Newsletter - Asian Crime Fiction, Part II by Jack

Thursday Dec 01 2011
by Whodunit

In our last newsletter I wrote of the opportunities to learn something of a less well-known part of the world – Asia – by reading crime fiction set there. I examined books set in China, Tibet, and Laos. In this installment I will look at work located in North Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, Outer Mongolia, and Japan. With the exception of Japan, most of this writing has been executed by westerners, usually people who have a long acquaintance with the country in one capacity or another.

The series set in North Korea –so far four books have appeared -- has been written by a former “intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia” publishing under the pseudonym James Church. The only other biographical information I have about this author is that he was born in California and was over 60 years old in 2009. One would gather that he spent a long career as part of the substantial American intelligence network conducting round-the-clock surveillance of North Korea. In his first novel, Church introduced and established his main character, Inspector O, who works mainly on the civil crime side of the North Korean police force. His superior tells O, “This is the capital city. It may not be a fine and fancy place, like Geneva or Prague, but it is the capital of our country, and it is the responsibility of our unit to keep it safe.” Like many totalitarian regimes, however, the one in North Korea does not clearly distinguish between civil and political crime, chiefly because any behavior against the government and its laws is regarded as political. Inspector O is no dissident, but instead is a loyal member of the Communist Party with at least one relative highly placed in the hierarchy. He inevitably finds that his investigations have political overtones, and the author is very good at recreating the stifling atmosphere of life in a police state without putting his main character in conscious resistance to it. This series is often compared with Martin Cruz Smith’s books starring Arkady Renko, a comparison which seems to me somewhat misplaced, since Renko is a dissident constantly kicking against the pricks of the state and deliberately attempting to subvert it, while Inspector O experiences the frustrations of the system without much complaint.  In a way, this is a more effective way of criticizing the system than putting the protagonist in direct opposition to it. In any event, we get an interesting and illuminating picture of the state and society in North Korea in the course of the crime-fighting. It has been often praised by experts on North Korea for its insight into the way the country works.

William Marshall is an Australian author who lived for many years in Hong Kong. He published his first crime novel, set in Hong Kong, in 1975, following with sixteen further books, ending in 1998, just as Hong Kong was taken over from the British by the Chinese. Obviously influenced by Ed McBain’s 87th precinct, Marshall created a fictional police station located in Hong Bay, a down-at-heels district in Hong Kong inhabited by brothels, gambling operations, pawn shops, and other equally nefarious enterprises. The cops in his Yellowthread Street Station are an international lot. DCI Harry Feiffer is a Brit born and raised in Hong Kong. Senior Inspector Christopher O’Yee is half Chinese and half white American, properly screwed up by his racial background. The other leading detectives -- Messrs Auden and Spencer -- are also British. The crimes faced and usually solved by this team are often bizarre, occasionally preposterous, and usually very violent; dealing with them is described by Matshall in a matter-of-fact fashion which can be very funny.  In the first book in the series, Yellowthread Street, for example, the boys face a typical evening in the precinct. One man near the fish market has chopped up his wife with an ax into little pieces. Brothel-keeper Hot Time Alice Ping sends her personal security man, Osaka the Disemboweler, to deal with her enemy the Mongolian, who is terrifying the neighbourhood by indiscriminately hacking off fingers and other body bits. A tourist from New Jersey wanders in to seek assistance in finding his missing wife. And so on it goes. The multi-racial and breathlessly capitalistic nature of Hong Kong is well-recreated. We have a sense of tawdry flashing neon lights, a twenty-four hour economy, and a population willing to do almost anything to make money and stay alive. We also have a sense of the imminent takeover of the Crown Colony by the Chinese. Unfortunately, most of these books are out of print and very hard to obtain here in Winnipeg. If anyone would like to bring us some, we would love to buy them and share them with our customers.

 John Burdett is a British writer who lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years. Obviously influenced by William Marshall, he has a series of four crime novels set in Bangkok, Thailand, featuring the detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Sonchai is a mixed-blood outsider in Bangkok society. His mother worked in the sex trade and his father was an American military officer. He grew up in Europe and the United States, and appears –for reasons we don’t understand but may be connected to his practicing Buddhism– to be incorruptible, apparently a fairly unusual attribute in Thailand, at least in Bangkok. Like Marshall, Burdett deals with bizarre and violent crimes, set against the backdrop of a city in which any vice or perversion can be readily fulfilled. In one book, tattoos valued as works of arts are literally skinned off the backs of human murder victims.  The snap and crackle of the city’s neon lights are as palpable as the lack of conventional morality amongst its population, most of whom seem to work eagerly in the sex trade. Indeed, the author’s website describes his first book as “part exploration of Thai attitudes toward sex.” Like Colin Cotterill’s Suri Paiboun, Burdett’s detective often solves his cases with paranormal assistance, making the point that shamanism runs rampant in Thai society. This series is not for everybody, but those who like it like it a lot.

From Bangkok we move to Ulan Baatar in Outer Mongolia, an Asian country half-modernized – the other half are still nomadic herders living as their ancestors did for centuries, and their tents can be seen from the runway at the airport.  A series of horrible serial killings is taking place in Ulan Baatar. The local authorities are totally stymied, and request the assistance of an experienced British detective, Drew McLeish. He discovers that he is entering a different world as soon as he steps on the airplane of Mongolia’s state airline. The in-flight meal consists entirely of a variety of meats and an unending supply of Mongolian vodka. I felt the author, Michael Walters, could have done a better job of describing the city and vast Gobi Desert, which is the countryside surrounding it, but one does get some sense of the exotic nature of Mongolia from The Shadow Walker. Part of my skepticism probably results from the fact that the weather in Ulan Baatar seems suspiciously like that in Winnipeg. One suspects there will be more heard from Mr. Walters.

Finally, there is Japan. Unlike the previous regions discussed in this essay, Japan has its own cadre of crime fiction writers, although some westerners also contribute to the Japanese list, which is fairly substantial. Our inventory in the store shows nearly 100 titles set in Japan. One westerner who has written extensively about Japan is Laura Joh Rowland, an American of Japanese descent who is the author of fourteen novels set in 17th-century Japan, featuring Sano Ichiro, a samurai assistant to the Japanese shogun.  At the heart of the Japanese court is the concept of bushido, the samurai version of chivalry, and Sano spends most of his time dealing with the problems it presents. Rowland is quite good on period detail, and her plots are well-crafted if not very imaginative.

A Japanese writer who works in the contemporary period is Miyuki Miyabe, sometimes called the “Queen of Japanese Crime Fiction” and often compared to Ruth Rendell because she deals in unusual crimes and strange happenings, frequently with a psychological edge. Like many writers in foreign languages, Miyabe’s work is not always translated, and one takes what one can get in English. One of her best is Shadow Family, set almost entirely in a police station, where the investigation comes to focus increasingly on the relationship between a murdered man and his murdered girlfriend and a family in an online fantasy game played in an internet chat room in which the murdered couple had been involved. Her best-known crime novel is Kasha (in English, All She Was Worth), in which a detective looks for a disappeared girl in a world in which everyone is involved in a consumer frenzy of spending. As is often the case with foreign crime fiction, the works (and authors) that get translated into English tend to be the self-consciously literary prize winners rather than the more workaday books. This is another reason why an author who begins in English is often a better bet than one who has been chosen for translation.



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