Earlier this month, Christian Science Monitor published a list of “Top 7 Detective Series Set in Foreign Locales,” a selection which is meant to “keep you on the edge of your beach chair,” as they put it.
I’ve only read one of the books, so skip the next paragraph if you really do object to judging a book by its cover (and more to the point, the marketing publishers use to sell it). But at least half of the list are white American or European men and women who have set their mystery stories in “exotic” locations, and if you flip through the entries you’ll see that the marketing for these novels heavily plays on the supposed appetite of readers for the exotic Other. The covers are carefully constructed to represent the “allure” of the destination (see right for an example, which features a scene at a Laotian temple).
American writer Zoë Ferraris finishes off the list, with City of Veils, set in Saudi Arabia - it could be great, but the hackneyed cover is not filling me with hope.
I’ve already talked about detective shows that treat the past as a foreign country, but now I want to address the proliferation of detective stories that are more literally set in a “foreign” country (by which I mean, different to the native homeland of the author, and the intended audience). Place is often crucially important in crime fictions; the location is another character in the story. Sometimes this is handled brilliantly, like the Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, which is a hard-boiled detective story set in an alternative history where the US granted Sitka, Alaska as a temporary settlement to Jewish refugees.
But let’s face it, lots of Western detective writers like to set their murders in “far away places,” and most of the time the handling of the crime scene leaves a lot to be desired. These tend to take an outsider’s view, or often a tourist’s view, with all the prejudices, stereotypes, and romanticization that entails. It’s not confined to the detective genre, obviously, but we have to admit it’s common enough to make a trend. (I’m only surprised that we’re yet to see any detective shows set on a teenage investigator’s gap year.)
Taken individually, each of the books on CSM’s list might be great—the top spot goes to the No 1. Ladies Detective Agency, incidentally written by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, who grew up in Zimbabwe when it was a British colony.
Precious, the protagonist of the series, is the only female African detective that is represented on screen in western TV, and she is hugely welcome. These books have been made into a wonderful and successful TV adaptation, but, as Latoya Peterson noted at Racialicious, even this really positive contribution to the detective genre is mediated through the eyes of a white author. Again, the end result is an incredibly positive female detective character on our screens, I’m not critiquing the content of the books or the show particularly. But Smith produces bestsellers, most of his readers will be hard-pressed to name a black Zimbabwean crime novelist.
I’ve talked about how Agatha Christie, creator of wonderful Miss Marple and other delights, spent much of her time travelling the Empire and used those experiences to craft settings for her novels. Marple does her detecting in rural England, but Christie’s other famous detective character, the Belgian Poirot, was often sent on crime-solving missions in the Middle East as his creator travelled the globe. Her most popular book, which is now known as And Then They Were One, was originally published under a more offensive title. And, talking of book marketing, this post shows some of the early editions of the novel.
There’s been some debate as to whether to book is racist or anti-racist, and more widely you could argue that Christie cleverly and accurately represented the colonialist attitudes of her characters rather than simply parading the same views. But can the same be said about Tintin, which is being adapted in Hollywood and is due for release this December?
You may remember the attempts to ban one of the early books in Belgium, because of the offensive portrayal of Congolese people. I really recommend Nadim Damluji’s Tumblr, about his year-long travels in Tintin’s footsteps, which is critical but very much coming from the perspective of a super-fan. This post, about the various changes that have been made to the various version of The Crab with the Golden Claws, is a really good place to start.
Going back to the origins of English-language detective genre in the Victorian period, frankly, you can’t turn around for another offensive colonial reference. Last week, I sat down to rewatch Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in The Spider Woman, with its wonderful “arch-villainess” Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard). The plot is that she was killing blokes off by means of a spider for the insurance money. But the movie also sees Holmes donning brownface as an Indian officer, and there is an offensive presentation of a “pygmy” character. Detective writers brought their colonial mindset home with them, you see.
Even some of the most modern adaptations have not entirely escaped similar criticism: I suggest reading Madam Miaow’s brilliant takedown of episode two of the latest Sherlock TV series, which was set largely in China Town:
Suddenly, my heart sinks and I realise it’s all Black Lotus, Tongs (you should see my Terror of the Curling Tongs), drugs, and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? A series of killings and a trail of yellow-themed clues lead our intrepid heroes into the dangers of Soho Chinatown where even the shop assistants are … sinister. Very clever creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and their resident Sax Rohmer Stephen Thompson, plus assorted producers, editors, BBC bods and friends, uncleverly fail to pull the mindset out of the 19th century along with the update and sadly jam their heads up their collective fundament.
I’m not sure what the lessons are to be drawn from this; the writers I’ve mentioned were reflecting the attitudes of their time and place, and continue to do so. But there’s a line we can draw that connects up Tintin’s travels and the Christian Science Monitor list, which does indicate that we still have a ways to go.