makes her point clearly enough, that because "In the last thirty years crime fiction has
gained worldwide currency," there's been an unintended consequence, a de-emphasis
in mystery fiction of the crime and its solution due to the introduction of a third element,
namely the push to investigate the culture in which the crime occurs, an approach
which, paradoxically, has led to a noteworthy change in a lot of crime fiction.
"Nationality International: Detective Fiction in the Late Twentieth Century."
By Dr. Eva Erdmann, Romance Studies, University of Munich.
Translation by Fiona Fincannon.
First appearance: Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction (2009).
Article (16 pages).
Online (HERE) (PDF).
"It is the wide variety of new scenes of the crime that ensures that contrasts exist between the various novels. In recent decades, detective fiction has described so many customs and mores from different parts of the world that it is impossible to get an overview. The treatments of them are so detailed that many detective novels can also be considered milieu studies and social novels."Like it or not, we're well into the era of crime fiction as travelogue; as the author says:
". . . the crime novel of the last decades is distinguished by the fact that the main focus is not on the crime itself, but on the setting, the place where the detective and the victims live and to which they are bound by ties of attachment. The surroundings where the investiga-tions take place are portrayed with increasing inventiveness, to the extent that the crime
itself appears to be at best merely a successful stunt. It almost seems as if the inventories
of criminal motives and case histories have been exhausted, so that crime fiction’s primary distinguishing characteristic has become the locus criminalis."
Globalization has been blamed for a lot of ills, but few stop to consider that once in a while there might also be an upside to it. Wherever money goes, inevitably cultural influences, such as detective fiction, follow in its wake. So far afield have crime fictioneers gone these days that any scholar trying to keep up is faced with a daunting task:
"In literature, the spread of crime has taken on topographic proportions that reflect the globalization processes of the late twentieth century. In crime novels at the beginning of the twenty-first century, investigations take place all over the world and anyone who went to the trouble of totting up the sum of fictional scenes of the crime would be undertaking a project of international cartography. On the map of the world there are hardly any areas uncharted by crime fiction, hardly any places that have not yet become the setting for a detective novel . . . Crime plots have been located on every continent and in every country, even in the remotest of places."
In less than a hundred years, mystery fiction as a whole has undergone an important change of locale:
"In the early twentieth century, the French and the English crime series were already well established, and the plot of a detective novel was expected to exhibit a certain national flair. The new crime series, as milieu studies and novels of customs and mores, have specialized in international background and location studies, becoming the exponents and chroniclers for the settings of their plots."
Today's authors in large numbers often reach for the exotic, the foreign, the alien in their stories, sometimes at the expense of the mystery plot, unfortunately:
". . . the seemingly necessary alien perspective continues to be a mechanism that endows the new crime novel with a touristic character. Even the publishers’ marketing blurb for successful crime novels today draws on the nomadic biographies of authors who travel throughout the world, authors like Henning Mankell, the Swede living in Mozambique, and Giorgio Scerbanenco and Donna Leon, the Russian and American living in Italy. Gradually, topographic references are becoming ever more exhaustive, profuse and detailed. The range of investigators and detectives operating at a national level is being expanded and complet-ed. . . . In crime novels and series, the heinousness of crime is increasingly being replaced by the search for more colourful settings and, by means of a specific local connection . . ."
. . . all of it leading to what Erdmann calls a paradox:
"Deep within our crime fiction world as it comes alive in books and in film, there is a paradox that is hardly noticed any more. The unusual occurrence of murder has become the norm. The extensive production of crime series and the frequency with which they come into being have made capital crime into an everyday event. We have an uninterrupted daily supply of corpses, crime motives and convicted criminals . . . When there are murders waiting for us around every corner, the predetermined course of events in the plot becomes ever more ster-eotypical, the variations in crime motives, murder weapons and murderers’ profiles ever more transparent . . . The enigmatic riddles of the detective stories of yore, which kept their secrets until the final pages, have given way to crossword puzzles in which the same combi-nations of letters always repeat themselves. The investigation works with stereotypical sentence patterns: 'Did the deceased have enemies?', 'Where were you between one and three in the morning?', 'Put the gun down, you’re only going to make things worse for your-self.' Serial production of detective fiction turns murder into a banality."
Setting, then, eventually diminishes, if not outright usurps, the essential component of mystery fiction, the plot:
"Even in fiction, film and the modern fairy tale, a daily murder ritual becomes boring in the long run if there are no other elements of suspense. These are created when the foreseeable riddle of the whodunnit is replaced by mysterious surroundings that the investigative troops explore; knowledge of the local environment becomes the fundamental competence neces-sary to investigative work . . . If Auguste Dupin began his analyses from the armchair and arranged his hypotheses in a logical chain of statements, today’s social thriller definitely takes place at the scene of the crime. The reading of crime novels becomes an ethnographic reading; the scene of the crime becomes the locus genius of the cultural tragedy."
As Erdmann sees it, international crime fiction has lapsed into a retrograde mode of thought that is ages old:
"In the second half of the twentieth century, gradually at first, and then increasingly, as the boom in crime fiction took off, the pursuit of the criminal was displaced by the search for cultural identity. The genre of crime fiction has thus thematically returned to the tradition of the search for identity of classical antiquity, as typified by the crime of Oedipus Rex, where the murder of the king sets in motion a process of questioning and revelation of identity. . . . The criminological search for the trail of evidence is transposed to epistemologies of cultural anthropology, ethnographic and national characteristics, and the structure of the genre is governed by the spectrum of cultural identities. The new crime novels are characterized by their variously staked out territorial contexts that encompass ethnic groups, nations, regions, provinces or cities, but only by degrees. The distinguishing feature that they share remains the representation of the territory and its cultural conditions."
Finally, Erdmann points to "an important shift" in crime fiction:
"Within contemporary crime narrative, as the dual narrative strands of crime and inves-tigation come together in the resolution, the reader is offered yet another strand, that of cultural investigation, the inclusion of which constitutes an important shift within the
genre. In certain novels the resolution of the murder can be seen to coincide with a restoration of cultural order, whereas in other cases these very orders are questioned."
- The International Crime Fiction Research Group has a weblog (HERE), while the one for International Noir Fiction is (HERE).
- The Independent can get you "Around the World in 80 Sleuths" (HERE).
The bottom line: “What was Dr. Mera's motive for murder? I don't need to tell that to a writer of detective novels such as yourself. You know well enough yourself that even without a motive, a murderer lives to kill.”
― Edogawa Rampo