A Global Mysterious View

Many North American and U.K. citizens harbor the mistaken notion that mystery fiction is created primarily in English and in places where English is the common tongue. Nothing could be more distant from reality. Mysteries are written and published in just about every country in the world and read avidly by hundreds of thousands of fans in many languages. Lt. Colonel Anastasia Kamenskaya in Moscow, Inspector Imanishi in Tokyo, Lt. Boruvka in Prague, and Chief Inspector Martin Beck in Stockholm are just a few of the remarkable characters who deserve much more attention and a wider audience. It should also be noted that, although the modern model for the genre was created by Edgar Allan Poe in 1841, there were forerunners in other cultures, including the early magistrate tales in China and Japan (the former were inspirational to Robert van Gulik in writing his superb Judge Dee mysteries). The Poe invention, copied and brilliantly refined by Conan Doyle, began a modern spatial diffusion process whereby the mystery genre spread across the globe where it was ingeniously adopted and adapted to each new culture. Indigenous writers began to emulate, innovate, and popularize mysteries set within their local, national cultures and contexts. The first home- grown Spanish mystery, for example, was published in 1853 (only 12 years after Poe's "Murder in the Rue Morgue"), in Sweden in 1893, in Russia in 1865, Argentina in 1884, Mexico in 1920, Japan in 1923. In each country the character of the stories reflected the special nature and traditions of that place - in Sweden socio-economic relations were emphasized, in Japan a traditional ghostly motif was often added and the detectives were always no-nonsense, non flamboyant policemen. The Mexicans and other Latin Americans frequently turned the mystery upside down, rendering the state and the police as the villains and the criminal as the persecuted hero fighting for the rights of the oppressed. In future columns we shall explore the range of these fascinating adaptations by non-English language mystery writers in every country.

It is also important to note that the mystery is a unique literary genre. It requires an initially ordered society, in whatever country, that is suddenly disordered by the commission of a crime. Hence, also required is a real setting, a place with a real geography, for its very life! The setting - the social, economic, cultural, political and even physical geographies - becomes a mirror of each society, reflecting a distinct and unique place, people and way of life. If done well, the reader is transported to a specific environment to observe the main character - the crime solver- use great ingenuity or intuition to solve the crime and return order and bring justice to the scene of the crime. As P.D. James puts it, "What gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist is the power to create a sense of place...".

Unfortunately, English language readers are all too often either unaware of the existence and richness of foreign mysteries or denied access to them because of the dearth of translations available by publishers. In addition, the bias by the mystery establishment to foreign mysteries is clear. The volume, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers (3rd. edition, St. James Press, Chicago and London, 1991) lists nearly 700 American and British authors and 19 foreign writers! This is, however, an improvement over the 1985 edition in which 15 foreigners were listed and all were West Europeans. Clearly the title of this work is misleading and should be revised to reflect the cultural, linguistic and ethnocentric bias. The venerable Howard Haycraft in his classic work, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, (D. Appleton Century Co., New York and London, 1941) dismisses the rest of the world's mystery writers describing the "marked inferiority of the Continental detective story" and ignoring even the existence of the genre in any other part of the world!

Mysteries written by non-indigenous writers (read, British or American writers) set in foreign locales are all too often inaccurate and skewed efforts in which the locals and the countries' national monuments (e.g. the Pyramids, the Great Wall) are mere backdrops for all too familiar English speaking heroes. There are some exceptions to this generalization in which a non-native author truly understands the culture and context of a foreign place. They are, unfortunately, very rare. A subsequent column will, in fact, highlight those remarkable people such as Robert van Gulik and Edith Pargeter who get foreign contexts right and know their place well.

In the future this space will be used to explore the globe to bring you examples of fascinating international writers and the influence of their places on their art. We sincerely hope these foreign, mysterious landscapes of crime will entertain and inform you.


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