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Is the Mystery Novel Going Global?

by William Minter

May 2010

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 Stieg Larsson and 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 Qiu Xiaolong, Cuba'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 Eric Ambler to 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 Belgian-born 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.

The mystery 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, visit http://www.mysteryplaces.net/countries/countries.php.

Nordic countries

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, Swedish. Henning Mankell, whose Inspector Wallander is based in Ystad in the far south of Sweden, is perhaps even better known than Larsson. Åke Edwardson, 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 Arnaldur Indridason, but Yrsa Sigurdardottir is not far behind, and in my opinion a better writer.

Europe

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 Alan Furst and Olen Steinhauer, Spain's Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Denmark's Leif Davidsen.

Latin America

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 José Latour, who features nuanced mysteries sensitive to both Cuban and exile Cuban milieus. 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 read Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's novels with Inspector Espinosa of Rio de Janeiro, but they get good reviews, and I'm looking forward to reading them.

Asia

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 novelist Qiu Xiaolong, who now lives in St. Louis, and Canadian David Rotenberg 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 city.

Elsewhere in Asia, Colin Cotterill's 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, Wales-born 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.

Africa

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. Algerian author 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 Deon Meyer features Afrikaner detective Benny Griessel in the complex milieu of post-apartheid (but not "post-racial") South Africa). And Michael Stanley (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 in English. 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.