For two days at the end of January, ‘Brit Crime’ took over the Humboldt University in Berlin. It was the British Council’s annual literature seminar, bringing together contemporary British writers with students, academics, publishers, journalists and translators for discussions and workshops.
This year’s seminar – ‘Brit Crime – A New Golden Age of Crime Writing?’ – welcomed a host of celebrated crime writers, including Philip Kerr, Sophie Hannah and Jake Arnott, for a series of lively debates.
The focus was particularly apt for a seminar in Berlin. For over a century, British crime writing has enjoyed a special place at the heart of German culture. In his 1947 study of German film, German writer Siegfried Kracauer noted perceptively that, ‘while the French and Americans succeeded in creating a national counterpart of Conan Doyle’s archetype, the Germans always conceived of the great detective as an English character’.
The first German detective films featured Anglophone detectives – Stuart Webbs, Joe Deebs and Harry Higgs, for example – all of whom were modelled on the shrewd, irascible Sherlock Holmes. Through the early decades of the twentieth century, the German appetite for translations of detective novels by G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie and Edgar Wallace was insatiable.
These stories played a significant and positive role in the German perception of Britain and the British. As historian Gerwin Strobl puts it, ‘Murder in the detective story only serves to bring out the best in the Island Breed, as they put aside their secateurs or knitting needles to capture the villains through an appealing combination of Anglo-Saxon common sense (a phrase often left untranslated in German) and sheer pluck.’
Although the Nazis tried to ban British detective fiction during the war, copies continued to circulate in secret and inspired a post-war resurgence, despite competition from more modern hard-boiled crime stories and American-inspired thrillers. Shrewd, witty, incorruptible British detectives turned up in countless cheap paperbacks, radio series, television dramas and comic strips in 1950s West Germany.
At a time when trials of Nazi criminals were confounding conventional understandings of guilt and innocence, crime and punishment, Germans sought escape and reassurance in fictional stories of simple, domestic crimes in which bodies are explained and order is restored.
Recent bestseller lists – featuring P.D. James and Ian Rankin among other British crime writers – and the success of January’s seminar prove that the German appetite for British detective fiction remains healthy. But whether today’s novels can do much to promote much-needed positive perceptions of the British is doubtful. Sadly, we need more than a few stories of pluck and common sense to make that happen.
By Judith Vonberg