Henning Mankell’s recent series of police procedurals set in the southern Swedish town of Ystad, with Inspector Kurt Wallander as their hero, is a perfect illustration of the fate of the detective novel in the era of global capitalism.
The main effect of globalisation on detective fiction is discernible in its dialectical counterpart: the specific locale, a particular provincial environment as the story’s setting. In a globalised world, a detective story can take place almost anywhere: there are now detective series set in Botswana, on Native American reservations, in the industrial Ruhr, in Venice and Florence, in Ireland, in Brezhnev’s or Yeltsin’s Russia, even in contemporary Tibet (Eliot Pattison’s series, beginning with The Skull Mantra, centres on Shan, a Chinese police inspector, exiled to Tibet for political reasons). History also sets no limits: St Petersburg in the ‘golden’ 1880s, Julius Caesar’s Rome, Alexander the Great’s Court . . . There is, of course, a long tradition of eccentric locales in the history of detective fiction. Robert van Gulik wrote a series set in ancient imperial China; Agatha Christie’s Death Comes as the End is set in the Egypt of the pharaohs. However, these settings were clearly exceptions; and part of their appeal was their distance from paradigmatic locations (London and the English countryside for the classic whodunnit; Los Angeles or New York for the hard-boiled novel).
Today, the exception, the eccentric locale, is the rule. The global stance of 20th-century Modernism asserted itself in the guise of cosmopolitanism or membership of a global Americanised culture; this is no longer the case. A truly global citizen today is one who discovers or returns to (identifies with) particular roots, who displays a specific communal identity. The ‘global order’ is in the end only the frame and container of this shifting multitude of particular identities.
The field of the global detective story is marked by its own distinctions, chief among them the opposition between foreigners writing about a distant place and ‘natives’ writing about their own environs. This opposition does not necessarily coincide with any opposition between amusement and ‘serious’ art: some ‘local’ authors write bestsellers (Aleksandra Marinina’s Moscow novels), while many ‘foreigners’ put great effort into ‘understanding’ particular places, even imparting a ‘deeper’ ecological, socio-critical or even ‘spiritual’ dimension (consider the dull evocation of Tibetan spirituality in The Skull Mantra). These novels are much more ideological than novels written simply to entertain; their spiritual pretensions and solidarity with the ‘natives’ are clearly the obverse of a patronising racism.
[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on November 20th 2003.]