Murder and Mayhem in Translation

Crime writers Dominique Sylvain (second from right) & Carlo Lucarelli (second from left) talking Murder & Mayhem in Translation

Crime writers Dominique Sylvain (second from right) & Carlo Lucarelli (second from left) talking Murder & Mayhem in Translation

I had the great pleasure of joining a panel with French crime writer Dominique Sylvain and Italian Carlo Lucarelli as part of Murder and Mayhem in Translation, convened by Monash University.

Through interpreters, Sylvain and Lucarelli described how they came to write crime fiction and discussed why crime — to quote Lucarelli — is ‘the engaging , involving literature of the times’.

Sylvain is an award winning author of 11 novels across three crime series, with works translated into eight languages. She says as a child she would often re-write real-life conversations in her head to make them more interesting. But it was le choc esthétique — the ‘aesthetic shock’ — of visiting Tokyo in 1993 that inspired her to write her first novel, Baka.

The conventions of crime fiction gave Sylvain what she described as a ‘safety net’. She derived comfort from the genre’s code and cites Raymond Chandler as an inspiration. But she was quick to refer to herself a writer, not a ‘genre writer’.

Lucarelli, also an award winning novelist, has published 14 novels in Italian and is translated into eight languages. He is also a television host, most recently of a series with an intriguing premise: tracing the history of Italy through a series of unsolved murders.

‘You cannot talk about Italy and not talk about criminality,’ he says.

Lucarelli suggests storytellers can be spotted at a young age, as the children who come home and give their parents  a detailed report on everything the teacher has done that day. Budding crime writers, he says, are the ones who, when their parents tune out, learn to preface what they say with, ‘You’ll never believe what the teacher did today!’

‘Crime fiction is a vehicle for describing change,’ Lucarelli says. A character in a detective story asks questions in order to understand what is going on and in this way explains  change to the reader. ‘Crime writers [in Italy] are doing the work of journalists,’ he says.

Lucarelli says, ‘It is the dream of crime fiction writers to keep readers awake for three nights in a row’: (to paraphrase) the first night because they cannot put the book down; the second night because they can’t stop thinking ‘Are these things really happening?’; and the third night because they are wondering, ‘What can I do to change this?’

‘In Italy, we are stuck on the second night,’ Lucarelli says.

I shared with the panel and audience my life-long ambition to be a writer, and how I learned from a tender age that if your story was good enough, you could get away with murder (you can read this for details).

Like Sylvain, my writing was inspired by travel. After my first visit to Thailand in 1985, I kept being drawn to Southeast Asia and ended up living there for over six years in the 1990s. When I returned to Australia, I draw on my experiences of living and working cross-culturally to write fiction.

I did not set out to write crime fiction. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised crime was the perfect genre for the ideas I wanted to explore. Cultural misunderstandings are a rich vein for dramatic tension as well as humour, and working cross-culturally is a lot like being a detective. As an outsider, I was always trying to figure out the big picture from a small set of clues; to distinguish a reliable source from one trying to take me for a ride; searching for meanings lost in translation.

This post captures only a fraction of the panel discussion, made richer for the Q&A with the audience.

Towards the end of the session, we hit on that old chestnut of genre ‘versus’ literary fiction. Turns out not only was one of Australia’s top literary prizes awarded to a crime writer in 2010, Spain’s highly lucrative Planeta Prize was also won by a crime writer in 2012 — incidentally, the same author, Lorenzo Silva, who I replaced on the panel.

About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. She won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, and the Scarlet Stiletto Award short story award. Her latest novel is, Mother of Pearl, published by Transit Lounge. Angela holds a PhD in Creative Writing, is former CEO of Writers Victoria, and currently works as CEO of Public Libraries Victoria.
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7 Responses to Murder and Mayhem in Translation

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Angela – That panel sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the possibilities of cultural differences when it comes to crime fiction. When our ‘normal’ assumptions about life get turned proverbially upside-down as we encounter another culture, there’s a sense of being out of one’s element (at least at first) that’s fascinating for writers.


  2. Felicity says:

    Would love to have been in the audience for that one! Thanks for sharing, Angela.


  3. kathy d. says:

    Sounds fascinating. Would have loved to have been there or at least seen it streaming live or on tape or something like that. I had not heard of Dominique Sylvain, and will see if her books are available over here.
    The influence of traveling outside one country is interesting. And using the murder mystery format seems like a natural: Just throw in a dead body or two and revolve a story around that. It seems like a perfect vehicle for story telling.
    And, yes, we readers are glad Jayne Keeney went to Thailand; that enables us to learn more about the country and culture.


    • angelasavage says:

      Thanks Kathy. I have always enjoyed reading books that teach me about another country and culture (in a subtle, caught-up-in-the-story kind of way) and these are the kinds of books I aspire to write.


  4. kathy d. says:

    Ditto on the enjoyment of global books. For me, especially crime fiction. So glad that you are writing about Southeast Asia, a region I know little about except the history of the Vietnam war.


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