Mark Schreiber, a leading crime fiction critic in Asia, has an article in the Japan Times this weekend entitled: Western heroes in Asia: missing and believed dead.
Schreiber writes: “I suddenly realized that spy stories, thrillers and police procedurals set in this part of the world, in which Caucasian superheroes get to whack sinister Asian villains, have been rapidly disappearing.”
He also talks about the Vincent Calvino novels as a partial exception to his thesis:
“Vinnie Calvino, Canadian author Christopher G. Moore's Bangkok-based private eye, would seem to be one of the few exceptions of Western characters still on the prowl; but when serious trouble strikes, the hard-boiled American frequently relies on an influential Thai police official to intervene on his behalf.”
Schreiber, who has his finger on the pulse of Asian crime fiction, thrillers and mysteries, may have come across a weeding out process in publishing. His website Steamy East Heroes and Villains is the best resource to explore past and present crime fiction set in Asia.
It is very difficult to get anything published by a traditional publisher. I suspect this may have stopped fresh blood arriving in Asia from writing novels. Though looking at the local bookstores the shelves have new locally published novels by the truckload. That secondary market is still going but the question of whether it is healthy is another question.
Schreiber is no doubt talking about international publishing and the larger commercial publishers in New York and London that buy books set around the world. Another factor—more Asians are writing fiction set in Asia those books are finding their way to the West. I can't prove it, but I would suspect (but can't prove) that most readers would prefer a noir novel set in China, Japan or Thailand, where the central characters are Asian, to be written by an Asian author, as it would appear to be more authentic than one penned by a non-Asian author. The luk-krueng or half-farang, half-Asian character is the “in between” two worlds hero, and since he or she is neither fish nor fowl, more liberties can be taken and readers can attribute shortcomings to the half of the character they are less familiar with.
There are a few other authors who have cast foreigners as heroes in thrillers or mysteries set in Asia. Dean Barrett, Stephen Leather and Timothy Hallinan. As far as I can tell, Timothy Hallinan is the only other author published by a major US publisher who has started a series in Asia with a farang character in the lead role, and his two novels have received acclaim from reviewers.
Gone are the days of broad stereotypes like Charlie Chan. Earl Derr Biggers American Chinese character who appeared in novels (starting in 1925) and films in the 1940s. The evolution of fiction about Asia shows how far writers have come since the early Chan novels, and illustrates the demands of readers for a more realistic contemporary setting and heroes who aren’t caricatures playing to type.
Schreiber’s conclusion is a good one for aspiring writers. If you are going to set a book in Asia and use a foreigner as the central character, don’t make him a secret agent or spy. He recommends a more fertile occupation for such a character would be: “Western diplomats, military attaches, investigative journalists, engineers, insurance claims investigators, researchers and scientists . . .”