Here’s a mystery: why, when I talk to teachers about what literature they teach, does crime fiction rarely if ever make the list? I can make some guesses: lurid subject matter, graphic descriptions of gore or sex, a kind of literary snobbery, anticipated parent and/or administration disapproval. However, having spent the last several years reading crime fiction—primarily from countries outside the U.S.—I could easily put together a collection of titles whose content is in no way lurid, does not truck in gore, and handles sex scenes, if any, in mature and discreet ways. That leaves the presumption that crime fiction is not serious literature and should therefore not be taught in school. Let me use the rest of my allotted word count to help us get beyond the loner, gumshoe, Sam Spade stereotypes and create an argument for those outside your classroom who would raise eyebrows or hackles or worse.
I argue specifically for world crime fiction as opposed to the homegrown variety for a number of reasons. The first is that we in the U.S. need to get over ourselves. Despite the efforts of America First nationalists, we live in a globalized community, one only getting electronically smaller daily. Crime happens everywhere. Although it may appear to be an odd idea to view crime as a unifying concept, learning the ways other countries contend with crime, support or don’t support victims, enable or disable police efforts, impinge on or guard privacy, and generally cope with crime woven into the complex fabric of their society provides critical insight into the values of those societies. Simultaneously, those insights provide means for us to reflect on our own values, maybe even to consider measures beyond mass incarceration.
World crime fiction addresses complex issues of lives lived in a technological, globalized, and diverse world.
Another significant reason for the focus on world crime fiction is that so much of it considers issues of social justice, equity, and diversity. The Nina Borg series written by Danish writers Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis has a Red Cross nurse as its protagonist. By setting these stories in a refugee camp, the authors use the setting to call attention to the illegal trafficking of children, hate crimes, and the lingering problems of civil war. The impact of immigration on immigrants and natives alike in countries where populations have long been mostly homogenous frequently pops up in a range of Scandinavian crime procedurals. These stories, like most of the world crime fiction I’ve read, take particular care to depict the heavy toll crime takes on victims, families of victims, police and medical personnel, and society as a whole.
Closer to home, Ausma Zehanat Khan writes of the transactions between the Muslim community living in Toronto and the European-based culture of the dominant majority. Through her books, I have learned more about the complexity of Islamic culture, the beauty of Islamic poetry and art, and the misbeliefs heaped by Western culture on Islam than any number of news articles on the subject. She manages that feat while laying bare the political intricacies of big city police forces and placing her characters in situations that pose significant ethical dilemmas.
Then there is the craft of the writing. Like all genres, world crime fiction, while generally well-written, also has its share of standout authors. Ann Cleeves, known for her Shetland and Vera Stanhope series, invites readers into the hinterlands of the UK by painting vivid landscapes and characterizations that place you among the locals. Robert Miller—perhaps the only author I mention here whose description of sex might be too explicit for a high school classroom—finds ways to marry 20th century history to the current political situations within Portugal and Spain. Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama is a dense but keenly insightful glimpse into the hierarchical politics of the Japanese police force. Finally, Tana French—my favorite—is just a flat-out great writer who I would read in whatever genre she chose to ply her many skills. Her deft use of voice in her Dublin Murder Squad series is a gift to her readers.
World crime fiction brings so much of substance to any classroom literature focus. The tight and interesting plots, pinpoint characterizations, and thoughtfully worded images invite engagement and discussion. Similar to graphica, which is rightfully finding its way into more schools, world crime fiction addresses complex issues of lives lived in a technological, globalized, and diverse world. In addition, so many of the authors are women, which certainly can’t be said of the traditional literary canon. And if sales are an indication, crime and mystery books are more likely than any genre short of romance novels to be read by choice rather than by assignment. It would seem to me that teachers should be celebrated and supported for introducing students to world crime fiction. Why this isn’t the case remains, well, a mystery to me.
Bob Fecho is a professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University where he researches and writes about issues of adolescent literacy and dialogical pedagogy, particularly as both subject areas relate to student populations too frequently marginalized by schools. His most recent book, co-authored with Jennifer Clifton, is Dialoguing across Cultures, Identities, and Learning