The ‘crime-loving library borrowers’ of 2010

Last Saturday’s Guardian (19.02.11) carried a list of the top 100 books borrowed from UK libraries in 2010, along with a piece by John Dugdale on ‘the crime-loving borrowers’.

It turns out that almost two-thirds of the books on the most borrowed list are crime novels or thrillers, including the whole of the top 10 (four Pattersons, two Rankins, and one Child, Brown, Connelly and Slaughter respectively). Impressive stuff, and Dugdale explores a few of the reasons why this might be the case.

But the bit that caught my eye was this:

‘Stieg Larsson (who had the top three places in the sales chart) is relegated to a single entry in 76th place. Library users, this suggests, are less keen on Euro-crime, less responsive to the stimulus of TV or film adaptations, and not fond of lengthy, heavy tomes. What they want instead are American or American-style murder stories that are quick reads…’

What struck me was how much Dugdale ‘deduced’ from one statistic, and I’m wondering if he wasn’t being a little over-hasty in the assertions he made. After all, there’s an extremely complex set of factors that have contributed to Larsson’s position on the list in particular, and to the absence of other examples of Euro-crime in general.

Larsson first. Dugdale quite rightly notes the contrast between the 76th position on the list of The Girl who Played with Fire and Larsson’s dominance of the 2010 UK sales chart. This would actually suggest that readers liked the Millenium Trilogy so much that they wanted to buy it and keep it, rather than to borrow it and give it back. So ironically, it could well be the enormous ‘must have’ success of this crime series that has contributed to its lower position on the library chart. And (ahem), do such ‘lengthy heavy tomes’ really put libary readers off? The presence of Hilary Mantell’s doorstopper Wolf Hall at number 24 appears to suggest otherwise.

Larsson, of course, is a Euro-crime-writing phenomenon, whose world-wide sales were already in excess of 12 million by 2008. Other Euro-crime novels typically have a much bigger hill to climb before making it on to annual lists like these.

Firstly, European crime fiction has to be ‘found’ and translated by a sympathetic publisher like Maclehose. Only a modest selection make it. It’s inevitable, therefore, that the sales and borrowing figures for Euro-crime will reflect the smaller number of  Euro-crime novels that are in print compared with those produced for the massive Anglo-American market. Given this, it’s hardly surprising that only the truly big hitters like Larsson manage inclusion in the top 100.

I’d accept that publishers sometimes have a challenging time convincing a readership reared on a largely British and American cultural diet that European fiction – crime or otherwise – is worth reading. But I’m wondering if the recent surge of Euro-crime dramas on BBC4 is beginning to shift the perceptions of a more mainstream audience towards ‘foreign’ imports. The incredibly positive reaction to the Danish series The Killing is a case in point. One interesting observation from a couple of viewers has been how surprised they are to be enjoying a subtitled programme so much. So perhaps the success of quality foreign-language crime series like this will turn more people on to the wealth of excellent European crime fiction and TV out there. I really do hope that this is the case.