We don’t have private detectives in China," Nado tells me. He’s a young Chinese crime writer and we’ve been seated, fortuitously, at the same table at a literary banquet. “So usually in my books the protagonist is a journalist."

In his latest novel, the postmodern Down the Road to Death, which I read an English excerpt from, he’s taken one step further: The protagonist is almost Nado himself—a thriller writer. Removing viruses from his computer, he discovers a password-protected folder called “Memory" which he has no memory of having created. In it he finds writings that are clearly his own, and violent, but he has no idea how they came about.

With a lack of gumshoes and private-eyes, crime fiction is relatively nascent, although a growing phenomenon in the new, market-driven China. Serious writers voice doubts about best-sellerism, but not many of them write full-time like Nado, who used to be under contract to churn out novels. Currently, he offers his manuscripts to the highest bidder, but is by no means rich.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, bookshops that I check in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai don’t have sections devoted to crime fiction. In shops that stock English books, you have to look hard to find crime novels.

Nascent: Qiu’s A Case of Two Cities.
Nascent: Qiu’s A Case of Two Cities.

You might also find novels by He Jiahong, whose series (hugely successful in Chinese) will now appear in English translation in the bookshops. The protagonist Hong Jun is Beijing’s first private-practice lawyer and takes on an unsolved case from the past in Hanging Devils: Hong Jun Investigates (2012). The plot cleverly pitches the foreign-returned legal expert against an old-fashioned Communist judicial system. What makes this interesting is that the author is an expert criminologist and professor at a Beijing university, resulting in realistic portrayal of procedure.

In both the cases above, inspiration stems from the turbulent changes after China adopted a Communist form of capitalism. Under these circumstances, one might expect there to be an underground scene by now, but that isn’t the case. First of all, private publishing isn’t allowed—only government-controlled publishers, or private companies in partnership with government presses, can apply for ISBN (International Standard Book Number) numbers. The only offbeat title I find is from a small Shanghai press, HAL Publishing, whose books are aimed largely at foreigners. Their Middle Kingdom Underground collection features short stories set in a sleazy world of bars and sexual liberation.

Reality literature is available if one looks hard. I find a Truman Capoteish In Cold Blood-like story called The Crime Scene (2009) by Li Er, based on interviews with a gang of bank robbers before their execution, hidden in a shelf for language learning books.

Somebody had the bright idea that a page-turner with the original text in Chinese and the facing page in English might be a perfect teaching tool, not only for learning language but also exploring social problems. According to the preface: “The heroes and heroine are not born ruthless or evil, nor do they have any particular hatred for society. However, they take a juvenile approach to life and recklessly commit crimes."

Despite this disclaimer, the book is delightfully hard-boiled with a suitably tragic ending—the robbers realize that they’re too rooted in their hometown to know where to run. But it’s too late to turn back, they’ve killed too many. In the end, the only thing they do with the 640,000 yuan (around 55.09 lakh now) loot, as they hide out in the hills, is to use banknotes in lieu of toilet paper.

“The notes are too smooth and slip easily. You need more than one to get clean, unless, of course, you use old notes," says one of the three robbers to the author.

Another gem is Lynn Pan’s Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise which was published in the 1980s but is still available. Reeking with gangster nostalgia, it provides an in-depth, and exciting, narrative of early 20th century Shanghai with its colonies of corrupt foreigners, opium dens, policemen in nexus with secret Chinese societies, and Communist revolutionaries (a clever detective novel that exploits this same era to good effect is When We Were Orphans by Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro).

Other than these, thrills are few and far between. In an article in China Daily, the main English newspaper, I read, “Detective novels, such as the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie, have a very large readership in China. But for the writing of detective novels, it is a different story. It seems that Chinese culture is more suited to brooding martial arts novels, where swordsmen use their martial skills to ‘rob from the rich and give to the poor.’ Detective stories, which may lack legends and require more logic, have been absent for many years."

China was probably one of the few countries where the globally popular Millennium Trilogy by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson flopped, I learn when I visit Shanghai 99, a trendy publishing house that tries to introduce crime fiction. Foreign titles make up 70% of their list and thriller translations rate among their best-sellers—Dan Brown sold two million copies, Stephen King half a million, and Agatha Christie does well too. A major source is Japan, perhaps because it is culturally closer to China; they translate Japanese mystery masters like Keigo Higashino and Kaoru Kitamura.

There are publishers who specialize in Chinese pulp, but one complaint I hear is that much of it is fanciful; plots are implausible and rely on handy coincidences. In what I’ve read of even the biggest writers, such as He Jiahong and Qiu Xiaolong, there is indeed an overuse of fortuitous chance encounters.

Hanging Devils
Hanging Devils

Truth be told, over two months in China I never get short-changed, cheated, ripped off, robbed, beaten up or even food-poisoned. The only bad stuff I can report are stories told by two other foreigners who fell victim to the Tea Ceremony Scam (duped into buying overpriced tea).

The once big bad city of Shanghai feels tame, despite having China’s first and only Police Museum (518 Ruijin Road), where evidence like shotguns, hacksaws, espionage equipment, gambling paraphernalia, and opium pipes is on display. Newspapers don’t report much crime, but it is hard to know whether it’s so rare that it belongs to a museum or because it’s a touchy subject. Of course, there are reports on corrupt politicians, such as the recent scandal over the wife of one allegedly murdering a British businessman who knew too much about the couple’s shady affairs.

The story is apparently about to turn into a new case for Inspector Chen in the next novel in the series by Qiu Xiaolong, which goes to show that the love affair between reality and fiction is going strong. But then again, Qiu is at a safe distance in the US, while the other Chinese pulp writers seem to be living cautiously in a country without private detectives.

Zac O’Yeah’s new novel Mr Majestic! will be out later this year.

Write to Zac at criminalmind@livemint.com

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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