20 April 2009 0 Comments

Krimis, polars, gialli: What crime novels are called around the world

Sometimes people talk about crime novels as though they were all the same. The sheer number of different names for variants of the crime novel proves that isn’t true.

Police procedural. Mystery novel. Thriller. Cosy. Exotic detective. Supernatural. I used to think there was little real difference, but then my UK publisher told me he wanted to change the title of my first novel “The Collaborator of Bethlehem.” He thought it sounded like a thriller (which men typically buy) and he wanted it to be clear that it was a mystery (so that women would buy it.) He changed the title in Britain to “The Bethlehem Murders.” I had to acknowledge that he was right: it sounds more like a mystery, doesn’t it.

And that’s only in English.

As I travel around to promote my books in different countries (I’m published in 22 countries these days), I’ve noticed that there are interesting variations on the names we use in English for crime novels. Some of them are quite entertaining, and some of them tell us something revealing about how the genre developed in that country.

Take Italy. Mystery novels there are called “gialli,” or yellows. That’s because traditionally the genre was published with a yellow cover. Even today the mystery shelves of Italian bookshops are largely yellow.

Color is the theme also in Spain, where crime novels are “novelas negras,” black novels. According to a source of mine on the literary desk of El Pais, the big Spanish newspaper, this harks back to the old “Serie noire” of French publisher Gallimard. That series introduced the crime novel to Spain. So noir, or black, became the identifying color for a crime novel.

A “roman noir,” black novel, is also one of the ways of referring to a crime novel in France, because of that Gallimard series. But the most common slang for a mystery in French is “un polar.” It’s a contraction of “roman policier,” police novel, and was first recorded in 1968. If you ask most French people to explain the origin of the word “polar,” they can’t tell you: the abbreviation has become so common, they’ve forgotten its rather simple derivation.

Germany (as well as the Scandinavian countries) calls a crime novel “ein Krimi,” short for the word Kriminelle, criminal. No surprise there. It’s a catch-all for thrillers and detective stories of all kinds.

There is, however, an amusing sub-genre in German. In English, the “cosy” refers to Miss Marple-type novels in which the detective is an amateur, usually a lady (not just a woman), probably an inhabitant of a quaint village, investigating a murder in a country house or a vicarage.

The Germans call these cosies “Häkel-Krimis“. Miriam Froitzheim, who works at my German publisher C.H. Beck Verlag in Munich, translates this as “Crochet Crime Novels.” Because, as she puts it, the detective “puts her crochet gear away to solve the murder.”

I’ll keep scouting for interesting ways of describing crime novels around the world. But if you know of some others, tell me about them.

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