The International Diffusion and Adaptation
of the Crime Fiction Genre

Crime fiction or the mystery, invented by Poe in 1841 with a story set in Paris (The Murder in the Rue Morgue) rapidly became a remarkably popular literary genre dominated by American and British writers and, to a lesser extent, French authors. The genre, although frequently and unfairly relegated to the category of low fiction, is an incredible literary form that has proven extremely durable, flexible, and creative. It is an especially valuable literature for the social sciences because of its structure. The fundamental premise of all mysteries is a society that is ordered and real but becomes disordered as a result of a crime imposed on that society. In the normal case, a hero arrives - an officer of the law, a private detective or an amateur sleuth - and via logical deduction, hard work or luck, solves the crime, identifies the perpetrator, and order is restored. In more recent times the latter few steps may not always occur, but that is another issue for another time.

Because the genre demands an ordered society as a beginning, the reader always has the opportunity to discover a place with a class of characters, a culture, a social geography, a physical geography, and geographies of all kinds. Thus, the mystery is a window into all types of societies — from the English country homes and its elite residents, to the mean urban streets of North America, to the awesome landscapes and cultures of the Navaho in the American Southwest. In short, the mystery is a veritable geographic bazaar with places to explore, things to learn and with an opportunity to be pleasantly entertained.

The main focus of this essay, however, is to examine the mystery outside the Anglo-French- American realm and investigate what happens to the genre as it diffuses across the globe. The genre has become immensely popular in almost every corner of the world via a spatial diffusion process that is very interesting and country specific. The most arresting (pun intended) and important process, however, is the way in which the mystery has been adapted and fitted to each society to meet its particular needs and suit its particular culture. Normally the genre first infiltrates each country via translations of the immensely popular British or American works such as those of Poe, Doyle and others. These imports are usually followed by indigenous imitators and finally by native authors who adapt and alter the formula of the genre to meet the conditions and culture of the country.

In order to understand the types of transformations that the mystery undergoes in the diffusion process let me share with you my findings from a number of countries where the genre has become a very popular literary form and considerable adaptations have occurred. 

Let me start with Italy where local writers began to produce mysteries in the 1850s. The early translations of English and American stories and local works were published in cheap yellow covers and thus the genre was baptized with the term "Giallo Libri" or yellow books. The genre was outlawed by the Fascists during WWII but exploded in popularity after the war, especially influenced by the American hard-boiled school. There developed two groups of Italian mystery writers, a more traditional group and a so-called "literary" group. The first was a very regionally oriented set of authors who set their stories in the distinctive regions of Italy. The second group is comprised mainly of mainstream writers who use the detective format to create an anti-detective or postmodern novel in which the detectives are imperfect, the crimes usually unsolved and clues left for the reader to decipher. However, in their stories and novels important messages are conveyed, fascinating characters created and compelling stories are told. Excellent examples are Leonardo Sciascia, Umberto Eco and Carlo Emilio Gadda.

The mystery arrived in Spain officially when Pedro Antonio de Alarcon published The Nail and other Tales of Mystery and Crime in 1853. The genre in Spain (also curtailed during the Franco Dictatorship) took on some very special characteristics that reflected the culture of the country. The Spanish writers emphasized the corruption and ineptitude of the police and depicted the authorities and the wealthy in very negative terms. This was a literature of complaint. In addition, the heroes or crime solvers are almost always defective, ineffective and/or seriously flawed. Spain is frequently depicted as a backward country vis-à-vis other Western European countries. Most novels are filled with the patois of the underworld and women as authors or heroes are essentially non-existent. One of the world’s most popular mystery writers today is a Spaniard, Arturo Perez-Reverte, who writes wonderfully intellectual, historical novels. With the exception of Perez-Reverte, however, the Spanish mystery is one in which good does not always win over evil in the ambiguous morality of the Hispanic world.

Swedes began to turn out mysteries in 1893 and the genre became extremely popular and remains so to the present. One of the early authors, Stig Trenter, who wrote many novels between 1944 and the 1960s, had a great penchant for reflecting the geography of Stockholm in his work. His tendency to describe and utilize the settings became known as the "Trenter Syndrome". Most Swedish mystery writers were very conscious of their settings and the social-political situation in Sweden. The most famous were the man and wife team Maj Sowall and Per Wahloo, who planned and wrote a set of ten mysteries designed to trace the social and moral breakdown of Swedish society. Their hero, a policeman named Martin Beck, fights crime and the increasing corruption of the police and witnesses from his very special position the decay of Swedish society. Here the mystery is used as a chronicle and protest vehicle by two very committed and talented communist writers. Later writers such as Kerstin Ekman and Henning Mankill depict serious social conflicts and xenophobia in Sweden.

The genre appears in Russia very early also as Dostoyevsky and Chekhov both adapted the structure for their work. Dostoyevsky became the master of the psychological mystery with Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov while Chekhov used the formula for a satirical story in his Swedish Match. The Russian Revolution changed the literary scene mightily and the mystery became a tool of the Soviet Government. First a number of so-called Pinkertonista stories appear (based on the American Pinkerton detective Agency stories), written by Russians, which depict Russian heroes defeating capitalist spies. One of the most popular of these series, written by Marietta Shaginian (using the pseudonym Dzhim Dollar) and entitled Mess-Mend: Yankees in Petrograd has a Soviet hero, Mike Thingmaster, who battles the international capitalist/bourgeois bad guys to "mend the world mess" of capitalism! This series sold millions of copies and was immensely popular. The Soviet Government eventually banned these stories because they glorified individuals instead of the collective. Still, during the Soviet period, many mysteries were written and sold, but they stressed the role of the KGB and the Soviet police in thwarting capitalist spies. In the post-Soviet period mysteries have become the most popular form of reading and detective novels are found everywhere. Currently, the most famous is a female policewoman, Lt. Colonel Anastasia Kamenskaya, a creation of Aleksandra Marinina (who was a member of the Moscow police force) who solves crimes of corruption and violence in Moscow. These are not feminist texts inasmuch as the heroine solves crimes with technology and no claims of female superiority. The new post-Soviet era of corruption and crime are extremely well captured in the detective fiction of Russia today!

The crime fiction genre in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech and Slovak Republics) has a relatively short but distinguished history. One of the earliest and most revered authors was Karel Capek (author of R.U.R. and The War With The Newts). He was deeply influenced by Conan Doyle and, in the 1920s, wrote a series of short mysteries that eventually appeared in a volume entitled Tales From Two Pockets. He created a tradition of folksy, non-heroic detectives, usually a policeman, who solved crimes in ordinary settings with calm intelligence and common sense. The stories were witty and soaked in Czech culture and tradition. The heavy hand of the socialist government from 1945 to 1991 suppressed most of the arts but again, crime fiction was used as a state tool of propaganda. A major television series, Major Zeman, was produced depicting a policeman valiantly chasing and catching Western spies and speculators. However, during the socialist period a dissident writer, Josef Skvorecky, managed to publish a series featuring a Lt. Boruvka who solved crimes in a drab and shortage ridden Prague with laconic wit and persistence. They were slipped by the censors and were very revealing about Czech socialist society. Eventually Skorecky fled to the West and finished the saga of his hero in Canada! In the Capek tradition, Boruvka was an ordinary detective with an ordinary name - Boruvka, means blueberry! The current mystery scene in the Czech Republic is alive and vibrant and, again, the stories provide an excellent view of contemporary Czechia.

One of the most popular forms of literature in Japan is the mystery, which began its domestic production in 1889 but really flourished after the work of Edogawa Rampo in 1923. (Edogawa Rampo is a subtle Japanese pun and an interesting Japanese transliteration of Edgar Allan Poe!!!). Rampo, Seicho Matsumoto, and Shizuko Natsuki are among the most famous of a long list of immensely popular Japanese crime fiction writers. The mystery as they interpreted it is a genre that glorifies order and the role of the authorities in maintaining order. There are no flashy private eyes, no guns, and the importance of face or reputation is paramount. Japanese mysteries can be very violent but the violence is performed with imaginative methods (e.g. sound, fright, ancient swords). Mysteries are produced in Japan in great numbers and consumed by an avid Japanese reading public. The genre is a remarkably important portal offering an unusually vivid view of Japanese culture and the Japanese way of life.

Throughout China's long and turbulent history, crime, punishment and justice have been prominent literary and social themes.  Some of the most ancient tales of detection are found in the Stories of the Chinese magistrates.  The modern mystery infiltrated China via translations in the 1890s and by the early teens of the 20th century, Chinese authors published stories in local journals.  From 1949 until the death of Mao in 1977, the small amount of crime fiction being published was essentially anti-capitalist sleuthing in the Soviet style. The official government line on Sherlock Holmes was that he was necessitated by an evil, unjust bourgeois society and that crime fiction aroused the base lust for sex and violence! The post-Mao years were very interesting for the genre. Initially, the government encouraged a spate of stories that exposed the corrupt officials and police of the Mao period -  this was a part of the literature of the "Wounded" in which many of the wrongs committed by the Gang of Four were exposed. In the years that followed most restrictions were lifted and literature of all types sprung up including crime fiction. Some very fascinating pieces have been published allowing the reader to view some of the social pathologies and conflicts of modern socialist China. The Chinese mystery in general is distinguished not so much by the process of solving the crime but rather by the quest for justice and especially punishment for evils committed. Most crime solvers are still policemen but there has been an interesting shift to such heroes as journalists and other amateur sleuths.

Argentina became very fertile ground for the mystery and the first indigenously produced story appeared in 1888. The genre in Argentina is unique because it quickly attracted mainstream writers such as Jose Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy-Casares, and Rodolfo Walsh. The mystery was rapidly employed as a social protest vehicle utilizing parody and dark humor to tweak the authorities. In addition, Argentine authors created a tradition of concern for finding out why crimes were committed rather than who committed them and how. The writers were also great innovators and ignored the conventions of the Anglo-American school. Borges and Bioy-Casares wrote a wonderful parody in which the crime solver is a clever character who is a prisoner. Probably one of the finest mysteries ever written was by Borges, "Muerte y la Brujula," in which Borges commits the ultimate sin of mystery writing! In general, the Argentine writers set a pattern for other Latin American mystery writers in that they are very antiestablishmentarian and are used as a means of political and social protest.

Clearly the best examples of crime fiction being used in protest are the mysteries of Mexico. The mystery was first produced by Mexican authors in the early 1940s and really exploded by the 1970s and 80s. The Mexican mystery genre is one of pessimism and antiheroes. Societal disorder and chaos is assumed to be the norm and the detectives or antiheroes are not obligated to restore order or set things right but rather to parody and criticize the ruling authorities. Very frequently authors turn the mystery upside down and make the authorities the criminals and the criminals the heroes! This becomes fully developed in the Mexican mysteries, especially those of Paco Ignacio Taibo II. A prominent mainstream author and defender of crime fiction, Adolfo Reyes, once wrote," In a society that is corrupt, where sarcasm and hypocrisy thrive and power is monopolized, detective literature exposes the inequities and the iniquity". Here is a superb example of an adaptation of the genre to fill an important societal need.

The mystery penetrated the Israeli culture somewhat clandestinely in the 1930s when school teachers wrote pedagogical mysteries in Hebrew in order to use them to teach children in Hebrew schools. In these formative years of the state there was no formal place for non-canonical or trivial literature. This was a society struggling to establish a new Zionist ideology and build a new state amidst hostile neighbors. In the 1950s Western authors of crime fiction were published in translation and by the 1980s, when the State of Israel was reasonably secure, detective fiction (sipur habalash) roared onto the scene and has bloomed ever since. The genre was adopted by writers of all types including mainstream literary types and even poets. The mystery has become a very developed and sophisticated literature, very distant from the formulaic, puzzle-oriented type of story. It has become a distinctive literature with a strong tendency to broaden the genre and expand its boundaries to focus on character and theme development. In Israel, it is a very sensitive mirror reflecting social, demographic and political strains in the society. Two of the more accessible (because they are translated into English) authors are Batya Gur and Robert Rosenberg.

The detective story or crime fiction is one of the most popular literary genres in the world. It is indeed a global phenomenon and is eagerly consumed by readers from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, from Shanghai to St. Petersburg. More importantly, the mysteries produced in all these diverse places are a valuable and unique window into cultures, social systems, and geographies of all kinds. This literary form is particularly interesting for social scientists in that is a flexible, special type that can be, and has been, adapted to every society to which it has spread. It has been used as a social protest vehicle, a propaganda tool, a societal diagnostic measure, and more. Mystery writers in many places under many different conditions have plied a genre that can be used in many creative ways to protest, boast, accuse, and expose the society’s culture and way of life to a host of readers around the world. And, the result is endlessly fascinating and entertaining. It is low literature only in the small minds of unimaginative and closed-minded individuals.


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