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STYLE & CULTURE

Success translates

Foreign crime writers such as Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith and Russia's Boris Akunin are riding a mini-wave of great reviews and booming sales in America.

June 02, 2003|Lewis Beale | Special to The Times

New York — New York

It's 1876 and Erast Petrovich Fandorin is working as a low-level clerk in the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police Department. But the very public suicide of a wealthy heir will soon lead the ambitious 20-year-old on the trail of a shadowy organization bent on world domination. Using luck, pluck, a sharp intuitive sense and some tools of the new forensic sciences, Fandorin crushes the plot and lives to pursue more evildoers another day.

Fandorin's wild exploits, which seem heavily influenced by the florid Victorianism of Wilkie Collins and the hairbreadth escapes of "The Wild, Wild West," are the creation of Boris Akunin, the Russian author who has written 10 crime novels featuring the young sleuth -- a series that has been hugely successful in Europe, where it has sold more than 8 million copies. And now Fandorin is available in America.

While "The Winter Queen," published this month by Random House, is the first of Akunin's books to appear in English, the new title has already been optioned for the screen by director Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct").

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 06, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Mystery writers -- An article in Monday's Calendar about foreign mystery writers doing well in the U.S. misspelled the last name of Henning Mankell's fictional sleuth Kurt Wallendar as Wallandar. The article also gave the wrong title for the Mankell novel involving the suicide of a Dominican woman. That book is "Sidetracked," not "One Step Behind."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Mystery writers redux -- A correction in Friday's paper about the misspelling in a Monday Calendar story of mystery writer Henning Mankell's fictional sleuth again misspelled the character's last name. He is Kurt Wallander, not Wallendar, and not Wallandar.

Akunin's work is only the latest in a mini-wave of foreign crime writers whose books are receiving killer reviews and strong stateside sales. "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," the first in a series of novels written by Scotsman Alexander McCall Smith about a female detective from Botswana, has, with nearly a half-million copies in print, become one of the major publishing phenomena of the decade. And Swedish author Henning Mankell -- whose books about a phlegmatic detective named Kurt Wallandar have sold more than 12 million copies in Europe -- has received unanimous raves in this country and is attracting serious reader attention thanks to a series of paperback editions released by Black Lizard Press.

"These books take readers into a culture they don't know much about," says Barry Martin, co-owner of Book 'Em Mysteries in South Pasadena. "They are also character-driven. They aren't your classic whodunits; you're investing yourself in the character."

The popular problem solver

The 800-pound gorilla of the group is the McCall Smith series, featuring Precious Ramotswe, who opens a detective agency with the proceeds from the sale of 180 cattle left to her by her father. More a problem solver than a detective -- she deals with errant husbands, missing children and local con men -- Ramotswe's whimsical, culturally quirky adventures are a word-of-mouth success story driven by independent booksellers, who have been behind the series since the first novel was published by Columbia University Press in 1998 (the rights were later sold to Anchor Books).

Sales of the four-book series -- the newest, "The Kalahari Typing School for Men," published in April -- also spiked when the first novel was chosen as a selection by the "Today Show" book club. And now "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" has also been optioned for the screen by director Anthony Minghella ("The English Patient"). The books are also doing well in Australia and Britain and have been published in 15 other languages.

"It seems to me the readers have gotten very involved with the characters and are responding to their moral qualities," said McCall Smith by phone from Miami Beach, where he was on a book tour. "In Precious, these books are about a very decent and direct person. I think that's what's striking a chord."

His instincts seem to be right on the mark.

"The books are very charming and the character is one every one of us would want to know," said Meg Keenan of New Orleans' Maple Street Book Shop, which has sold more books by McCall Smith over the past two years than any other author. "And although they're simply written, they deal with very big issues: right and wrong, moral responsibility. They're very humorous, very witty. And they feed a need to learn more about other cultures."

Indeed, McCall Smith says he had just wanted to write "a small book" about Botswana, where he had lived, for his existing readership. But the basic decency of his characters launched it into another realm.

"Most people are, at heart, well-disposed to their fellow people, and they think this emphasis on a cynical approach to life isn't what they're about. That's why they like characters who treat each other with moral courtesy. You do find that in Botswana," he says. "People have the time for each other; it's quite striking."

Light years removed from the charm of Precious Ramotswe are Mankell's Kurt Wallandar books, which follow the trials and tribulations of a detective in the southern Swedish city of Ystad. In addition to his police duties, Wallandar is beset by a father sliding into dementia, an unstable daughter, rocky romantic relationships and the onset of diabetes.

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