Fictional Detectives in International Flavors

Why are detective stories so appealing? I asked myself. John, from his position on the couch, suggested that it is the promise of a payoff. On reflection, this seems feasible. First of all there is intellectual satisfaction: the book begins with a question and—after several suspenseful pages of mulled-over possibilities—it ends with an answer. Simultaneous symmetry and solution! Then there is the emotional payoff: the initial outrage is assuaged or satisfied by the pursuit, if not always the punishment, of justice.

Whatever the secret of their appeal, mystery stories have been popular for centuries in many different cultures. Here is a sample of detectives, historic and contemporary, from around the world.

  1. The Arabian Nights
“It was the butler in the library with a scimitar, wasn’t it.”

The 1001 Nights contains a very old crime story now known as “The Three Apples.”  The original source of the tales in The 1001 Nights is a mystery in itself. The Galland Manuscript, the earliest known source of many of the stories, dates from about the fifteenth century and is of Syrian provenance. That said, many of the stories seem to come from much older folk tales, with echoes of Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Turkish and Jewish folklore. The story of the three apples, for example, portrays real historical figures of the 8th century CE: the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (al-Rashid means “The Just”) and his vizier Ja’far Ibn Yahya. “The Three Apples” relates how a fisherman hauls a locked chest out of the River Tigris. He then sells it to the Harun Al-Rashid, who opens it up only to find the dismembered body of a young woman.  Al-Rashid tasks Ja’far Ibn Yahya with finding the culprit, and so begins an investigation full of twists, turns and unlikely coincidences. You can read Richard Burton’s translation here.

2. China’s Gong’an Fiction: 公案小说

As usual, China was there early. Gong’an ‘crime-case’ fiction was a popular entertainment of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) Dynasties. Often performed orally or as puppet shows, they described government magistrates solving crimes in the course of their official duties. The stories often include supernatural elements and martial arts. In 1940, an 18th-century collection of gong’an stories Di Gong’An was discovered in a second-hand bookstore in Tokyo. It followed the adventures of Di Renjie (630-700), who was a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang Court.  This was translated into English by the Dutch sinologist Robert Van Gulik as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (1949). Subsequently, Van Gulik wrote and published many fictional stories with Judge Dee as the protagonist.  

3. Denmark and The Rector of Veilbye

A century and a half before scandi-noir was really a thing, Steen Steenson Blicher published The Rector of Veilbye (1829), a novella based on a true murder case from 1626, gleaned partly from a book about Church history and partly from oral histories. The story is told through a series of diary entries by Erik Sørensen, the judge and sheriff of the community of Vejlby, who investigates the short-tempered village rector Søren Qvist accused of murdering his servant. The story is complicated by the fact that Erik Sørensen wants to marry Qvist’s daughter Mette.

4. Parisian Turpitude with Jules Maigret

Between 1931 and 1972, Georges Simenon  wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories starring Jules Amedée François Maigret, commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle, a bear-like man distinguished by a thick overcoat, pipe and bowler hat. He solves cases less through ratiocination than through intuition, he often says, “I never think.” As he lurches inevitably and reluctantly to collaring his criminal, we get a view of Paris or (if he’s on holiday) the French countryside.

Jean Gabin was probably best known for his cinematic portrayal of Maigret

5. Death in a White Tie with Roderick Alleyn

There are, obviously, lots of British crime writers. One of the Queens of Crime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Golden Age of English crime fiction, was New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). The protagonist of all 32 of her detective novels is Roderick Alleyn, Detective Chief-Inspector in the CID at Scotland Yard and younger brother to a baron. Like Dorothy Sayers’ Sir Peter Whimsey, Alleyn is a ‘gentleman detective’ both in the sense that he is a member of the British gentry and also in that he is characterized by good and courteous conduct.

6. Hard-boiled Spade

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) only wrote five novels in a short space of time but they remain some of the classics of the genre and continue to have a huge influence on books and movies. Employed as a Pinkerton operative, he drew on his own experience and claimed that all his characters were based on people he knew. Probably his most famous detective is Sam Spade, the hero of The Maltese Falcon, who was later played on screen by Humphrey Bogart. Hammett wrote of Spade in his introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon:

Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.

7. Carvalho, the Spanish Gourmet

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (1939-2003) wrote 13 novels featuring Pepe Carvalho, a 50-year-old ex-Communist detective who is also a passionate and expert gourmet cook (several of the novels even include succulent recipes). Carvalho was born in Galicia but subsequently moved to Barcelona. He has a lot of love affairs but can never to commit to one relationship. For some reason it is difficult to find e-books of translations in English.

8. Montalbano and Malfeasance in Sicily

In The Shape of Water (La forma dell’acqua 1994), Andrea Camillieri (1925-2019) introduced the world to Inspector Salvo Montalbano, named in honor of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Montalbano bridges cultures; he negotiates a complex web of relationships characteristic of Sicilian society, and deals efficiently with outsiders from the mainland, who have their own way of doing things. Montalbano is the protagonist of 28 novels and nine collections of short stories. The TV series adapted from the books is very popular in Italy and in 2003 Camillieri’s home town Porto Empedocle even changed its name to Porto Empedocle Vigata in honor of the fictional town featured in the Montalbano novels. The decision was revoked in 2009, though, which somehow seems perfectly Sicilian.

9. Nefarious Africa

Former lawyer, High Court Judge and women’s rights activist Unity Dow has also managed to write four brilliant novels dealing with contemporary social issues in Botswana. Which makes me wonder if she sleeps at all. In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl appears to have been eaten by a lion but a police investigation uncovers some alarming goings on that unfortunately seem to be based on actual practices.

10. Officer Lituma and his Peruvian Puzzles

Mario Vargas Llosa (b.1936) is one of Latin America’s most significant novelists and among the many genres he has aced is whodunnits. In 1986 he published ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?), which begins with the discovery of the brutally murdered body of a young recruit in northern Peru. Officer Lituma and his partner Lieutenant Silva defy their higher-ups to solve the case. Lituma appears again in Death in the Andes (1993), in the tiny Andean community of Naccos where he has been sent as punishment for disobedience. During his stint there he must investigate the sudden disappearance of three men. It may be that Shining Path is behind it, or it may be something even more sinister.

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