a personal obsession that will threaten Matthäi’s sanity (making him one of the most sympathetic investigative figures in the genre).

Matthäi’s tale is told to the figure of ‘the author’ by Dr. H, a former chief of police in Zurich, who was also once Matthäi’s boss. Dr. H is prompted to recount the story after attending the author’s talk on writing detective fiction, as a means of highlighting the ‘lies’ peddled by his work:

‘What really bothers me about your novels is the storyline, the plot. There the lying just takes over, it’s shameless. You set up your stories logically, like a chess game: here’s the criminal, there’s the victim, here’s an accomplice, there’s a beneficiary. And all the detective needs to know is the rules: he replays the moves of the game, and checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed. This fantasy drives me crazy. You can’t come to grips with reality by logic alone. Granted, we police are forced to proceed logically, scientifically; but there is so much interference, so many factors mess up our schemes that success very often amounts to no more than professional luck and pure chance working in our favour. […] But you fellows in the writing game don’t care about that. You don’t try to grapple with a reality that keeps eluding us, you just set up a manageable world. That world may be perfect, but it’s a lie.’

So it’s the disjunction between the controlled fictions produced by ‘the author’ and the frustrating ‘reality’ of Matthäi’s troubled investigation that is the catalyst for Dr. H’s narrative – a wonderful ‘frame story’ that cheekily critiques the very genre the novel employs and implicitly wags a finger at all crime fiction fans for buying into its fantasy world.

As if all of this wasn’t clever enough, Dürrenmatt manages to have his cake and eat it too, by relating a story that thematises the impossibility of absolute closure and justice, but also provides the reader with a satisfying resolution in line with the expectations of the genre. Although of course, that could just be ‘the author’ meddling with the tale Dr. H told him…

The novel was adapted for film in 2001, directed by Sean Penn and with Jack Nicholson in the lead role. I have a copy on DVD which I mean to watch very soon! A highly positive Guardian review is available here.

Mrs Peabody awards The Pledge an ever-so-classy 5 stars.

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