I was never much of a fan of books in the crime/mystery genre. While I grew up watching and enjoying famous German crime series on TV such as Tatort or Ein Fall für zwei, my reading and writing habits were developing along very different lines.

In other words, it was the surreal and fantastic that caught my imagination early on. Even the fantasy genre seemed too predictable. The logic of dragons and sorcerers formed its own closed system of laws, even if it wasn’t as slavishly tied to “Real Life” as the detective genre.In elementary school, many of my friends were consuming books and audiobooks in which clubs of pre-teen detectives had to solve this or that (R-rated) dilemma. I didn’t understand the hype about it and preferred the eccentric adventures of Dr. Dolittle or Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver. They had an element of surprise, containing everything from talking animals to giant magnetic cliffs.

After all, fiction is the ultimate sandbox. If you write the sentence: “A flock of pink cows passed the sun, their wings flapping in long broad strokes” an image appears in the mind’s eye, even if you’ve never seen winged bovines before.

As a teenager, my reading list was filled by cyberpunk science fiction such as Neuromancer and Snowcrash which also had a strong element of the surreal, even if the weirdness was couched in ‘scientific’ speculation.

A Change Of Heart

It was only very recently that I began to see the crime/mystery genre through different eyes. Always eager to discover new reading material, in early 2011 I was scouring the list of Wikipedia entries related to the famous Hugo and Nebula awards (important pointers in the sci-fi/fantasy genre) and stumbled over a book called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

Its story is “set in an alternative history version of the present day, based on the premise that during World War II, a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Sitka, Alaska, in 1941, and that the fledgling State of Israel was destroyed in 1948. The novel is set in Sitka, which it depicts as a large, Yiddish-speaking metropolis.” (wiki)

This description alone was weird and surreal enough to get me excited. Little did I know that this novel by Michael Chabon was a brilliantly written detective story. In fact, it was the first literary crime story I ever encountered, full of psychological subtlety and sheer style.

A few months later I picked up another book which would change my opinion of the crime/mystery genre forever. And no, it was not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

Instead, it was a novel by someone usually not associated with this genre at all: J.G. Ballard, infamous for his dystopian novels in which the planet either gets flooded (“The Drowned World”), scorched (“The Burning World”) or terrorized by psychopathic psychologists (“Kingdom Come”) and fundamentalist environmentalists (“Rushing To Paradise”).

Thus, when I picked up his novel Cocaine Nights (no, it’s not another book about drug addicts) I expected something similar, but instead I found it was a brilliantly thought out investigative novel about a man trying to free his brother from accusations of having burned down a house at the Spanish holiday paradise of Costa del Sol.

Even before I finished it I was completely hooked. When coupling an investigative plot with a strong literary style awesomeness could ensue after all!

So I started experimenting on my own with a little crime story designed for German learners. My surprise was not little when it shot to the Amazon bestseller lists and firmly lodged itself there.

After I was finished with it, I tore through Ballard’s Super-Cannes, a similar story like Cocaine Nights playing out in France, and went on a binge viewing of Hitchcock’s movies to learn more about the art of suspense.

Questioning Assumptions

I’m now convinced that the crime/mystery genre is a far better plot driver than pulp (one thing I always hated about cyberpunk) and allows for a lot of hallucinations and surreal encounters occurring on the fringe of the reader’s awareness. In the end, it’s the subtlety that amplifies the effect. While you have real people obeying real world physical laws, the process of catching a killer or solving a crime becomes a journey into the human psyche that leads the reader to question his assumptions.

Great books can do that! They make you investigate your beliefs and convictions. And what genre is more predestined to do that than the one of investigative fiction?

I for one am certainly cured of my long-held bias towards detective stories as “light entertainment” and I’ve just released a second crime story in German, myself. It’s a lot of fun, and while I’m certainly no master of this genre, yet, I am confident that German learners will benefit from the use of natural language, vocabulary guide and Q&A.

If you’re interested in these stories, check out the links below:

Mord Am Morgen – a detective story for German language learners

Die Dritte Hand – a detective story for German language learners

What about you? Do you think that detective stories are mostly cheap thrills or deserve their place among the ranks of high literature?