Germans love to read and write thrillers – crime fiction, detective stories, murder and intrigue. Between 400 and 500 crime novels, or “Krimis” are published each year in the country. There are Krimi festivals, Krimi radio plays, Krimi fan clubs, and Krimi bookshops in abundance. Yet German thrillers have never cracked the US market — unlike their Scandinavian cousins.Sitting in the Grafit Verlag booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair, German publisher Ulrike Rodi points out the international hits, as she pages through her company’s foreign rights list.
She points to one author who has been translated into numerous European languages, and others who were hits in Dutch, French, or Czech. But when asked if any of these books have made it into English, she grimaces, and shakes her head.
In its 23 years in business, Grafit Verlag has never had a book from its catalog translated in to English. Rodi says they’ve been told that even Grafit’s Krimi best-sellers are too local, too regional, just too German.
Yet in the past few years, English language readers have fallen in love with stories from Germany’s northern neighbors, Sweden and Norway. Nordic crime writers – like Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo — have a big presence on US and UK best-seller lists. But not Germans.
Vala Benediktsdottir of Icelandic publisher Forlagid says it’s not that there aren’t great books coming out of Germany.
“We look to other countries for suspense, but for quality literature, we look to Germany,” says Benediktsdottir. “Where I work, we publish Gunther Grass. We love it! There are so many other things in the world than thrillers.”
Another issue is that very few books of any kind are translated from German into English. In 2012, the number was 50. In 2011, there were only 40. Some publishing houses say they don’t have enough readers of German to prepare reports on untranslated manuscripts.
There is one German detective who has hit it big in the US – Bernie Gunther. He’s in a series from Scottish writer Philip Kerr, published by Random House. The books are set in the years around World War II – a period many contemporary German authors prefer to avoid, but UK and US readers seem to love.Jörg Riekenbrauk of Random House says despite the popularity of the Bernie Gunther books, they’ve had no success with German thriller translations.
“Ten to fifteen years ago, Scandinavian crime writing was nothing in the UK. Suddenly it became a trend,” said Riekenbrauk. “Who knows whether tomorrow French or German crime writing will be the next trend. We are in this industry because we are paid to predict these trends, and we miserably fail,” he laughed, shaking his head.
One publisher is betting big on German crime fiction. Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin’s publishing group, is bringing out the book “Snow White Must Die” in the US next month. It’s by Nele Neuhaus, and is already a best-seller all over Europe — and in South Korea.
Neuhaus started out self-publishing her books. When her series of police procedurals became popular, a large German publisher took her on. Her novels dwell on day-to-day life in the mountainous Taunus area near Frankfurt. But she says it’s the people – not the settings — that connect with the global audience.“Normally the main character in a crime story is only working all the time, or he is drinking and smoking too much. But my characters are people – human beings the reader can feel with. And that’s a big difference to many other books,” explained Neuhaus.
AmazonCrossing has picked up Neuhaus’s first novel, a financial thriller called “Swimming with Sharks,” which is set in New York. But Neuhaus says she’s happiest writing about her homeland. She hopes “Snow White Must Die” will be a chance to introduce contemporary Germany beyond its borders.
“I think this is mostly important for us in Germany to keep our identity and not to say ‘No, I’m German and I’m sorry for that,’” reflected Neuhaus. “They kill themselves in Germany the same way they do in the US or in Sweden. German crime stories need to have an international chance. But we shall see if they are able to swim.”
“Snow White Must Die” is actually the fourth book in Neuhaus’s police series, but it’s the one with the highest sales, and the catchiest title. Minotaur has planned a major marketing and publicity campaign leading up to the book’s release on January 15th.