Crime fiction makes unpalatable places bearable by Matt Rees

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“Exotic” crime fiction has taken off in the last decade. People want to read about detectives in far-off places, even if they don’t want to wade through learned histories of those distant lands.

Many of the biggest selling novels of the last decade have been “exotic crime.” You’ll find a detective novel set almost everywhere in the world, from the “Number One Ladies Detective Agency” in Botswana through Camilleri’s Sicily to dour old Henning Mankell in the gloomy south of Sweden.

The success of my co-bloggers at International Crime Authors – with their detectives plying their trade in Thailand, Laos, and Turkey, alongside my Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef – is also proof that this taste for international crime is more than just a publishing fad. The novels aren’t just Los Angeles gumshoe stuff transported to colder or poorer climes.

Here’s what I think is behind it:

Read a history book or a book of contemporary politics. Often you’ll find a list of the enormous numbers of people destroyed around the world by war and famine and neglect. You won’t get any sense that the world…makes sense. Crime fiction doesn’t purport to save the planet, but it does demonstrate that one man – the detective – can confront a mafia, an international espionage organization, a government and come out with at least a sliver of justice.

And justice is one of the few ideas which can still inspire.

Readers also prefer crime fiction about distant countries over so-called “literary” fiction about such places.

That’s because crime fiction gives you the reality of a society and also, by definition, its worst elements — the killers, the lowlifes — but it also gives you a sense that a resolution is possible. (See above.)

Literary fiction, by contrast, often simply describes the degradation of distant lands. If you read Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance,” for example, you probably thought it was a great “literary” book, but you also might’ve ended up feeling as abused as his downtrodden Indian characters without the slightest sense of uplift.

Crime fiction doesn’t leave you that way.

Now, that’s also true of the Los Angeles gumshoe. But the international element gives us something else to wonder about in these new novels. Not just because the scene is alien. Rather, it’s because we all trust to some extent that bad guys in Los Angeles will go to jail — or become Hollywood producers. We have faith in the system. So a detective has some measure of backing from the system, and consequently novelists have to push credibility to its limits in order to make him look like he’s taking a risk, to make him look brave.

International crime, particularly when it’s set in the Developing World, can’t be based on that same trust in the system. The lack of law and order in Palestine, as I observed it as a journalist covering the Palestinian intifada, was one of the prime reasons I had for casting my novels as crime novels. It was clear the reality wasn’t a romance novel. Gangsters and crooked cops in the West Bank suggested the more vibrant days of the US crime novel back in the time of Chandler and Hammett, when it was much harder to argue that a city or mayor or police chief wouldn’t be in the pocket of the bad guys.

When a detective goes up against such odds in international crime fiction, it’s truly inspiring.

For books that start with a murder, that’s not what you’d expect, but it’s the reason for the success of this new exotic avenue of the crime genre.

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