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Gumshoe goes global
The tranquil English countryside once had the monopoly on murder lit. No more. Corpses are spooking Nordic towns, Bethlehem settlements and the Mekong. Avatars of Sherlock Holmes are everywhere. And crime fiction, once dismissed as sensational low lit, has been elevated to a grisly art form that allows readers to travel into the dark hearts of distant societies and learn about their moral codes. Murder most foul is flourishing in the global village.
A cheerful 75-year-old communist coroner who lives with a 1, 000-year-old spirit in his body makes for an unlikely detective. And placid Laos by the sluggish Mekong is an even more unlikely setting for a crime series. But the otherworldly Dr Siri Paiboun - to whom bodies on the slab "speak" - is one of the best-loved sleuths today. A continent and hemisphere away, in freezing Nordic towns, an ever-growing number of melancholy detectives with bad marriages and drink problems are cracking vicious murder cases and battling sex rackets, neo-Nazi crimes, political villainy and immigration rings. Even the Arctic city of Reykjavik has a dour Inspector Erlendur investigating spine chillers. And while Stieg Larsson - the man behind Lisbeth Salander - is a whopping hit, the true and resourceful lover of crime fiction knows that there is equally gripping - and often better crafted - stuff coming out of small Scandinavian towns and islands.
Then, at the other end, is the Mediterranean belt full of more full-blooded sleuths like Inspector Montalbano, solving crime when they get time off from great food, wine and lush women. And in the warmer, gentle world that Precious Ramotswe inhabits, she solves small, homely mysteries while upholding old Botswanian ways. Michael Stanley's Detective Kubu also lives in Gaborone, but his beat is far less domestic.
In between these wide swathes are detectives stalking the dark streets of just about every other country: China, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, Israel, Palestine, Greece, Spain, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Brazil. This, of course, does not include the traditional crime churners - the UK and the US, which reigned supreme for about a century.
But the big, bad cities of the US and the county climes of England have been so done to death that readers are now looking to newer places and more off-beat contexts. After all, in how many novel ways can a villain plunge a dagger into a heart in gritty American streets or bore a hole into unsuspecting skulls in deceptively peaceful shires?
The Swedish crime wave was the first to break this monopoly. And so strong is its following these days that a halfway decent author with a Nordic name and a passable plot set in a gloomy town where it gets dark by three in the afternoon has a good shot at making it to No 1 in the best-sellers list. Johan Theorin, one of the newest Scandinavian finds, whose books are set in the ancient island of Oland that turns eerily empty during winter months, is being translated into 20 languages.
The common joke is that we like to read crime because it is vicariously thrilling to be tucked safely in bed while following a wretch being chased through a dark, foggy night by a knife-wielding maniac across the pages of a book. That apart, crime also engages because it deals with age-old questions about morality and mortality. In an interview to TOI-Crest, Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, creator of the brilliant Kurt Wallander series, says: "The most fundamental inspiration for me has always been the ancient Greek dramas. Medea by Euripides is a play about a mother who kills her children. The difference is that in ancient Greece they did not have police officers. Macbeth is also a crime story. Crime writing is a very old tradition. Good crime stories deal with very fundamental questions and I think that those will always be interesting to us. "
Lovers of crime fiction have probably never had it this good: you can pick almost any nation from the Third World to the first, any time in history from contemporary to the 1920s and all the way back to the Roman empire, any genre from police procedurals to thrillers, and action that veers from almost poetic to gory.
"In the beginning I was concerned that nobody would be interested in a little country tucked away in Indo-China. We found a small publisher in the (United) States and there wasn't a lot of fanfare or promotion. So Dr Siri crept up on people in a very Lao way, " Cotterill tells TOI-Crest.
Interestingly, many "foreign" crime books are actually written by American and English professionals, writers and journalists who have done stints in these countries and have a strong grasp of the local society, its culture and conflicts. For example, lawyer John Burdett's Sonchai series came after long years of work in South Asia. Former Palestine-based Time writer Matt Rees created detective Omar Yussef after watching at close quarters sectarian conflict and infighting unfold on its tough streets. The scene, though, is not swamped by expats. A big bunch of indigenous crime writers is being translated into English and other languages. Even before the current set of Scandinavian masters such as Mankell and Hakan Nesser came on the scene, there were the finely nuanced works of the author couple Mars Sjowall-Pers Wahloo featuring the melancholy Martin Beck. Such is the demand for Nordic crime that publishers can't seem to get them translated fast enough into English. Of Nesser's great Inspector Van Veeteren series, set in the imagined north European town of Maardam, only five are available in English (four in India, the last one having presumably taken a slow boat from Europe).
Several nations such as Italy, Brazil and Spain have strong local traditions of suspense writing, which is finding more takers among English speakers. In India, for instance, Amanda Camilleri's brilliant Sicilian series starring Inspector Montalbano and his tussles with the mafia and corrupt local authorities - which we can easily identify with - is highly visible. Arturo Perez-Reverte and his saga of the swashbuckling hidalgo Captain Alatriste, set in medieval Spain full of nasty inquisitors and ravishingly dangerous women, is slowly moving into the list of must-reads.
SENSE OF PLACE
Crime fiction, then, essentially does what the Feluda series managed to do with the stories set in small Indian towns and travel destinations - spike your interest in a place, its sounds, smells, and oddities. The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency in 1999 perhaps first proved the possibility of setting a crime story in a distant land and still creating a bestseller. It was low on action but replete with atmosphere - an astounding hit. Mma Ramotswe drew you to the quiet Botswanian way, the bush tea-making rites, the pumpkin curry, the respect for the cattle and the dilemma of 'traditionally built ladies'.
"I believe people want to know about the world, but can't get it from the news. In turn, crime fiction gives you the story behind the story. It shows you people in extreme situations. It's the difference between taking a coach tour (newspapers) and walking through the slums with a local (crime fiction. ) That makes it the best way to learn about the world, while also being entertained, " Rees, who recreates the Intifada days of Palestine in his books, tells TOI-Crest.
"The reality I reported on as a journalist was very similar to the great crime fiction I read in the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, " he recalls. For anyone confused by the endless infighting among people of the region, Omar Yussef provides a literary tour around the trouble spots.
John Burdett's devout Thai-Buddhist detective Jipleecheep Sonchai walks the squalid streets of Bangkok's red light district combining Zen philosophy with detection. He could not have been set anywhere else in the world. Cotterill steadfastly keeps his Dr Siri very Laotian even if the good doctor's shamanic fits confuse Western readers.
Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong was very particular that his poetic Inspector Chen had to be familiar with Shanghai's angst of the 1990s when the nation was floundering between the old Communist order and the new greed for wealth. For the 700, 000 readers who devour him in 16 languages, no essay could have done a better job of detailing those turbulent times in China.
"It is absolutely important for Inspector Chen to understand the social and historical circumstances of a murder, not just the whodunit of it, " says Xiaolong (see 'Crime fiction is a commentary on society' ).
FROM LOW TO HIGH LIT
More than anything else, crime fiction is no longer low lit, read by those who don't have the brains to appreciate evolved literature. A good percentage of the big names in crime fiction today are simply good writers who just happen to write crime.
In the US, writers such as James Lee Burke, who have a keen eye on the country's socio-political system - the racism and the murky links between big money and establishment - turned to crime to tell their stories better. "I write stories that reflect national problems. I believe that the crime novel has replaced the sociological novel of the 1930s and the 1940s, " he tells TOI-Crest in an email interview.
Patrick Anderson, who reviews crime for The Washington Post and who authored The Triumph of the Thriller, believes that the publishing industry and good authorship have together ensured that intelligent crime writing is a viable market proposition.
"I think there was a gradual breaking down of snobbish 'literary' standards among editors and reviewers. Editors want to sell books - to make money - and so they"re drawn to books that are popular. It helped when literary writers like Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner's Song) wrote excellent true-crime stories, " says Anderson.
Crime fiction, he points out, has always been around and successful: Agatha Christie and her imitators in England, and Chandler, John D MacDonald, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane in the US. But today the genre has moved from the fringe to the centre of mainstream popular fiction. "Today, the New York Times Book Review may still feature 'literary' fiction, but on any given Sunday, the majority of the books on its bestseller list will be crime fiction. Some of it is very good - by, say, Michael Connelly or John Sandford - and some may be lousy - by James Patterson - but that's what people are reading, " says Anderson.
By 1981, he recalls, crime fiction had hit a peak. Four among the top-selling 15 books of the year were detective works - Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, Lawrence Sanders' The Third Deadly Sin;ex-cop Joe Wambaugh's The Glitter Dome and John D MacDonald's Free Fall in Crimson. As Anderson jokes, it became far more viable to write a thriller than to write about an unhappy childhood.
But not all crime fiction on market shelves today is great works of literature. The Scandinavian flood, for instance, has also thrown up some mediocre work. Says Cotterill: "It might all get a little overwhelming for readers soon enough, but right now people are having fun with all this armchair tourism. "
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