Hard-Boiled Detectives in Translation

Samuel Spade's jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.

That's the immortal first line of one the greatest American novels, Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade is the prototypical hard-boiled detective, and hard-boiled detective novels are one of the key genres of the 20th century, refining the detective story from its plot-driven roots in Edgar Allen Poe and A. Conan Doyle into a much darker, moodier form, where the murders aren't worth solving, the women are usually no good, and the main character's jaw always seems to land on a fist.

Genre fiction is the literary equivalent of a guilty pleasure. (Of course, some genres are guiltier than others.) Perennially bestselling, perpetually debased, it's the playground where serious literati go slumming with a wink and a grin to meet Harold Robbins, The Man Who Invented Sex. The upshot for readers is that by choosing carefully in the rack you can find books with carnal lust, bloody murder, and gorgeous prose all on the same page. Detective fiction never goes out of style -- look no further than The Da Vinci Code -- and, given a detective's line of work, it's understandable if he (it's almost always a he) or a few of his colleagues end up hard-boiled.

Two great recent books in this tradition are James Church's Hidden Moon and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and both are set in rarely-if ever-before-seen foreign environments. Church, like John Le Carre, a former intelligence officer turned novelist, is on the second book of detective series set in modern North Korea that rivals Martin Cruz Smith's terrific Arkady Renko series in its portrayal of a little-understood, alien society. Chabon, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, is a genre chameleon and hot young thing of the literary world whose latest book is set in an alternate-universe Jewish state in Alaska facing reversion to American control.

The gumshoes, Detective Meyer Landsman and Inspector O, stumble onto cases that for political reasons they are instructed not to solve. Naturally, they proceed anyway, but because of their own physical incapacity they end up taking nearly 300 pages to actually find out whodunit, by which time justice is impossible, their own bodies are black and blue, and the only victory is having survived at all. Landsman and O are smart, but impotent; brave, but foolhardy; selfless, but self-loathing. They're everything a man admires, plagued by everything a man fears, and achieve nothing a man would want. (Landsman and O share all these with the men in Richard Russo novels.) The greatest mystery any hard-boiled detective ever confronts is the question of whether life is worthwhile, and it's the one that none of them ever solve. But they go on prosecuting other people for murder anyway. That's why they're such committed nihilists.

Inspector O's North Korea is a land of quiet forests, mountains, bureaucrats, and spies encased within the most closed country on earth, beautiful, ghostly, and still; impoverished, deprived, and proud. It is a land where a brutal autocracy suppresses any hint of chaos, where "the butterflies, they don't flap their wings." But it is a land to which O is intimately, deeply connected. The first book in the series, A Corpse in the Koryo, contains frequent snippets of ancient Korean poetry. O's personal obsession is the wood of Korea's forests, its tactile sense and the emotions that sense conveys. Frankly, he spends much more time fondling his wood -- tree wood, that is; there isn't any sex in this particular book -- than solving the case.

Despite its exotic locale and existence only in Chabon's mind, Landsman's Alaska, a Jewish ghetto on U.S. soil native to Tlingit Indians, feels less unfamiliar than O's Korea. Landsman is a much more traditional American detective, wallowing in boozy disrepair following the breakup of a marriage. His neighbors, overbearing Jewish men and overprotective Jewish women, are also immediately recognizable. He's Shmuley Spade, an everyman with an accent. Chabon's success is to have created an alternate universe that feels immediately lived-in, even while his characters speak a near-dead language close to the Arctic circle and venture in and out of a society itself nearly as closed as North Korea's: a Hasidic sect whose apartment block is so rarely-visited by outsiders it's known among Alaskan Jews as the "Island." And yet even this alternate reality has a feeling of finality, of imminent demise, as the prospect of reversion means that once again the Jews' fates are uncertain, again they will be with no land of their own. The Yiddish meaning of Landsman's name takes on a final irony: soon, he will be a countryman without a country.

But while the novels have no easy ending they have a beautiful beginnings, middles, and finales. They're fun to read and stay with the reader after the cover has closed. They represent the best of their genre and are among the best that genre fiction has to offer. (Maybe some day they'll even appear in trade paperback.) The times may have moved on since Hammett and Raymond Chandler invented the form and created the hard-boiled detective, and the settings have changed accordingly. Maybe it's no longer possible to write about a grizzled, world-weary detective in America without losing a readership wary of excessive familiarity or without writing historical fiction. Perhaps, for the genre to continue unironically, it may be necessary for an author to transpose the genre wholesale onto a foreign backdrop, as Chabon and Church have done. If that's the price for novels this good, it's well worth paying.