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CRIME IN THE CITY: Novelists on the places they live and write

Ian Rankin, Hideo Yokoyama and Chan Ho-kei talk about how their hometowns shape their worlds of crime writing in a Hong Kong International Literary Festival event.

Most of us don't like crime (presumably), but we do like crime and mystery fictions, and we especially love stories set in a city full of complexity and even mystery. Real crime, however, most of the time occurs in the underworld. How do the writers get a real sense of crime and criminals? 

As Scottish author Ian Rankin jokes, "My problem is that there is not much crime in Edinburgh!" In order to keep his stories realistic, he did his research by talking to police officers and writing to law enforcement units. He remembers once when he consulted two policemen, they were so nervous they sent Rankin to the interview room for further investigation - the plotline Rankin had planned for his next novel was so close to a real case the police were investigating, the police officers almost thought Rankin was a suspect as he spoke to them. "Since then I've never consulted the professionals!" Rankin also teaches creative writing in prisons, so he hears quite a lot of stories straight from gangsters and other criminals.

"My problem is that there is not much crime in Edinburgh!" said Ian Rankin (left two)

Hong Kong author Chan Ho-kei jokes that he does not have any gangster contacts, but learns about their lives mainly from books and local films. He did, however, learn about the police from a family member who is a retired police officer. "When I was small, I had opportunities to visit the police station. This gave me some sense how they worked." Other than that, most of his knowledge of police comes from archival research. "Once I wanted to know about the communication system used by the police force in the past, and I wrote to the Police Public Relations Bureau. They did not reply me until my book was published, saying that they did not know either. However, long before I received their reply, I got the answer by visiting the Police Museum!"

Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama, whose work "Six Four" has been translated into English, worked as a crime reporter for 12 years before becoming a writer. He also speaks to his police contacts from time to time, but he tends to keep a friendly distance from them. "In Japan, the police organisation is so rational but powerful that it should not be messed with." He also knows people from the underworld from his time as a journalist, and often asks them questions for his writing. However, he had been detained for two days as he asked them intimidating questions, which scared him a lot.

Japanese author Hideo Yokoyama (right) said "In Japan, the police organisation is so rational but powerful that it should not be messed with."

Explore Society from the Bottom

Other than the excitement it brings to readers, the three authors also find writing crime novels a good way to explore their own societies from top to bottom, and to reveal unnoticed social problems. Yokoyama, for example, tries to describe the characters and their struggles in his stories in great detail, so as to better portray Japanese society and culture, which many non-Japanese usually find difficult to understand. Chan uses Chinese, English and bilingual titles in different chapters of "The Borrowed" to depict the changing timeline of his story and Hong Kong society. "It was first a pure Chinese society, then a culturally complex one and a British governed society."

Complicated and mysterious, readers are often fascinated by the cities the authors describe in their stories. However, when it comes to translation into foreign languages, some adaptions are inevitable. Chan says he has never thought that his works would be exported abroad, but "The Borrowed" has now been sold to 10 countries. "My original intention to write a book to be read by Hong Kong or Taiwanese readers, who share similar cultures as me. There were quite a lot of local elements in the novel. And so, when the books were translated, I had to discuss with editors and translators how to adapt the content for foreign readers, which would not alter my meaning." For example, in a plot he mentioned "The Doctor". It actually referred to Dr. Who who is a household name in the UK. He had to remind the translator of the UK edition who was not aware of it. Also, some paragraphs in the story have been edited or even rewritten for the US edition for their better understanding of the Hong Kong context.

Everybody Can Be Detective 

When talking about different types of detectives in crime fictions, Rankin tends to favour the hard-boiled maverick ones, like his own Inspector Rebus. "I don't want them to be disturbed by household things such as sending his daughter to school, but just focus on the case he investigates. And I also like complex characters, or even flawed ones, but not perfect characters." He also likes to write about unsolved crimes and social problems. "Real life is messier than fiction. Even though a criminal may be jailed, some problems may be still unsolved." Chan, on the contrary, does not have a strong preference for the detective types. "As I also write puzzled-based mystery fiction, anybody with any character can be a detective. But I think a good detective should be clever. This may be the only requirement."  

 

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