Most crime-fiction writers wisely let their hero or heroine loose in places that the authors know well, usually in their own country and region. Some, in search of more exotic settings, or believing that a change of venue will be refreshing, expose their sleuths to foreign environments -- a practice that may be hazardous to their credibility.
Examples abound of mystery novelists who, when writing about locales they don't know well (if at all), have committed egregious errors or demonstrated rank insensitivity toward the residents of those alien climes. My favorite story concerns American writer Matthew Head, who, in The Congo Venus (1982), described early Leopoldville, in the Congo, as a place that "has 60,000 or 600,000 Blacks. I've seen both figures but it doesn't make any difference. There is an awful lot of them." How's that for cultural awareness? Or one might cite the case of noted British author Ruth Rendell, whose 1983 mystery, Speaker of Mandarin, set in China, describes a local Chinese guide as "slant-eyed" and then provides him with lines such as "you take pill evly Fliday, I hope." Another doozy can be found in an anthology of international short mysteries, Murder Intercontinental (1996). Its editors intended to begin their collection with stories from the Caribbean, yet their first selection is set in Tahiti! Wrong body of water, wrong hemisphere. There exists a plethora of similar groaners, many of them from renowned writers who treat locals in Cairo, Baghdad or Delhi as unimportant servitors or villains, while their Western characters are the stories' stars, and famous landmarks and monuments from abroad become little more than exotic background props. One might call this geographical literary incorrectness.
The focus here, however, is on non-American mystery authors who've exported their crime solvers to the United States. It is interesting to note that this practice is not at all rare, that it's mostly done by Brits, and that it is a phenomenon certainly worthy of investigation. The reasons for non-American fictional detectives to ply their skills in the heterogeneous Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave vary widely. Some have used American settings simply because the allegedly mean streets of U.S. cities seemed more suitable to crime and to their sleuths than did their own, more familiar environments. Writers living in authoritarian societies are almost always constrained from writing about crime in their native, more controlled countries, so instead they move their tales to the center of evil world capitalism. A number of other motives for dispatching foreign fictional sleuths to America will become clear as we examine these works.
Most of the famous early British sleuths stayed safely close to home and hearth. However, the plot of Arthur Conan Doyle's first mystery, A Study in Scarlet (originally published in 1887), is rooted in the rough-and-ready Utah of the 19th century, the adopted home of the Mormons, and it presents a rather unflattering picture of the pioneering (and polygamist) early leaders of the Latter-Day Saints. Then, in one of his last stories, Doyle dispatched Sherlock Holmes, disguised as an Irish worker, to Chicago and Buffalo on the trail of a German spy. Unfortunately, this escapade is only ever alluded to in "The Last Bow" (see The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927), during the villain's final unmasking in London. Decades later, Ngaio Marsh, too, sent urbane Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn winging off to America, though she rapidly recalled him to England in order that he could protect his wife and solve the case of A Clutch of Constables (1968).
It was once quite common for mystery writers from Latin America and non-English-speaking European countries to set their stories in the United States. These authors were infatuated with the detective genre but, at the time, could not relate it to their own societies. So, instead, they adopted the settings familiar from U.S. and British mystery fiction. Argentine novelist Rodolfo Jorge Walsh (Operation Massacre, 1957) observed in 1953 that "Until very recently, perhaps not the public, but certainly our editors, have felt that for a detective novel to be commercially successful it had to have an English or North American setting. As a result, many authors would sign their works with presumably Anglo-Saxon names and simply 'invent' places and scenery, I suspect with flagrant violation of geography." Two of the better novelists in this category are Ronnie Wells (aka Jeronimo Montiero), the Brazilian creator of a fictional detective named Dick Peter, who operated for a time in New York City (see A febre verde [Green Fever],1967), and Uruguayan writer Hiber Conteris. Conteris' Ten Percent of Life (1985) is a Philip Marlowe pastiche set in 1956 Hollywood, and features Raymond Chandler as a suspect in the murder of his literary agent. It is a subtle political parable made all the more interesting because of the interaction it sets up between Chandler and his own fictional gumshoe, the chess-playing Marlowe. The book's Los Angeles setting can also be compared favorably against Chandler's high standard.
Without a doubt, the foreign author with the longest record of using American locales was Hadley Chase (real name: Rene Brabazon Raymond), a Londoner. From 1939 to the 1970s, he set approximately 40 mysteries and gangster stories in the States, yet made only a few short, personal visits to the country. He acquired the majority of his information about America from publications and maps. Most of Chase's fast-paced, hard-boiled yarns take place in California and, to be polite, they are fairly quotidian. His stories were once popular around the world, with more than 20 of them being adapted to the silver screen, including the best-selling No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1939), filmed as The Grissom Gang. However, critics and feminists alike decried Chase's general insensitivity toward distant cultures and women, as well as his frequent use of violence. The title of one of his first novels, suggesting the story's tone, was Twelve Chinks and a Woman (1940), and in Tell It to the Birds (1963), he expressed attitudes that would soon be associated with so-called male chauvinist pigs:
Anson looked searchingly at her. His eyes moved over her body. He thought: you meet a woman and she starts a chemical reaction in you. You think there is no one in the world like her, then something happens, and it is finished. She means less to me now than a used plate after a good meal, and how little can that be.
Writers from authoritarian states have often blended their crime fiction with the espionage genre, since crime and other social pathologies cannot be acknowledged in those controlled cultures. This is true for writers in fascist as well as communist nations. In fact, during World War II crime fiction was banned in Japan, Italy and Spain, as it was in the Soviet Union during most of that country's existence. Writers living under restrictive regimes were forced to set their stories elsewhere, with some odd results.
One of the most interesting series turned out in the USSR in its early years was written by a Russian, Marietta Shaginian. She created Mike Thingmaster, an American anti-capitalist hero who organized proletarian revolutionaries around the world. A "master-craftsman and master proletarian sleuth," Thingmaster led the workers of the Mess-Mend Alliance (a group of proletarians dedicated to mending the capitalist mess in the world) in adventures against the "villainous cabal of international capitalists and fascists." Shaginian took on a pseudonym to write this series, Jim Dollar, for whom a mythical pedigree was also created. Dollar was supposedly of "typical," downtrodden American origin. He was abandoned as a child in New York City, and had to sleep under bridges and work in the "factories of the bloodsucking capitalists. But, the father who abandoned him is an anonymous millionaire who leaves him his fortune, which Dzhim Dollar uses to help his proletarian comrades." The Thingmaster stories were published as a serial and were incredibly hot sellers in the early Soviet period. Three separate volumes were eventually produced, the most famous of which was Mess-Mend, or a Yankee in Petrograd (an English version of which was published in 1991). Unfortunately, these tales are terribly contrived and are interesting now only for their historical/political points of view. They were pretty crude propaganda tools, containing some fairly funny statements, such as: "Every honorable Communist puts duty first and his wife second. Every wife strives to put herself first and everything else second." (What was that about gender equality of the communist movement?) The evil leaders of the international cabal who are determined to rule the downtrodden proletariat included the J.D. Rockefellers, senior and junior, "Baron" George Westinghouse and their leader, the evil Jack Kressling. Naturally, one of this cabal's goals was to restore the tsars to power in Russia.
Today's Russian crime writers continue to employ U.S. backdrops and characters, though their stories are often still tinged with Cold War attitudes (as are American stories set in modern Russia), and erroneous details detract from the yarns' verisimilitude. For instance, Vladimir Shitov's Cathedral Without Crosses (1995), which is set partly in New York City and Washington, D.C., is replete with obvious geographical mistakes. His main characters dine in Manhattan at a restaurant at the intersection of 12th Avenue and Eighth Street -- a location that does not exist. Elsewhere in Cathedral, a character is seen driving a brand-new Packard automobile, even though Packards haven't been produced since 1956!
Contemporary Cuban crime novelists are similarly prone to transfer their stories to the United States. Again, this allows them to maintain the myth that no crime exits in their "socialist paradise." It also provides an opportunity to tell interesting stories about political exiles, while disseminating negative views about their superpower neighbor to the north. Take, for example, El American Way of Death (1980), by Juan Engel Cardi, with its story that begins and ends in Cuba but takes place mostly in the States. Cardi cleverly introduces into his tale some famous fictional American characters, including Sam Spade, Philo Vance, Mike Hammer and Perry Mason, but genuflects to his ideological censors by writing in the story that "The New York Police Department is too busy protecting corrupt political bosses, sheltering gangsters, collecting money from smugglers and con artists, patronizing brothels, inventing communist plots and beating up troublesome blacks." Less satirical and better developed is Outcast (2001), by José Latour, in which a Cuban schoolteacher escapes to Florida, only to descend into a criminal life. Latour's hero (or anti-hero), Ellis Steil, searches for his father, a visiting American engineer, who abandoned him and his mother many years earlier. After falling in with a number of Cuban exile thieves and sociopaths, Steil realizes that while Cuban socialism may engender a great deal of inhumanity, American freedom creates, for him, a sense of anarchy. Interestingly, U.S. author Martin Cruz Smith (who set one of his own novels, Havana Bay, in Cuba) has dubbed Latour "a master of Cuban noir" -- and he certainly knows the difficulties of writing about a foreign locale. Smith's best-selling 1981 novel, Gorky Park, about a triple murder in Moscow, was composed without his ever having visited the Soviet capital -- a move that got him into trouble with at least one respected Russian detective writer, Aleksandra Marinina, who has denounced "the obvious stupidities and clumsiness of [Smith's] description of Moscow life."
One of the most fascinating and internationally recognized U.S. crime busters in fiction was actually a German product: Jerry Cotton, an FBI agent operating in New York. Created by Delfried Kaufmann, the Cotton series, produced originally in a format similar to the 19th century's "penny dreadfuls," was begun in 1954. These books became immensely popular around the world -- so popular, that after Kaufmann grew tired of working on the series, no fewer than 65 other authors were enlisted (anonymously) to continue Cotton's adventures through short stories and scripts for both the movies and television. Eight of the books were turned into films, starring the late George Nadar as Cotton, and six of those were shot in West Germany, using some very lame tricks to make a city there resemble Gotham. Of course, the Jerry Cotton outings are so brutal, violent and filled with sex and action that their settings hardly matter. In one of the films, The Trap Closes at Midnight (1966), gangsters steal explosives and plant them, then demand a ransom from New York City. Cotton winds up fighting the mobsters among the steel girders of the Manhattan Bridge while the bombs tick away. Guess who wins!
In quest of innovative plot twists and new backdrops, more and more of today's foreign series sleuths are infiltrating U.S. shores. In Go West, Inspector Ghote (1981), Englishman H.R.F. Keating sends his inscrutable Indian police inspector, Ganesh Ghote, to zany California in order to enter the émigré population and convince the daughter of a wealthy Indian magnate to return home. He must deal with a trickster guru in an ashram in Beverly Hills, where the girl and many Americans have fallen under the spell of an unscrupulous, smooth-talking swami. Inspector Ghote is understandably stunned by the wealth and strangeness of California, and the book has some funny moments, with a murder in a locked room to enhance the reader's enjoyment. In an early scene, Ghote is driving to the ashram with a burly Yankee private investigator, and out the window he sees "soaring up into the sky, an enormous double arch of pure gold." He asks in a shout if they have reached the ashram, only to be told, "Gan boy, that is a McDonald's!" Well, some people do find solace and gustatory relief at such places.
British novelist Jonathan Gash, too, has successfully introduced his disreputable antiques dealer, Lovejoy, into America. The Great California Game (1990) finds this randy forger and antiques "divvy" traveling in the United States illegally, only to get involved with some screwball pals. The book is a bit of criminous puff, with Lovejoy making the rounds of New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles. In New York, he finds a job as a bartender and has some hilarious problems with American slang and mores. Because Gash and Keating both stick with character types and trades that are familiar to their series detectives, and do not try to write like Americans, these books can be read and enjoyed without cringing over cultural errors.
Not to be outdone, Anne Perry has made her own attempt at capturing the American setting. In Slaves of Obsession (2000), the Victorian detecting duo of William and Hester Monk track a well-armed murderer to Washington, D.C., in 1861, only to find themselves caught up in the heated first battles of the Civil War. Perry's descriptions of the bloody exchanges at Manassas, Virginia, are superbly done and provide an unusual British perspective on the terrible conflict that threatened to split the American Union.
A few non-American mystery-makers have relocated to the States, only to continue composing their familiar series. When, later, they have chosen to write about America, they've usually done so with greater accuracy and at least a modicum of insight into the national character. The prolific Belgian, Georges Simenon, having been listed as a Nazi collaborator after World War II, emigrated from France to North America in 1945, settling first in Canada, but later moving to Connecticut. He wrote a number of novels focused on U.S. crime and gangsters, including The Brothers Rico (1954), Belle (1954) and The Man on the Bench in the Barn (1968). That last is a sad morality tale -- inspired, it would seem, by Simenon's own extramarital affair with his secretary -- in which the protagonist fails to save a friend from death, and then commences a sexual relationship with the man's wife. Simenon's venerable Inspector Jules Maigret appears in two U.S.-set novels, Maigret in New York (1955) and Maigret at the Coroner's (1949), in which he manages to solve criminal cases in New York City and Tucson, Arizona, while being charmingly educated in American society and partially assimilated into the local ways of life. Maigret at the Coroner's is especially delightful, because the inspector is made a deputy sheriff and plays a role in solving the puzzle surrounding a young woman's demise. On the subject of setting stories in strange places, Simenon once said: "I have never been able to write a novel about a country which I have only known as a tourist and have never traveled around the world with a notebook in hand jotting down impressions." As a foreign resident on the American scene, though, he could make interesting comparisons between the way things were done in Europe and how they were done on the other side of the Atlantic.
Similarly, the Zen-oriented Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering emigrated from the Netherlands to Maine in 1975. With him he brought his two well-known fictional Amsterdam policemen, Commissaris Henk Grijpstra and Sergeant Rinus de Gier, who were tasked with solving crimes in America's much-forested Northeast. In the Maine Massacre (1979), Grijpstra arrives in the Pine Tree State to help his widowed sister settle her affairs, but is quickly drawn into an investigation of murders in the rural area of Jameson. Over the course of that case, he and de Gier share some refreshing views on the States. An amusing incident arises when they wonder why Maine residents buy bags of ice in the middle of winter. Elsewhere, the Dutch detectives are confronted by local toughs known as the BMF gang. After ruminating on the acronym, the commissaris asks de Gier:
"Do you know what BMF stands for, sergeant?"
An interesting perception -- and the old commissaris may just have it right.
Stories about strange sleuths in a stranger land can be either entertaining or cringe-provoking. Some are amusing simply because the author displays far more chutzpah than knowledge when it comes to setting his or her stories in the States. But fiction by a non-native, especially a thoughtful one, can also serve as a mirror on U.S. society. Such a mirror might reflect truths that residents don't know, or don't particularly want to know. It might even make Americans aware of how peculiar their behavior or philosophies appear to foreigners, and thus prove beneficial to the open-minded. An outsider's perspective can be erroneous, enlightening, even thrilling, but it's always worth a look. This may be especially true in the crime-fiction realm. Detectives, whether flesh-and-blood or fictional, are expected to be more perceptive than the rest of us. When they turn their eyes on an unfamiliar culture, the results can be arresting. | August 2004
George J. Demko is a professor emeritus of geography at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and a specialist in the locus operandi of mysteries and international crime fiction. You can visit him at his Web site.