Scandinavian crime fiction has been an international phenomenon for more than a decade. Now, genre novels from other countries are coming out of the shadows, with the Guardian recently asking whether South Korean thrillers are “the new Scandi Noir.”
You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son (Penguin, June) is among the books that prompted the question. The first of the author’s novels to be translated into English, it tells of a young man who wakes up covered in blood, with little memory of the night before. Penguin senior editor Lindsey Schwoeri says she was drawn to the novel in part because of its “unreliable male narrator,” in contrast with the unreliable female narrators of many thrillers, “and that it focused on a twisted relationship between a mother and son, a dynamic explored less often in the genre.”
The Good Son has sold over a million copies in South Korea, according to Jeong’s agent, Barbara Zitwer. She also reps South Korean authors Hye-young Pyun, author of City of Ash and Red (Arcade, Nov.), and Un-su Kim, whose The Plotters was acquired by Doubleday editor Rob Bloom in February.
The Plotters was only Bloom’s second acquisition in translation. His first, a police procedural by Chinese novelist Zhou Haohui called Death Notice, will pub in June. Bloom says that a Chinese web series based on Zhou’s books has garnered 2.4 billion views, and that exposure, of course, factored into the acquisition. The book also appealed to him because of the way it conveys unfamiliar scenarios to American readers.
For instance, he says he was fascinated by the way Chinese police officers “live in dormitories while their families live in housing that’s separated entirely. A lot of my editorial comments were that I wanted to know more.”
The absence of familiar genre conventions drew Sean McDonald, publisher at FSG imprint MCD, to Hideo Yokoyama’s police procedural Six Four (2017). McDonald says that the book was successful in reaching a readership that prefers offbeat literary thrillers, a group that the imprint continues to court. In November, MCD will publish Yokoyama’s Seventeen.
Seventeen, which follows the aftermath of a plane crash in remote Japanese mountains, offers a glimpse of the country that Westerners rarely see, McDonald says. “It’s not written with the intent of explicating a place, but it’s a work that’s so much of its place and of its culture that it plunges you in.”
Keith Kahla, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press, says that, for a U.S. readership, the unfamiliar needs to be balanced by mystery elements that American readers will recognize. In November, St. Martin’s imprint Minotaur will release Newcomer, Japanese author Keigo Higashino’s sixth mystery with the publisher. “He writes a very traditional, old-school mystery,” says Kahla, who compares Higashino with Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie. The 2011 translation of Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X was nominated for an Edgar Award.
Trafficking in Noir
In many countries, mysteries and thrillers are not defined as separate genres from general fiction; when looking abroad for acquisitions, many American publishers say, they can spot them by looking for titles that are billed as noir. Grove Atlantic imprint Black Cat will publish Mexican author Martín Solares’s Don’t Send Flowers in August. Black Cat also published his 2010 debut, The Black Minutes, which PW’s starred review said “treads a risky tightrope between police procedural and surreal fantasy.”
Amy Hundley, senior editor at Grove Atlantic, says that “noir is a form that’s particularly suited to the Mexican context,” where the genre has longstanding roots with deep cultural ties.
At Akashic Books, 2010’s Mexico City Noir is one of more than 90 regional noir anthologies; forthcoming locales include São Paulo (June), Marrakech, and Baghdad (both Aug.). Editorial director Ibrahim Ahmad says the anthology series has introduced Akashic to writers whose longer works the publisher has subsequently acquired. For instance, Brazilian author Tony Bellotto, who edited São Paulo Noir and 2016’s Rio Noir, will publish the first of his four Bellini novels, Bellini and the Sphinx, with Akashic in February 2019.
The publisher’s noir series, meanwhile, continues to grow, with yet-to-be-scheduled volumes planned for cities including Addis Ababa and Nairobi. Europa Editions, which has its own international noir line, is releasing Karin Brynard’s Weeping Waters, originally written in Afrikaans, the first of the publisher’s World Noir titles to come from Africa.
Soho Press has built a relationship with Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura, and it will release his next psychological thriller, Cult X, in May. Soho associate publisher Juliet Grames notes that the press has already released six of his books, but because Japanese authors typically publish with multiple houses in their home country, acquiring the rights to different titles often means working with a different Japanese publisher each time.
She cites translation costs as a limiting factor. Soho’s first Nakamura translation, 2012’s The Thief, was supported by a $10,000 Japanese grant. Without it, Soho would have been less likely to forge the relationship. “The margins are difficult. You can end up paying more for translation than all of the production costs [combined],” Grames says.
Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon says that curiosity drives him to continue publishing works in translation, even though the time and financial investment can be higher than for books written in English. He says that readers in the U.S. are opening up, too. “There’s less resistance than there used to be for commercial works in translation.”
The next translation project Seven Stories will publish is a Brazilian work, Klester Cavalcanti’s true crime tale The Name of Death (May). Cavalcanti is a widely recognized investigative reporter in Brazil, and the book is being adapted for film by Fernando Meirelles, who directed 2002’s City of God. Simon’s past collaborations with Cavalcanti’s subagent led him to purchase the book without reading a sample translation: he relied solely on the subagent’s description and the opinion of British translator Nick Caistor.
Because there’s typically less competition for works in translation than for English-originating titles, Simon notes, there’s an opportunity for a small publisher to acquire a caliber of book they might otherwise lose to bigger houses: “You’re choosing from writers who are the equivalent of the very top American writers.”