What's the most recent Asian crime fiction title you've read?
Nothing come to you right away? Want a minute to think about it?
My guess is it wouldn't do you any good. If you've ever read any crime fiction set in Asia at all, I'll bet it was a long time ago.
Crime fiction set in Scandinavia? Sure, everyone today reads crime fiction set in Scandinavia. Europe maybe? Italy, France, Spain, and all sorts of other places in Europe are major sources of contemporary crime fiction. The United States? American crime fiction is a staple for readers all over the world. Africa? Yes, even Africa has recently gotten hot. Asia? Uh…you mean there's such a thing as Asian crime fiction?
Asia is a big place, of course. My own personal part of it runs from Hong Kong south to Thailand and Singapore. That's where I've lived for nearly two decades, and for more than half of that time I've been writing and publishing crime fiction novels set there. My four published novels have been issued and reissued in twelve different editions in four languages and have racked up sales numbers well into six figures. Still, I'm reasonably certain you've never heard of any of them since up until now they've never been available in either the UK or North America.
I live and work and write in a place that endlessly surprises almost everyone, so please permit me to advance this modest proposition with respect to it. The political turmoil and criminal enterprises that roil Asia everyday make the rest of the world look humdrum. The Wall Street Journal said this about a book of mine that drew on my personal experience with Asian crime: "Mr. Needham knows rather more than one ought about these things." So trust me here. I know where the bodies are buried. I helped to bury some of them.
My piece of Asia is a place where big-time villains blend with small-time hustlers, criminals on the lam mingle with bureaucrats on the take, and the merely raffish jostle with the downright scary. We have political assassinations, rogue financiers, and the occasional military coup. Our heavy, hot air is an even sexier fuel for contemporary crime fiction that the cold, hard landscape of Scandinavia. You probably just haven't had the chance to figure that out for yourselves yet.
Marshall Cavendish International wants to help you. So, on July 15 2011, they brought two of my titles to the UK for the first time.
If you read The Ambassador's Wife, you'll meet Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore CID. Tay is a little overweight, a little cranky, a little lonely, and he smokes way too much. He's not absolutely certain he's really all that suited to be a cop, or even to be a Singaporean. The first body is found in an empty suite at the Singapore Marriott. The second in Bangkok, in a seedy apartment not far from the American embassy. Both women. Both Americans. Both viciously beaten and shot in the head. Both nude. Both lewdly displayed. The FBI says it's a clear case of terrorism, but the whispers are that a serial killer is stalking American women across Asia. Inspector Tay is assigned to the case, but he soon finds his investigation obstructed at every turn. Why is it nobody wants him to find the killer?
In The Big Mango, $400,000,000 in cash is in the wind, the result of a bungled CIA operation to grab the Bank of Vietnam's currency reserves back in 1975 when the Americans fled Saigon a step ahead of the North Vietnamese army. Decades later, the word on the street is that all that money is still hidden somewhere in Bangkok and a downwardly mobile American lawyer named Eddie Dare unknowingly holds the key to finding it. From the Big Apple, to the Big Orange, to the Big Mango. There's a kind of nutty logic to it. Bangkok is about as far away from America as Eddie can go without falling off the edge of the world, but now that he's there and hunting for ten tons of lost money, he figures that's exactly what he has done.
Not all that long ago, Asia was a cool place for authors to set their crime and adventure stories, and a lot of big-time books grew out of the raw material of Asia. If you haven't read John Le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy or John Clavell's Noble House in a while, you should hunt them down again. Books like that once sold a huge number of copies all over the world; but regardless, publishers soon lost interest in Asia and popular fiction set in my part of the world became about as common as Tony Blair supporters are in Iraq.
Recently, a few well known authors have taken their shots at resurrecting Asia as raw material for contemporary fiction. In 2002, Nelson DeMille published Up Country set in Vietnam, but then abandoned the region and went back to writing about his usual haunts around New York. In 2007, Stephen Hunter set one book in Japan, The 47th Samurai, but then promptly fled Asia and returned to writing about the US. Starting in 2002, Barry Eisner set four John Rain novels in Asia, but he abandoned the series. In 2006, the pseudonymous James Church started a series for Inspector O, a North Korean cop, and in 2000 Xiaolong Qiu began his Inspector Chen series set in Shanghai. Neither series has had any new titles for years and they both may well be ended.
Interestingly, even Stephen Leather started his career writing Asia-set fiction. The Fireman, Hungry Ghost, The Chinaman, The Vets, The Solitary Man, and The Tunnel Rats are among the best crime and adventure fiction to come out of Asia since the golden age of Le Carré and Clavell, but Steve hasn't written anything similar in more than a decade. A few years ago, I asked him why he abandoned Asia as source material for his fiction. Steve told me he hadn't really wanted to, but his publisher had insisted. They warned him to stop writing about Asia or it would kill his career.
How Asia went from a cool place for big time writers to set their books to a place writers were warned would ruin their careers is a question a lot of people have examined. The subject has led to extended ruminations in talks I've given to reading and writing groups all over the world. I've yet to find anyone who understand why it makes sense. Ask any publisher why they offer readers so little Asian-set fiction these days and they will all tell you the same thing. It is because readers don't buy much Asian-set fiction. Ask these same publishers how readers can buy much Asian-set fiction when they publish almost none and you'll be right back where you started, no wiser for the journey.
The obvious answer is that we're looking here at a perfect mirror image of why bookstores now have entire sections devoted to Scandinavian crime fiction. Publishers decided that Scandinavia was cool, flooded the market with translated editions of everything that had ever been published there, and demand among readers soared from the constant exposure. On the other hand, publishers also decided for whatever reason that Asia was no longer cool, virtually stopped publishing books set there, and demand among readers in major markets waned when Asia crime and adventure fiction stopped receiving exposure.
I have hopes, of course, that making two of my reasonably popular titles available for the first time outside of Asia may goad the big publishers in the UK and the US into remembering that there is a significant audience of readers all over the world buying and enjoying books that draw on cultural and geographical resources with which they appear to be totally unfamiliar, resources like the cities of Asia where I have lived for the last twenty years. I have hopes, yes, but I have no real conviction.
Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic. It's a new world in publishing these days. In order to survive, let alone prosper, the major publishers must reach new markets and develop new readers. Surely they understand that. If they don't, they're not going to be major publishers much longer.
This is my point. There are a huge number of loyal, enthusiastic readers of Asian crime and adventure fiction and only a few, mostly local publishers in the Asia-Pacific region now providing the books these readers frequently go to a great deal of trouble to hunt down. That's the market I've been successfully tapping into for ten years now.
You snooze, you lose. Would somebody please give the big guys a swift kick in their ample butts?
More information about Jake's novels can be found at his web site: www.JakeNeedham.com.