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Faculty share favorite crime fiction in panel discussion

On Tuesday, March 7, a panel of St. Olaf College faculty, scholars and enthusiasts of crime fiction gathered to discuss their favorite writers of international crime fiction, and what this genre and these authors mean to them and the diverse readership of crime fiction worldwide.

Included in this panel were St. Olaf President David Anderson ’74, Associate Professor of French Jolene Barjasteh, Professor of French Mary Cisar, Visiting Associate Professor of English Bjorn Nordfjord and Assistant Professor of French Maria Vendetti.

Anderson focused on Rex Stout, the writer who first made him a fan of the crime fiction genre when he researched him in graduate school. Stout, the author of the “Nero Wolfe” series, sparked Anderson’s passion and scholarship of crime fiction. Anderson described the different archetypal characters of the “Nero Wolfe” series and the importance of family in the novels, even in an unconventional sense.

Barjasteh, organizer and panelist of this event, talked about the works of Fred Vargas, an award-winning French female novelist whose success has changed the game of crime fiction writing, which is generally seen as a genre made by and for men. Barjasteh focused on Vargas’ originality in style and character development that make her novels representative of the art of crime fiction.

Cisar presented on one of her personal favorite authors, Louise Penny, a Canadian author of Quebec procedural crime fiction. Cisar emphasized the way in which Penny’s cozy mysteries can offer insight into the tensions between Francophone and Anglophone cultures in present day Quebec.

Nordfjord concentrated on Nordic noir and how it differs from traditional noir. Using works by authors from each of the Nordic countries, Nordfjord compared these texts to traditional noir to highlight the cultural differences between them.

Vendetti explored the French Mediterranean noir of “Marseilles, the European Capital of Culture.” Vendetti focused on Jean Claude-Izzo’s “Marseilles” trilogy and how these novels, seen as the baseline of Marseilles crime fiction, reflected the views of immigration and trade within the culture.

The idea for this event originated in the fall of 2015 during a conversation between Barjasteh and Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies Linda Mokdad.

“[The conversation with Mokdad] was at the beginning of the last school year. I had an interest in doing something with cinema and film diversions of crime fiction. But then, as the conversation went on, we decided the timing wasn’t going to work for something like that,” Barjasteh said. “Then I connected with her spouse, Bjorn Nordfjord, who works in Nordic crime fiction … and we started broadening it from there. I was thinking, ‘Who else might have something that they’d want to add?’ That’s how the panel formed and I was really pleased that the President who has expertise in Rex Stout and other forms of crime fiction was willing to participate.”

Anderson was happy to be included, stating that, “Back in another life, I did a fair amount of writing about crime fiction, so while I’ve always been a steady reader of it, I thought the opportunity to go back and revisit some of the things that I’d been thinking about for a long time with a bunch of other smart people would be fun.”

Although each member of the panel spoke on a different author or tradition of crime fiction, they all shared the same goals of making faculty scholarship visible to students on campus and to pique campus interest of crime fiction.

As Anderson noted, “Everyone’s presentations almost always ended by saying, ‘Hey, over spring break, why don’t you try to pick up some of these titles that interested you.’”

Barjasteh agreed, “We just want to encourage people to keep reading. My goal was for students, faculty, staff, retirees, people in the general community, alums in the area who have an interest in this kind of fiction to become more aware of authors from all over the world.”

This event has been archived online and many of the writers discussed have books recently ordered or on display in Rolvaag Memorial Library.