Mission of Crime Writing
Writing detective fiction wasn’t really popular in Israel until very recently. When I grew up, in the 1980s and 1990s Tel Aviv, detective-fiction shelves in libraries and bookshops were exceptionally empty: the tradition of Hebrew detective writing began only in the late 1980s with pioneer writer Batya Gur, and you couldn’t even find most of the American or European detective-fiction classics in Hebrew translation (apart from Sherlock Holmes’s stories, outrageously translated and put on children’s fiction shelves).
When I started thinking about writing my own detective series, this underdevelopment of the genre in Israeli culture posed an important challenge: how can one write detective fiction with almost no tradition? Or how can a detective-fiction writer prove his novels essential to a public indifferent to the genre?
I began by trying to understand why detective fiction was so unpopular in Israel. The most frequent answer I got to this question was simple and had to do with political reality: Israelis are exposed to too much violence, so I was told; they see violence in the streets and then they watch it on the news, and they don’t want to read about it when they open a novel in the evening. They want to read about something else.
I don’t think this explanation really works. Especially not if you look back on the global history of crime and detective writing. The Golden Age of detective fiction, for example, started in Europe in 1914, exactly when it was ravaged by the most violent war it had experienced until then. And between 1939 and 1945, when the worst atrocities in human history were carried out all over the world, Agatha Christie went on publishing her novels with great success in bombarded England, Georges Simenon published his in occupied France, and Raymond Chandler wrote two of his greatest novels, Farewell My Lovely and The Lady in the Lake, as well as his great essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” published in 1944 when thousands of Americans were killed every month in Europe and in the Pacific. Evidently, there’s no connection between the degree of violence a society is exposed to and its interest in crime writing. Or maybe there is, but it’s totally reversed? Maybe it’s precisely because of its violent reality that Israeli culture needs the detective now?
This is how I came to define what is, for me, the possible mission of detective writing. I realized that the violent everyday life in Israel and the overexposure of Israelis to violence are exactly what can make Hebrew detective fiction essential to its readers, as it was to the readers of Christie or Chandler in the midst of war.
In a time and place too accustomed to death, in a culture in which violence is understood as natural, the murderers are always described as fanatic beasts and the victims’ names and faces are quickly forgotten. It’s precisely detective fiction, with its insistence on relating one violent act, to give its victim and perpetrator distinct faces and voices and motives, that can fight the dehumanization of war zones and try to restore the preciousness of life, every human life.
This is a most precious aspect of detective fiction (at least in its classical form), very often neglected or forgotten: detective fiction is a narrative form dedicated to telling the unique circumstances of just one death, insisting that readers remember it, understand it, assign it with meaning, and refuse to let it just be forgotten.
In the fierce competition we all face in the growing market of global crime fiction, writers sometimes try to attract readers by inventing murders more elaborate than their colleagues wrote, or imagining violence more spectacular than was described in the novels of their predecessors. By doing so, we sometimes forget this humane aspect of protagonists in crime novels.
Because beyond and above all other things, this is what good crime fiction can be, in cultures in which death is normally told briefly and in masses, with no faces to remember and no voices to hear. In Dylan Thomas’s words, this is precisely its structure: refusing to ignore one death, raging against the dying of one light.
D.A. Mishani is a crime writer and a scholar specializing in the history of detective fiction. His series, featuring detective Avraham Avraham, was published in the U.S. by HarperCollins.