CRIME WRITING, or Detection, Large and Small
Last issue, I wrote of one of the preeminent ancestors of Chinese detective stories, Judge Dee, who could not be more centrally situated in terms of his relationship to the political and social milieu of his time. Acting as a respected emissary of the Empire, and when the Chinese society of Dee's time is disrupted by crime, Dee must quickly repair the tear in the fabric of the state. Once that is accomplished, everything can return to normal, to a state that is unquestionably a balanced cosmos. The Judge/detective, as an emissary of this order, does not question the empire's comportment, only the aberrant behavior of its subjects. Crime solved, we and his fictional "public" must pay our respects to the Judge/detective, a model citizen, who has upheld the civic order.
Detective as Idiosyncrat
One of the more interesting ideas that British mistress of mystery, Agatha Christie, puts forth is that while you may respect their role as problem solver, you do not have to like the investigator or detective. Just leave him alone; let her do her work. He or she is neither his eminence, Judge Dee, nor any other hero—El Cid, Robin Hood, or Superwoman. The detective can even be a nutter. Christie's simpering little Belgian fussbudget, Hercule Poirot, is a case in point. Classless, narcissistically comfy in all manner of social circumstance, high or low, he is an inveterate snot: "I do not need to bend and measure the footprints and pick up the cigarette ends and examine the bent blades of grass. It is enough for me to sit back in my chair and think,” he says in The Five Little Pigs.) With his fastidious manners and fussiness, and in the drugstore psychology jargon of today, we would probably categorize him as OCD; and it is almost as if, in using Poirot, Christie is thumbing her pen at Chandler, Hammett, and the School of the Hardboiled: "your flatfoot/gumshoe, detective as macho tough guy, working class stiff, is a bore!" (Chandler, by the way, vocally and loudly despised Christie's work.) To be fair, Christie herself grew to dislike Poirot and apparently kept a manuscript locked up in which she bumped him off—she could not let out that mss. simply because her public kept clamouring for more. (At the end of the British TV series, the little prig as played by British actor, David Suchet, crosses the line. I leave it to viewers/readers to find out how.) But lest we forget: vain little Poirot was Christie's cash cow.
Early in the series, Christie fills the reader in about how Poirot, first arriving as a refugee from Belgium in WWII, winds up as a thoroughly British detective. Other than that account, neither the series nor its detective posits a particularly messy State. In a distorted way, Poirot's mysteries offer something Dee-ish, Confucian, about the crime that, once solved, leaves one feeling content and safe as a cat in its mistress's lap.
As mentioned last time and contrary to the world of Judge Dee, Qiu Xialong's Inspector Chen novels paint a picture of a state that is a corrupt mess; and those who seek justice are blocked at nearly every turn. Like it or not, Chen is a moral compass in this disheveled world; and he offers us the detective as misfit because he is one whose sense of right and wrong is a peculiarity. He is not alone in this. At the least, in several contemporary examples, the detective is not naïve enough to believe that justice is always served. In still other detective novels, the State is a foreign country to which the author never travels; in the Chen series, it is a structure that is scrutinized and criticized, an entity hopelessly flawed and not to be trusted.
An absence of rectitude allows some detectives to cut moral corners and use quasi-reputable or quasi-legal sources to get the skinny on the crime: ex-con informers, amateur hackers such as the redoubtable Signorina Elettra in Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series, or as in Walter Mosely's Easy Rawlins series, "Mouse," an out-and-out crook. The allegedly "cozy" Commissario Brunetti stories even dare conclude, occasionally, with justice clearly and specifically not being served, with the Commissario shaking his head, having to shut his mouth in view of the endemic corruption of the Italian state. In short, while the contemporary fictional detective is distinguished by his or her sense of right and wrong, justice is at best a compromise. Better than nothing. Or, from a totally different perspective, not too far off from Judge Dee's sensible pronouncement:
I prefer to keep to the practical wisdom of our Master Confucius, who teaches us
our simple, everyday duties to our fellow men and to our society. And to requite good
with good, and bad with justice!
Hardly turning the other cheek. Given this rather conventional way of perceiving the public weal, the contrasting and off-beat character, even freakishness, of a detector may serve to keep a reader engaged. We can easily suspend our disbelief. We recognize the symptoms: in a disheveled state, the detective is forever having to juggle morality and justice, just as we ourselves often do.
Where and When
Another woman writing more contemporaneously in the crime genre is a US expat living in Ireland, Tana French. Sometimes I find her books a bit gratuitously disturbing, but all are skillfully written with a view towards the psychological rather than gross horror, that pig wallow for unimaginative thrill seekers. French invents a department in the Dublin police, its team simply referred to as Dublin's "Murder Squad"; and she uses a different investigator each time, rather than following a single detective through a series. She does, however, continue to focus on the interior world of her characters and takes a grounded look at what makes criminal and detective minds work, often because the two are not necessarily so different. Where French falls short is in situating her characters in a credible social and political milieu, one which the reader can enter through the agency of the characters. This blindness seems to follow for so many contemporary, alas white, writers from the US. Consider, alternatively, Walter Mosely (perhaps because he is an African American writer?) who does give the reader a sense of the complex political and social world in which his black protagonists must function.
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, in French there really isn't any where there. We know that Christie's Poirot is a Belgian-born detective holed up in London someplace, in a distinctively British ambiance. In contrast, French's novels unfold in Ireland; but nothing is particularly "Irish" about her otherwise skillfully crafted, but very individualistic work—neither her characters nor the places they haunt. One can throw in a few place names, I suppose; but these novels could just as easily be situated anywhere. While there's no reason why all crime novels should be of the historical mystery sub-genre that I referred to last issue, this odd disconnect between detection and the literal where seems to breed a disconnect between the what's-going-on-when-you-step-outside-your-door (a hybrid of the questions where and when) and the microcosm in which the crime occurs. Yanks are notorious for their ignorance of history and of geography, and when this kind of blank space occurs in their writing—crime-based or otherwise—we, the readers, are left with an awkward, otherworldly feeling, as if opening a door and finding oneself suddenly in the middle of a stage set in a strange, unknown city. On the other hand, to be fair, writing that does pay attention to the psychological aspect of its characters' lives can be quite good. Tana French is among those who excel at it, and that makes her stories compelling. Perhaps, as per the Confucian nostrums of Judge Dee, the west is in such a political mess that seeking refuge in a politically blank world only bolsters the experience for many readers, if nothing else for the sake of pure escapism.
The statement, "the State is a foreign country," can also be taken quite literally; for crime fiction is, of course, global. Older generation, Belgian statesman van Gulik wrote about a society in the somewhat burnished past, which he much admired and where lived and worked only for a time. It was not his country, however. U.S. writer, Donna Leon, makes her home in contemporary Venice, and situates her crime fiction there. Again, not her country of origin. Qiu Xialong, as noted, is a Chinese writer who has made his home in St. Louis, but situates his crime fiction back in his original home, China. Italian Andrea Camilleri has stayed at home, but that home to an international audience is part of his Montalbano series' allure. While Camilleri situated his stories in fictional Vigàta, Sicily, a place modeled on his birthplace, Porto Empedocle, the TV series is filmed in Punta Secca and environs. As a Sicilian World Heritage site, Punta Secca is nothing if evocative. Indeed, boosted by the televised Montalbano, featuring Luca Zingaretti, and its prequel Young Montalbano, featuring Michele Riondino, both the books and the series, available in English translation and subtitles, resp., now enjoy a wide audience. However, were the reader to turn first to Camilleri's prequel, Montalbano's First Case, she would immediately be aware of the pitfalls of situating the work in a region stereotypically associated with Cosa Nostra. Take your pick: you want the corrupt state or the mob? Noli timere: Camilleri begins his series proper with The Shape of Water and continues through numerous others, to his credit gracefully avoiding such pitfalls.
In still another part of the world, Barbara Nadel is an English crime writer and but a habitual visitor to Turkey. Most known abroad for her Inspector Çetin Ikmen series, set in Istanbul, Nadel is tactful, hardly critical of the Turkish Republic, Nadel's Inspector Çetin series gives us a middle-aged Turkish cop who drinks and smokes, is not especially religious despite his adored wife, who wears a headscarf—mind, do not confuse this with a hijab—and lives and works in that city. He is often assisted by the young, romantically-confused Inspector Suleyman. Çetin has a deep-seated sense of fair play, is tolerant and wary of zealots, and has a dim view of corrupt officialdom. He is also friends to some who pursue—how did Henry Fonda so laconically put it in the old classic, On Golden Pond? "alternative lifestyles?"—cross-dressers, trans-, and gay men. To give the reader a sense of Inspector Çetin: I once recommended Nadel's books to a friend as a possible source for getting a feel for Istanbul, where I was living at the time. Upon her visit, when we encountered a minor problem with officialdom, my friend turned to me, exclaiming, "Inspector Çetin would never do that!" Ah, the oddball detective with his refined conscience! In terms of place, finally, Nadel does her homework and is knowledgeable about Turkey; indeed, one fascinating and informative read is her Arabesk, which informs not only about arabesk (a hybrid music form with deep roots in Anatolian Turkey) but also about the Yezidi, the religious group so horrendously persecuted by Isis thugs in Syria.
No, Camilleri does not wait upon or pay much attention to Mafia thugs to keep his reader's interest. Nadel is tactful with respect to Turkey's changing political landscape while being interesting and informative about other aspects of the country. One can ignore the state's flaws and focus on the psychological, as does Tana French. Yet we also know, as do Qiu Xialong, Leon, and Moseley's readers, that just below the surface, in too many places, the modern state apparatus can be a sleazy, arbitrary machine where justice takes a back seat to covering one's derrière.
In writing about the where and when, one can situate the crime itself and the entire narrative of a crime novel in several ways. In terms of the former, we have the function of where and when in the micro-world of the crime, its detection and solution—i.e., the plot; in terms of the larger setting, one can depict a world mediated by history, politics, even social anthropology. One can perhaps reveal, critique, even satirize that larger world.
Significantly, though, we must ask if the crime—invariably a murder—is simply the violation of an individual, or is it ultimately a violation against the whole of society? In the long run, the best of crime writing reaches beyond the closed world of victim, perp, and detective and asks, indeed, what is our relationship to that entity, those institutions who comprise the law? Were we in pre-revolutionary China, the relationship would have been fairly straightforward: Confucian morality prescribes proper behavior and a hierarchical social order of subject to Emperor. And while crime is an assault upon the state, it is ultimately an offense against the state in the person of the Emperor, not just the violation of an individual subject.
The apparatus of the state is constructed upon a scaffolding of law. The apparatus may change, be diminished, amplified, even jettisoned to start all over again. As noted, a number of contemporary crime writers imply, occasionally come right out and say via the mouths of their characters, that while the crime is reprehensible, the state is an unreliable and corrupt entity. Some legal systems may seem incomprehensible to those who do not live under them; and sometimes these are littered with stark reminders of a less salubrious time in one's legal environment. Not too long ago, as a woman I could not settle property I had owned with a divorced spouse without the signature of my present one. In Turkey, regardless of gender, I had to put my signature to an agreement that I would not "insult Turkishness." (That has been a beartrap for its journalists, writers and intellectuals. Turkey has more journalists and writers in jail than any other country on the planet.) But, lest one think such things take place only "somewhere else," not too long ago, to accept a federally funded graduate scholarship or other such federally backed priviledges, many had to sign an oath of loyalty to the US and swear they were not now, nor had they ever been, a member of the Communist Party. (By no means were they.) On a lighter note, when I worked in a family court, I and my colleagues would joke about a blue law, on the books since colonial times, which forbade "lurking and looming," whatever that was. In this politically godawful time in the US, consider the "originalists" who presume to interpret the law as if they were still powdered and periwigged, slave-holding, Suthin' and lavishly property-owning patriarchs. To these adherents of juridical fundamentalism, 250 plus years of U.S. history and change have no relevance, save to scare the bejesus out of them.
Situate your crime novel in any of those micro-climates above, and we are still at the juncture of justice versus the state. It may simply be the old trope of the bent cop (even French plays with that one in The Trespasser.) Outside the personalities of criminal or detective, the question becomes, what will the state tolerate and what will it not? Pardon my cynicism, but the image of the scales of justice held by a blindfolded woman is a wry caricature in a number of places, certainly in the US, where private property and gun ownership are far more sacred than the lives of children and where there are more persons in prison per capita than in any other developed country. All one needs to up one's chances of time in the joint is to have dark skin, speak Spanish or be among the original inhabitants of the continent. Oh, and be poor—that can ease your entry into prison in many states. Worldwide, it seems. Indeed, I remember being in a cab in Centroamerica and having the taxista point out their federal prison in the valley to one side of us. "Are there any rich people in La Reforma?" I asked him.
He just laughed.
Oh, and yes, Virginia, money can buy you, if not a judge for Christmas, better "justice."
Crime, obviously, is an insult to the apparatus, as much as a wound is defined as an insult to healthy tissue; and one corresponding structure which also serves, culturally, as a bulwark against rapid judicial and political change in the state is class. The ruling class. Sometimes it is not the legal apparatus that supports order (or the lack thereof) so much as that which represents it, especially in societies perceived as possesssing a notably stiff upper lip. Thus, if the detective be from the upper classes, he or she must be a bit off—out of kilter, ill-fit for some of its demands, with idiosyncracies different to its permitted ones. If one is a criminal but OF the upper class—one whose crime is exposed during the course of the story—then one at all costs must be exceptional, either a uniquely warped individual, most probably emblematic of the corrupt state, but, oh nononono, not representative of their class.
Once more, then: where does the fictional detective fit in depictions of contemporary crime and the state? While many of Christie's characters are insufferably upper class, Hercule Poirot is his own version of insufferable without that stain. In her work, French attempts to depict some characters who have begun lives in the poorer parts of Ireland: she fails to convince, in my opinion. Perhaps this reflects the failure of estadosunidenses to understand that their own class paradigms go far beyond the distinctions of "old money"/"new money" and residence in a bad neighborhood. I'm not sure what to think of Montalbano's underling, Catarella, his studied naïveté and his bumbling word salad, save that the man is clearly a cartoon rather than a person. On the other hand, Qui Xialong, Nadel, Christie and a number of others do a decent job of showing a detective with credible class constraints.
Of course the masters at depicting class—whaddaya know?— are the Brits. I have recently been revisiting the world of P.D. James' Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, a cop with a handicap: i.e., his background is educated, upper class. Worse, he is a published poet, though never, ever, ever does that lend his character so much as a hint of fop. Colin Dexter's Endeavour Morse series featured another detective like Dalgliesh, one who was educated at Oxford, drove a swank car, and listened to classical music. He's a bit of a snob, though Dexter in his novels and the late John Thaw, as Morse in the BBC series, managed to defang Morse of any real nastiness. Morse's sidekick is the modest, middle class cop, Lewis, a very likeable St. Bernard of sidekicks, who is a foil for his more complicated partner; but when the Morse TV series ended and Lewis had his own, he inherited an Oxford-educated young subordinate. An apparently required balance. Indeed, class is a form of inherent restraint, in the sense that there are no physical bars or locks on the doors between their various expressions; like British law, much of that systemic restraint is not in print, nor so visible. But it has claws. It is there, strong, and devilish to overcome. As detectives who are contaminated by such class backgrounds, both Dalgliesh and Morse thus comprise yet another sort of detective, not entirely uncommon in the genre, a kind of Orpheus figure protected by the gods of priviledge and traditional power, but one who can transit back and forth from the world of the priviledged to the grimy world of murder and cops and the vile. (Few, however, seem to find their Eurydice.)
Bruno Bettelheim insisted that the grim in Grimm 's and Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tales was really of no harm to children: they learnt to express dark thoughts vicariously rather than act them out. They learnt, by the end of the story, that they were safe. I suppose that may also explain some adults' fascination with the macabre, with horror, though I personally detest the hyperbolic yuckiness of it all. In the realm of crime writing, though, only the cozy allows us to return to the sense that we are safe again and that, as Robert Browning put it, god's in his heaven and all's right with the world. A cozy crime novel, for those who are not familiar with the sub-genre, has a detective who is a family man; they are Mr. & Mrs. Nice Guy among a set of nice guy, occasionally oddball, neighbors. The Missus has her own career—she's no dummy—and often provides some telling insights. Take Louise Perry's French Canadian Inspector Armand Gamache and the village of Three Pines, an idyllic little place not found on the map where a disproportionate number of nasty things happen—enough at least to bring Gamache out of Montreal to get to the bottom of them with his wife as sometime intellectual ballast. While corruption is endemic here as well, Gamache is more like your daddy, ready to wipe away the tears at the end of the adventure. There, there, it's okay, ma cherie. Also quintessentially cozy is the TV series, Midsomer Murders. Still ongoing, the show is based on Caroline Graham's Chief Inspector Barnaby series, then adapted by Anthony Horowitz, who bears the blame for the opposite kind of detective, the newest—and frankly most dreadful—hopped up, damaged incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, played by the vastly overrated Benedict Cumberbatch. Contrary to the Gamache series, Midsomer is, without a doubt, pure cozy—no damaged detective, no nasty class conflict, no disturbingly disheveled State, nice British villages, and minimally gory murders. Designed to lull you to sleep, it is; but perhaps some readers just prefer to escape into another world and to focus on, if not certainty, reassurance. Let the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, but not too high. The who of the whodunnit gets caught. Now we can go to bed, pull up the covers, and turn the electric blanket up to nine. Be assured, this nasty stuff just happens in books. We're just fine.
Aside from the banging one's head against the invisible wall erected by the enforcers of state power, class, and closed doors corruption, again, where then does the contemporary fictional detective fit in, in terms of his or her relation to an Alice in Wonderland-esque state? The devil is in the details. Here, join the hunt--whodunnit? No matter that the detective is not P.D. James' Dalgliesh, or Morse, but a plain spoken flatfoot. He's smart, saavy, righteously indignant about injustice, flawed and/or emotionally wounded/challenged. He's our guy; she's our champion. And one crime that we all agree is not nice, in principle at least, is murder. Believing that, we can participate vicariously in the hunt without having to parse the criminality of the crime. The state, in its glacial move towards fairness and punishment—never mind reality here—will be even more disinterested. Give that guy at the door some baksheesh, force the signature of an NDA, get that rich kid a good lawyer…our man, or woman, will figure it out. Hopefully, he/she might also secure some justice.
Note: If this writer does not run out of steam, or the world of crime writing come to a cataclysmic halt, there will be a Part III in another issue.
Please also note that we have linked the books mentioned with various websites. We also encourage a visit to your local library or, failing that, the Open Library a free online library, which lends ebooks, lists your nearest lending library source and/or offers a link to where the books can be bought.
 For the UK, see Book Depository.