Otto Penzler, publisher of the Mysterious Press and series editor of the annual The Best American Mystery Stories of the Year, takes a look at international crime fiction and compares it to the generally superior English and American versions.
It is an inarguable fact that virtually everything of interest and significance in the history of detective fiction has been written in the English language, mainly by American and English authors.
This is not chauvinistic, racist, insular, or opinionated; it is merely reportage.
The reason for this is quite simple. For detectives of fiction to succeed as the heroes of stories, there must be real-life detectives from whose exploits may be drawn fictional narratives. These flesh and blood prototypes can exist only in a free democratic society, with which too few countries were blessed in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. England, thanks to Magna Carta, and America, thanks to its Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution, bestowed the gift of liberty to its citizens, as did France, among countries with enough wealth and literacy to encourage and reward the production of books.
In totalitarian states, including most monarchies, the police force, often a national militia, supported the ruler, controlled the population, and forced it to his (usually) will. Citizens would do practically anything to avoid the eye or reach of the officers of the law, who were the greatest threat to the average person’s freedom and property and therefore the last place they would go for help. As a result, it would have been virtually impossible for an author to establish a heroic protagonist in the image of one of these enforcers of the ruler’s dictates.
As revolutions, world wars, civil uprisings, and other politically cataclysmic events occurred, many more countries began to enjoy freedom, including having the police protect ordinary citizens and courts of law that gave them a voice and an opportunity for an unbiased judge or jury to administer justice.
When Edgar Allan Poe invented the fully constructed detective story with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, he created most of the tropes of the genre that remain so familiar today: a brilliant detective, his less than brilliant sidekick, the even less brilliant official police, an apparently insoluble crime, clues, and deductions based on observations. Although the official police investigates, a gifted amateur, C. Auguste Dupin, actually solves the crime.
This scenario encapsulates the essential differences between American mystery fiction at the time the story was written and most detective fiction written in other parts of the non-English speaking world, then and now.
It is impossible to think that a Russian under the czar, or under the Communist party, would willingly have gone to the state police to solve a crime. This reluctance to walk into a police station would be equally true under the rule of Japanese, Chinese, or German emperors, and Spanish or Italian fascist governments. It is equally inconceivable to think that a private citizen would play a major role in the solution of a crime.
Literary Russian mystery fiction may employ a policeman, as in Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment, but it is uncommon. It mainly relies on the ruinous guilt of the perpetrator for justice to be done or, more frequently, for ghosts and spirits to intervene in the punishment of the criminal. In the early 20th century, the Russian equivalent of dime novels, hastily written potboilers, became popular, selling tens of millions cheap paperbacks, but Josef Stalin banned them, declaring that they were too western and anti-revolutionary, and that all literature should glorify the Communist party and the state.
Today, Boris Akunin is one of the few mystery writers in Russia who has been translated and his novels about the late 19th century policeman Erast Fandorin are enormously popular. Most contemporary Russian crime writers produce novels of simplistic sex and violent crime that sell in the millions but have little detection and even less literary accomplishment.
Until very recent years, there were very few Asian mystery stories and those that did exist tended to be of the Arabian Nights variety, with little or no detection. For centuries, suspected Chinese criminals commonly were tortured until they confessed or died, a practice depicted in the modest number of stories translated from the Chinese into English. Very few contemporary Chinese writers have turned out mystery novels, most notably Qiu Xiaolong, who was born in China but now lives in the United States. His six novels all feature Chen Cao, an honorable, educated policeman.
The great surge in popularity of Scandinavian mystery writers over the past several years is not the result of the phenomenon of Steig Larsson’s remarkable trilogy, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,though it certainly pushed the stone rolling down the hill a lot faster. It was the Swedish author Henning Mankell who showed English-speaking readers that serious crime literature could be produced by writers from those cold little countries in the north of Europe. Mankell’s policeman, Kurt Wallender, became popular enough to inspire a television series. Norway’s Karin Fossum created a series about Inspector Sejer so accomplished that the London Times ranked her among the 50 greatest crime writers of all time. The Detective Erlendur series by Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason have acquired a strong following in the U.S. Sweden’s Camilla Lachberg, perhaps the most popular mystery writer in Scandinavia, has a female amateur, writer Erica Falck, assist her policeman, Patrik Hedstrom. And Jo Nesbo, arguably the finest writer of all, has become a mainstay of American best-seller lists, as well as those in his native Norway, with his detective Harry Hole novels.
It has long been understood that Scandinavian crime fiction is depressing, with dark skies, cold winds, self-destructive alcoholic detectives, and an utter lack of humor. Larsson was an exception, as Lachberg sometimes is, but if you want to wallow in noir, they’re a good bet.
The astute reader will have noticed a lack of private detectives in the books mentioned above, as well as the scarcity of amateur detectives, gifted or otherwise. There also is precious little humor, and not much in the way of snappy dialogue. There are increasingly diverse cultures beginning to produce crime fiction, and much of it is first-rate. However, if you want it to be, you know, fun, stick to the Brits and the Americans.