Recently I saw a poster for the upcoming movie The Great Wall, which is a movie about the Great Wall of China that stars prominent Chinese actor Matt Damon. After my eyes rolled right out of my head and onto the floor, I checked to see if my go-to site for discussion about such things had posted about it, and they sure had. I’ve also recently gone over Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, which isn’t crime but an excellent sci-fi YA space story (and I’m chairing a session with Amie at MWF) and the whole time I felt so desperately pleased at the range of characters in the book – there are female pilots and captains and many MANY characters with non-Anglo surnames. And every time you see a sci-fi movie (I don’t read enough sci-fi to make much of a declaration about books) you always think – why, even in a speculative future/dimension, do we not have more ladies or more racial diversity?
Writing stories set in the current world make this a little harder. I mean, not really – just make more diverse characters – but we have the actual history of the world and its gender politics to work with, not an invented one. Yet in crime, with its high rate of successful female authors, there are a lot of women starring in these books. Sometimes they suffer from sarcastic male colleagues who don’t think they can do very well, since they’re women. Sometimes they’re competent and others are critical of their coldness. But since there are so many women in crime, it’s not something that strikes me as bad – because there are books where young men are intimidated because of their youth or criticised because of their coldness as well. I’m not giving crime books in general a free pass, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, crime authors are a little too eager to make women victims, especially of sexual assault, which is lazy and overdone (are there no other crimes to invest in?), but there’s probably a higher representation of female serial killers in fiction that there is in reality. (This is the part where you note the “probably” and see that my research capabilities are limited to leaning back in my chair and staring at my crime fiction bookshelf.)
But what about representation of other cultures? Crime, like other fiction, loves to explore other countries, but who is telling the story really depends on where it’s set. If you want to read a Scandinavian-set book, the majority of the time you’ll be reading it from the point of view of a native of that country. Likewise for America, Australia, and England – and most other European countries. But when it comes to books set in the Middle East or Asia, well, the books I’ve read have almost uniformly been about westerners who are over there and reeling from culture shock. It seems difficult to set a crime book in the Middle East without making it a military or espionage-type thriller, where John McSmith flies in there, cops a few punches to the face to make him look daring and then smooches some lady who is native to that country and will wind up shot by bad guys, putting McSmith into a fiery rage so that he escapes from torture, slays everyone and flies back home looking morosely out of a window. Likewise, it seems most books with expats in Asian countries end up busting a drugs ring, and I don’t want to distill real issues into a criticism of books that cover those issues, but I just wish there was more (MORE!) books set in these countries so there could be a wider range of crimes and themes to cover. I just want all the books in the world: is that too much to ask? Surely not. Translators are falling over themselves to get all these German and Swedish books to the English-speaking world, but guys, go find those Chinese crime books, those Indian thrillers, those Nigerian mysteries. And I know they’re probably out there – mostly I only read what publishers send me – so do also take this as a “please let me know of crime books set in lesser-read-about countries especially if that author has something new coming out because I pretty much never have time to read anything older than a week old which is a real shame but that’s how it is”.
(Also, I did mean for this to have a tighter theme, but my carefully planned quiet time ended up with me writing this with a four-year-old in a light-up headband on my lap, or yelling about buttons when she had to have a post-soccer outfit change, or crumbling chips into my new rug. I considered putting this in drafts and finishing it another day, but I think we all know it would be forgotten until archaeologists discovered in in 3016 and marveled at how scattered it was.)