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Detectives for a new millennium

Detectives for a new millennium
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First Published: Fri, Dec 25 2009. 08 22 PM IST

 Case files: (clockwise from top) Bangkok, Burdett’s setting. Du Boisberranger Jean / AFP; Omair Ahmad. Madhu Kapparath / Mint; Natsuo Kirino. Amanda Edwards / Getty Images; and Alexander McCall Smith
Case files: (clockwise from top) Bangkok, Burdett’s setting. Du Boisberranger Jean / AFP; Omair Ahmad. Madhu Kapparath / Mint; Natsuo Kirino. Amanda Edwards / Getty Images; and Alexander McCall Smith
Updated: Fri, Dec 25 2009. 08 22 PM IST
The 2000s are over, we’ll be living in the 2010s in a few days, and it’s time to tidy the crime bookshelf, see what’s worth keeping and weed out the rest to make room for thrilling new titles.
Case files: (clockwise from top) Bangkok, Burdett’s setting. Du Boisberranger Jean / AFP; Omair Ahmad. Madhu Kapparath / Mint; Natsuo Kirino. Amanda Edwards / Getty Images; and Alexander McCall Smith.
For me, during this first decade of the millennium, the most fascinating discovery was British expat lawyer-turned-writer John Burdett, who sets his stuff exclusively in Thailand. Three novels into a brilliant quartet, with possibly one motion picture based on Bangkok 8 soon to be released, Burdett is the sign of our times. You may have noticed the lurid covers in your neighbourhood bookshop and studiously avoided them, thinking your mother-in-law will be scandalized the next time she descends. Or maybe you missed Burdett as you browsed for some last signs of life from the rigor mortis-afflicted Cold War genre.
Luckily, I’m only an occasional prude—because the cosmos depicted by Burdett doesn’t leave out Bangkok’s seamier sides. Seaminess is, in fact, an integral component as police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s mum runs a brothel, ironically in partnership with his boss, Colonel Vikorn, aimed at elderly johns—Viagra is served as a cocktail snack. But that’s just the starting point of this intricate series which offers a unique glimpse of Bangkok, by an extremely knowledgeable author who is said to have chatted up hundreds of Soi Cowboy bar girls during his research.
Lost in Nepal: Burdett takes his detective to Kathmandu, where a lama is seeking nirvana.
Also, the adventures of Jitpleecheep take us to the northern rural province from where impoverished girls migrate to Bangkok in order to support their rice-farming families (Bangkok Haunts) and to Thailand’s deep south where militancy brews (Bangkok Tattoo has an interesting 9/11 theme).
The novels collectively open up the inner life of Jitpleecheep, a devout Buddhist, and the mechanism of crime and punishment gets interpreted through karma-conditioned eyes, where each action has its corresponding fallout. People aren’t just reincarnated; their spirits have sex in the morgue as they wait for their next lives to begin. Even the bars have, the anthropologically-inclined will notice, small Buddhist shrines.
Burdett, by the way, isn’t the only player in Bangkok, for recently he’s been joined by Timothy Hallinan, who sets thrillers in that same sordid underworld. In A Nail Through the Heart, Hallinan introduced seedy travel writer Poke Rafferty, whose travelogues bring him to places that are a little too dangerous, and in the sequel, The Fourth Watcher, Rafferty decides to write a travel guide for how to do illegal stuff in Thailand. Need I tell you that this turns out to be a bad, bad idea?
On the job: A prolific writer, McCall Smith’s canvas is Africa.
Understandably, Thais may feel there’s too much harping on their sex industry (which is illegal anyway and probably doesn’t exist officially). But the fact remains that Burdett’s Bangkok suite is now translated into more than 20 languages around the world and hundreds of thousands of readers are, like me, excitedly awaiting the global release of the ultimate Jitpleecheep sequel, The Godfather of Kathmandu, on January 12.
If the beginning of the millennium was, thanks to writers like Burdett, the most exciting era since noir was invented, I divine that the 2010s will get even better. Gone are the days when bookshops had a meagre cobweb-encrusted thriller shelf accommodating the usual suspects: Cold War and World War II suspense; detective novels set in a museum milieu of old English manors and moors; and their harder-boiled US cousins. Let’s face it, American cities get repetitive after a hundred urban murder plots in which the mandatory spot of exotic colour is the occasional lead to Chinatown.
Today the world has expanded and crime fiction has become truly international in setting and flavour.
You need just to browse and out tumbles…well, a map of Swedish crime, drawn up by the likes of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. The other day at Gangaram’s Book Bureau on Bangalore’s MG Road, I found yet another exciting Swede, Tim Davys, whose Amberville is set in a wild and vile world of stuffed toy animals!
And while we were busy gazing Westwards, Japan built up a rich crime tradition with both indigenous and foreign writers, with or without Yakuza. No, Yakuza is not a bathtub which bubbles, but the mafia that has ruled Japan’s underworld for centuries.
Among the best Japanese crime novels there’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and the E nd of the World by the cool as sushi Haruki Murakami—2007 saw a vintage-edition reissue of this great postmodern detective story. The biggest new thing appears to be Natsuo Kirino, a female writer of nihilistic, psychological, grittily realistic noir: The award-winning Out, about a woman who strangles her husband and her toil with getting rid of the body parts, was followed by Grotesque about murdered prostitutes and which I, by the way, also discovered that day at the venerable and well-stocked Gangaram’s. Also worth checking out are Mo Hayder— who for some time worked as a club hostess in Japan—and her novel Tokyo, David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero (compared to James Ellroy by reviewer Siddhartha Deb in The Telegraph) and Martin Cruz Smith’s Tokyo Station, which unfolds during the days leading up to the Pearl Harbour air strike.
Let’s move on to Africa. Honestly, who would have thought in the 1990s that one of the world’s best-selling detective serials would be set in Botswana? The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency began operating in 1998 and took off like a rocket in the 2000s, with a new book every year, and 2010 will properly start for Indian crime fiction fans when Alexander McCall Smith hobnobs with us at the Jaipur Literary Festival, come end-January. A new instalment, The Double Comfort Safari Club, will be in every criminally-minded bookshop on April 20.
This global flavouring has demanded some adjustments. The adaptable among old-school writers, for instance, the master of the Cold War thriller, John le Carré, did take the cue and move to fresher pastures, such as Africa in The Constant Gardener—a book he rates as one of his best. And he’s right.
Then there are the local crime writers currying favour with readers. The great sensation of 2008 was The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, steaming hot with Chennai crooks. And notable in 2009 was Delhi Noir, an anthology edited by Hirsh Sawhney (published both in India and the US). In this context, I must praise India’s answer to McCall Smith, namely Tarquin Hall, whose Most Private Investigator Vish Puri series debuted during the year. A second instalment, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, will hit shops by June.
Taken together, all this means serious diversification. A more eclectic taste among readers and a corresponding spirit of adventure among publishers and shopkeepers has created a genuine globalization of the crime novel, and our new fictional heroes are breathing in the smog of urban India, Thailand, Japan and Africa.
Zac O’Yeah writes thrillers that scare even him. The Bangalore-based writer’s next book, ‘Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan’, is out in 2010
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First Published: Fri, Dec 25 2009. 08 22 PM IST
More Topics: Books | John Burdett | Novels | Cold War | Lounge |