Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why Crime Fiction? Guest post by D.A. Mishani

Today I welcome award winning Israeli crime fiction author D.A. Mishani. Dror A. Mishani (born in 1975) is an Israeli crime writer, translator and literary scholar, specializing in the history of detective fiction. His detective series, featuring police inspector Avraham Avraham, was first published in Hebrew in 2011 and has been translated to many languages. The first novel in the series, The Missing File, was shortlisted for the 2013 CWA international dagger award and won the Martin Beck award, for the best translated crime novel in Sweden.

D. A. Mishani:
Why Crime Fiction?

I write crime fiction mainly because I love reading it; I once had a teacher who told me, “Write the books you want to read”. In Israeli literature, crime fiction used to be quite rare. Good home-grown crime writers, such as Raymond Chandler or Dennis Lehane, Ed McBain or Henning Mankell, were very difficult to find. So I read what I could in translation and then in the original English or French, all the while asking myself why can't there be good, realistic crime fiction that takes place in the streets of Holon, where I was born and raised, or in Tel Aviv, where I live now, and why can't we have our own detectives, who speak Hebrew and wander our own local dark alleys, of which we have plenty?

The argument is that crime fiction isn't very popular in Israel because we already live in an almost constant state of war, and when we read fiction we want to read about something less bloody. I don’t think that’s true at all. The problem is that too often Hebrew writers think that they need to deal with major national issues in order to be important or taken seriously, and that a good work of literature has to give an answer to questions such as “The Jewish People: where do we go from here?” or “Who exactly are we now?” and crime fiction is rarely about that.

Crime fiction, since its origins in the 19th century, has never been about national or religious identities (this is probably why it is the most global of all genres), but rather about civic issues, like as controlling modern societies, urban violence and alienation, or the psychology of crime and criminals. It has taken some time, but I think readers around the world now understand that, because of this, crime fiction is very serious and very important, even if it's also fun to read. At its best, it's not at all escapist but rather an exercise in looking our deepest fears and dangers, our most painful losses, straight in the eye.

This is why I think encouraging good crime fiction is extremely important to Israeli culture. In his introduction to Trouble is My Business, Raymond Chandler writes about how noir fiction took American literature to the streets, representing how people really talk, and live, and die. And this is what crime fiction can do, and needs to do, for Hebrew literature: to take it out of its usual symbolic spaces (once again the Sacred Jerusalem, the location of our holy past, or the Secular Tel Aviv, the location of our modern present, or the Ideological Kibbutz or our Military Melting-Pot), and bring it to the streets where people in Israel really live and love, make a fortune or starve, steal or get lost or sometimes even murder. Because despite what readers around the world might think, in Israel most people don’t die in wars but rather in their homes, and their murderers are usually not terrorists but their business partners or husbands or wives.

When I wrote my first crime novel, The Missing File, I wasn't sure how it would be received in Israel. The investigation in the novel begins with a 16 year-old boy going missing. He clearly hasn’t been kidnapped by Arabs, and his disappearance doesn’t have to do with the army or the Kibbutz. He's just an ordinary boy living in a suburb of Tel Aviv and his life is quite plain until he vanishes. The investigation doesn't take my detective, Inspector Avraham Avraham, to a settlement in the occupied territories or force him to confront a religious sect, but brings him to a normal suburban high school and to ordinary-looking apartments, exactly like mine and yours. While writing his story, the boy -- Ofer is his name -- was constantly asking me, “Do you really think people would want to read about me? Do you really think that despite the fact that my story has no national implications, people would still care?”

I hoped they would and fortunately I think I was right. This, of course, doesn't necessarily mean Ofer has a happy ending. But you already know crime stories rarely have those.


lil Gluckstern said...

I read The Missing File and was really pleased to read about the day to day life in Israel. Since your book was so well received, will we see more? I'd like that. I like your post; you didn't shy away from the difficulties in writing thrillers in a land that deals with hard things all the time.

vallery said...

Excellent essay. I think Israelis would welcome novels that deal with daily life and not, as you say, the big problems. I hope you write more. Until now, I only knew the books of Batya Gur who sadly is no longer with us.