Creating crime fiction in Belgium – behind the scene of the DETECt MOOC on Euro-Noir

Roberta Pireddu

Who has never read or watched a crime drama raise your hand. Crime fiction is, without any doubt, one of the most popular genres of our time. From P.D James to Fred Vargas, from Hercule Poirot to Commissario Montalbano, we are constantly -visually and literary- surrounded by characters, stories, allusions that refer to this genre. However, watching or reading crime fiction cannot just be considered as a form of pure entertainment. On the contrary, it truly is an ideal way to peek not only into the discrepancies and conflicts of the modern and contemporary society but also into the complex social, cultural, and linguistic features that make a country unique.

But have you ever wondered what goes on behind the writing of a crime fiction novel or the production of the last crime tv show that you watched? How does crime fiction in the literary and media field start and grow? And especially, what about Belgium? Can we overlook the linguistic barriers of this complex country and talk about pure Belgian crime fiction?

Precisely these and other questions emerged while working on the Belgian crime fiction section of the future MOOC on “Euro-Noir”, based on the European project DETECt H2020 and created from the collaboration between KU Leuven and four other European universities (University of Limoges, University of Bucharest, University of Debrecen, University of Aalborg and University of Bologna).

The purpose is to educate the learners, clarify and trigger new discussions around the existence of Belgian crime fiction, highlighting the multilingualism issues and the main features of the female crime fiction in Flanders. 

On the base of these inquiries, who more than a successful Flemish crime fiction writer and those responsible for the crime dramas production of the two most important Belgian broadcasts could provide a detailed explanation? The answer to this question has taken the form of three video interviews with four different guests.

One country, many languages: Elly Vervloet (VRT) and Marc Janssen (RTBF)

Watched from above, under the static gaze and the squared shadow of the Reyers Tower, the headquarter of the two most important Belgian broadcasts appears as a compact group of buildings, hiding perfectly the deep barrier symbolized by the French and the Flemish language. Respectively, VRT -Vlaamse Radio-en Televisieomroep- and  RTBF -Radio-télévision Belge de la Communauté française- are the two official broadcasts of the Flemish and of the French-speaking communities of Belgium, separated only by the concrete walls of a building, but at the same time totally independent one from each other. 

It is still morning when we are welcomed at the entrance of the VRT building by Elly Vervloet, who kindly leads us through the hallways of the Flemish broadcasting headquarter, and finally to the location established to host our video interview. Elly Vervloet is not only the International Drama Executive for VRT but also Coordinator of the Drama Initiative for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU is a recently established organism that aims, through a broad collaboration that embraces the whole of Europe, to bring high-quality drama content to the European audience. 

Elly Vervloet starts talking about the big relevance of the work of EBU at a European level with the same intensity as she mentions the many local creations, produced by VRT. When it comes to Flemish TV Dramas, the words “local” is an essential keyword, one of the reasons behind the huge success -national and international- of Flemish crime series such as Tabula RasaBeau Séjour or Undercover. The attention to the cultural and social realism of a story seems to be, in fact, one of the keys that make Flemish tv dramas so intense, authentic, and successful. Certainly, in this context, language is not left behind but, on the contrary, emphasized in all its varieties and dialect. A strategy that keeps the authenticity of the drama alive and that is strongly supported by the long Flemish tradition -as stressed out by Elly Vervloet – of subtitling the media productions. 

The authenticity of the productions’ content and emphasis on the local culture and society are also some of the features of the TV dramas produced for the French-speaking community of Belgium, as underlined by a couple of days later, during our meeting with Marc JanssenHead of Fiction at RTBF. With the same intensity as Elly Vervloet, he highlights the importance of creating authentic content that emphasizes cultural and linguistic peculiarities. This is, even more, the case for crime fiction, a powerful genre able to bring out the most twisted aspects of human society. Similarly to VRT, also to RTBF the importance of preserving the local language is one of the main priorities of their production, even though this does not preclude the simultaneous presence of different languages as part of one singular TV drama. But going beyond the undeniable linguistic barrier between the French and Flemish parts of Belgium, there seems to be something that deep inside can be defined as a sort of Belgian touch in producing tv dramas. This materializes through the so-called Belgian surrealism, here defineds as a twisted mix of drama and irony, as well as in the unconventionality and complexity that distinguish Belgium as a country and that still mirrors in its media productions. 

Multilingualism is then really a barrier in the Belgian tv dramas context? Maybe, if it comes to preserve the linguistic tradition of a region. But it is without any doubt a true source of extreme richness when collaboration is more than welcome. 

A screen capture from the interview with the Flemish crime fiction writer Hilde Vandermeeren

Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen: creating a psychological thriller

The majesty of the Spoelberchkamer at the KU Leuven University Library, with its antique furniture and the 18th-century books perfectly ordered in the wooden bookshelf, was a perfect location to meet Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen and to talk with them about crime fiction. 

Hilde Vandermeeren is already well known inside and outside of Flanders as a successful female crime fiction writer since 2009. One of the few exceptions in Flanders, where the literary market is still dominated by male writers. Labeled as psychological thrillers, her books reached international success and have been translated in different languages, also winning important literary prices.

The collaboration with the criminal defence lawyer Walter Damen, which started exactly one year after Hilde Vandermeerens’ winning of the prestigious Hercule Poirotprijs in 2017, led to the writing of a psychological thriller trilogy, set in Lisbon, but with a female Flemish criminal defence lawyer as a protagonist. And it is exactly highlighting this aspect, the mix between the international setting and the Flemish culture of the main character, that we start our interview with. This is, in fact, one of the features that recur as a distinctive trait in many of Hilde Vandermeeren’s books, and that can rarely be found in the works of other male Flemish crime fiction authors – mainly focused on Flanders not just as a culture but as a setting. Yet, Hilde Vandermeeren and Walter Damen trilogy is rooted in the Flemish culture and language but at the same time, it imposes a different scenario, inviting the readers to cross the borders and explore them. A peculiarity, that is significant not only for the future of the Flemish crime fictions in the international landscape but also because it brings the attention on the crime fiction as a universal, internationally understood genre.  Since the beginning of our interview, Hilde Vandermeeren points out the importance of the continuous collaboration between her and her co-author, a co-writing partnership profoundly grounded on their experiences – literary on one side and juristic on the other side, especially when it came to sketch the main characters of the trilogy and to give them intensity. But more in general, the strong psychological development of her characters, which includes not only their emotions but also their personal story, and choices, is one of the features that distinguishes her works. And maybe the attention to the most profound human emotions and its complexity is one of the keys to the popularity of her novels, described as neither black nor white, a place where reality is never good either bad. A statement that seems to perfectly express also the core of the crime genre.