ABOARD THE NOIR TRAIN, Spain (Reuters Life!) - One of Europe's biggest book fairs will aim to bring a smile to Spaniards suffering from belt-tightening by offering more events at the free-entry 10-day festival which begins on Friday.
The Semana Negra (Noir Week) combines a traditional seaside fun fair in the northern coastal town of Gijon with a literary festival which has sought every summer since 1988 to knock down walls between high- and low-brow culture.
"Our theme is that literature as well as free, varied and abundant cultural events are a breath of fresh air for a society which has to tighten its belt," said Spanish-Mexican author and chief organizer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
Four million Spaniards are currently out of work and many of those who still have jobs face wage cuts due to government austerity measures designed to cut Spain's budget deficit amidst the country's worst economic crisis in decades.
Crime writers like Taibo II -- who is also a prize-winning historian -- have long shrugged off charges they pen somehow inferior "genre" fiction by saying they are in fact best equipped to deal with thorny everyday issues.
"In dark times, literature seems to be the only place to produce critical thinking," said Taibo II, whose novels have made the New York Times "books of the year" list.
"Where economics apparently analyses -- everyone knows that economists, on principle, lie -- a novel tells what getting the sack is like."
The festival proper begins in Gijon on Friday evening, although the programme began with a news conference held on board the specially chartered "Noir Train" from Madrid.
The train also featured concerts and distributed the first edition of a free daily newspaper and guide to the festival's packed programme, called "A Quemarropa" (At point-blank range), with the headline "The Important thing is to read."
In keeping with its innovative, off-beat style, the festival this year will include an exhibition of tin soldiers depicting the late 19th-century Boxer Rebellion in China, as well as concerts, film shows, photo journalism exhibits, book launches and debates.
More than 100 writers will take part in the festival, ranging from U.S. crime writer Martin Cruz Smith, author of "Gorky Park," Angus Donald, British writer of a series about legendary outlaw Robin Hood, to former Cuban secret service agent Fabian Escalante.
Also invited have been Spanish crime-writing veteran Juan Madrid and prize-winning British science-fiction author Ian Watson.
Rounding off the week will be the awarding of the Spanish-speaking world's most prestigious prizes for best crime novel, for science fiction, historical novels, non-fiction crime writing and first crime novel.
Reporting by Martin Roberts, editing by Paul Casciato