In the beginning was the Word. Crime fiction, in its current trajectory, owes much to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald to name the obvious trinity that many current crime fiction writers light a candle in homage. Of course the lineage is longer and deeper, including Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe.
The BBC has picked up on the popularity of crime fiction with the story: The Genre that just won’t die The cozy novels of Agatha Christie continue to sell.
“Crime fiction in general is a strong source of sales - five of the top 10 selling paperbacks are thriller titles; two are literary chillers on the Richard and Judy reading list, two are by perennial best-selling authors (Michael Crichton and Ian Rankin) and The Last Testament is a chase mystery, a genre made popular again by The da Vinci Code.”
An interesting trend has been the rise of international crime fiction. From Venice, Stockholm, Shanghai, and Bangkok the crime novel has found fertile ground to grow and prosper.
In a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, Matt Rees’ The Collaborator of Bethlehem provides a flavour of the Middle Eastern setting:
“His powerful first novel from British journalist Rees humanizes the struggle of the West Bank, where Omar Yussef, a modest 56-year-old schoolteacher in the Dehaisha Palestinian refugee camp, becomes an unlikely detective amid the uncertainties and violence of modern Bethlehem. Israeli gunfire peppers the area, the Muslims mistrust the minority Christian population, and the Martyrs Brigade instills terror in virtually every group.”
The BBC piece quotes Rees about connection between setting and crime fiction:
“The cops are corrupt and the villains have a great deal of confidence, which means that the detective has to overcome his own flaws. That's what makes detective fiction so attractive - people always think there are a lot of problems with their society, and there's a desire to have a character that can put that right.”
There are certain things to look out for before you buy the crime novel set in a foreign land. Among the foremost factors to look for, is the connection of the writer to the place he or she is writing about. Does the author have authority, which comes from experience and knowledge at a deeper level?
It is not uncommon to have an author to parachute into Thailand or Burma or Laos, have a look around, fill up a couple of notebooks, and return home to write a crime novel. A shallow connection makes for a shallow book. For people living in other countries, they simply don’t know how the people in the place where the book is set laugh at the stupidity recorded as sagely observation page after page of such books. Editors don’t know. Reviewers don’t know. They assume the author knows what he or she is talking about. The level of due diligence on crime fiction written by outsiders which is set in foreign locations is not very good. There seems to be an assumption that the outsider’s view is as genuine, plausible and insightful as a local. That simply is false.
Would you hire a driver for a Formula 1 team if he had just spent a couple of weeks or months learning the basics of driving? May be if he or she were a relative or paid for the spot. The competition is too keen and anyone who is less than top professional form won’t do well in the race. The same applies in the crime fiction race. Many start but few finish high in the rankings.
Unless the writer can speak the language and has spent a considerable amount of time on the ground you can expect many howlers about the culture where the book is set.
Second, the writer needs an understanding of the social, cultural and political and that doesn’t come easily. You need to have spend time in the back streets, the slums, the small communities isolated from the others, talking to expats and the locals in their own language, and discovering the fault lines that are separate communities, cause anxiety, hatred and mistrust. If you are going to write about the police you had better get the details right. That research is much easier to do in Canada, the United States and England –all places where I have gone out with the police as a civilian observer. In Asia, the police culture makes this much harder.
Journalists like Matt Rees or Dan Fesperman (The Amateur Spy) have been in the field and have drawn from source material that many would not have access to. They’ve heard gunfire. They’ve seen the results of bombings and shootings on the families of the victims.
The Economist in the August 18th 2007 issue said of Fesperman’s novel (it is already out in England and will be out in the States in March, 2008) “Mr. Fesperman is especially good on the murky frontier where journalists, aid-workers, and spies trade information, each seeking something for nothing.”
The problem is when the writer is seeking something for nothing in the place where he or she writes. Unless the writer has made a substantial investment in terms of time to study the culture, language and history you may end up reading crime fiction that mugs you in the dark alley of ignorance. The problem is you won’t even know you’ve been mugged.