Is the Mystery Novel Going Global?
by William Minter
Author's note: I wrote this short essay at the request of the blog CriminalBrief.com,
where it was first published in two parts on May 18 and May 25, 2010. The links in this file go to Amazon.com.
Sweden's Lisbeth Salander and Botswana's Precious Ramotswe may have
little else in common. But these fictional detectives created by
Alexander McCall Smith
are both harbingers of a trend which is gathering force: the
globalization of the mystery novel. Along with the familiar
scenes of English villages, London and Manhattan streets, and Los
Angeles freeways, airport kiosks around the world feature books set
in cold Nordic landscapes and African cities, in the high mountains
of Tibet and in Brazil's Amazon.
English-language readers can now sample mysteries and thrillers
quickly translated not only from French, German, and Spanish but from
a score of other languages. And although the authors are still much
less diverse than the locations, and many countries are still
unrepresented in the international marketplace, China's
José Latour, and South Africa's
Deon Meyer, for example, have
established outstanding mystery series with many loyal followers. And
Kwei Quartey and
Mukoma wa Ngugi, to cite only two younger writers,
have published their first novels in what we hope will be ongoing
series set in their home countries of Ghana and Kenya.
British and American authors still retain their numerical
dominance among mystery writers, as befits their role in the origin
of the mystery genre in the 19th century. But, as G. J. Denko
documents (http://www.dartmouth.edu/~gjdemko/), the genre soon spread
not only to the British dominions such as Canada and Australia, but
also to continental Europe, Latin America, Russia, China, and Japan.
British novelists in particular have also often featured "foreign"
locales, from the interwar continental Europe of
H. R. F. Keating's
more than 20 novels featuring Inspector Ghote of Bombay
(Mumbai). And there were prolific non-Anglo-Saxon writers such as
Georges Simenon, who wrote more than 70 novels featuring
Paris police inspector Maigret, translated into English and more than
40 other languages.
Still, the variety of new
settings and authors now available to readers is unprecedented,
defying summary description or even enumeration. For my website
(http://www.mysteryplaces.net), I have compiled a database of mystery
writers with a strong sense of place, with authors linked to their
accustomed settings, with 268 authors, 55 countries and multi-country
regions, 44 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.
If this were a full-time endeavor rather than a very part-time effort
guided by my own reading preferences and suggestions by readers, the
numbers would be much larger.
One may or may not have visited
a place, or even rank it high on the list of places one would want to
visit. But when a novelist convincingly links character and place,
even non-natives can feel they are there. To my mind, this ranks as
high as character and plot in deciding whether to add an author to my
"must-read-the-next-book" list. Fortunately, the number of
territories available for such arm-chair traveling is expanding,
although only a few of the new authors have established more than a
token presence in the international marketplace.
novel is definitely becoming more "global." But its
global reach still lags substantially behind that of economic
globalization or the "world music" phenomenon. The Nordic
countries now seem the most prominent new entries on the
international mystery scene. In contrast, Asia (except for Japan) and
Africa are only sparsely represented, with much room to grow. And
while Spanish, French, German, and Italian-language authors are
numerous, there still seem to be few that have made significant
breakthroughs to English-language readers.
The following is a
small selection of mystery authors and places, some already
well-known and others in my view deserving of more attention, that
will reward any reader seeking to journey beyond the more familiar
terrains of Great Britain and North America. For a much wider array,
If you haven't yet read
Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, even
though all three books are regularly showing up among the ten
best-selling books on Amazon, do read The Girl with the Dragon
Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who
Kicked the Hornet's Nest. You won't be disappointed. Among Nordic
mystery writers (the "Nordic" countries include Iceland and
Finland as well as the "Scandinavian" countries of Denmark,
Norway, and Sweden), my two other favorites are, like Larsson,
Henning Mankell, whose Inspector Wallander is based in Ystad
in the far south of Sweden, is perhaps even better known than Larsson.
whose Inspector Winter is based in
Gothenburg on Sweden's west coast, echoes Mankell in writing police
procedurals with sharply etched characters and frequent mentions of
the Nordic weather.
Mystery novelists from small Iceland are
also gaining international attention. The most prominent is
is not far behind, and in my
opinion a better writer.
In addition to novels set in almost every European country, I find
particularly interesting those authors who feature a wider landscape
and historical perspective, as
Eric Ambler did with Europe between
the two World Wars. Among the outstanding practitioners of this
sub-genre is, of course,
John le Carré,
who has also ventured to Latin America and Africa. But he has been joined by a distinguished
set of younger authors, including Americans
and Olen Steinhauer,
Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Denmark's Leif Davidsen.
Among Latin American mystery novelists, Mexico's
Paco Ignacio Taibo
is popular and fascinating, but also hard to read even in English
translation without familiarity with the local context and Latin
American literary traditions. Particularly intriguing is his recent
book The Uncomfortable Dead, co-authored with Subcomandante
Marcos of the Zapatista movement. More conventional in his style, and
now writing in English and living in Canada, is Cuba's
who features nuanced mysteries sensitive to both Cuban and exile
Leighton Gage, who lives in Brazil, the Netherlands,
and the United States, has now published three novels featuring
federal Chief Inspector Mario Silva in Brazil. I haven't yet
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's
novels with Inspector Espinosa of Rio
de Janeiro, but they get good reviews, and I'm looking forward to
Japanese mystery novelists in English translation have long had
significant international exposure. Among the classic writers is
Seicho Matsumoto, who began writing in the 1950s. And there are many
more current authors worth attention, with both historical and
present-day Japanese settings. I must confess that, on purely
subjective grounds, I find China a more interesting setting. Chinese
Qiu Xiaolong, who now lives in St. Louis, and Canadian
both have series set in Shanghai, which ranks ahead of
Beijing as the largest city in China. Shanghai is also the setting,
away from her usual Chinatown base in New York, of S. J. Rozan's The
Shanghai Moon, which skillfully interweaves the present day with
a story of World War II Jewish refugees who found a home in that
Elsewhere in Asia,
series set in Laos,
featuring an elderly revolutionary veteran who has become national
coroner, is a delight to read. I have never been in Laos, or anywhere
in Asia east of Lebanon, for that matter (my time living outside the
United States has been in Africa). But the atmosphere in these novels
set in a post-revolutionary society in a poor country for me evokes,
despite the distance, the parallel context of Mozambique in the
1980s. And at the opposite end of the giant continent known as Asia,
Matt Beynon Rees, who served as Time bureau chief
in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2006, has created an intriguing series
featuring Palestinian teacher and amateur sleuth Omar Yousef.
I initially hesitated to read the super-popular Ladies Detective
Agency series set in Botswana, in part from apprehension about
stereotypes about Africa by European writers. I changed my mind after
Batswana friends told me that
McCall Smith, a Scot born in Zimbabwe,
had the Batswana social context "just right" even though he
had lived in Botswana for only three years.
White stereotypes of Africans are still well-represented in popular fiction
(witness the bestsellers by Wilbur Smith, whose mindset is firmly
encased in the colonial era). But there are also a growing number of
works, by both white and black Africans, which break that mold with
nuanced portrayals of diverse settings on that vast continent.
Yasmina Khadra, a former military officer now living
in exile, writes gritty police procedurals set in Algiers. On the
other end of the continent, Afrikaans-speaking South African writer
features Afrikaner detective Benny Griessel in the complex
milieu of post-apartheid (but not "post-racial") South
(a team of two white South
Africa writers) has started a promising new series also set in
Botswana, featuring the somewhat more conventional police detective
David "Kubu" Bengu.
Elsewhere in Africa, the most
promising new mystery writers that have come to my attention are Kwei
Quartey of Ghana and Mukoma wa Ngugi of Kenya, from countries with a
distinguished multi-generation literary tradition of African writing
Quartey, a medical doctor in Pasadena, California and the
son of a Ghanaian father and African-American mother, features
Accra-based detective Darko Dawson in his first novel, entitled Wife
of the Gods.
Mukoma wa Ngugi, born in Cleveland, Ohio and growing
up in Kenya, is a poet, political commentator, and son of Kenya's
most famous novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong'o. His Nairobi Heat, set
in Madison, Wisconsin and Nairobi, Kenya, features the collaboration
of an African American and a Kenyan detective in a case related to
the Rwandan genocide.
"International" mystery novels that make it in the international marketplace, it seems, are written
by writers, like Quartey and Ngugi, who are themselves steeped in
multiple transnational as well as national milieu. The Nordic
countries feature distinct cultures, but have a long history of
active participation in global cultural and political institutions.
Alexander McCall Smith, born in Zimbabwe, lives in Scotland, and
writes novels set in Botswana and Scotland. In earlier periods, the
most common international context was the British Empire or the World
Wars. Today's rich cultural transnational interchange, we can hope,
promises a rich harvest of mystery novels to match.