Saturday, September 01, 2007

A mystery from Mongolia and a question for readers

Clive James told the world five months ago that crime fiction had run its course. “(T)here are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict,” he wrote in the New Yorker. “The only workable solution has been to shift the reader’s involvement from the center to the periphery: to the location. In most of the crime novels coming out now, it’s a matter not of what happens but of where. Essentially, they are guidebooks.”

Among the valid rejoinders is “So what?” A story can do worse than introduce a reader to an unfamiliar location. An author can do worse than explore a strange, new land and let the reader experience vicariously the strange newness. Once upon a time, that was one of the things stories were supposed to do.

I suspect that for most readers, setting will not come much stranger or newer than Michael Walters' Mongolia. In The Shadow Walker, a visiting investigator glimpses traditional nomadic camps as his plane descends over Ulan Bataar's airport. Minutes later, he is jarred by the contrast with the customs formalities and baggage carousels in the terminal.

Later, two Mongolian detectives meet in one of Ulan Bataar's new American-style coffee houses, and:

Sure, the opening chapters may contain more exposition than some crime novels, but why not? Walters is exploring interesting territory, so I don't mind that he stops now and then to tell me about it. Besides, he breaks the telling into small, unobtrusive chunks.

The killings have just begun, and the major complications have not yet started. So far, though, I like what Walters is showing me.

I said that Mongolia would likely be a new and strange setting for most crime-fiction readers. What new, unexpected, surprising or exotic crime-fiction settings have caught your attention? And why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007
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Nergui looked with some displeasure at the large foaming cup that Doripalam placed in front of him. “This isn't coffee,” he said. “It's a nursery drink.”

Doripalam shrugged. “It's what the Americans drink. Apparently.”

“So we must get used to it.” Nergui took a mouthful and grimaced. “Though that may take some time, I think. But thank you anyway."

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

Well now. Sometimes it's not a new location, but one you've been to or known but forgotten. I spent a fair bit of time in Arizona when I was younger, so reading Tony Hillerman reminded me of those deserts and mountains.

Before I ever went to Europe (first in 1984, then again in 1987), nearly any book which took place there was a treat. For example, the Cold War novels Helen MacInnes wrote.

It doesn't have to be a location, either. If it's an industry you know nothing about (Dick Francis and horses, particularly the books in which the principal is connected to the industry but is not on the track), that can be intriguing.

The example you cite above amuses me; those poor guys drinking a latte and thinking that's what Americans drink. Give 'em cheap American beer!

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Hillerman's milieu is probably new and strange for many readers, too. I have read that he has won respect from Navajo for his portrayal of their society, which might insulate him against charges of exoticism.

I like your suggestion that an unfamiliar industry can serve as a strange new setting. So can an unfamiliar time. I'm not generally a fan of historical crime fiction, but Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca novels take a fresh, spare eye-opening look at a period of history about which I had never thought much before (Italy toward the end of and immediately after its Fascist period).

It's interesting that Walters chose a coffee house to symbolize American insinuation into other cultures. A few years ago, he would have chosen a certain brand of hamburger joint instead.

September 01, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Trust me, you really don't want to get me started on cheap American beer...

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Not being a beer drinker, I'm missing out on a splendid target for scorn in American beer. It is my understanding, though that, say, Bud Light is not regarded as the beer counterpart of filet mignon, Rembrandt or Rolls-Royce.

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Ha! Michael, as a former Budweiser drinker for about 35 years, I'm also an expert (or I was; I doubt it's changed since 2000 when I quit booze).

There ought to be some very good crime stories set in East Germany during the post-war period, what with the Stasi permeating everything as it did.

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

My favorite German/American beer story concerns the controversy that arose when an American brewer received the exclusive contract to sell beer at soccer's World Cup 2006 -- in Germany. The prospect of being forced to drink American swill in one of the world's foremost beer-making countries led to a revolt, and sale of German beer wound up being permitted at the games.

I would imagine that Stasi-related crime stories would bleed over into thriller territory. It would take a good eye and probably some good research to build a convincing non-thriller crime story set in East Germany.

September 01, 2007  
Anonymous LauraR said...

The most recently translated Indridaason book "The Draining Lake" is partly set in fifties East Germany (a group of idealistic Icelandic students study in East Germany).

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I just took a look at review of the novel in the Times' online edition. We in North America have this vague and sentimental idea that the British are better prose stylists than we are. Not this reviewer, though. But she's right about one thing: The novel has an awful title. Unfortunately, the title will not change for the U.S. edition.

Have you read the book? What kind of a picture does it give of life in East Germany?

I like Arnaldur, so I may look for the novel. (I've recently read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which gives a glimpse or two of life in East Germany.)

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Sandra Ruttan said...

To be honest, I think James' assertion is absurd, on multiple levels. There is more that sets stories apart than just location, or plot. Heavens, if it was plot alone ("(T)here are only so many storylines and patterns of conflict”) romance should have been dead ages ago. There really is a limit to the potential outcome of those stories.

What sets crime apart is how it can explore social issues relevant to contemporary culture, as well as different cultures, and also different characters. An author brings a certain perspective to issues and to the story that can cast it in a different light. Give five authors the same basic plot idea and ask them to write a story and you will have five very different books.

September 01, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Clive James' article was a splendid article about Clive James. He's tired of current crime fiction, and he thinks detective stories don't measure up to Henry James. I begrudge him neither of those sentiments.

I do resent the quaint assumption you cited, that stories are all plot or, on a distinctly lower plane of existence, all guidebook.

September 02, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

To answer your question directly (and agree with you): 1. China (for example, Death of a Red Heroine is brilliant, and it pulled me in because of great writing, but also because it offered a huge range of Chinese settings, differing in space, time, and affluence, and gave me a first glance at the Greek, but distinctly Chinese-flavored, tragedy of being lifted up by the Gods/Party only to be dashed on the rocks and left for dead as paranoia took over. The book also showed that sometimes City Hall is just City Hall, but other times the politics are complicated by the Party and its bizarre allegiances.)

2. Tibet. The Skull Mantra showed Tibet from an outsider's perspective (a disgraced former Chinese investigator now in a prison camp), but gave many other perspectives as well (imprisoned monks, "free" monks, Chinese bureaucrats (corrupt, very corrupt or simply cruel, but most with some humanity to offer, even if it is normally hidden below the surface), idealistic foreigners/Americans (forces for good change- maybe or maybe not), nomads, villagers, and the Himalayas and other regions themselves.

I could go on, and I plan to, having just started to write about such things (and other things) this week. I look forward to following your posts! Jim

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Death of a Red Heroine is one of my favorite crime novels ever and a brilliant rejoinder to anyone who equates setting with guidebook. I've cited its anti-climax several times as an example of an event perfectly adapted to its setting because it would be unimaginable anywhere else. I've written about Qiu Xiaolong and Death of a Red Heroine several times. You can find the comments here if you're interested:

Someone recommended The Skull Mantra in an online book group, if I recall correctly. I was intrigued, and I'll certainly look for it now. And if you've just started writing about such things online, I'll look in on your comments, too. Thanks.

September 06, 2007  

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