When ex-paramedic Daniel Cole signed with agent Sue Armstrong, he was â€œdelightedâ€. When Armstrong bagged him a six-figure, three-book deal from a British publisher he was â€œin shockâ€.
But after a fierce fight between German publishers over his debut crime novel, Ragdoll, saw him signing for a record-breaking seven figures, Cole found himself among a group of British authors toppling Scandinavian writers from their perch at the summit of bestseller lists around the world. â€œI just couldnâ€™t believe it,â€ he says. â€œI was delighted to get an agent after suffering loads of rejections, and then it just went crazy.â€
In the last year, German, Dutch, Scandinavian and US publishers have also snapped up debuts by writers including Joseph Knox for Sirens, Fiona Cummins for Rattle, Ali Land for Good Me Bad Me, CJ Tudor for The Chalk Man and Fiona Barton for The Widow, paying money that even recently would have seemed unimaginable.
In the meantime, veterans such as Sarah Pinborough with Behind Her Eyes, I See You author Claire Mackintosh and Ruth Ware (The Woman in Cabin 10) have rocked up the US bestseller charts on the coattails of Paula Hawkinsâ€™s psychological blockbuster The Girl on the Train.
Coleâ€™s eye-watering deal with the German imprint Ullstein is one sign of the growing international appetite for noirish British thrillers. Both the money and a first print run of 75,000 hardbacks â€“ numbers usually reserved for hardcore chart favourites â€“ have already been vindicated. Published at the end of March, Ragdoll had by last week reached No 4 in the German charts.
That success has fed demand for British talent, according to Coleâ€™s UK publisher Sam Eades of Orion imprint Trapeze. â€œNow anything that goes to northern European publishers, they read very quickly,â€ she says.
For British publishers and literary agents, the success of crime writers such as Cole and Joseph Knox in Scandinavia has been particularly sweet. Over recent years, a mixture of homegrown stars such as Jo NesbÃ¸ and the high cost of translation have kept the door closed to most UK authors. â€œIt [has been] extremely hard to break into the crime market in Scandinavia, which is, with the exception of some standout titles, dominated by Scandinavian writers,â€ according to Coleâ€™s agency Conville and Walsh.
â€œBritish crime writers deal with dark topics, and the secrets that lie behind a domestic facade, which seem to be international themes that travel well,â€ explains agent Juliet Mushens. Her crime writing clients are becoming very well travelled: James Oswaldâ€™s Inspector McLean series is published in 20 countries, Ali Land in 22 and Claire Douglas, who wrote Local Girl Missing, in 13. â€œThereâ€™s a real appetite for well-crafted, dark, stories,â€ she adds.
It isnâ€™t just the darkness of the stories that appeals, according to Dutch publisher Tom Harmsen of LS Amsterdam, which has enjoyed successes with both Cole and Ware. The Brits are a bridge between cultures, he says: â€œThere are quite a few new English crime authors writing in the great British storytelling tradition, mixed with a Scandinavian sense of character and an American feel for entertainment â€“ the best parts â€“ and that resonates with a wide, European audience.â€
CJ Tudor, whose The Chalk Man was inspired by seeing chalk figures drawn by her child across her driveway one night, agrees and adds that the Brit crime boom also reflects increased confidence among UK crime writers. â€œI always felt that there was a place for Brits to deliver characters just as compelling as American writers and also to push the genre and inhabit the same territory as authors such as Stephen King, yet in a British setting,â€ she says.
Another factor has been the arrival of a fresh spin on more traditional cop novels featuring a new generation of detectives. â€œThere is an appetite from readers for coppers at the start of their journey,â€ says Orionâ€™s Eades. Typical is Joseph Knoxâ€™s Sirens, which features disgraced young detective Aidan Watts, a character with more than an echo of Ian Rankinâ€™s Rebus in his problems with authority.
Knox, who by day chooses crime fiction for book chain Waterstones, believes his success overseas reflects wider political issues. â€œThereâ€™s a huge element of timing involved,â€ he says. â€œSirens is a menacing noir thriller about how corrosive power can be, and how each generation betrays the next. I guess itâ€™s a pessimistic view of people and society, and unfortunately its time has come.â€
According to the critic and crime fiction expert Barry Forshaw, the rise of Brit crime is not just a reflection of literary ambition and insight. The unexpected success of British TV shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch has made an impact, especially in the US, where PBS has just bought ITV series Vera. And itâ€™s shows with a strong regional flavour that are leading the way. â€œThere is an interest in British accents and culture in America,â€ Forshaw says. â€œOver there, Happy Valley and Vera seem exotic.â€
But it hasnâ€™t all been plain sailing for British authors as they head abroad. Despite the hunger for Brit crime, there are some barriers that are difficult to cross, especially for US readers. â€œIt was quite a challenge to make my book accessible to the Americans,â€ says Fiona Barton. Her novel The Widow is, she admits, â€œvery British in tone and humourâ€, but that was not what stumped her US editors. â€œThey didnâ€™t know what a Blue Peter badge was,â€ she says. In the end they replaced it with a flat-footed â€œgold starâ€. However successful the new generation of British crime writers are overseas, some things will never translate.