On Detective Fiction

Last edited: 2.03pm, Jan 12, 2014.

When I was little, I told people my favorite books were fantasy. Somewhere in my late teens, I realized I was reading way more science fiction than I was fantasy, probably because there was a slightly smaller chance of coming across some stupid teenage romance story. Anyway, a year or two ago I came to a new realization once again: I read more mysteries than anything else. Here’s a few reasons I’m so fond of the genre.

But first, two notes. By “detective,” I refer to both the professional and the amateur. It can be the police officer, a private investigator, a lawyer, or a grade school teacher who unfortunately discovers a dead body and gets caught up in the whole mess. Secondly, I try to read a variety, but I favor those set in large American cities, most of which involve murders (thus “murder mysteries), and my reasons will, unfortunately, show this bias.


So, the reasons. Firstly, good detective fiction is the POETRY of the City (I ignore for the moment the small town mysteries or the ones in abandoned castles). The mystery writer is by necessity familiar with the city about which he writes. He knows the highways and the alleys. He knows where the truck drivers gather at the end of their shift for a drink. He knows where the drug dealers peddle. He knows the history of that old church on the corner. He knows the homeless men by name. He knows what music the small Italian restaurant plays. He knows where to get good Chinese take-out. Detective fiction causes the City to become new.  It opens your eyes to details you have never noticed. The mundane city becomes Poetry. The setting is all important. London for Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown; New York for Nero Wolfe and his errand boy Archie; L.A. for the likes from Philip Marlowe to Harry Bosch. You cannot uproot the detective. You cannot cast put Holmes in Chicago anymore than you could chase Marlowe from L.A. Holmes will forever lead us dancing through the cobbled streets of London, whereas Marlowe will have us driving down Hollywood Boulevard on a hot and lonely summer night.

Detective fiction, by nature of its genre, deals with the darkest side of humanity. It records the darkest nights of the City. The detective crawls from the drug crazed alleys of blood to the beautiful homes of highest society, which in turn are tapestried with corruption, intrigue, backstabbing, no less depraved than the meanest streets. The detective witnesses all this. The writer does not shield us from such horrors. Yet still, he cannot but write of this city with a tender lovingness.

Slowly, his eyes came up and he looked through the kitchen window and out through the Cahuenga Pass. The lights of Hollywood glimmered in the cut, a mirror reflection of the stars of all galaxies everywhere. He thought about all that was bad out there. A city with more things wrong than right. A place where the earth could open up beneath you and suck you into the blackness. A city of lost light. His city. It was all of that and, still, always still, a place to begin again. His city. The city of the second chance.

– excerpt from final chapter of “A Darkness More Than Night” (Harry Bosh), Michael Connelly

One has no right to write of a city one does not love. Detective fiction depicts the darkest nights, but even there he seeks, perhaps desperately, the faint gleam of the stars.


Secondly, detective fiction is not burdened by PLOT. Oh yes, plot is all important, but it is always the same plot: a problem arises (someone is murdered, or someone is missing, or someone received threatening mail), and the detective seeks the culprit, and finally brings him to some form of justice. Everyone knows what to except, so the author is not distracted by trying to think up some new development. (In some other genre, for example, the young high school teacher has now built a meaning bond with his rebellious students. and what should I write in the next novel?) Instead, he can focus on what he find of interest: an ode to the city, or some comment on the criminal justice system, or character development. Because we know where the plot is headed, we can tarry along the way and enjoy the scenery, finding delight in the little details. Of course, maybe we might also act like normal people and take joy in the intellectual challenge of trying to crack the mystery before the main character. But if a piece of detective fiction is merely plot, it is not worth reading, much less re-reading.

Another nice thing about a piece of detective fiction, especially is the current market, is that you can usually be certain than most of the immorality happens on the side of the culprit. If you pick up that novel about the young high school teacher, you have no idea what sort of situations she might find herself in if the author gets bored. She might have a troubling relationship with her alcoholic mother and abusive father, or she might be overly reliant on a boyfriend, or might be pursued by a distasteful cast, or… well, general drama. Perhaps some people like drama, but I’m not too fond of it. Detectives are generally too busy trying to solve a murder to deal with family drama or entertain girlfriends, lucky for me.

I am also very fond of detective fiction because it never pretends to be more than what it is. While the story about the young high school teacher might aspire to be treated as good literature that explores the importance of human relationships or whatever passes for good literature these days, the detective story has no such misguided aspirations. Detective fiction will never rise out of the fate of a mere massmarket paperback, mere pulp fiction, and so the author generally focuses simply on trying to tell a good story. Oh, very often it turns out that it is more than merely a story. It usually offers something a little deeper, a little more lasting than a mere story, but it never does so under for the sake of appearances. The author writes as he does because he can’t help it.


Lastly, and most importantly, detective fiction is one of the few contemporary books which still engage in that primal battle of GOOD AGAINST EVIL. There is something beautiful about that. The world is a broken place, and each detective, no matter how broken he himself is, tries to do wage battle against darkness. They don’t always win, but they sure try.

They don’t do it for the money or the glory either. These men walk through the dirt and the slime because they care. They get beat up, they get shot at, they get worn down by the worries of others, and nobody likes them. Most of them earn next to nothing (Nero Wolfe being the obvious exception), and there are no promotions in sight, but they stick to their miserable jobs, because they care.

We work on obscure, unimportant, apparently irrelevant deaths of people who don’t matter and who never did…we spend out time looking into dead men’s faces, round their rooms, into the motives of their friends, if any, lovers and enemies…. we never make excuses about being undermanned, nor do we care if the case we’re investigating never gets into the papers, nor becomes a national manhunt – and when my friend Sergeant Macintosh was killed by the man he had trapped in a bedsitter off Edith Grove last year, there was no posthumous George Medal for him. No murder is casual to us, and no murder is unimportant, even though murder happens the whole time in a city like this.

~ Chapter One, “He Died with His Eyes Open,” Derek Raymond

These are men who care. And though they walk through the darkest streets of the city and witness the worst of humanity, yet somehow, they hold on to their principles. It is not that they are not tainted by the very darkness they fight, but they do not compromise. They have their own moral code – and sometimes I don’t agree with them. But I respect them, even if they are fictional characters, for holding on to that faint glimmer of starlight even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The detective who bluffs his way into the office of the city official and proceeds to grill him about his questionable income is surely no less valiant that St. George taking on the dragon, though often more lonely.


But night will soon be drawing to a close, and my eyes are finally drooping (sleep did not come easily), so I’ll leave you with these thoughts. Please do comment, if it so pleases you. And may you have sweeter dreams than I’ve had.



English Proverbs

I spent an evening some weeks ago looking through a book of Little Blue Books that someone from another dorm owned. It was delightful, and I was highly envious. I read the entire booklet of Proverbs of England, Little Blue Book No, 113, edited by Haldeman-Julius, that evening, and I vowed to return some other night and read other Little Blue Books, including one about the New York Chinatown.

But here were some proverbs that tickled my fancy, and I hope at least one or two might delight you also.

。None but cats and dogs are allowed to quarrel in my house.

。A book that remains shut is but a block.

。A goosequill is more dangerous than a lion’s claw.

。Say nothing of my debts unless you mean to pay them.

。Put not thy hand between the bark and the tree.

。Some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run away.

。Better bend the neck than bruise the forehead.

。A dry cough is the trumpeter of death.

。It is no festival unless there be some fighting.

。When fools throw stools, wise men must take heed of their shins.

。One has never so much need of his wit as when he deals with a fool.

 。A wise man may look ridiculous in the company of fools.

。He that thinks in his bed has a day without a night.

。”Almost” was never hanged.

。Better to slip with the foot than with the tongue.

。A full belly neither fights nor flies well.

。The fire in flint shows not till it is struck.

。Change of weather is the discourse of fools.

Bus conversations

I met a Mexican while waiting for the bus one day. Said his name was José. He told me that he had been here in the States for five years, and hated the snow.

We got to talking, seeing as the bus was still a while in coming. He had just finished working at this bar just down the street. It was a good place, he told me, and they served good beer. But of course, I was not of drinking age yet.

So was he on his way home? If only. He was catching the bus to get to his next job, a chef at this mediterranean restaurant. They served very good food. Shells, fish, lobsters. The shells were done with a handful of one spice and a handful of another. And woosh – the flames!

So he enjoyed cooking? Oh yes, he really did. And the people at work were really nice. He loved his job, and his face lit up when talking about it.

Do you have a facebook, he suddenly asked me. No, I didn’t. Well, as it turned out, neither did he. All his friends did, though. But he didn’t get it. Putting all your photos and things on the internet? It was something teenagers did.

We then exchanged ages – he was 23 now – and I proceeded shyly to pry into his background.

Being a college student, I lived on campus with a wonderful roommate. He lived on XXth with his youngest brother. It was boring in the apartment, because there was nothing to do. All he could do was stare out the window all day. But I said that I was a college student?

Yes, studying history.

He’d never been to school before, but he would like to go someday. Did I party a lot?

No, I smiled. My excuse was that we didn’t have a car, but the fact was that I wasn’t much of a partying girl.

But what did I do in my spare time? Was I not bored?

Oh no. I read books. Lots of them. I wondered absent-mindedly if he knew how wonderful books could be. I know few of my friends did.

He then told me that there were a lot of Asians on XXth. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, etc. I made a mental note of that, for I knew a Vietnamese friend who was starved for compatriots.

So, did he have any other family in America?

One other brother who didn’t share the apartment. His parents were still in Mexico. He also had a girlfriend, but when he went back 2 years ago, she was married to another man.

Five years away from his family and friends. It was such a long time. Will he eventually go back?

Yes, of course! He went back for a visit 2 years ago, and he will probably be going back in a year or two. This time for good. He’ll drive a car to get back. It’d be like a road trip.

I smiled. I had always wanted to go on a road trip. And it made me glad that he will be going home sometime. Maybe even next December.

We lapsed into a comfortable silence for a while. THen I asked what he missed most about Mexico.

His parents, he replied without hesitation. Then after a pause, he added his girlfriend to the list.

I’m so sorry, I whispered, offering shallow condolences. How does one offer comfort about something like that?

Then I asked my most foolish question. Why did he come to America?

To earn money.

Of course. Why else would anyone come to the land of opportunities?

You see, he told me, a thousand dollars here is twelve thousand dollars back home. That’s a lot. In fact, he already owns a house back in Mexico. He went on to tell me that Americans don’t have houses. They say they do, but you see, they don’t actually own them, because they still owe a whole lot of mortgage and credit and stuff. But he had a house. A real one. And he didn’t owe anyone anything.

He grinned in pride as he happily contemplated the thought of having a house to go back to in 2 years, and I shared in his joy of the moment.

So, did he have any plans when he got back?

No, not really. He was thinking about going to school. He’d never been to school before, and he kind of wanted to go.

Then the bus came. We boarded, and spent the trip in silence. He got off at East F. and XXth. I watched him jog toward the mediterranean restaurant, and wondered if he was late.

10 things you learn in the first year of college

This is inspired by a friend’s blog, where she makes lovely lists of 10’s… I hope she doesn’t mind me referencing her. :p

1. How to fluently pronounce long and ridiculous names like “Utnapishtim.”
2. Exactly how long you could go without cleaning your side of the room before your roommate explodes in a shower of angry orange sparkles.
3. Calling one’s brother a “good, sweet kid” is a sign of clinical homesickness.
4. Our college is better than yours, even if we did lose five ball games in a row.
5. Squirrels are evil.
6. Contrary to popular legend, cafeteria food is not poisonous. (At least, I’ve survived so far.)
7. Dorms are sometimes infested by a species of short, invisible fairies.
8. College kids like to spend their free time engaging in the great philosophical debates of our time, such as whether milk chocolate is better than dark chocolate.
9. Procrastination is a fine art.
10. College isn’t so bad after all.

The passing of Uncle Wah

Mr. Szeto Wah, known affectionately by the Hong Kong people as Uncle Wah, passed away on January 2nd. He was an important figure in the developement of democracy in Hong Kong over the years, and he is already sorely missed.

I met him once, before I really knew who he was. It was at the Chinese New Year Carnival, when the various political parties had their stalls up and tried to gain the favors of the Hong Kong people.  As usual, Mr. Szeto Wah was at the Democratic Party’s stall, writing New Year couplets for people. Our family was in line, and my mother asked for “龙马精神” (the strength and health of the dragon and horse) for our grandmother, who is growing old and frail. Mr. Szeto was cheerful and friendly, and gladly complied. He wished her well.

That red piece of New Year paper hung in our grandmother’s living room for over a year. We still have it now. His calligraphy was neat and strong. In the Chinese stories I’ve read, one could always guess the nature of a man by his calligraphy. Perhaps there is quite a bit of truth to that. 

Szeto Wah was a giant on the Hong Kong political landscape.  He commanded the respect of all parties, pro-democracy or pro-beijing, and the Hong Kong people affectionately call him Uncle Wah.  He was the spiritual leader of the Democratic Party. The party was a strong, calm voice in Hong Kong politics. They are perhaps not as loud and noisy as other, seemingly younger parties.  But they are no less passionate for democracy, and they had quite a bit more common sense. Such was the influence of Uncle Wah. He didn’t rave and rant. But he was heard clearly even in the strongest storms.

There is another party which I am rather fond of, though I quite disagree with their way of doing things. Long Hair and Wong Yuk-man are of the League of Social Democrats, and young though they are not, they are as noisy and teenagers. Hong Kong people well remember their acts in the LegCo chamber, from throwing bananas to shouting … rather impolite words.  There is still heated debate about whether those particular words qualify as swearwords. I personally think not, unpleasant though they may be. I came to learn that they are both masters of Chinese history, which instantly increased my respect for them. I suppose I consider them as over-active kids. I do not approve of their actions, but I’ll admit, they’ve brought many a wry smile to those who watch LegCo meetings.

But there is one thing I could not come close to forgiving. Szeto Wah was diagnosed with cancer in late 2009, and of course, all political figures showed concern. But during the democratic split during the contraversy over the Reform Package,  Long Hair, in his anger at the Democratic Party’s choices, asked rudely if Uncle Wah was not functioning properly because of the cancer that has gone to his brain.

Outrage ensued. For all their political differences, everyone was suddenly on the same line: defending Mr. Szeto and condemning Long Hair. Long Hair could get away with calling anyone any kind of names. He was that kind of character. But he could not get away with showing such disrespect towards Mr. Szeto. Szeto Wah was more than just another political figure in the pro-democracy camp. He was the political figure.

When I started paying more attention to Hong Kong politics, I was overjoyed to learn that Mr. Szeto wrote a column for the Mingpao (our family’s favorite Chinese newspaper) every three days. Then I was most disappointed to learn that he never wrote about politics. But slowly, I came to appreciate his short, simple column. He liked to write short, sweet stories. They were almost childish in their simplicity, but is that not the way of the very best fables? He also shared some of his favorite Chinese poems. They were almost like a short lesson in Chinese literature. He was so willing to teach. Those were the days I liked best, because I love anything of Chinese literature or history. Some days, he would even share a verse or two from the Bible. (I think that Mr. Szeto became a Christian not long ago.) I’ve come to love his column, and I made a point of reading it every time he wrote. Like I’ve said, in those times he seems more like a teacher than a politician. But then, I suppose he always was a teacher at heart. He always was a teacher, not the politician, which is why he commanded the love and respect of so many younger men and women (old though they may seem to me).

I remember reading something written by a young reporter not long after Mr. Szeto was diagnosed with cancer. She said that he expected reporters to have done their homework before interviewing him, which was only a decent request, that of a stern, though loving teacher. She also said that whenever the young reporters couldn’t understand some obscure Chinese reference or saying made by any of the politicians, they had merely to call up Mr. Szeto, and he would be more than happy to help them out by drawing on his vast wealth of knowledge.

He came to the June Fourth gathering last year. He always came, and he said that, as long as he is able, he always will come. How could we have known that it was the last time?

(Economist‘s obituary: http://www.economist.com/blogs/asiaview/2011/01/szeto_wah)