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January 15, 2010

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Case of disappearing crime novel

A mysterious murder occurs and multiple suspects turn up. Several people have motives and it's up to a righteous and dedicated policeman to solve the case, with the help of his honorable and tireless colleagues.

It's black and white and flat as cardboard. The criminal is very wicked but the very good cop has overcome numerous obstacles to apprehend him and ensure public safety. All ends well. The point is to praise the efforts of public crime fighters, not to explore whys and hows and psychology. And there's no nitty-gritty forensics stuff or details about weapons.

That's how it generally goes in the few Chinese mainland mystery/detective/crime stories in print or on TV - there are virtually no modern detective movies.

There is no modern equivalent of legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes; there's no Chinese Agatha Christie, yet.

Only a few brave souls are trying to write better detective fiction, such as Ma Yumo, a former reporter, and Zhou Haohui, a university professor of engineering. (See right).

Chinese fans of suspense, and they do exist, are turned off by the stories on offer - generally simplistic tales with a social message. Some turn to Japanese and foreign fiction.

Although "CSI" and Japanese detective novels sell well, there are only a handful of Chinese suspense/detective/crime writers and most of them are just starting out.

It's a vicious circle, involving an immature market and immature readers, with predictable immature results.

Readers consider Chinese suspense/detective stories bad, and seldom buy them. This makes publishers worry about the market of the genre; they're cautious and risk-averse, so not much is published.

So most Chinese writers who want to earn a living turn to other more profitable genres that appeal to young people, such as light-hearted romance or weird fantasy/suspense/supernatural/romance - books are often a stew of elements.

Writers don't devote much thought to devising intriguing well-plotted tales, as publishers warn them of small demand.

The results confirm readers' dismay with Chinese detective stories.

It wasn't always like this.

The first Chinese detective fiction was published as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), much earlier than Edgar Allan Poe's (1809-49) scary tales of psychological suspense and horror. The book "Bao Gong An," or "Mysteries Solved by Master Bao," is a compilation of short stories featuring Magistrate Bao, based on tales about a historic figure, an incorruptible official from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He solved crimes and rendered justice through clever stratagems, clues, shrewdness, astute questioning and divine guidance.

The tales and later the book made Magistrate Bao a household name for hundreds of years.

Even today, many TV dramas still use the setting and characters from the book but with story lines based on popular Western or Japanese novels.

"It's sad that we don't have good detective/suspense stories anymore. They are either cop stories that focus on praising the stalwart attractive policemen or thrillers that involve ghosts or extra-terrestrials," says 38-year-old Ma Yumo, one of the very few full-time and published suspense/detective writers in China today. She's a big Agatha Christie fan.

Ma was so disappointed with the mystery fare that in 2007 she started writing detective stories online under the pen name Ma Xing. Her stories got popular so fast that she now has 14 books in print.

"It's not easy for us to find writers," says Wang Jin, editor-in-chief of the bimonthly Journal of Mysteries and Thrillers. "Sometimes, we even turn to popular online writers in other genres and ask them to try mystery stories."

Writers and readers today are both "too rushed to enjoy the process of writing or reading a good book today," says Wang.

"Most writers won't ever consider mystery stories because those require more skills, a storehouse of knowledge and intellectual acumen - all for a small readership - than light-hearted romantic fiction. For them, it's just not worth it," she says.

Before joining the journal when it started in 2007, Wang edited mystery fiction and discovered the unwritten rule from her experience. The mystery/crime/suspense fictions and journals are always tucked away back in the corner of book stores and news stands.

China's publishing law contains many restrictions.

The Regulations on the Administration of Publication states prohibited content includes "those which divulge secrets of the state," "those which incite national hatred or discrimination," "those which propagate evil cults or superstition," "those which propagate obscenity, gambling, violence, or instigate crimes," and so on.

Writer Ma says she had to change a title, "A Soup of Human Bones," because the reference to human bones was considered too graphic. Instead, the book was titled, "A Soup of Lust and Desire."

Regulations and past experience with poor sellers lead publishers and book store managers to avoid mystery/suspense/crime fiction.

"They don't look like best sellers anyway," says magazine editor Wang.

For many years, vague restrictions and unwritten rules have scared publishers and writers away from mystery stories. After all, why bother with troublesome suspense that might cause a problem when it's much easier to turn out a shallow and sentimental love story?

Ergo, the genre, such as it was, seemed to have one foot in the grave.

"In China, this kind of mystery writing is really just starting and we are still at the stage where writers and readers are maturing together," says Zhou Haohui. He's another of the few disillusioned writers who decided to start writing their own whodunits.


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