“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Chinese Crime Fiction, Anyone?

Ask a Chinese reader for the name of her favorite thriller/mystery writer, and you might get a foreign name in response: Higashino Keigo (東野圭吾). Amazingly, a dozen or so of this Japanese author's works have been translated into Chinese (中文链接) since 2007, and frequently figure on the best-seller charts here.

What lies behind the dominance of Japanese and American crime writing in the China market today? "Insufficient expertise among writers is a major factor," explains detective novelist Lei Mi. "Most authors aren't knowledgeable about China's judicial system, and when it comes to issues like the nature of the criminal act, investigative techniques—even how weapons function—they fabricate their stories out of thin air, and easily become objects of ridicule among readers."

"Furthermore, many authors aren't rigorous enough during the creative process. When loopholes in the plot can't be convincingly explained, the author becomes vague or attributes them to supernatural causes. Over time, readers sense they're being conned and may even get angry, and this naturally impacts negatively on their interest in the genre."

The popularity of Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen Cao demonstrates that China-themed crime thrillers can nonetheless carve out a name overseas. Qiu Xiaolong has published six detective novels set in Shanghai, including Death of a Red Heroine, winner of the Anthony Award.

But Qiu Xiaolong can't be said to represent 21st century crime writing in China, since he has lived in the US since the late 1980s and writes in English.

More representative and possibly more authentic is a handful of PRC-based crime writers, several of whom share a salient characteristic—a background in the law. They include He Jiahong (何家弘), Lei Mi (雷米), Zhi Wen (指纹) and A Yi (阿乙).

Several aspects set He Jiahong apart, particularly that he did his Ph D studies in the West (Northwestern U outside Chicago), is of Manchu descent, and focuses on criminology and jurisprudence rather than nitty-gritty police work. And the protagonist of his Blood Crimes, Hong Jun, is no cop—he's a lawyer outraged by an erroneous blood test that lands an innocent man in jail. His determination to get to the bottom of the miscarriage of justice brings him into contact with the Oroqen, an ancient tribe in northeastern China with distant ties to the Manchus, and requires revisiting sensitive events that occurred during the Cultural Revolution (1965-75).

What attracted Penguin to purchase the rights? "We acquired Blood Crimes simply because we felt it was a strong story, well told, that incorporated the classic tradition of fine crime writing employed in a story that could only be told in China," says Jo Lusby, head of Penguin China.

"The idea of reevaluating the sins of the past is one common to great writing, but in China that's a particularly poignant subject. There is an unwillingness to revisit past mistakes, but in Blood Crimes we encounter characters who are keen to dig back into what happened."

Currently a Third-Level Police Inspector and a criminal law professor at a university under the Ministry of State Security, Lei Mi firmly believes his readers stand to benefit in terms of realism. "As a candidate for a Ph D in criminology who is familiar with psychology, forensic science, criminal law, criminal procedure and a variety of police equipment, I can best avoid errors in plot and logic in my works. And much of my text come from real-life case studies, so the descriptions are accurate."

Lei Mi's Mind Crime: Dark River was released in February this year, and is the third volume in a series profiling the criminal mindset launched in 2007. All feature police officer Fang Mu, an eccentric personality with a penchant for not-so-legal shortcuts.

Professional crime writer Zhi Wen (literally "fingerprint") is in a good mood of late, as his detective novel, Salvation at Knife's Edge placed within the "Top Ten New Releases" at Dangdang.com and "Top Ten Mysteries" at Amazon.cn just after it was launched. The thriller takes protagonist Zhao Xincheng, a Beijing police captain, down south to multi-ethnic Yunnan and across the border to Vietnam in pursuit of a serial killer.

"Lawrence Block writes his New York," announces Zhi Wen, "and I write my Beijing." He is upfront about Block as his source of inspiration for Salvation, and plans to continue with a series of "hard-boiled" detective novels set in the Chinese capital. Back in 2004, Zhi Wen founded "Fingerprint's Criminology Research Workshop," which he describes as an organization for "fans of criminal profiling," and it helps provide him with raw materials for his fiction. He also established a café on the same theme in 2007.

And what makes his character Captain Zhao special? "He's male—that's key—given the state of our society right now. He possesses the strengths and foibles of a real man. But at the same time, he's a good cop. In writing Salvation at Knife's Edge, I wanted to bring to life the image of a realistic, well-rounded and gritty Beijing policeman, and win recognition for it among my readers."

Meanwhile, exports of China's latest crime fiction are definitely in the pipeline. In part due to the "recent wave of popularity of crime fiction in translation," notes Penguin's Lusby, the pending launch of Blood Crimes in English—"towards the end of this year"—has attracted interest in international translation rights. It is being rendered by Duncan Hewitt, former China correspondent for the BBC, and author of Getting Rich First—Life in a Changing China. He Jiahong is actually already better known in France, as several of his novels have been translated into French, including Crime de sang.

The rights for the first two novels in Lei Mi's series, Mind Crime: Portraits (心理罪之画像) and Mind Crime: Moral Education Site (心理罪之教化场), have been purchased for publication in Vietnamese, and in traditional Chinese for readers outside the PRC.

A Yi has recently appeared in translation in a Peregrine, an English-language supplement from a new avant-garde literary magazine out of China, Chutzpah. Click here to download The Curse, a short story translated by Julia Lovell. A Jiangxi native who worked as a rural policeman—now based in Beijing, thank you—A Yi was a highlighted speaker at the recent Beijing Bookworm International Literary Festival, where he shared the stage with famous literary critic Li Jingze. Here is a recording of that encounter (interpreted in English), Crime Writing in China.

A Selection of Crime Fiction from China

(English titles for reference only)

Title (author)NotesPublisher(s)Business Contacts
Salvation at Knife’s Edge by Zhi Wen (《刀锋上的救赎》,指纹)Published March 2011. Ranked in Top Ten on several online best-seller charts immediately after release. Beijing-based detective thriller.New Star Press (新星出版社)Yan Chao (yanchao15@gmail.com, 闫超)
Mind Crimes: Dark River by Lei Mi (《心理罪之暗河》,雷米)Third in “Mind Crime” series. Two previous titles sold to buyers for publication in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.Chongqing Publishing House (重庆出版社)Lei Mi (leimi26@sina.com)
Ten Capital Cases by Sa Su (《京城十案》, 萨苏)Tales of Beijing crime by one of China’s hottest TV celebrities. Published in May 2011.Gold Wall Press (金城出版社)Sa Su (gongyun123@hotmail.com)
Evil Testament by Guo Xiaomo (《 罪恶的遗嘱 》, 郭小沫)Love affair staged to test a husband’s faithfulness goes horribly wrong. Published March 2011.Guangxi People’s Publishing House (广西人民出版社)Shen Yingzhu (shenyingzhu@hongxiu.com, 申英筑)
SMS: Horrors Visited upon Me by Zhu Koukou (《 短信:我身边的恐怖经历 》, 朱口口)Mystery thriller laced with eerie text messages from the long-departed. Published January 2011.China Pictorial Publishing House (中国画报出版社)Zhu Koukou (zhu2kou@126.com)
Midnight Heartbeat by Yu Chuansong (《午夜心跳》,于传松)Popular Chinese film adaptation of the novel was screened in 2010 (剧情).Chongqing Publishing House (重庆出版社)Ms. Tian Mao (tina_0101@163.com, 田茂)
Blood Crimes by He Jiahong (《血之罪》, 何家弘)Several of the author’s novels are already available in French, including Crime de sang.Penguin GroupMs. Jo Lusby (info@cn.penguingroup.com)