Emergence of the Detective Novel in North Africa and the Middle East

By

I. De Miguel, PhD candidate, City University of New York

 

morituri

 

Even though classical Arabic proto-detective fiction written in the 13th century [1] preexisted the appearance of the modern detective novel (usually attributed to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841), detective novels located in North African and Middle Eastern countries need to be contextualized. Since society and criminality are central to crime fiction, regional and cultural particularities must be taken into account when reading North African and Middle Eastern detective novels.

 

Within this context, Silvia Tellenbach’s interesting article “Law, Crime, and Society in the Middle East” provides a comprehensive analysis of the cultural and sociological background that needs to be considered. In an interview to the magazine Horizons in 1987, the writer Rachid Boudjedra (1941-) explained the late emergence of the detective novel in Algerian literature, attributing its cause to Algeria’s mainly rural development and to “the lack of a criminal tradition[2]”:

There isn’t at all a tradition of crime in Algeria. Algeria’s society is a rural one. Urban areas barely started to develop fifteen years ago. In rural societies, there’s crime among peasants, but there’s almost never an investigation, because this sort of crime is always covered. Or then, it’s a crime that takes place in broad daylight as a vengeance or some sort of vendetta. The silence of the village decides of the lawfulness of such an act. Algeria’s war of Liberation brought some changes to this situation. As a matter of fact, the first crime novels located in Algeria are strongly rooted in that event.

As Silvia Tellenbach 2016’s research shows, Boudjedra’s claim not only proved to be correct, but it is also applicable to other North African and Middle Eastern countries. In fact, Tellenbach’s article brings to the fore the often-disregarded connection between specific characteristics of North African and Middle Eastern cultures, and their literatures, and the nature of criminality in these countries.

Tellenbach’s interesting analysis confirms a lack of tradition of homicides in Arab societies. While “all over the world, we can observe that criminal behavior is much more frequent among men, especially young men”, Tellenbach observes that even though the population of “most Middle Eastern countries is very young” (33) this does not translate into a higher crime rate as compared to Western societies. According to Tellenbach, Head of the Section “Turkey, Iran and Arab States” at the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, several factors contribute to crime prevention: social control by families, social control in the public sphere (for example, in the neighborhood), and control of the population by the police and the secret services. Tellenbach also contemplates the difference between rural and urban settings where clannish or tribal systems of mediation or restorative justice may apply without the intervention of the police.

In light of the statistics provided by international organizations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s homicide statistics, Tellenbach concludes that the most common crimes are thefts and bodily injuries and that homicide rates are very low. When murders take place, the crime usually happens within the victim’s family or within the victim’s close environment. These crimes are often honor killings and, more often than not, the perpetrators confess their own crime. On this particular point, one might certainly want to challenge Tellenbach’s opinion that “such crimes are not of very much interest in criminal novels” (37). While the perpetrator’s confession might take away much of the interest in a whodunnit, such criminality is certainly within the “noir” tradition and could be explored in novels or films.

Furthermore, Tellenbach points out other forms of crime that Middle Eastern societies have had to confront in the last decades. Along with the fight against terrorism, crimes such as corruption, nepotism and misappropriation, both at low and high levels of society, appear as the background of crime novels exposing political or social conditions (Yasmina Khadra’s Dead Man’s Share and Rafik Schami’s The Dark Side of Love) Tellenbach also notes an increased awareness about organized crime by national and transnational groups trafficking with humans, money or drugs. Still, such a dangerous topic has been less dealt with in criminal fiction.

Concerning criminal investigations and prosecutions, and to a certain extent, the figure of the detective, Tellenbach underlines that “most Middle Eastern states adopted criminal laws and laws on criminal procedure are influenced by the French law” (39). Thus, a warrant is most often needed to search a suspect’s domicile. Secret services and the “police politique” along with the existence of secret prisons also alter the criminal landscape and fiction of Middle Eastern countries. Feared by the population, secret and political police might not have offered the best image so as to give birth to a popular hero.

To conclude, I would add that censorship, first, and exile later on (as in the case of Yasmina Khadra (1955-) or Abdelkader Djemaï (1948-)) also needs to be taken into account when examining the emergence and evolution of crime novels written in Arabic or French in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Self-censorship, for instance, might have contributed to limit the production of detective novels to a form of entertainment, often recurring to settings in foreign countries, like Al Sid’s Machettes, coconuts et grigris à Conakry (Tunis: Alyssa Éditions, 2000) written under a pseudonym. As Anne Griffon observes in her study of popular literature in Algeria “Romans noirs et romans roses dans l’Algérie d’après 1989” (Master’s Thesis) written under the supervision of Guy Dugas, the exile of Algerian writers after Algeria’s civil war in the nineties modified France’s and Algeria’s editorial landscapes: As the Algerian publishing houses had to face the war, the influx of Algerian authors increased largely the number of Algerian novels published in France.

References

Boudjedra, Rachid. Interview by Rédha Belhadjoudja. “Le polar? Je connais!” Horizons, 9 November 1987, I-IV.

Burton, Richard F. trans., The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885-1888) (Burton Club Edition, reprinted U.S.A., n.d.)

Griffon, Anne. Romans noirs et romans roses dans l’Algérie d’après 1989, Master’s thesis (mémoire de DEA), Paris : Université Paris IV- Sorbonne, 2000. Web (http://www.limag.refer.org/Theses/GriffonDEA.PDF)

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. “The Classical Arabic Detective” Arabica 35.1 (1988), 59-91.

Tellenbach, Silvia, “Law. “Crime, and Society in the Middle East” Crime Fiction in and around the Eastern Mediterranean. Ed. Sagaster, B., Strohmeier, M., Guth, S. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016, 33-44.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC): “Homicide Statistics”.

[1] In “The Classical Arabic Detective” Fedwa Malti-Douglas analyzes the figure of the detective as it appears in a specific type of Arabic medieval prose texts called adab, and used to educate and entertain. Some of these literary anecdotes emphasized the extreme sagacity of the figure of a caliph or a judge able to figure out enigmatic situations by the mere use of ratiocination. In contrast with Western detective narratives focused on solving a mystery, they would also include punishments for the culprits and the rendering of justice. Malti-Douglas examines three anecdotes, giving them the names of “The Case of the Painted Hand” (59), “The Case of the Excited Slave” (65), and “The Case of the Merry Slave” (66). She also mentions the “Tale of the Three Apples” from The Thousand and One Nights (74). “The Case of the Painted Hand” and “The Case of the Excited Slave” appear in Akhbadr al-Adhkiya’ (Stories of the Adhkiya’) of Ibn al-Jawz (d. 597/1200).  “The Case of the Merry Slave” appears in Al-Nuwayri, Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab (Cairo: al-Mu’assasa al-Amma lil-Ta’llf wal-Tarjama wal-Tibaca wal-Nashr, n.d.), v. III, p. 150. n.d.

[2] « Il n’y a pas du tout de tradition du crime chez nous. La société algérienne est une société rurale. Cela fait à peine 15 ans qu’elle commence à s’urbaniser. Dans cette société rurale, le crime paysan existe, mais il n’y a presque jamais d’enquête, car ce crime-là est toujours camouflé. Ou alors, c’est un crime en plein jour consécutif à une vengeance, à une sorte de vendetta. Le silence du village légifère sur la justesse d’un tel acte. C’est la guerre de Libération qui a apporté quelques changements à cette situation. D’ailleurs, les premiers polars chez nous sont fortement ancrés dans cet événement »

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Arabic Crime Narratives

Arabic Crime Narratives

 

A two-day conference organized in Paris at the Inalco  and the Institut du Monde Arabe on March 28th and 29th will discuss Arabic crime narratives, their distinctive features and their conditions of existence and reception in the Arabic world.  While a number of Literary works from the classical period represent thieves and criminals, and deal with criminal cases, crime fiction as a recognized genre is relatively recent in Arabic literature. The logico-deductive inquiry, as well as the judicial inquiry are mostly absent. The emergence and critical appraisal of Arabic Noir only really started in the past decades. International scholars from various disciplines will approach Arabic crime fiction and highlight its diversity and potential.

 

Full program (in French) here:

Border? What Border?: Irish crime fiction and Brexit

Brexit map

Northern Irish crime writers Anthony Quinn and Brian McGilloway will converse with crime fiction scholar and writer Andrew Pepper about the theme: “Border? What Border?: Irish crime fiction and Brexit”. The centrality of Northern Ireland in the ongoing negotiations will be an opportunity to test the ability of crime fiction to become a vehicle for representing and understanding the dramatic challenges currently faced by the European Union.

Thursday, March 21,  6:00 pm,

  Peter Froggatt Centre, Queen’s University, Belfast,

Lecture Theater 02/011

All Welcome !

PFC

 

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NOIReland 2019

Noireland 2019_n

 

 

 

NOIRELAND

8-10 March 2019

Europa Hotel, Belfast

For full programme details visit: http://www.noireland.com

Some of the highlights include bestselling crime novelist Ann Cleeves, the creator of Vera and Shetland television series. Belinda Bauer whose bestselling Snap was nominated for the 2017 Booker Prize. Number one bestseller Stuart MacBride; the multi award-winning Denise Mina; Belfast’s own CWA Gold Dagger winner Steve Cavanagh and the team from RTE television’s hit series Love/Hate and Taken Down.

Nordy Noir

milkman
Nordy Noir Knocks at the Door
by
Sharon Dempsey
Northern Irish crime writers have been exploring issues relating to the landscape of the Troubles for decades within the confines of a genre that is well-placed to provide close examination of social, economic and character-driven concerns. The success of Anna Burns’s Milkman has brought attention to Northern Irish writing, with some saying now is the time, post-Good Friday Agreement, to explore the complex issues.
When Milkman won the Man Booker prize it was heralded as a win for Northern Irish literature. Yet the attention the novel’s success has brought to the Northern Irish literary scene has been met with partial disdain. After all, the Northern Irish crime-writing fraternity has been producing work that explores the complexities of social unrest and political division for decades. Writers like Adrian McKinty, Anthony Quinn, Stuart Neville, Claire McGowan, Gerard Brennan and Brian McGilloway have made great use of writing about life in a trigger-happy society, with the inherent socio-economic problems providing plentiful material for their work. However, there was something different in Milkman, something that touched a nerve and suggested that now, post-conflict, we were ready to explore our violent past in a new imaginative form.
If ever a place needed retelling, then Belfast is that place. Like most writers, I don’t fully understand anything until I have written an account of it for myself. I feel that it is only now, with time providing distance from the realities of living amidst conflict that we can examine the nuances of how the incendiary atmosphere and ongoing violence has shaped us.

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Fictions of Organised Crime

Call for Contributions: Fictions of Organised Crime – Themed Issue of New Readings
 
organized crime
 
Crime fiction is one of the most significant popular means of exploring the contradictions that emerge from the modern, bourgeois capitalist nation state (Pepper 2016). Most fiction about ‘organised crime’ is preoccupied with violent, interpersonal crime or the behaviours of mafia-like groups. But there are other, more ubiquitous and insidious harmful practices — political, financial, environmental, etc. — that affect all of us and are not necessarily proscribed by law. The ‘slow violence’ inflicted on populations by the carbon industry, the financial harms of politicians and transnational corporations are not always recognised as ‘crime’ and fit less easily within the standard forms of genre fiction. This themed edition of New ReadingsFictions of Organised Crime, asks how culture can address these kinds of carefully organised harms. How does fiction account for the complexities of state-facilitated environmental crime, financial crime and the activities of organisations dedicated to the subversion of democracy? How can locally and regionally produced cultural representations respond to globally organised activities?

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Craic Noir : A Dublin Trilogy

 

The publication, last year, of the fourth and final book in Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin “trilogy” (!) is an invitation  to (re-) discover this recent series of Irish crime novels:

              A Man With One of Those Faces (The Dublin Trilogy Book 1), McFori Ink, 2016

             The Day That Never Comes (The Dublin Trilogy Book 2),  McFori Ink, 2017

            Angels in the Moonlight    (The Dublin Trilogy Prequel, Book 0), McFori Ink,  2017

           Last Orders (The Dublin Trilogy Book 3), McFori Ink, 2018

A brilliant example of the “delicate infractions”  characteristic of Crime Fiction’s tendency (according to Borges) to blur generic demarcations,  this series could aptly be described as “Craic Noir”.  It has justly been praised  both for bringing Irish Noir to an entirely new level of humor, and for putting some Dublin “craic” in the crime genre.

The author is the award-winning stand-up comedian and TV writer Caimh McDonnell : check his Official website here :  WhiteHairedIrishman.com

Here is the blurb from the second book in the series, The Day That Never Comes: 

Remember those people that destroyed the economy and then cruised off on their yachts? Well guess what – someone is killing them.  Dublin is in the middle of a heat wave and tempers are running high. The Celtic Tiger is well and truly dead, activists have taken over the headquarters of a failed bank, the trial of three unscrupulous property developers teeters on the brink of collapse, and in the midst of all this, along comes a mysterious organisation hell-bent on exacting bloody vengeance in the name of the little guy.  Paul Mulchrone doesn’t care about any of this; he has problems of his own. His newly established detective agency is about to be DOA. One of his partners won’t talk to him for very good reasons and the other has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth for no reason at all. Can he hold it together long enough to figure out what Bunny McGarry’s colourful past has to do with his present absence?  When the law and justice no longer mean the same thing, on which side will you stand?  The Day That Never Comes is the second book in Caimh McDonnell’s Dublin Trilogy, which melds fast-paced action with a distinctly Irish acerbic wit.