Thursday, April 27, 2017

Going Places

One of the great things about the crime fiction genre these days is that it is so diversified readers can both see themselves in books and experience (virtually) societies and people who live in worlds far from their own.

Therefore, when I buy a crime novel, I’m more interested in character and setting than I am in crime and plot. I want a novel to take me to a real world I haven’t explored yet.

Naomi Hirahara gives me this. She explores the Vietnamese-American culture in Los Angeles in a fascinating and interesting way in her Ellie Rush series. (SJ Rozan, who does New York City pretty darn well herself, suggested Naomi’s books to me.)

Hirahara’s parent-child relationships illustrate the potentially-tense dynamics among a generation that wants for their children all that America offers but also needs for those same children to appreciate their Vietnamese heritage. A familial conflict is always simmering, ready to boil over.

Similarly, I’m rereading A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church, who according to the author bio on his books was "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia." That’s about all I can find on the guy. No pictures. No further info. Church offers North Korea in a way the makes his respect and love for the citizens their obvious. Here’s a teaser: “Trees are not like people.” His lips tightened, and his cheeks lost their color. “They’re more civilized. People lose someone, what do they do? Nothing, they just keep going. Some people lose everything, everything. They lose everything, they keep going. Not trees. Trees don't do that. They live together, they don't move away, they know each other, they feel the wind and the rain at the same time, they can't bear it when one of them dies. So the whole group just stops living.” He paused while the train went past a patch of open ground with an abandoned log cabin. “Don't listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You're alone,” he said. “Without your family you're alone.” (101)

Wonderful metaphor. Fascinating illustration and exploration of culture and society. Church is an impressive prose stylist who offers North Korea (in a novel written in English, no less) in a manner similar to Dostoyevsky's handling of Russia (in translation). North Korea’s people, politics, and landscape are presented in a nuanced and subtle way that only decades spent on the ground observing can provide. Will I ever get to North Korea? I bet most of us won’t, but Church takes us there.

And, finally, there’s The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This book is a huge step forward for crime fiction. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that my grad school professor told me that if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to “write a mainstream novel.” (I asked why if I wrote a mainstream novel, I was doing the acceptable thing, but if he wrote a crime novel, he was becoming a commercial sellout.) I never got an answer that day. The Sympathizer shows a great crime novel can be a great novel.

So many contemporary crime novels offer setting in rich and interesting ways that plot really does become secondary, at least for me. I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues are reading and what they and others look for in contemporary crime-fiction novels.


Donna S said...

Interesting post. I like the location where a mystery is set too. My favourites are Appalacia and I think Sharyn McCrumb is the best at this; also Alaska and the Dana Stabenow novels are best for that. But my real fav is New Orleans and James Lee Burke does it for me. Unfortunately, these authors are so good that when you find another book by another author with one of these locations, they pale by comparison.

Rick Blechta said...

I'm really interested in books set in foreign lands, so all of these intrigue me. To me, some locations are just overdone. As much as I like Michael Connelly, I sometimes wish he'd send Harry Bosch to Timbuktu or something. He did it once (to Hong Kong, if memory serves and it was very good.

Thanks for some solid reading suggestions!

Charlotte Hinger said...

On the other hand--I like the quiet settings of C.J. Box who stays close to home.