How crime fiction went global, embracing themes from decolonisation to climate change

·12-min read
Bao Zheng, a recurring character in Chinese _gong'an_ fiction. Wikimedia commons, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:CC BY-SA" class="link ">CC BY-SA</a>
Bao Zheng, a recurring character in Chinese _gong'an_ fiction. Wikimedia commons, CC BY-SA

Once seen as the purview of British and American writers, crime fiction is very much a global phenomenon. Fictional investigators such as Lisbeth Salander, Kurt Wallander and Jules Maigret are now perhaps as well known as Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Crime fiction today is written, published, sold and read on all continents. In many countries, it ranks among the most popular forms of literature. It might not be an exaggeration to claim that crime fiction is the most global of literary genres.

For English-language readers, however, the world of crime fiction was, until recently, limited to a few authors writing in other languages, like Franco-Belgian Georges Simenon and Swedish partners in crime Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Other writers were of course translated, but they found it hard to enter a marketplace already crowded with British and American crime fiction.

When readers of English wanted to go beyond Paris and Stockholm, British and American writers themselves filled in the gaps. They did this either by sending their detectives on investigations abroad (one model is Poirot’s excursions in France and the Middle East), or by writing “foreign” crime novels – like Alexander McCall Smith’s bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

That English-speaking readers had little access to the world’s crime fiction did not, of course, mean that it didn’t exist. It just wasn’t available in translation. This has changed over the last 20 years as a result of a boom in crime fiction translations. In particular, translations of “Nordic Noir” have exposed English-language readers to the diversity of the world’s crime fiction.

Read more: My favourite detective: Jules Maigret, the Paris detective with a pipe but no pretence

A long history of innovation

The publication in English of crime fiction from around the world has surprised many, challenging some firmly held views about the genre.

Consider the common idea that Edgar Allan Poe invented the genre in 1841 when he published The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Poe’s story itself is more modest and mentions Eugène François Vidocq, the real-life criminal cum chief of the Parisian police, whose fictionalised memoirs predate Poe’s story.

Poe was also influenced by E.T.A Hoffmann, whose 1814 novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi contains an amateur detective of sorts. Poe may also have found inspiration in stories of crime and investigation in classic literature. In Arabian Nights, for example, Scheherazade tells the story of a murder investigation to stave off her own murder.

Looking further east, a popular and dynamic form of crime writing known as gong’an, or court-case fiction, had already emerged in China in the 10th century. These court-case stories were exported to Korea and Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries, where local writers adapted the Chinese originals to Korean and Japanese settings.

Chinese court-case fictions made their way to the West in 1949 through Robert Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and sinologist. Van Gulik translated into English an 18th-century novel featuring Judge Dee before launching a long series of his own featuring this Chinese magistrate.

Despite this more complex, transnational account of the genre’s worldwide development, there is a persistent belief that crime fiction from around the world is merely imitative of British and American models. This belief is a consequence of the widespread adoption of the western conventions of crime writing, sometimes displacing, but not erasing local traditions, like the gong’an.

In China in 1914, for example, Cheng Xiaoqing, a translator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, began a series of popular short stories featuring amateur detective Huo Sang. Similarly, in Japan, Seishi Yokomizo played with the locked-room mystery format in The Honjin Murders (1948). This novel launched a series of 77 titles that eventually sold over 55 million copies. It has only recently become available in English translation.

The adaptation of British and American models has tended to reinforce the view that, as mere imitation, the fundamental interest of world crime fiction lies in its depiction of place. This assumption is only reinforced by critics who seek to account for the growing popularity of world crime fiction.

The Independent’s Jonathan Gibbs focuses on place by taking readers Around the World in 80 Sleuths. In the essay Death Takes a Holiday, Marilyn Stasio recommends a crime fictional tour for her New York Review of Books’ readership that begins in Cuba and ends up in Botswana, stopping on the way in places such as Melbourne, Shanghai, Sicily, Japan, Spain and Egypt.

Gibbs and Stasio share a belief, summed up by Clive James in his New Yorker essay Blood on the Borders, that international crime novels “essentially […] are guidebooks”. Having “run through all its possible variations of plot and character”, the crime novel, James asserts, is not a matter “of what happens but of where”.

This is a compelling idea, one that is often repeated by critics and scholars. But James is wrong. Editing The Cambridge Companion to World Crime Fiction (2022) has taught us that world crime fiction is nothing of the kind. For writers like Ukrainian Andrey Kurkov, Argentine Claudia Piñeiro, and Israeli Dror Mishani, both crimes and where they happen are important.

These writers don’t produce edgy guidebooks for foreigners. They use the international forms and tropes as a means of critically examining the political, socio-economic and historical issues of the local setting for local readers. For James and others, these crime scenes may be foreign, but they are not foreign for the citizen-readers of the places the novels are set.

The crime novel, moreover, is far from having exhausted its ability to innovate, as James suggests. Our research into world crime fiction has thrown up some fascinating examples of the ways in which writers from around the world, including here in Australia, have blended international and local literary conventions and expanded the genre’s possibilities.

This blending of different literary traditions sometimes happens in a smooth and almost seamless way. Indonesian Eka Kurniawan is a good example. When growing up in a Javanese village, Kurniawan was exposed both to local legends and Western popular fiction. At university, he was equally interested in postcolonial Indonesian writers and the classics of Western modernism. As a result, his crime novel Man Tiger (2004) mixes local and Western influences.

The novel tells the story of a good-natured young man, Margio, who one day brutally murders a wealthy villager. In telling this story, Kurniawan sends a nod to another classic of world crime fiction, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). Like Márquez’s novella, Man Tiger turns the crime novel upside down by revealing the identity of the murderer on the first page. The rest of the book is dedicated to explaining this seemingly unmotivated murder. As readers learn early in the novel, Margio harbours within him a ferocious white tiger. An unexpected supernatural element in a crime story, this spirit being is a striking symbol of rage and the desire for justice and revenge. When Margio is pushed beyond his breaking point, the tiger erupts with uncontrollable violence.

Interestingly, Kurniawan combines various literary styles and influences. The frequent shifts between different narrators and points in time can be seen as a device inherited from oral storytelling. Yet a see-sawing narrative of this kind is also a hallmark of Western modernism. In the same way, the spirit tiger is based on a local Indonesian legend, but it also has links to the Western literary motif of the “animal within”, as depicted most famously in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Although Kurniawan draws on Western crime-fiction conventions, he always blends them with Indonesian forms and themes.

Reflecting Indonesia’s historical status as a place where East meets West, Man Tiger is a hotchpotch of influences. The combination is both productive and innovative. It enables Kurniawan to tell a poignant story about injustice and lack of opportunities for young people in rural Indonesia. Man Tiger is both highly localised and highly globalised; it creates a literary form that is hybrid rather than simply the product of a single national tradition.

Read more: My favourite detective: Kurt Wallander — too grumpy to like, relatable enough to get under your skin

First Nations’ crime fiction

The melding of traditions can sometimes undo rather than integrate Western crime fiction conventions. First Nations’ crime fiction from the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries is a particularly good example of the push for genre reinvention.

For Indigenous authors, simply taking over Western crime fiction tropes is not an appealing option. These forms are often tainted by links to colonial and racist ideologies. Think, for example, of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, such as The Sign of Four or the short-story The Speckled Band, which are rife with racist and imperialist ideologies.

Moreover, canonical crime fiction is mostly based on Western forms of knowledge and does not reflect the Indigenous experience of policing and justice. Indigenous authors are therefore faced with the task of “decolonising” crime fiction – that is, reinventing the genre in ways that break with the colonial heritage and open up the form to Indigenous perspectives and knowledges.

Murri author Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011), for example, is a novel that draws on the standard elements of crime fiction, while at the same time trying to radically transform them. The story plays out against the background of colonial dispossession and its legacies in contemporary Australia.

Led by the Aboriginal lawyer Miranda Eversely, the fictional Corrowa people have filed a case with the Native Land Tribunal to reclaim part of their ancestral lands in central Brisbane. The claim is rejected, reflecting current Australian law. To gain Native Title, Aboriginal communities have to show a continuous connection to the land. This is something that Aboriginal communities cannot always do in a legally acceptable way, as colonisation often resulted in the severing of those connections.

The following morning, the judge in the case is found murdered. Shortly afterwards, two lawyers on the opposing side are also killed. Seeing the murders as acts of revenge, the police immediately cast their suspicion on the Corrowa People.

This all sounds like the blueprint for a standard police procedural, only with Aboriginal themes. The Boundary, however, is nothing of the sort. The novel is mainly interested in the police as a means of drawing attention to the organisation’s systemic racism. It describes how the two lead officers respond to the investigation in different ways. One of them, Jason Matthews, embarks on a process of reconnecting with his Aboriginal roots. The other, Andrew Higgins, goes on a rampage and beats an Indigenous man to death – a reflection of the ongoing tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The Boundary pointedly undermines the notion that the ending of a crime novel is a moment of truth and healing. The solution offered by the police is shown to be either wrong or incomplete. Instead, the novel offers other possible solutions, one of which involves Red Feathers, an Aboriginal “cleverman”, who has returned to avenge the injustices done to the Corrowa. In another break with conventional Western crime fiction, this spiritual being is accepted as part of the novel’s broad Indigenous concept of reality.

The novel’s reluctance to answer the question of “whodunit” is important. It suggests that, from an Aboriginal perspective, true closure is difficult to achieve. Even if the murders could be pinned on a single person, the fundamental crimes of colonisation and dispossession would not be resolved. The Corrowa remain cut off from their traditional lands.

What Man Tiger and The Boundary have in common is the attempt to bend and mould the conventions of crime fiction to suit a new, non-Western setting. In doing so, they repeatedly violate the “rules” of the genre. Kurniawan’s early revelation of the killer and Watson’s unwillingness to offer a definitive solution are two examples of a much broader tendency. These are not simply responding to Western conventions. They also create new, locally sourced ways of telling a crime story - notably by introducing supernatural elements that traditionally have no place in traditional Western crime fiction.

Read more: Friday essay: scary tales for scary times

Contemporary issues

Authors from around the world also use the genre to debate issues that traditionally had little role to play in crime fiction. Often these debates revolve around crimes that transcend the nation and are of concern to both local and global readers.

Crimes against the environment have become an important topic in world crime fiction. In Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (2009), Polish Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk uses a crime narrative to call attention to animal rights. Provocatively, her protagonist equates the killing of animals with the murder of people. Chilean author Roberto Ampuero’s El alemán de Atacama (1996) – “The German from Atacama” (the novel is yet to be translated into English) – focuses on multinational mining corporations that use Third World countries as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Authors such as Jordi de Manuel (Spain/Catalonia) and Antti Tuomainen (Finland) have written crime fiction with climate change as the central theme.

However, the range of world crime fiction is much wider and also involves other transnational themes such as global capitalism, drugs trafficking and migration.

Gender roles and gender inequalities are also examples of classic themes of Western crime fiction that are now being addressed in new ways by non-Western authors. Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018) offers a darkly humorous take on gender expectations and social media in Nigeria. Kishwar Desai has published three confronting novels about gender-based violence in India. And in Japan, Kirino Natsuo explores the impact of exploitative neoliberal practices on working-class women in Out (1997).

Some critics have argued that crime fiction is condemned forever to repeat the classic plot structures. But global crime fiction, far from being touristic or second-rate or formulaic, is a laboratory of innovation. It is constantly rewriting the genre’s rulebook and expanding its thematic repertoire. It has created new pathways for the genre by mixing international and local forms.

The next time you pick up a foreign crime novel you might find something that goes far beyond a gritty form of literary tourism. On the contrary, the harrowing acts of violence committed in world crime fiction provide insights into issues that affect us all.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Stewart King, Monash University; Dr Alistair Rolls, Associate Professor of French Studies, University of Newcastle, and Jesper Gulddal, University of Newcastle.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.