Many of you may already know that the roots of modern detective fiction go back over 150 years ago to a Boston-born master known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe.
In 1841 Poe published a short story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," in which his character Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin, a Frenchman with unusually acute intelligence, made his debut.
Dupin reappeared twice in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" and "The Purloined Letter." The so-called Dupin Trilogy of Poe helped to open a new page in the literary world and inspired tens of thousands of followers around the globe.
From its budding stage, detective fiction has continued to grow, gradually turning into a quintessential international genre, a popular entertainment accepted by its extensive worldwide readerships, who are deeply intrigued by the core tenet of detective fiction: “suspense.” The popularity of the genre continues even today and is shared by readers around the globe.
On the Most Borrowed Fiction List released in England in 2008, works by three famous detective story writers, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and Lee Child, occupied five positions on the top ten list.
Readers in Taiwan also share a deep interest in detective fiction. According to a survey conducted by the Taipei Public Library in 2005, two of the Top 15 Most Borrowed Books were Japanese detective fiction, while the most borrowed comic book for the year was “Case Closed,” also known as “Detective Conan,” a Japanese detective manga series.
Despite the wide popularity and success of the genre in Taiwan, however, most Taiwanese readers read only the translated works of Western or Japanese writers, not only because they are everywhere and more easily accessible, but also because there is very little Chinese-language detective fiction available on the market right now.
Still it may come as a surprise to many that in fact, the history of detective fiction on the island nation can be traced back more than a hundred years to the Japanese Occupation period.
According to Chen Kuo-wei, a professor in the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature at National Chung-hsing University, who has done extensive research on the development of detective fiction in Taiwan, the first detective fiction printed on the island came out 111 years ago, a story entitled “Murders in Manga” (艋舺謀殺事件).
Written by a Japanese known in Taiwan asちんぽん(“Chinpon”), the series consisted of a total of 54 episodes and was first published in the newspaper Taiwan Xin Bao or Taiwan News beginning January 7, 1898.
In October of the same year, Chinpon moved on to publish another story, “The Murder of a Janitor in Miaoli County” (苗栗工友命案).
Chinpon’s writings focused on accounts of seemingly realistic but also dramatic stories of private detectives and paved the way for dozens of followers in Taiwan, most of whom were Japanese for obvious reasons.
The first Chinese-language detective story: “The Sea of Hatred”
It was not until 1909 that the first Chinese-language detective story was finally written by a Taiwanese named Li Yi-tao (李逸濤), who published a short story called “The Sea of Hatred” (恨海) in a local newspaper. One distinct feature of Li’s work is that it was written in the style of Chinese literature (文言文) rather than vernacular or spoken Chinese (白話文).
“The story contains techniques that are used in detective story writing,” says Chen. “It is by far the earliest such work we have found among local ancient documents.”
Some may argue, however, that Li’s second work “The Story of a Detective” (偵探記) in 1910 reads like a real detective story, as its name would suggest, Chen adds.
At almost the same time, Wei Ching-te (魏清德), in a move imitative of the Arsène Lupin series initiated by French writer Maurice Leblanc, came up with a series of detective/crime fiction stories.
Both Li and Wei’s writings encouraged a wave of Chinese-language detective fiction in the following years by dozens of local authors.
Chen adds that most of these early Chinese-language works were loosely based on detective novels in the West, and should technically be classed as translations and rewrites of western detective stories rather than original stories.
It is interesting to note, however, that these stories by Li and Wei were all set in distant lands such as Russia, a somewhat strange feature of Chinese-language detective writing of the time, especially when most Japanese-language detective stories were set in Taiwan.
Holmes in Formosa
One of the most interesting stories from that period by Taiwanese writer is a piece by writer Yu Sheng (餘生) entitled “Wrestling with Wisdom”(智鬥). The lead detective in Yu’s story is world No.1 detective Sherlock Holmes, who cleverly masters the language of the island and is invited to Chiayi County to solve a case which was allegedly committed by his old foe Lupin.
Following the end of Japanese rule on the island and the arrival of the Kuomintang in 1945, the Nationalist government brought Chinese nationalism and further issued an official proclamation forbidding the use of Japanese, in order to suppress any traces of Japanese Pan-Asianism remaining in Taiwan.
This placed many Taiwanese authors from the Japanese colonial period, who had adopted the Japanese language as their main literary tool, in a “wordless predicament,” as National Tsing Hua University Professor Chen Chien-chung notes in his book “The Cursed Literature: Essays on Taiwan Literature Post-WWII (1945-1949)”. For this reason, during the 1950s to early 1970s the development of Taiwan’s detective fiction can rightly be called a barren period.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” In 1968 a local member of the literati, Lin Fo-er (林佛兒), founded Lin-Bai Publishing (林白出版社). Lin’s publishing house launched a series of famous Japanese detective writer Seicho Matsumoto’s works that helped stir up a “detective fiction renaissance” in Taiwan.
Then in 1984, Lin went on to found Detective Magazine, a move that ultimately changed the literary world in Taiwan and promoted local detective writing on the island.
Lin Fo-er and Detective Magazine
The first issue of Detective Magazine was published in November 1984. Each issue contains five to eight short detective stories written by Western or Japanese authors.
Most importantly, each month Lin would chose two to three stories by Taiwanese writers and included them in the monthly publication.
With its combination of foreign and local works in the magazine, Lin’s journal on the one hand opened the eyes of readers with its wide range of translated works, while on the other hand encouraging local writers and detective fiction-lovers to engage in writing.
To further boost native detective fiction writing, Lin established an annual detective short story writing award in his name in 1988, giving out prize money and publishing the award-winning works. The annual award helped nourish the popular genre in Taiwan until it was withdrawn in the mid-1990s.
Lin’s magazine continued to run for another decade, serving as a cornerstone for the encouragement of Taiwanese creative writing until it ceased publication in 2008.
For more than two decades the magazine and the award helped to cultivate many if not all of the local detective fiction writers of today. One of these writers is Lin Sih-yan (林斯諺), a young and talented writer.
Lin recalls that he first submitted to the magazine when he was only 19 years old. “The magazine was very important for all detective story writers in Taiwan in that it provided a platform to let our works be seen,” Lin says.
Following the end of the annual award, many mainstream publishing houses in Taiwan started to translate more and more English-language detective and mystery novels into Chinese, a clear message that they were putting more emphasis on the market.
In 1998 the China Times, one of the biggest newspapers in Taiwan, chose the keyword “detective” as the main topic of its annual China Times Million Dollar Literary Prize, another example that the mainstream media in Taiwan has officially recognized that the genre deserves more attention.
Taiwan Detective Club
In 2002 a group of detective-story lovers in Taiwan formed the “Taiwan Detective Club.” The club originally served only as an annual convention for those who love the genre in Taiwan to hold various exchanges.
One of the club’s co-founders Jì Qíng (既晴), himself a renowned detective/mystery story writer in Taiwan, says that club members decided to do more than that in order to promote detective writing. To do this, like its predecessor, the club established an annual award to encourage Chinese-language detective compositions in short-story style.
In the award’s debut year 2003, only five submissions were made to the club. A year later, there were still only five. But since its third year more and more submissions have been made to the club for the annual award, the number rising from 25 in 2005 to 43 in 2006.
Now the award is in its seventh year, and many overseas Chinese or Taiwanese have also made contributions to the award competition.
In 2008 the TDC changed its name to the Mystery Writers of Taiwan, and the award also changed its name.
The club also conducts several international exchanges with their worldwide counterparts, especially those in Japan, one of the largest detective-story markets in Asia, which has a close relationship with Taiwan and is also deeply concerned about the development of such a genre here.
Localization versus Globalization: What’s the next step?
In 2009 the first-ever “Soji Shimada Logic Mystery Award,” founded by famous Japanese logic mystery novelist Soji Shimada, was held in Taiwan in order to foster a younger generation of detective story writers on the island nation.
“I believe the new breed of Taiwanese detective story writers will be able to take up the torch that has been passed down, and even glorify the genre,” said Shimada during a press conference held in Taipei.
Shimada added that Taiwan will ultimately play a pivotal role in the detective-mystery stories market in Asia and even in the world.
Judging a total of 58 submissions for the award, Shimada himself and a group of local and Japanese detective story experts first chose three finalists and ultimately gave the top prize to “Roamers in the ‘VirtualStreet,’” a science fiction-style detective novel written by Sean Wang under the pen name Mr. Pets.
“This unique work is something I have never seen in Japan before,” Shimada commented, adding that he was deeply impressed with how Wang cleverly outlined the story in a virtual-reality world while at the same time adding enough human touch to make it a great piece.
Winner Wang said he was greatly honored to claim the award. He said he used to think that it was really lonely being a detective-story writer in Taiwan since the market here is quite small, “but now I am glad to say that we are not alone!”
Wang’s work will be translated into Japanese and published in the country famous for its booming detective fiction market, as well as in Taiwan, China, and Thailand, according to the organizer of the award.
The award established by the Japanese detective master is widely accepted by local detective writers who jointly believe that this is a good way to help to promote local detective writing internationally.
“With Shimada’s reputation and the work’s Japanese translation, it will definitely promote the international visibility of detective fiction from Taiwan,” says Dr. Chen.
Chen notes, however, that there are other more important factors that will decide whether the genre can continue to flourish within the country and possibly even extend to the global market.
“Local writers need to continue creating more high quality works and more importantly, to be widely accepted by local people, before they will have a chance to move on to foreign lands.”
As Jì Qíng (既晴) cleverly puts it, detective writers in Taiwan are just like baseball players. “If you play well enough to attract MLB scouts, they will fly here to find you wherever you are,” he says.
Detective writer Lin also points out that the promotion of such writings in Taiwan still needs a lot of work, especially from publishing houses.
“With more people engaged in detective writing now, the works by Taiwan writers are all high in standard and have a solid reputation. All we need is more opportunities to be published and to be read by others,” Lin says.
Jì Qíng (既晴) mentions that in fact there is a huge market in China, especially as there are minimal language barriers between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. “If we continue to improve ourselves and can create a variety of detective fiction that will attract not only hard-core lovers but also ordinary readers, the sky is the limit.”