Some notes on detective fiction

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Shashank Kela’s The Other Man, although technically a novel about a crime, veers away from the straight whodunit that is a staple of most books in the genre. Inspector Daya, the protagonist, is quite unlike most traditional detectives, and the mystery at the heart of the book reveals more about India than about the crime itself. Here, Kela writes about how the English detective veered away to become nothing more than a formula, and how other European writers have pushed the boundaries of crime writing to reflect the societies their detectives operate in:

Russian actor Vasily Livanov, who portrayed Holmes in the 70s and 80s

The main tradition of the detective story in English resembles nothing more than a crossword puzzle. The original templates weren’t always like that – not even Sherlock Holmes. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s early novels, the bizarreness of human nature and exotic adventures jostle for attention with Holmes’ skills. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins has a colonial theme – a stolen Indian jewel, a band of Indians determined to get it back – also, an interest in character for its own sake. But very soon the prevailing rules become formulaic – stock characters, false trails, a hermetic puzzle with its elements all present if not correct. The guiding principle becomes rationality, which doubles back to refer only to itself – it orders the story’s elements and nothing else. The writer sets up obfuscations which are the reader’s job to penetrate. The American variety is more straightforward, a thriller with hardboiled action and cynical romance. Raymond Chandler’s detectives (however amoral personally) are moral actors in a corrupt and corrupting world.

Belgian writer Georges Simenon

In Europe, the detective story was imagined somewhat differently. Belgian writer Georges Simenon expanded and enlarged the psychological possibilities that remained undeveloped in the English tradition. Other writers recast the genre to open a window to the world, or that corner of it which the detective (and his creator) happened to inhabit. A world treated not as fog or fever, nor a setting for minor tragedy, but as concrete observable reality, one in which the detective is embedded and whose complicity he fights. An individual crime widens out to reveal a collective pathology; the detective begins to resemble a doctor. His concern is not just with the crime, but the wider forces – social, psychological – encapsulated by it. The crime and its solution make these forces visible, for the story is concerned, above all, with their effects. In other words, it reveals something about society, even if it’s only a state of mind – seeks to make a diagnosis if you will, however halting and tentative. And in shining a spotlight on one society, it examines ills we are all heir to. This kind of fiction takes many and elliptical forms. The police procedurals of Swedish writers Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo lay bare, almost incidentally, the nature and costs of Sweden’s post-war economic miracle. But they’re only the lowest rungs of a ladder that ascends from genre fiction to literature. In the hands of Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt, the detective story plunges into the Nazi past; peels back an ordinary life to reveal unsuspected moral abysses. Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia‘s novels about the mafia in Sicily elide imperceptibly into a meditation on the nature of power, oppression and complicity everywhere.

Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia
Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia

Sciascia’s novels are astringent and lucid. They are stories above all, whose deceptive surface hides unsettling truths. The last great heir to this tradition is French writer and Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, whose novels about young men and women cast adrift in Paris, struggling with memories of a past filled with ambiguity and unease, facing uncertain futures with uncanny equanimity, are often cast in the form of detective fiction. I’d like to believe that my book belongs to this tradition, which is unfamiliar in English, but not for that reason less interesting. the_other_man_150_rgb_1490011938 You can read Shashank Kela’s The Other Man on Juggernaut here:


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