BIG IDEAS IN CRIME FICTION
A recent article in the Financial Times (a must read for all crime writers who are interested in following the flow of money between the usual suspects) carried an article written by Jeannie Erdal under the title: What’s the big idea? Her basic idea is that the novel, especially the 19th century Russian novel, is one of the best way of serving up a buffet of philosophical idea about what is meant to lead a good life.
What struck me about Erdal’s article was the absence of any mention of crime fiction. Though Crime and Punishment might be torn away from the dead fingers of the traditionalists and placed in the crime fiction category. My point isn’t about how best to classify this Russian novel, but to point out that perhaps Erdal has been looking in the wrong place to find where novelists have taken their questions about justice, fairness and the nature of society. The Guardian also has an article written by Adkitya Chakrabortty titled Why are English and American novels today so Gutless? The thesis not unlike Erdal’s is that contemporary writers willing to tackle social and political issues are far and few.
I disagree with the conclusions reached by Erdal and Chakrabortty. They have been looking in the wrong place for fiction addressing the larger political and philosophical matters of our time. Bestseller lists and most literary novels might not yield such commentary. Because novels falling into one of these two categories fail to deliver social and political commentary means critics need to look harder and further afield. Is it possible they’ve overlooked a class of novels that falls under the radar?
If you read crime fiction, you will likely have come across a number of philosopher crime authors whose sleuths or police officers shuttle along pathways laid down by Hume, Socrates, Plato, Mills, and Locke. There is no shortage of contemporary crime authors who write hardboiled or noir fiction whose novels raise the existential questions about being, whose narratives seek to resolve questions about liberty, fairness and equality. In fact, there is a long tradition of such philosophical examination of society by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett who were philosopher writers as were Georges Simenon and Léo Malet.
The popularity of noir fiction is a testament to the appetite of readers for existential narratives that portray the powerlessness of criminals and victims over their own destinies, and novels that raise issues about free will and authority. The Scandinavian authors have received considerable attention for highlighting larger philosophical questions about nature of culture and society. Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, were both international bestseller. Stieg Larsson in particular captured a huge audience as he took readers on a search for answers to crimes committed inside right wing class of capitalists whose wealth made them all but immune for their crimes.
The idea of excesses among the elites in Sweden started a fire that has spread to many other cultures and countries where crime fiction authors have explored the large question of who do the authorities and law enforcement officials hold the elites responsible for their crimes? Peter Hoeg and Stieg Larsson are two recent examples of political philosophy curled up like a hidden dimension inside the traditional form of crime fiction.
That dimension of ideas has been building for sometime in crime fiction. Reviewers and critics haven’t been looking in this genre for veins of philosophical goal in these mines, and that may be because crime fiction isn’t to be taken seriously as the traditional gold mines: literary fiction. They’ve been looking in the wrong place in other words.
For at least the last decade, readers have embraced hardboiled and noir novels because they connect with a longing to have such deeper philosophical issues arise from the scene of a crime. And that is where crime fiction starts. What happens next can take the reader into the complexity of norms and ideas, and before anyone realizes, the choices the characters make along the way reveal to us the kind of society, justice system, and economic system that is under our nose.
There are several crime fiction authors whose books have raised philosophical questions. They are interested in more than solving a crime. They are examining the psyche of the criminal, the victim and the society, with its structure of power and authority, detailing the fault lines where crime occurs. The problem with this list is it is too short. There are a number of authors who should be included. But this is a short essay and not a book. The list below includes some of the big idea authors currently writing hardboiled/noir crime fiction.
Colin Cotterill has two crime fiction series that lock onto larger issues of political and economic oppression in Southeast Asia. His Dr. Siri Paiboun, an old chief medical officer, a communist, is set during the 1970s in Laos. The contradictions of communism, friendship, local culture, and mysticism are blended into insightful narratives that bring to life the larger question of how best to live in society. His second series staring Jimm Juree, a Thai ex-journalist, who has moved to the southern part of Thailand with her family has gone deep into the subject of Thai fishing boats using slave Burmese labor.
Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong is a gripping portrayal of young girls and women from upcountry villages and whose lives have been shaped by society to enter Thailand’s nighttime entertainment industry. His investigator, an American travel writer named Poke Rafferty is a reliable guide to the world that creates the perfectly exploited woman. In this compelling examination of not only how we should live but also what the consequences of living a life where money obtained at any cost is the driving value are.
John Burdett’s Vulture Peak is part of a continuing series beginning with Bangkok 8 to feature luk krueng Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. As a former Buddhist monk and someone who works as a policeman, Sonchai is constantly confronting contradiction between the tenets of faith and the workings of the justice system. From corruption to profiteering, Burdett’s crime fiction gets down to business on the value and meaning of life where powerful interest can do pretty much what they wish. Burdett’s fiction tunnels deep into the psyche where dreams, religion, mysticism and desire mingle, touching the core of how meaning defines life in Thailand and how the powerful use their authority inside a society to keep themselves in control.
Matt Beynon Rees’s has a series set in Gaza. The first book in the series Collaborator of Bethlehem introducing a middle-aged school teacher named Omar Yussef who leads the reader into violent, broken world inside the Dehaisha Palestinian refugee camp is a gripping commentary on the politics of the Middle East. If you want to understand the passion of true believers, the way injustice and power corrupt communities, you won’t find a better series. As an example of a writer who is a philosopher at heart, Matt Rees’s crime fiction is Exhibit A in any discussion of how crime fiction can deliver content to the discussion of what makes for a fair, and justice society and what struggling people must endure to achieve it.
Jim Thompson’s Finland based Inspector Vaara series is a philosopher’s feast. Snow Angels is in the best tradition of fiction that uses cultural issues such as racism to go under the surface of a society and work through the consequences of tolerating levels of injustice based on race. You come away from a book like Snow Angels with a new perspective on how our prejudices create a wormhole of hatred in the human heart, and that is bad enough, but when that hatred and fear becomes collective mentality, hanging like an invisible veil over many of the political and cultural institution. Thompson fiction is a preparatory course for examining how and why our attitudes and opinions of others can’t ever be disconnected from the scene of a crime where the victim is designated as an ‘other’ by society. And we know where that road leads.
I edited a collection of short stories titled Bangkok Noir. Half of the proceeds from the publisher and dozen authors have gone to support three charities that support the education of stateless children in Thailand. It’s a small step. The money is small. The point is a dozen crime fiction authors wrote some very fine stories about the hardscrabble world a lot of people occupy, and agreed that giving back was part of what any author should do. We have in the pipeline two additional collections: Phnom Penh Noir and The Orwell Brigade, involving more established authors from around the world, and more money will be channeled to social causes in Southeast Asia. What I’d say to those who say authors aren’t socially or politically engaged, or ignore philosophy in their work, please look again.
The old line between philosophy and fiction may still be there for sometime. Abstract ideas have one kind of audience, while narratives found in novels often have a different turn of mind, and different demands. While philosophy appeals to our intellect, novels touch our emotions. And it is inside the boiler room of emotions that the fires burn the hottest and the passions cooked inside are from the recipe of political and cultural ingredients handed down by our ancestors. There is more than one way to make a loaf of bread, and more than one way to share the loaf that is made. If you want to see how bread is made, horded, handed out, fought over and killed for, buy one of the books from the authors I mentioned above. You’ll never look at a loaf of cultural bread the same way after you’ve read them.