Adrian Turpin, featured in the Books section of the Financial Times, writes about the influence Alexander McCall Smith is having on mystery fiction and some of the imitators his work has spawned.
He notes that when The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency was published in 1998, it seemed to confound the laws of publishing, and in particular those of crime fiction. It was unfashionably whimsical and its heroine, Precious Ramotswe, spent as much time dispensing gentle wisdom as she did solving crime. Who, it was said at the time, was going to buy this eccentric mix of genres? A lot of readers, it turns out, with millions of copies sold, the original translated into 40 languages, and a television series that recently concluded its first season on HBO (see Mysteries on TV: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.)
Turpin writes that Smith's books, and similar ones recently published, share 5 characteristics: (1) They have relatively simple, linear plots; (2) are set in the developing world; (3) feature an investigator who isn't part of the local government bureaucracy; (4) involve crimes that are typically inconsequential or tangential to the main plot; and (5) are resolved in favor of the virtuous.
He also notes that "[i]t's tempting to attribute the popularity of these novels to a desire for escapism, the literary equivalent of a package tour to a strange country in the company of a familiar guide. But the latest crop of novels featuring crimes in foreign climes suggests readers are responding to something more subtle. Of wildly different merit, three new books all toy with the same question: what is lost when a society is forced to embrace change at breakneck speed?"
The three books to which he is referring are The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall (introducing Vish Puri, head of Delhi's Most Private Investigators), Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Shamini Flint (introducing an inspector based in Singapore who investigates crimes outside his jurisdiction), and Tale of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes (introducing young forensic pathologist Kayo who solves crimes in Ghana; this book is not yet available in the US).
Another example is The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu by Michael Stanley, the second mystery of this series set in Zimbabwe, which we'll be reviewing later this month.
Turpin concludes his article by writing, "[T]his profusion of these novels, simple in form, but grappling with urgent issues, is likely to continue. But perhaps, as we launch further into the 21st century and power inevitably shifts, crime novels will again move their focus. Can it be long before we see a developing world detective investigating a crime in Britain or America?"
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