Crime & Mystery
Interpreting the East to the West
J. MADISON DAVIS
James Melville, author of the Superintendent Tetsuo Otani mystery series, frequently has been asked how he came to write about a Japanese policeman, rather than a detective at, say, Scotland Yard. After all, isn’t the most repeated axiom of writing to “write what you know”?
Melville was born Roy Peter Martin of a Cockney background, did a stint in the RAF and as a schoolteacher, and later became the genteel representative of the British Council, promoting cultural and educational opportunities at the embassy in Tokyo. In Japan, according to his own account, he found himself straphanging on a train when a young man approached him eager to practice his English. They made awkward small talk for a while when Mount Fuji came into view. Martin was awed by it and remarked on its loveliness. The young man nodded and said the mountain was an inverted fan against the sky. Martin was stunned by the beauty of the simile and complimented the young man on it, asking if he were a poet. No, said the young man, this image was one of the listed “official” images of Mount Fuji.
“Official images”? Could he have understood correctly? Martin’s professional interest in reaching out to the Japanese now became a fascination, he says. The fact that a society would accept a certain number of images as official intrigued Martin so much that he embraced Japanese culture and soon began to explore it in fiction. Adopting the pseudonym James Melville to separate his fiction from his diplomatic role, he was soon the successful author of the Otani mystery series, which lasted through thirteen volumes from 1979 to 1992. In these books, by putting Otani and his wife, Hanae, to the test in crime stories, he was able to fully explore modern Japanese culture, both high and low. His intimate details of everyday life—such as Otani’s distaste for brown rice—not only entertained readers but helped illuminate various interesting corners of Japanese culture.
Exploring other cultures within the framework of the crime novel has been a common strategy, a way to indulge an author’s fascination and help pay the rent while also feeding readers’ hunger to be more than merely entertained. As the popularity of the mystery grew, many permutations of the detective genre flourished, of course, and in the attempt to create a character who would stand out, many journeymen hacks resorted to racial and ethnic clichés from Shylock Holmes to the oh-so-British Sir Denis Nayland Smith, who pursues the evil mastermind of the “yellow peril,” Dr. Fu Manchu, in Sax Rohmer’s popular novels. As offensive as these novels are, they were long popular. Fu Manchu first appeared in a magazine in 1912 and lasted until Rohmer’s final novel in 1959, inspiring many evil imitations. Supposedly, Rohmer’s wife’s Ouija board told him that his fortune lay in “c-h-i-n-a-m-a-n.” Lest we congratulate ourselves too enthusiastically for our open-mindedness, we should remind ourselves that the paranoia about “crafty” Far Easterners is far from dead. Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (1992) and many other novels exploit it.
For a more sympathetic understanding of Far Eastern cultures, Robert van Gulik, who died in 1967, remains popular for his Judge Dee mysteries, set in seventh-century China and based on an actual magistrate. Even though Charlie Chan is a positive character, created by author Earl Derr Biggers to counter the myth of the “yellow peril,” Chan has become the poster boy for Asian stereotypes, even though he is Chinese American by way of Hawaii. Chan’s reputation is largely based upon the ludicrous motion pictures starring Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and others. Biggers’s six novels (1925–32) are much better written than their reputation deserves and were initially inspired by his reading about a real Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. Also drawing on stereotypes is Mr. Moto, John P. Marquand’s Japanese secret agent, who appeared in five novels between 1935 and 1942, then again in 1957. Eight films starring Peter Lorre as Moto were made, but World War II killed the series. In the novels, Asia is essentially viewed from the point of view of strangers, and the interest might primarily be the same as that of any oddball detective. In short, his Asian ethnicity functions merely as an odd trait, as with blind detectives, or the irascible “Man in the Corner” of Baroness Orczy. Moto pops up in the novels at crucial moments, but he is primarily inscrutable, and a reader learns little about Japan and its culture. Chan also is missing from many of the pages of Biggers’s novels, and one cannot help wonder if this is a strategy for him and Marquand to avoid getting into their characters’ heads. On the other hand, many detective stories avoid getting into their characters’ heads. Consider The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes is absent for many pages.
Among the most popular recent mysteries set against a Far Eastern background are Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro series, which began with Shinju in 1994. Rowland grew up in Michigan of Chinese and Korean parents, but only a racist would say that this makes her more qualified to write about seventeenth-century Japan than any other American. Her father loved mysteries, and Rowland inherited that love. “I realized that in order to sell a book in the crowded mystery market, I would have to write something really special,” she says on her website. “I chose Japan because I’d been interested in it since college, when I studied Asian history and art and fell in love with Akira Kurosawa’s movies. Also, I wanted to do a mystery with an all-Asian cast of characters. I’d like for there to be more books about Asians, and I figured that one way to make this happen was to write one myself.” Rowland thus takes on not only the interpretation of Japanese culture to her audience but also the difficulties of making a remote historical period compelling. Obviously, fans believe that her books clear these jumps beautifully. Twelve years later, The Red Chrysanthemum is the eleventh in her series, and publishers are not immune to their appeal. I. J. Parker, whose Rashomon Gate (2002) was published by Viking/Penguin, writes a series featuring Lord Sugawara Akitada in the eleventh century. Parker is a retired professor who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She had researched Japanese literature of that time period, creating the character of Akitada for a short story published in 1997.
Sujata Massey writes a mystery series set in contemporary Tokyo. Massey was born in Sussex, England, of an Indian father and a German mother. After her parents emigrated to the United States, Massey attended Johns Hopkins University and had a brief career with the Baltimore Evening Sun. From 1991 to 1993 she lived in Japan with her husband, a naval officer, and wrote fiction. The Salaryman’s Wife was published in 1997 to great acclaim and was followed by seven others. Her latest novel, Girl in a Box, was just published in September. Rei Shimura, Massey’s main character, is a Japanese American, which puts her in a situation with which Massey is very familiar—between cultures (www.interbridge.com/sujata).
Lisa See plays a similar role as an author interpreting contemporary Chinese culture. Born in Paris, she grew up in Los Angeles with partly Caucasian and partly Chinese ancestry. She says she often confuses people because her facial features are more Caucasian, while she thinks of herself as Chinese. Her mystery series (Flower Net, The Interior, and Dragon Bones) centers on two characters, Liu Hulan and David Stark, who fall in love while investigating murder in China. See is also the author of On Gold Mountain, a nonfiction book examining her family’s history, and the novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which delves deep into the culture of Chinese women, including foot-binding and the remarkable nu shu, the secret written language used exclusively by women (www.lisasee.com).
Other successful authors have explored Asian cultures—rather than merely using them as a backdrop—in a more limited way. Martin Cruz Smith’s insightful mysteries featuring Russian detective Arkady Renko (Gorky Park, Red Square, Polar Star, Havana Bay, and Wolves Eat Dogs) made him one of America’s superstar novelists and helped readers assess the nature of Soviet and post-Soviet society. Applying this ability to explore other cultures, he also wrote December 6, a novel set in Tokyo in the run-up to Pearl Harbor. The main character is the son of missionaries who finds himself caught between his Japanese and American backgrounds. S. J. Rozan’s China Trade introduced private eye Lydia Chin and her co-detective Bill Smith, with the action set in New York’s Chinatown. Reflecting the Sky, however, sends Lydia on a mission to Hong Kong for her Grandfather Wei. There, Chin encounters the ironies inherent in a very old culture’s life in a very modern cosmopolitan city. Martin Limon draws on his decade of life in Korea in his series of novels Jade Lady Burning, Buddha’s Money, Slicky Boys, and The Door to Bitterness. Two MPs in Seoul work in the underbelly of the occupation, and one of them, George Sueno from East L.A., uses his childhood history of foster homes to adapt to the mysteries of Korean culture.
Whether these authors explore Far Eastern cultures through immersion, from the inside of the culture (like Rowland and Parker), or by the comparisons inherent in the “fish out of water” scenario used by Limon and Rozan, the best of them use the entertainment of the thriller/mystery to help us see into another way of being human. East is East and West is West, but the twain can meet—in the fictional investigation of a crime.
University of Oklahoma
J. Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and nonfiction books, most recently The Van Gogh Conspiracy (2005) and Conspiracy and the Freemasons: How the Secret Society and Their Enemies Shaped the Modern World (2006). He serves as regional vice president of the North American branch of the International Association of Crime Writers and teaches novel and film-script writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
“From the November-December 2006 issue of World Literature Today (80:5), pages 13-15. Copyright 2006 World Literature Today.”