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23/08/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Foreign Bodies - An Investigation into European Detectives

    The launch of a long-gestated series always brings a combination of exhilaration and apprehension. And in the case of Foreign Bodies (Radio 4, weekdays, 1.45pm, until November 2nd) - the 15-part series investigating famous European fictional detectives, on which producer Robyn Read and I have been working for more than a year - there were two issues that occupied us until the moment when the transmission managers grab the material and ban any further editing.

    The first is plot-spoilers. Having written about culture in newspapers for a quarter of a century - and been an arts broadcaster for almost 20 years - I'm sympathetic to complaints about the tendency of critics to give away endings. And because the best crime fiction involves multiple plot twists, there can sometimes be an issue in this genre with disclosing beginnings, middles and trick endings as well.

    But the problem is that serious discussion of fiction involves analysis of details and one of the specific questions we address in Foreign Bodies is the decision a crime-writer has to make about whether justice will ultimately be done. In English detective stories, for example, the culprit is almost always apprehended in the final pages, although there is a particular book by PD James in which the outcome of the investigation is ambiguous, in the way that it will often be in real police work.

    And, in Italy, where political corruption and Mafia infiltration can encourage cynicism about the reliability of the legal system, there are a number of novels - by authors such as Leonardo Sciascia and Andrea Camilleri - in which the perpetrator gets away with it or an innocent person takes the fall. This is an unusual and striking aspect of the country's crime literature, but how can these twists be high-lighted without spoiling the books for any listener who is (as obviously we hope some might be) encouraged to read them? Our solution has been to mention when a novel has an especially shocking or bleak conclusion - for example, Sciascia's Equal Danger - but to remain vague about the nature of the twist.

    That decision, I hope, will for more frustrating for us than for the audience. With another question of contention, it's likely to be the other way round. In any radio or TV programme with foreign culture as its subject, pronunciation becomes an issue. This is partly because of inconsistencies in British delivery of overseas names: for example, we say "Versailles" in an approximation of the French style and yet deliver "Paris" in an Anglicised manner.

    And European crime fiction proves to be surprisingly treacherous. In this country, for instance, readers and BBC continuity announcers pronounce Henning Mankell's detective Kurt Wallander more or less phonetically as Woll-un-duh. But I once chaired a debate about the popularity of this character at the Swedish embassy, where the Swedes in the audience took a considerable time to understand who we were talking about because they say the guy's name VOL-ander.

    Even more complicatedly, Jo Nesbo's Norwegian private eye falls on the English reader's eye as Harry HOLE - as if he were a tear in a sweater - although the local pronunciation is HULA, as if he were swinging a hoop around his hips. However, when I raised this in an interview with Nesbo, he insisted that he was happy for Harry to be pronounced Hole in English, pointing out that the first novel (The Bat) takes place in English-speaking Australia, where there is a running joke that Aussies address him as Mr HOLY.

    Accordingly, I called him HOLE in a trail, leading a thoughtful listener with Scandinavian connections to contact the BBC and gently suggest the use of HULA. However, we will continue to follow the advice of Harry's creator, although, in a Paris-type inconsistency, I pronounce his first name YO in line with Norwegian convention. Which, I can already see, will lead some listeners to conclude that we have dug ourselves into a HULA.

    The only consolation I can offer is that final plot-twists are generally protected. Anyway, see what you think.

    Mark Lawsonis a journalist, broadcaster and author and he presents BBC Radio 4's arts magazine Front Row.

    • Mark Lawson presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives in Foreign Bodies, starting on 22nd October 2012. Also available as a free download.
    • Listen to recent and archive interviews of Crime Writers from Front Row.
    • Dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012.
    • Watch the television trail for the Foreign Bodies series.
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