Newsletter - ASIAN CRIME FICTION

Wednesday Oct 12 2011
by Jack

ASIAN CRIME FICTION by Jack

As most of our customers know, I am a great advocate of using crime fiction as a way to expand one’s horizons, both geographically and temporally. At one time crime fiction was pretty much confined to settings in contemporary Europe and North America, with occasional glimpses of more exotic climes, always treated as exotic. In recent years, however, we have had a virtual explosion of titles set in different historical eras and in different parts of the world. Most of these works are written by British or North American authors who are thoroughly familiar with the time and place involved, which is not necessarily a bad thing. A foreigner can often describe a time or place to an audience unfamiliar with it more successfully than a native, simply because his or her knowledge is consciously collected rather than acquired naturally. Moreover, a foreigner can cast the story in a vocabulary that readers will understand. One of the real questions about works in translation is the extent to which the language is that of the translator rather than of the writer. This is particularly the case with slang, which is often does not travel well from one language to another. At the same time, an increasing number of crime titles in translation gives us an opportunity to sense what the natives are thinking and feeling, even as we can often be perplexed by them. One of the parts of the world that has seen increasing crime fiction production is Asia.

Whodunit? today stocks a wide variety of books set in the Far East, with nearly every major country (and a few minor ones) represented. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to introducing readers to the best of this substantial haul of writing about what is for most of us terra incognita. We will start in China, which as we all no doubt appreciate, has changed substantially over the past fifty-plus years since Canadian soldiers fought against Chinese troops in the Korean War. The Chinese in recent years have put both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward behind them, and while their society is still more repressive than that of the West, much of that repression is built into Chinese values that long antedate Chairman Mao.  One of the most interesting authors here is Robert Van Gulik (1910-67), a Dutch diplomat who became an expert on Imperial China during the Tang Dynasty of the 7th century and during the 1950s wrote a series of crime novels about it, the first of which is Celebrated Cases of John Dee.  The Far East seems particularly to attract westerners who fall in love with it and become more entrenched than the native, although Donna Leon represents the same sort of tendencies.

Judge Dee is a Chinese magistrate and public inquisitor who solves perplexing crimes with the aid of his lieutenants. Van Gulik often based his stories on traditional Chinese detective stories, popular in China from the seventeenth century onward. Dee operates in an authoritarian judicial system quite alien to ours, and the people he deals with are bound by constricting ritual, tradition, and social mores.  One can also sense the link between Imperial China and the modern Communist state, just as we can see a connection between Dee and Inspector Chen Cao, the protagonist of Qui Xiaolong’s crime series set in modern Shanghai (starting with Death of a Red Heroine). Xiaolong was born in Shanghai in 1953 and presently lives in the United States, but his books are not so much indictments of the evils of the Communist regime as they are subtle probes into the new post-Mao China, precariously balancing capitalistic economic development, traditional values, and the political legacy of the Cultural Revolution. Xiaolong’s Shanghai strikes me as more authentic – because of its many ambiguities -- than the Canadian writer David Rotenberg’s rendering of it in a series that began with The Shanghai Murders in 1998.   But both are well worth reading.

From China we can slide somewhat westward to Tibet, a mountainous country that is presently being occupied militarily by the Chinese, Eliot Pattison is an internationally-known scholar specializing in business strategy who in his copious free time became an expert on modern Tibet. He has produced six detective novels featuring investigator Shan Yao Yun, a policeman originally based in Beijing but rusticated to Tibet by the Communist regime for his political views. The first in the series is The Skull Mantra (1998).  Pattison’s Tibet is a wild mountainous country rich in natural resources, which the occupiers are busily exploiting –with the aid of foreign nations, including the United States. The religion of Tibet is Buddhism, and the Communists are doing their best to suppress it, at least partly because the Buddhist monks are not very cooperative with the regime. Shan is part of a work-gang composed chiefly of monks, and one of the joys of this series is the picture it gives of Tibetan Buddhism, with its deep spiritual values in so many ways alien to western Christianity (as well as Chinese Communism). Pattison makes clear that the monks march to a different drummer within a different universe and time-frame. Occasionally our customers have complained that the story unfolds very glacially, but that is exactly the point. This is a society in which things happen slowly and in mysterious ways, processes well documented and illustrated in the stories of this series.

Another kind of Communist regime is presented in Colin Cotterill’s series set in Laos in the mid-1970s, at the close of the Vietnam War and in the early days of the Pathet Lao takeover of the country. Writing in a matter-of-fact way about the Pathet Lao is a wonderful way to demythologize the Laotian regime.  The protagonist is Dr. Siri Paiboun, a 72-year old lifelong Communist at one time married to a leader of the revolutionary party in the region. Dr. Siri is not as single-mindedly dedicated to the revolution as was his wife, but as one of the few remaining trained medical men in the country, he is appointed as national coroner. As such he is charged with investigating most of the unexpected deaths in at least in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and occasionally beyond it. So these books approach crime investigation from the vantage point of forensic medicine. But Dr. Siri is no Scarpetta. In the first place, he has no formal training beyond a general medical education, and virtually no fancy equipment. He relies in his detecting mainly on common sense. In the second place, he is a shaman, who has out-of-body experiences and often talks with the subjects of his autopsies. Some readers are put off by the paranormal elements in the stories, but most recognize that they are an integral part of presenting a picture of a non-western society. Much of what we read in these books flies in the face of what little we think we know about Laos and the Pathet Lao, often more by implication than by assertion. It is clear that the Laotians do not get on well with the North Vietnamese. As one official tells Dr. Siri, government policy is to ignore most of what the Vietnamese tells it. The major case in the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, is a complex plot of disinformation executed by the Americans with the assistance of a Laotian traitor. Also clear is that that daily life in Vientiane is influenced less by political considerations than by shortages and general poverty. Dr. Siri treats his community work detail as a bit of a lark, and he does not take public efforts at “re-education” very seriously. 

The foregoing constitute some of the riches out there for the crime fiction reader willing to step beyond the American thriller or British cozy, but they are only the tip of the iceberg.  They do not include fiction set in Japan, North Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Outer Mongolia, or Hong Kong, which will form the substance of our next foray into the genre.  JMB



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