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March 19, 2011

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Asian 'Crime Gang of 5' matches wits

AN elderly Laotian coroner, a Chinese female private eye and a money-hungry feng shui master are among the protagonists of contemporary Asian detective fiction. Yao Minji turns the page.

Five Asian detective writers, the "Asian Crime Gang," today will talk mystery, murder and detection novels in Asia and one fictional sleuth is a feng shui master.

The five are on a panel at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, which ends tomorrow at the Glamour Bar.

The wanted list includes Indian writer Vikram Chandra and his battle-scarred, mildly corrupt, handsome and divorced policeman Sartaj Singh in contemporary India; London native Colin Cotterill and the septuagenarian national coroner of Laos Dr Siri Paiboun in the 1970s; New Yorker SJ Rozan and her New York City Chinatown's young and likable private investigator Lydia Chin; famous Shanghai native Qiu Xiaolong and the poetry-quoting and tough-minded Chief Inspector Chen in 1990s Shanghai; and Hong Kong-based Nury Vittachi and his feng shui master CF Wong who is more interested in money, human tensions and qi (energy flow) than in physical evidence.

None of the five is particularly heroic; they are all complicated protagonists with various personal issues and they frequently come into conflict with other characters, make mistakes and show flashes of brilliance before the case is more or less resolved.

For example, Chin has the love and hate complex with New York City Chinatown, where she grew up and everyone seems to know everything about everyone else. Her mother keeps nagging the investigator in her early 30s to get married and settle down.

And the feng shui master doesn't care much about catching villains or rescuing victims. He just wants to solve the problem, get the money in his bank account and move swiftly on to the next job.

Just as Sherlock Holmes has Dr Watson, most of these five sleuths have their partner/assistants. There's Chin's rumpled, on-again-off-again partner and lover Bill Smith, and CF Wong has an enthusiastic Australian intern Joyce McQuinnie, who lacks subtlety, argues with the master, urges help for the victims and reminds him of the physical evidence.

"Bill Smith is an iconic American character, the loner private detective. I wanted him to have a partner very different from himself, and I was interested in exploring the lives of American-born Chinese, I've always been interested in Chinese culture, art and music," says Rozan. "So I thought Lydia would be the perfect partner."

The cities where the detectives work (and where the authors lived for a long time) also play a significant role in the novels, sometimes driving the plot.

Shanghai of the 1990s, where traditional values and modern economic development clash, reinforces the sensitive Inspector Chen's love for both classic Chinese and contemporary English literature.

Dr Siri, in a similar sense, continuously finds himself knee-deep in crime in Vientiane, Laos, in the 1970s, when survival was a struggle for many people.

Though the festival organizer has humorously placed the five novelists together as the "Asian Crime Gang," some find the idea more congenial than others.

"I still argue that what I write isn't crime," Cotterill, creator of Dr Siri, tells Shanghai Daily. "There are crimes in my stories but there are crimes in most literature if you look deeply enough."

He adds that when he started writing, he never considered the books to be mysteries; he just told stories that "incorporated all sorts of weird stuff."

Vittachi considers himself a writer of detective novels. "I believe every detective novel has the basic plot. 'Evil enters a community. Our hero or heroine has to drive it out.' What could be more satisfying?"

Date: Today, 1pm

Address: 6/F, 20 Guangdong Rd

Admission: 65 yuan (includes a drink)

Qiu Xiaolong and Chief Inspector Chen

In the Chinese translation of Qiu's Inspector Chen series, the city of Shanghai is called H city and names of most streets and venues have been changed.

It's still obvious that H city is Shanghai, troubled by the widening gap between old values and the rapid development.

And Inspector Chen, a 30-something bachelor with a promising career and love for both classic Chinese and contemporary English literature, represents the contradictory city well.

Qiu, a Shanghai native now living in the United States, is one of the most successful Chinese authors writing in English.

He has written six Inspector Chen books and often uses "red" in the titles, like "Death of a Red Heroine" (2000), "When Red is Black" (2004) and "Red Mandarin Dress" (2007).

Vikram Chandra and Sartaj Singh

When Indian writer Chandra published the short story collection "Love and Longing in Bombay" in 1997, he said that his favorite character from the collection had to be policeman Sartaj Singh from "Kama."

The author also promised to feature him in his next project, which became epic thriller "Sacred Games" in 2006. The critically acclaimed cop-and-gangster novel is set in contemporary Mumbai and follows the life and investigations of Sikh policeman Sartaj Singh and the intriguing death of famous gangster Ganesh Gaitonde.

The detective with a broken marriage is far from a heroic police. He takes small bribes and slips into melancholic mood now and then, but he also tries very hard to keep his own principles in the contradictory city.

SJ Rozan and Lydia Chin

Rozan, a native New Yorker, features NYC Chinatown Chinese-American private investigator Lydia Chin in her detective series, which started with "China Trade" in 1996.

In these stories, the pair of the young and admirable Chin and the experienced and wild Bill Smith walk all over the city to find all kinds of weird people, relations and cases.

Citing John LeCarre and Margaret Atwood as her favorite detective novelists, Rozan also enjoys works by fellow panelists Cotterill and Qiu. "I always wanted to write mysteries, because they are about such serious issues - life, death, taking responsibility," says Rozan. "The most difficult thing is making the plot work out."

In the recent "The Shanghai Moon" (2010), Lydia Chin is brought to Shanghai by a former mentor to help with a case involving stolen European jewelry, known as the "Shanghai Moon," dating back to World War II.

Colin Cotterill and Dr Siri

London-born Cotterill has dual Australian citizenship and has traveled widely, especially in Southeast Asia.

He not only created the Paris-educated coroner Dr Siri, but also has taught and trained teachers all over the world.

Before he visited Laos on a UNESCO education project, Cotterill had worked with Laotian refugees in Australia, most of them royalists in flight. And during his stay in the country, he had the rare opportunity to work alongside the Khmer Rouge and hear them talk about royalists.

In his seven Dr Siri novels, which began with "The Coroner's Lunch" (2004), Cotterill also made the environment a significant character in the books, along with the protagonist in his 70s, rare for a detective novel.

Dr Siri, who wanted a peaceful retirement, is appointed the country's only coroner during the Khmer Rouge regime. Educated in Paris and having lived there a long time, he finds himself constantly negotiating the mixture of Eastern and Western beliefs in Laos.

"My protagonist's age and the fact that he's been a reluctant Communis allow him to speak his mind on the state of the nation," he explains. "In fact there was no coroner in Laos at that time so nobody could complain that I misinterpreted the role."

The author has just started a new mystery series set on the gulf of Thailand; it features a Thai female journalist who moves to the distant countryside with her eccentric family.

Nury Vittachi and CF Wong

Nury Vittachi, born in Sri Lanka and based in Hong Kong, exemplifies the East-West cultural clashes through his feng shui detective series featuring money-oriented feng shui master CF Wong and his zealous Australian associate Joyce McQuinnie.

Starting in 2000 with "The Feng Shui Detective," Vittachi has published five books of the series, the most recent "Mr Wong Goes West" in 2008.

"I chose feng shui because it is a classic Asian interest (popular in China and India), and Westerners find it fascinating," he says.

Vittachi says the concept of the detective novel was destroyed in the 1990s and early 2000s by TV shows like "CSI" and novels like the Kay Scarpetta series, based on forensic science. Vittachi believes that "novels should be about people, not about results from science laboratories."

So CF Wong often gets called by families of crime victims to look for signs of disharmony at the death scene and family home. He is more interested in human dynamics than physical evidence.

Vittachi found it interesting to pit the feng shui master's intuitions and investigations against the police's modern forensic technologies. Wong often finds himself ahead of the police.

The author cites influences from both Western mystery writers like Elizabeth George and ancient stories of India and China, such as those of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) writer Pu Songling, known for his "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio," a collection of short stories about ghosts.


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