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
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.”
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:
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.
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
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.
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.