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July 03, 1988|SONJA BOLLE

As you read these words, an event of unprecedented criminality is occurring in a Spanish seaside town. Crime writers from all over the world have converged on Gijon (June 29 to July 6) to celebrate the first Semana Negra (literally, "Black Week"; actually, something more like "Mystery Week").

On Wednesday, a trainload of escritores policiacos ("crime writers") left Madrid, bound for Gijon, where the port of El Musel has been decorated as a set for a detective movie. The week's nefarious activities include a book fair, film festival, tango competition (what else would crime writers dance?) and numerous round-table discussions on such topics as Spanish-language detective fiction; European mysteries that steer a course between the English and French traditions; the detective genre and perestroika ; and literature, espionage and the Cold War.

La Semana Negra is the most ambitious project to date of the International Assn. of Crime Writers. The group has held two previous annual meetings in Mexico and the Soviet Union, although some date the founding of the group to an earlier meeting in Cuba.

IACW is, in fact, rare among writers' organizations because it has offices in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The prominent writers' group, International PEN, does have very active centers in Hungary, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, but none in the Soviet Union. (Helen Graves, coordinator of PEN's Freedom-to-Write program, also notes that Czechoslovakia has a "dormant" group, while Poland's PEN was shut down when martial law was declared. In addition, there are PEN groups for writers in exile, such as the Latvian group based in Sweden.)

"One of the principles of IACW is equal East-West participation," explains Roger L. Simon, president of the North American chapter and creator of the Southern California detective, Moses Wine. "We're glasnost- oriented on both ends."

Among the American writers expected to attend La Semana Negra are Ross Thomas, Joe Gores and Donald Westlake. English participants include Graham Greene, Julian Symons, Nicholas Freeling, Lady Antonia Fraser and Simon Brett. Julian Semyonov, head of the Soviet group, will be on hand, as will Masako Togawa, the "P. D. James of Japan."

The list could go on, but Simon pauses. "There are an enormous number of good writers who are just not known here because they are not translated. A huge percentage of the crime fiction published in the world is American or British. I'm published in 14 countries, for example. But writers who are just as good are not available in English." Simon cites the "enormously popular" Mexican author (and Latin American IACW affiliate president) Paco Ignacio Taibo II, whose first English translation, "Easy Thing," is due to be published next year.

One of the group's objectives is to promote translation, and to this end, IACW has just established the Hammett Prize, the first international literary award in the crime genre. Five finalists for the Hammett will be announced during La Semana Negra, and the winner will be introduced to the international publishing community at the Frankfurt Book Fair in September. Judges consider titles for the award in four languages: English, Spanish, French and Russian. "It's not truly international," Simon admits, "but you can imagine how staggering a task it is." An important part of the prize's promotional thrust, however, is that 20 publishers worldwide have agreed to issue the Hammett finalists.

Simon reports that discussion is underway for an IACW meeting in the United States, possibly two or three years hence. In American literary endeavors, as with sports, sponsorship is often the sticking point in planning events on such a scale. For this first Semana Negra, Spanish government sponsorship helped bring 80 of the participating writers, including eight from the United States. "We are one of the few countries that doesn't have a Ministry of Culture," Simon points out. "The way that sort of thing is done here is through universities."

The future of the crime genre is the final topic for discussion on the program in Gijon. Says Simon: "Crime fiction is huge right now, and very big in the East Bloc because it's a way to talk about corrupt bureaucrats." In fact, Simon would go so far as to argue that an international union of crime writers is a force for good in the world, since one of the common themes in the genre is the fight against corruption. "I'd pick a writer over a politician any day, wouldn't you?" he asks. "One thing writers share is a healthy distrust of leaders."

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