How the world became one big crime scene
From the Palestinian Territories to Mongolia and beyond, crime writers are using international locations to tackle global themes
THE POPULAR perception of crime fiction is that it’s the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, black sheep of the literary family. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite popular with women readers, perhaps as a result of the broad mind it has developed on its travels.
The success of Stieg Larsson’s Sweden-set Millennium Trilogy has alerted mainstream readers to the fact that the crime novel has an existence beyond its traditional enclaves in the US and the UK. Larsson, of course, is following in the footsteps of his countryman Henning Mankell, while “foreign” settings for crime novels are nothing new for readers familiar with the groundbreaking works of Georges Simenon (France) and Sjöwall and Wahlöö (Sweden), and latterly the likes of Andrea Camilleri (Italy), Colin Cotterill (Cambodia), Michael Dibdin (Italy), Jo Nesbø (Norway) and Deon Meyer (South Africa), to mention but a few.
Three years ago, writing in The New Yorker, Clive James celebrated international crime fiction offerings from Ireland, Scandinavia and Italy while simultaneously deriding the limitations of the genre’s form. “In most of the crime novels coming out now,” he said, “it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guide books.” What James failed to recognise is that the crime novel, by virtue of engaging with issues of law and (dis)order in a timely and relevant fashion, tends to be at the cutting edge in terms of addressing society’s fundamental concerns and broaching its taboos.
Per Wahlöö, for example, claimed that the motive behind the 10-book Martin Beck series written with her husband was to “use the crime novel as a scalpel cutting open the belly of the ideologically pauperised and morally debatable so-called welfare state of the bourgeois type”. Peeling back layers of cant and perceived wisdom is a theme that writers are currently exploring in settings as diverse as Canada, Poland, the Palestinian Territories, Brazil, South Africa and Mongolia.
“Toronto has been proud of its label as one the most multi-ethnic cities in the world for the past 20 years or so,” says John McFetridge, whose Let It Rideis set in Canada’s great melting-pot city. “There’s been some great literature written here, but there hasn’t been much written about crime. And there’s been plenty of crime.
“Almost everything in my books is inspired by real events, from the closed brewery turned into a giant marijuana grow-op to the beauty queen pulling armed robberies at spas, to eight members of a gang killed in one night. I wanted to write what I saw going on in my city that not many people were talking about.”
Mike Nicol, the author of Killer Country, is one of a new breed of South African writers inspired by Deon Meyer. “During apartheid the only fiction was literary fiction,” he says. “It was believed to have the seriousness that our political condition demanded. So there was no crime fiction – or almost none, although there were some very good novels from James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn.
“After the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in 1999 it became obvious that the new government wasn’t terribly different from the old government. Apartheid was gone but the politicians remained politicians. There was widespread cronyism, fraud, corruption, embezzlement within government, collusion between cops and gangsters, a collapse in the education system, a collapse in the health sector as Aids denialism became a national policy, and an unhealthy relationship developed between the private sector and the public sector that was a mixture of threat and bribery. As a crime writer, I felt I was back in business.”
Matt Benyon Rees, a journalist, sets his Omar Yussef series of novels in the Palestinian Territories in order to humanise the newspaper headlines. “I wanted to show the Palestinians – whom we all think we know from daily news reports – as they are and to make readers realise that they didn’t really know them at all. Detective fiction is perfect for such a manoeuvre because it requires readers to examine very closely what’s happening in the story – there’s not much room for gloss. When it’s placed in a foreign culture, the reader’s attention has to be that much closer and the writer has to look again at every element of his descriptions.
“Fiction, strangely, is a much better way of getting at the truths of a foreign culture than political analysis,” he continues. “Politics and journalism are based around liars and those who observe liars at work but often neglect to point out that the liars are lying. Fiction can’t lie.” The classic dramatic conflict between have and have-nots forms the backdrop to Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva novels, which are set in Brazil.
“Brazil is a rich country,” he says, “but it’s still a developing country. As such, it continues to have highly inequitable income distribution. That’s changing, and changing rapidly, but it’s still true that this country’s taboos (unlike the ones Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al had to contend with) can vary immensely depending upon where you stand in the socioeconomic pecking order. Forcing one of your children into prostitution is repugnant, for example, but there’s no taboo against it if the alternative is to let your other children starve.
“That’s an extreme case, obviously, but Brazil is full of societal issues that don’t arise in so-called First World countries. Liberation theology, for example, has been condemned by the Princes of the Church, but many of Brazil’s poorer priests practice it. Excessive concentration on the promise of reward in heaven, they say, often propagates social injustice on earth. So, at one end of the scale, a defence of liberation theology is taboo. And, at the other end, not embracing it is equally taboo.
“How could I possibly live here, be a writer, and not want to tell people what a fascinating place this is?”
MICHAEL WALTERS SETS HIS Nergui novels in the former Soviet satellite of Mongolia.
“I’m not exactly exploring ‘societal taboos’,” he says, “but writing about a society which is still in the process of trying to work out exactly what its values (and therefore taboos) ought to be. The relationship between ‘legality’ and ‘morality’ is sometimes far from clear. In my first book, for example, I was trying to work out the links between individual murder and corporate crime, and the way in which, in a society desperate for economic growth, the corporations can sometimes, maybe even literally, get away with murder. In my second, I was looking to explore the difficulty of trying to establish legitimate law enforcement in a society where corruption is endemic and, historically, the word ‘police’ has usually been preceded by the word ‘secret’.
“In a pretentious mode,” Walters says, “I’d quote the line from Gramsci: ‘The old is dying, the new is struggling to be born and in the period of interregnum there arise many morbid symptoms.’ That’s a pretty good description of some aspects of Mongolia. The ‘morbid symptoms’, of course, make perfect material for crime fiction.”