Crime Fiction:

The Local, The Global, and the National

  • Marieke Krajenbrink / Kate M. Quinn (Hg.): Investigating Identities. Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction. (Textxet. Studies in Comparative Literature 56) Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi 2009. XI, 348 S. Paperback. EUR (D) 72,00.
    ISBN: 978-90-420-2529-5.



The reasons behind the longstanding and ongoing love affair between academic scholars and detective fiction are no mystery. Because the genre tends to follow certain standardized rules it provides a good basis on which to compare texts from different times and cultures. Because it typically deals with social and political issues it allows for an easy combination of literary and cultural studies. Finally, the search for evidence in order to construct a coherent narrative that is the fundamental basis of detective fiction offers a perfect metaphor for authors and scholars to explore problems of evidence and the nature of narrative construction. Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction 1 continues the academic-detective fiction love affair by bringing together twenty-one scholars – almost all of whom are based in Europe – to assess the current state of crime fiction around the world. As the editors state in their introduction, the volume »aims to explore the ways in which the crime genre […] has been used in recent decades to articulate and investigate notions of identity« (S. 1). It casts a wide net and offers a wonderful introduction to crime fiction around the world at the turn of the 21st century. The contributions differ widely in how they define identity, the methodologies used, and the types of texts that they examine. The emphasis is clearly on diversity, rather than coherence, which is both a strength and a weakness of this edited collection. It gives a broad overview, but its most important contribution to the scholarship of crime fiction lies in connections that the reader must trace between the essays. The editors are well aware of this, arguing that, when considered as a whole, »the twenty essays complement and mutually enrich each other in often unexpected ways« (S. 9).


The Local, The Global, and The National


Although it promises to deal with questions of identity in international crime fiction, Investigating Identities is largely a collection of essays about various individual national crime fictions. Nineteen of the twenty essays are specifically confined to national literatures. They do vary admirably widely (albeit with a strong European bent), encompassing crime fiction from Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Nigeria, Chile, Argentina, and the United States. There is, however, almost no attempt to draw connections between these various national literatures. This is despite the fact that one of the most interesting aspects of contemporary crime fiction is its ability to transcend national and linguistic borders better than any other literary genre. As I write this review, the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s crime thriller The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest tops the New York Times bestseller list, and along with the two previous books in the series has topped bestseller lists around the world and sold millions of copies. At this moment, the top five bestselling fictional books on amazon.com are all crime stories, and four of them were written by non-American authors. Seven of the top ten works of fiction on amazon.de are crime stories, and five of them were translated into German from other languages. Crime fiction simply crosses international borders more prolifically than any other type of literature. It would have been nice if this volume had devoted more attention to the international links between crime fiction authors and readers. Instead, it remains firmly bound to national literatures, even as the texts themselves and the reception of these texts challenge the very notion of national literatures.


The opening contribution to the volume, Eva Erdmann’s »Nationality International: Detective Fiction in the Late Twentieth Century«, is the only essay to break out of national categories and delivers the most wide-ranging consideration of global crime fiction. Erdmann tracks an international trend toward an increased specificity of location in which »the heinousness of crime is increasingly being replaced by the search for more colourful settings and, by means of a specific local connection, the crime novel takes on the function of a new type of Heimatroman« (S. 15–16). The comparison with the Heimatroman—a conservative German genre that typically paints an idyllic picture of timeless rural life and an unproblematized, unchanging German identity—is surprising and, I suspect, deliberately provocative. At first glance, nothing could be further from the typically urban, messy, and often cynical genre of crime fiction. But Erdmann’s point – and it is a crucial one – is to alert us to the importance of place in crime fiction. And these places tend to be quite specific and intricately detailed. My only quibble with Erdmann would be to argue that this is not at all a new trend, but rather has long been one of the chief distinguishing features of crime fiction.


One needs look no further than what is typically considered to be the first modern detective story (although historians of the genre can certainly disagree about this), Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 short story, »The Murders in the Rue Morgue«. The setting could not be more specific: a (fictional) street in Paris. A few decades later, a detective would occupy what would become one of the world’s most famous addresses: 221B Baker Street. Whether it is C. Auguste Dupin’s Paris, Sherlock Holmes’ London, Phillip Marlowe’s Los Angeles, Kurt Wallander’s Ystad, Fabio Montale’s Marseilles, or Michael Ohayon’s Jerusalem, the space in which detective fiction takes place is almost always infused with a specificity of time and place. This is not a recent development, but rather a central tenet of detective fiction. The paradoxical feature of the genre (and what distinguishes it sharply from the Heimatroman) is that these site-specific stories enjoy popularity well beyond the places where they are located. Specificity of place is one of the global features of detective fiction.


Erdmann argues convincingly that the international enjoyment of works that offer detailed descriptions of specific cultures is a response to globalization that relativizes the significance of the national. In crime fiction, as in so many other areas of modern society, the global and the local are united in a way that diminishes the once dominant discourse of the national. This is a fascinating, timely, and convincing argument. It is therefore surprising that all of the entries that follow are firmly rooted in the concept of national literatures and national cultural traits.


A Series of Compelling Case Studies


Stewart King (»Artuculating and Disarticulating Culture and Identity in Vázquez Montalbán’s Serie Carvalho«), Anne M. White and Shelley Godsland (»Popular Genre and the Politics of the Periphery: Catalan Crime Fiction by Women«), and Anne L. Walsh (»Questions of Identity: An Exploration of Spanish Detective Fiction«), for example, all offer compelling analyses of Spanish crime fiction that unfortunately stay within the borders of Spain, even as they demonstrate that the texts under discussion work to destabilize and mitigate the notion of a Spanish national identity. Sjef Houppermans (»Abyss of the Senses: Les Rivières poupres by Jean-Christophe Grangé«) and Agnès Maillot (»Fractured Identities: Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Khéops«) treat French crime fiction in a similar manner. Maillot’s reading of Izzo’s »Marseilles Trilogy« makes an especially strong case against national identities: she demonstrates that Izzo counters a more narrowly-defined French identity with a much more open, messy, and multicultural Marseilles-identity – one that is at once locally specific to this historically multicultural city and global in its encompassing of multiple linguistic, ethnic, and social groups. To the extent that French national identity even comes into play here, it is as a Straw Man that is rejected. The remaining essays in the volume – which, as I mentioned above, are admirably broad in scope – follow a similar tactic of focusing on recent cases of detective fiction within their national traditions.


All of these essays in this volume are informative and thoughtful. A few stand out as particularly insightful. Arlene A. Teraoka’s study of Jakob Arjouni’s series of novels about the fictional Turkish German detective Kemal Kayankaya (»Detecting Ethnicity: Jakob Arjouni and the Case of the Missing Detective Novel«) is especially interesting. It traces the controversy surrounding questions of the author’s identity (Arjouni is not Turkish German, although many people initially assumed that he was) and finds a fundamental German desire to fix identities into clear and certain categories. Arjouni resists and undermines this desire in his public persona and in his novels. Teraoka then returns to the issue of genre that she had broached at the beginning of the chapter when she posed the question of why there has never been a compelling tradition of German hard-boiled detective fiction and argues that the genre itself has a history of casting its protagonists as ambiguous and liminal figures who resist a fixed identity. Philip Swanson’s analysis of Argentinian novelist Juan José Saer’s La pesquisa (»The Detective and the Disappeared: Memory, Forgetting and Other Confusions in of Juan José Saer’s La pesquisa«) tries out a number of different approaches to Saer’s work – as a response to various literary traditions, as a political and historical allegory, as a metaphysical study – and finds that it resists being confined by any of these approaches. Rather, Saer’s playful novel presents an irresolvable problem – »how to reconcile any examination of reality with extreme doubt about its nature and the ability of writing to grasp it« (S. 294) – that has characterized the Latin American novel (and not just the detective genre) for at least the last fifty years.


Toward a Truly International Crime Fiction


If understood as a collection of individual case studies of detective fiction around the world, this is a useful and interesting volume. I only become frustrated with it when it promises more than it delivers. I wish it had embraced the global reach of crime fiction, rather than aggregate a series of studies of individual national traditions. I wish that it had been more careful to distinguish between different genres of crime fiction – indeed, nearly all of the texts discussed would be better classified as detective fiction (with its focus on the detective and the investigation) rather than crime fiction (with its focus on the criminal and his/her crimes). I wish that the essays were grouped into sections to make them easier to locate and relate to each other. However, it is a rewarding volume that will surely introduce readers to authors, texts, and traditions that they were not familiar with.