Crime Fiction: A Polymorphic Genre and the Challenge of Globality


Gigliola Sulis


Since it was first recognised as a distinct literary genre, and throughout its history, crime fiction has been deeply imbricated with the extra-literary sphere, involved in manifold processes of transposition and transformation across genres and media, as well as across languages and cultures. And since its inception, as a popular genre, it has never been a stranger to the diktats of the literary market, in which stories are also, if not first of all, commodities. For the emergence of crime fiction as a specific genre of modern storytelling is associated with the sensationalistic press reports of judiciary trials and criminal biographies, which were based on popular narrations and became sources of flourishing oral and written traditions (e.g. the Newgate Calendars in London). Two criminals turned literary heroes are exemplary in this respect[1]. In England, gang leader and 'thief-taker general' Jonathan Wild (1683­­–1725) inspired popular narrations immediately after his execution and entered the realm of literature thanks to Henry Fielding's History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). Later he also popped up in The Valley of Fear, where Sherlock Holmes compares Professor Moriarty to Wild as the new 'hidden force of the London criminals' (Doyle 1914, p. 36). Even more noticeable is the case of the fictionalised, ghost-written autobiography of Eugène François Vidocq (1775–1857), a crook who became chief of the first modern police force, the Parisian Sûreté. A hit on its own terms with readers of the time, Mémoires de Vidocq (1828) inspired literary characters such as Hugo's Jean Valjean and Balzac’s Vautrin. Furthermore, in its English translation the book reached the American founding father of crime fiction, Edgar Allan Poe, and influenced his first series of crime stories (Gillespie 2008, p. 355). In writing The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842), the second story of the Dupin trilogy, Poe also gave a new spin to this practice of commingling between life stories and literature: he took inspiration from the murder of a young woman, Mary Rogers, in New York, in 1841, and the trial that subsequently showcased the murder. He moved it, though, to a more exotic Parisian setting, thus inaugurating the tradition of geographical rewritings of crime stories across languages and cultures that has characterised the genre throughout its history. Furthermore, the short story, published in monthly instalments in a magazine, came full circle in terms of the osmotic relation between popular literature and one of its main sources. The conflicts between the on-going trial and the journalistic news on the one hand, and the development of its literary double on the other were so pressing that the author had to add a final note to explain the dénouement of his text, which appeared to set detective logic against, indeed elevate it above, due legal process, offering a literary reality completely at odds with the judicial reality that nonetheless makes claims to a higher truth. Finally, the fictionalised stories of both Wild and Vidocq anticipated another pivotal characteristic of crime fiction in the 20th and 21st century: the ambiguous sphere of mixing legal society and the criminal underworld in a specific urban setting.

If we flash-forward to our times, we find that crime fiction has become one of the most widely available forms of storytelling and as such it is both a powerful catalyst of global imagination and a privileged framework for the interpretation of society. Crime stories are a vehicle for cultural exchange in the broadest of senses. They move with apparent ease from one country to the next, in and out of different languages, and they are also reproduced and recreated through various cultural media. Stories of crimes and criminals surround us as news items in the mass media, novels, radio dramas, motion pictures, TV films and series, and videogames, with interesting and increasingly more intertwined phenomena of reciprocal interference. This simultaneous and global interplay has been dramatically enhanced by the digital revolution. Novels and short stories are immediately available all over the world in their original versions and in translation beyond the limits imposed by traditional, national distribution markets. Similarly, movies and TV series can be accessed everywhere thanks to the international providers of streaming, many of which thrive thanks to stories of crime in their various subgenres. Furthermore, narratives are also created specifically for online readers and, more increasingly, in collaboration with them (Thomas 2010).

Central to this creative boom and its success with international audiences has been the strong identification of crime stories with specific locations in different corners of the world. In 2015, the BBC series 'Why Factor' dealt specifically with this global socio-geographical rootedness of contemporary crime fiction to answer the question: Why is Crime Fiction So Popular? (Grady 2015). Detective stories from English, Indian, Italian, and South African literary traditions were analysed and contrasted, in order to grasp the broad, international appeal of the genre and its social relevance. Throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium Andrea Camilleri and his Sicilian detective Commissioner Montalbano, Fred Vargas and her Parisian 'evangelists', Patricia Cornwell’s ‘Kay Scarpetta’ series, Ian Rankin’s ‘Rebus’ series, and even more so the latest Nordic noir wave – inaugurated in the 2000s by Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy and continued by Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø, among others – have fascinated worldwide readers, well beyond their linguistic and national borders, both in the form of novels and in TV and filmic adaptations (Forshaw 2012). Contemporary crime fiction, in its ‘glocality’, i.e. being simultaneously glocal and global, has developed and expanded one of the tenets of the genre, namely the traditional link between a detective and his/her own geographical and social context. From Sherlock Holmes's London to Simenon's Maigret in Paris, and later Manuel Vasquez Montalban's explorations of Barcelona with the private sleuth Pepe Carvalho, the city is constructed almost as 'an emanation' of the protagonist.

What then differentiates this recent trend of crime fiction from the previous developments and its longstanding international, transnational and intersemiotic appeal? Keeping the polymorphic nature of the genre as its compass point, Retold, resold, transformed: Crime fiction in the global era presents six case studies that analyse from different perspectives the metamorphoses undergone by plots, characters, settings and culture-specific items present in crime stories when they travel through the globalised context we live in. The chapters investigate and discuss how the inherent predisposition of crime stories for being reborn into new lives via translations, rewritings, and adaptations, is reconfigured in times of progressively increasing international interrelations in the cultural sphere, global interdependence in the social and economic areas, and of new forms of interconnectedness between writers and readers, such as those promoted on a large scale by digital technologies and the internet. The contributions to this volume rest on three main theoretical and methodological pillars. First, is a broadly Bourdieusian sociological framework that looks at texts circulating without their contexts in a different field of production (Bourdieu 1999, p. 221), and that applies especially to transnational issues of translation and reception. Second, are the philosophical insights into the 'cultural dimensions of globalisation' and the 'global now' we live in (Appadurai 1996, p. 2), with particular reference to the fact that '[i]deas, objects and people from ‘outside’ are now more — and more obviously — present everywhere than they have ever been' (Appiah 2005, p. 216). Finally, are the theorisations on 'transmedia storytelling', i.e. 'a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience' (Jenkins 2007). This complex process, that goes beyond the concept of multimedia adaptation thanks to today’s technological advances, is read as part of the cultural transformations taking place in our era of 'convergence culture, where old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways' (Jenkins 2006, p. 2).

Global in scope, Retold, resold, transformed is divided into three sections. These sections are devoted respectively to the reception of crime stories in translation and to their strategic adaptation to the expectations of foreign cultural contexts and markets, to the intersection of genre and gender in crime stories written by Western writers but dislocated in the Far East, and to the reshaping of crime fiction in the context of transmedia storytelling.

Geographically, the case studies draw a map of translations and adaptations as social and cultural practices that include France (investigated as a receiving culture of foreign crime stories by Nigel Armstrong and Anne Grydehøj), Sweden and Norway (thanks to Grydehøj and David Platten's studies on the export of Nordic sagas), and Japan and Cambodia (exotic settings for Western authors, studied in the chapters by Nicoletta Vallorani and Anna Pasolini). The centre of the map, though, is the Anglo-American world, which maintains a global dominant position in the making and exporting of crime stories (novels, films, TV productions). This confirms the hegemonic role of the UK and, most importantly, the US, both linguistically and culturally, in the second half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, as well as the asymmetrical relations existing between languages and cultures of the world (De Swaan 2001). The chapters by Christiana Gregoriou, Armstrong, Vallorani, and Platten highlight the never-ending reincarnations of the English and American crime heroes and villains, such as Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Ian Fleming's James Bond (in the spy fiction sub-genre), Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, as well as the appearance of new bestselling characters expressions of the 'ordinary' American lifestyle, such as Dr David Beck in Harlan Coben's Tell No One (2002). Transnational literary phenomena are investigated through interpretative frameworks varying from sociology of literature (Platten) and of translation (Grydehoj, Armstrong), to stylistics (Armstrong, Gregoriou), postcolonial studies (Pasolini), gender studies (Pasolini, Vallorani), and transmedia studies (Gregoriou, Platten).

Chronologically, the main focus is on contemporaneity (post 2000). The only exception is represented by the first section, Translation as re-signification of foreign cultures: English, American, and Swedish Crime Fiction in France, that fulfils an introductory function and privileges longer-term phenomena in order to look at 'the way in which institutions contribute to the process of selection, production and distribution of translated texts' (Wolf 2014, p. 10). Armstrong and Grydehøj step back respectively to the 1930/1940s and the 1970/1990s to discuss the different phases through which French literary institutions negotiated the import and adaptation to national literary conventions of foreign crime fiction. In ‘Genre, style and culture in the translation into French of popular fiction’, Armstrong explores the changes in translation styles and editorial collocation of novels by Ian Fleming and Dashiel Hammett; his analysis is the springboard for a discussion of nation-specific ranking and values attributed to 'popular', 'middlebrow', and 'highbrow' culture, and especially of the upward or downward levelling strategies operated by cultural entrepreneurs via translation. Taking as a starting-point George Orwell's definition of the 'good-bad book' – 'the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished’, (Orwell 1968, p. 19) – and contrasting the French and the British cultural contexts, Armstrong also highlights the sometimes hidden link between aesthetic judgments and socio-political values in their culture-specific dimension, and thus their difficult translatability.

Still with a historical perspective on editorial and marketing strategies in the French context but shifting the focus onto the reception of Swedish crime fiction, Grydehøj's essay analyses three stages in the translation of the Swedish crime series The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (1965-75). Following Graham Huggan's interpretation of exoticism 'as a kind of semiotic circuit that oscillates between the opposite poles of strangeness and familiarity' (2001, p. 13), Grydehøj reflects on the process of construction of the Nordic imagery for French audiences. Homogenised as one single and stereotypical entity, Nordic countries are constructed as a 'marginal Other' in relation to a French norm, in an internal movement of self-reflection that precedes the questioning of Swedishness. The essay also shows how early translations in the 1970s disempowered the political thrust of the original in favour of strategies of exoticisation and eroticisation, thus situating the novels within the low-brow pulp mainstream. Meanwhile, translations of the late 1980s reflected the new status of crime fiction in the receiving culture and used the importation of foreign models as part of a project of contestation of the highbrow and nationalistic French literary establishment. Finally, after the mass success of Scandinavian crime fiction and the creation of the noir nordique as an effective marketing brand, the profiles of Sjöwall and Wahlöö were raised and they are nowadays advertised to French readers as ‘les fondateurs du roman policier suédois’. Indeed, as Lawrence Venuti notes in The Scandals of Translation, 'a bestselling translation tends to reveal much more about the domestic culture for which it was produced, than the foreign culture which it is taken to represent' (Venuti 1998, p. 142).

The retelling and relocation of crime stories as a framework for gender-oriented social criticism is the focus of the second section of the volume, Moving East: gender and national power imbalances. Here, Vallorani and Pasolini analyse two texts from the 2000s that share the Western gaze, the Eastern setting, and the trope of the violated female body – a traditional theme in crime fiction, at least since the hard-boiled school.  In 'Clean flesh pages. The (female) body of the Empire in David Peace', Vallorani explores the twentieth-century rewriting of the nineteenth-century criminal archetype of Jack the Ripper by the English writer David Peace in the novel Tokyo Year Zero (2007), with a specific focus on the acceptance and subversion of rules and norms of femininity. Coming after Peace’s series inspired by the killing of prostitutes in Yorkshire in the 1970s (Red Riding Quartet), Tokyo Year Zero superimposes the Ripper paradigm on the real story of a serial killer of prostitutes[1] in 1945 Tokyo in the immediate aftermath of military defeat, the crumbling of empire and perceived national disgrace. Peace's combination of 're-citing' and 're-siting' of the Ripper's story is scrutinised, with special focus on the body of the prostitute, silent and marginal in life but brought under the spotlight after death. In 1888 London as in 1945 Tokyo, official investigations are a smokescreen, and the prostitutes' corpses are brought to the fore and exposed in order to hide unspeakable truths for the greater good of the nation. In a reading informed by Michel Foucault's idea of the self-disciplined body, by Judith Butler's interpretation of gender as social performance, and by Peter Brook's theory on the desire to know the body as a powerful dynamic of storytelling, Vallorani interprets the corpse of the prostitute in Peace's novel as a surface in which truths are inscribed in the forms of hieroglyphs to be deciphered, 'where the skin is intended as a clean page of flesh where the contradictions of empire are written in blood' (see Vallorani's paper in this volume). Issues of power imbalance involve both the male-female relation and the West-East opposition after the collapse of the Japanese empire.

Pasolini follows with an analysis of texts that aim to challenge the official history through petit récits. The object of her study is an anthology of short stories by British, American, Italian and Cambodian writers set in Cambodia, Phnom Penh Noir (2012). It is a project put together by a small, Cambodian independent publisher that intentionally and explicitly uses crime fiction as a platform for the denunciation of the quasi-colonial oppression that Cambodia is subject to today, and that adds to the traumatic, violent past of the ‘Killing Fields’. Relying on a postcolonial critical background, Pasolini reads the female characters of these short stories as a rewriting that confirms three fixed female character-types of crime fiction: the powerless victim, the femme fatale, and the avenging angel. In a scenario that combines the traditional urban setting of the noir genre and its preference for the dark side of city life with the ghost-like historical appearance of Phnom Penh in the post Khmer Rouge era, women, like children, are subject to marginalisation, violence, and voicelessness. As such, they also stand as symbols for the body of the nation, while noir fiction keeps its mission of 'question[ing] the social order through alternative notions of justice' (see Pasolini's paper in this volume).

In the final section, devoted to Transmediality in the global era, Gregoriou and Platten look at crime stories to discuss the latest transformations of fiction in the 21st century, and in particular at the transmedial retelling and transnational reselling of characters and authors as global cultural brands.  In 'The Fandom is Afoot: BBC Sherlock and its fanfiction at play’, Gregoriou delves into the digital phenomenon of artistic production by consumers (prosumerism) and into the genre of fanfiction: a form of writing that sees the lives of mass-popular literary, television and cinema heroes extending into and expanding in independent stories created by fans, published online, and shared in specific web platforms. The fanfiction analysed here adds yet another layer to the story of never-ending reincarnations of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle's detective is first transposed from the Victorian era to the hyper-tech, twenty-first-century London in a much-acclaimed BBC crime drama television series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role, and then reborn again and again, online, in the stories written by fans. Fanfiction challenges the traditional distinction between writers and readers as the two opposite poles of the communication chain: it is indeed both an intermedial expansion of the novel’s paratexts and an unprecedented possibility in global collaborative writing, for the only necessary shared element among fans who want to be creators in the digital community is the use of the same language (English in this case). As Gregoriou shows, new scenarios arise with regard to the cooperation of readers in the production of meaning of the text, raising issues of text ownership: Who does the Sherlock Holmes character belong to, and who decides his destiny? Both Sherlock prosumers, and the drama scriptwriters and actors joke with these issues, transforming Sherlock's fictional universe into a narrative playground. The latter hint at the parallel, extra-textual lives of their stories, thus incorporating a meta-fictional and self-mocking dimension to the TV drama.

The last contribution to this volume, ‘Literature in the Departure Lounge: Market Influences and Literary Shapes in the Fiction of Jo Nesbø and Harlan Coben’, continues with the analysis of literary brands and of stories as transmedia mass cultural objects, i.e.  'cultural object[s] that can be translated across linguistic, cultural, and social contexts' (Apter 2011, p. 1). In looking at these aggregated texts as 'franchise systems', Platten moves from the analysis of characters and plots to the construction of the author as a glamorous public persona and marketing tool. The chapter focuses on two bestselling authors, the Norwegian Jo Nesbø and the American Harlan Coben, paying special attention to the Anglophone and Francophone reception of their novels, which expanded from literary texts, often serialised, to include TV and filmic adaptations. Besides, the analysis shows how, although geo-centred and consequently branded in terms of 'otherness', contemporary global bestsellers are conceived from the outset for a global readership (with the emergence of an internationalised aesthetic), and then consequently marketed as cultural commodities for international readers. The fact that novelists write for almost immediate international reception (in the form of translations and media adaptations) is also shifting the genre's form and aims, as highlighted in the recent debate on the category of 'born translated books' in the age of world literature (Walkowitz 2015). The cases of Nesbø and Coben become case studies for an analysis that combines a distant reading of macrophenomena with a close reading of texts and paratexts, in a critical framework that contrasts theorisations from Franco Moretti to Pierre Bourdieu; the article  foregrounds issues of canon making in the contemporary era, where the weight of scholars and cultural elites in the selection process is reduced on account of the increased influence of the market.

In their diversity, the contributions to this volume prove that crime stories are a vehicle for cultural exchange, in the broadest of senses. They move from one country to the next, in and out of different languages, and they are reproduced and recreated through various cultural media. If this phenomenon is not new in its essence, the velocity and intensity of connections in our society is taking this interconnected and global dimension to an unprecedented level, and seem to be already changing the way storytelling is conceived in the global era. Retold, resold, and transformed, crime fiction proves once again to be a good lens through which to observe the dynamics at play in the broader literary and cultural field, with its intrinsic tensions and contradictions.



Appiah, KH 2005, The Ethics of Identity, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Appadurai, A 1996, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Apter, E 2001, 'On Translation in a Global Market', Translation in a Global Market, Public Culture, vol 13, no 1, pp. 1-12.

Bourdieu, P 1999, 'The Social Conditions of the International Circulation of ideas', in R. Shusterman (ed.), Bourdieu. A Critical Reader,  Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 220-228.

De Swaan, A 2001, Words of the World: The Global Language System, Polity, Cambridge.

Doyle, AC 1914, The Valley of Fear: a Sherlock Holmes Novel, The Review of Reviews Co, New York.

Forshaw, B 2012, Death in a Cold Climate. A Guide to Scandinavian Crime Fiction, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke.

Gillespie, G 2008, 'The Detective Story and Novel', in Gillespie, G., Engel, M., Dieterle, B. (eds), Romantic Prose Fiction, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 345–363.

Grady, H 2015, Why is Crime Fiction so Popular?, 'The Why Factor', BBC World Service, 08.03.2015. Podcast available at < > (last access: 03.06.2016)

Huggan, G 2001, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, Routledge, London.

Jenkins, H 2006, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York University Press, New York.

Jenkins, H 2007, 'Transmedia Storytelling 101', Confessions of an Aca-Fan. The official weblog of Henry Jenkins, March 22, Blog post available at:  < > (last access: 03.06.2016)

Platten, D 2011, The Pleasures of Crime. Reading Modern French Crime Fiction, Rodopi, Amsterdam.

Scaggs, J 2005, Crime Fiction, Routledge, London.

Thomas, B 2010, 'Gains and Losses? Writing it All Down: Fanfiction and Multimodality', in Page, R. (ed). New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality, Routledge, New York, pp. 142-54.

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Some of the papers contained in this volume elaborate on works first presented at the Retold, Resold, Transformed: Crime Fiction in the Modern Era conference co-organised by Christiana Gregoriou, David Platten, and Gigliola Sulis at the University of Leeds on 17-18 September 2013. The editors would like to thank the University for hosting and funding the conference, and the Crime Studies Network for supporting its realisation. As for the University of Leeds, we wish to thank in particular the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (Italian, French, the ‘Language, Linguistics and Translation’ Research group, and the ‘Literary Studies’ Research Group), the School of English, the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (the ‘Cultural Exchange Group’), and the Student Education Fund of the Faculty of Arts.

We are also grateful to the conference participants for their precious contributions. Special thanks go to the keynote speakers and roundtable panelists: the writers Peter Robinson and Gianrico Carofiglio, literary critic Barry Forshaw, translator Howard Curtis, and the publishers Francois von Hurter (Bitter Lemon Press), and Ilaria Meliconi (Hersilia Press). The engaging debates developed at the conference helped our understanding of crime fiction nowadays and stimulated the production of this collective volume.



[1] On the origins of modern crime fiction and on the links between the lives of criminals and literary texts, in relation to the authors quoted here, see: Gillespie 2008, Platten 2011, Scaggs 2015.

[2] In this special edition of the Australian Journal of Crime Fiction, the term 'prostitute' is used instead of 'sex worker'; this is done in order not to  impose upon the primary texts semantic choices and ideological categories that belong neither to the texts themselves nor to their historical and geographical contexts and would therefore be anachronistic and out of place.


Gigliola Sulis is Associate Professor of Italian at the University of Leeds. Her main research interests are in the field of multilingual literature, regional literatures (especially from the main islands, Sicily and Sardinia), Italian polycentrism and the tension between local and national dimension, including the 'regional schools' of noir and crime fiction of the 1990s and 2000s.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 1 2017
Editors: Christiana Gregoriou, David Platten, Gigliola Sulis