I love Kojak. Remember him? The bald cop, sharp dresser, always sucking on a lollipop?
I love that show because the cops look like cops, not like twenty-something fashion models, and New York looks like a grimy hellhole, not an upscale shopping mall. There are no psychics or profilers on the squad and if there were, Kojak would still beat them to the punch with his street smarts and snappy one-liners.
Kojak, Columbo, Rockford…these characters all had their roots in detective novels and crime fiction. Many of our lasting literary creations come from the world of crime and mystery – Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe – yet thanks to the genre label, they are rarely included in the canon of great fiction. Genre fiction is the sort cordoned off into separate pens from the rest of the prose at the bookstore, as if we’re scared it might be catching. Mystery, science fiction, horror – each has its own formula. To judge their worth, we note not only the quality of the writing but also the way they deal with the confines of the genre. Agatha Christie wrote a lot of perfectly good mysteries, but it’s the ones that successfully leapfrogged convention that she’s best known for; Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Writers like Steve Aylett (if there are any) delight in bending conventions nearly inside out. In his hard-boiled sci fi detective world of Beerlight, guns come in ridiculous variety and eventually gain self-awareness. Fain the Sorcerer takes the fantasy of time travel to its logical yet absurd conclusion and Lint creates an entire alternate genre universe (he’s also created his own comic book hero…The Caterer!).
When I was in the service, I picked a book at random from a pile donated by people back home. The back flap described it as a mystery and adventure, the story of a man in search of a shadowy figure known only by a single initial. It was Thomas Pynchon’s V. I read it as an adventure story, not having been informed that it was real literature, and it probably influenced me more than anything I’d read before or since. I don’t think Pynchon would have a problem with being called a genre author. His work is filled with references to Westerns, detective fiction and science fiction. I think he stole a character from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western Duck, You Sucker for his novel Against the Day, a dynamite-throwing Mexican rebel. Gravity’s Rainbow includes a hot air balloon pie fight (I don’t know if that’s relevant, I just like saying it). And his most recent novel, Inherent Vice, is more or less a straight-forward detective piece.
All of this is just to say that I’ve recently stumbled across an Iranian author named Kaveh Mir ‘Abbasi. He’s been translating Western literature into Persian for years, but we don’t collect many translations at the library (with the dubious exception of Harry Potter), so I had to go looking. I’ve started reading a collection of his horror stories. Right off the bat, we’ve got a dream sequence and a reference to The Shining, so it feels like familiar ground. I’ll write more about it once I’ve finished it, but in the meantime, here’s an interview he gave to the newspaper Jam-e Jam (8 Azar 1391). It’s an interesting look on crime fiction and its appeal. I just wish the interviewer were able to ask how one creates a sympathetic law enforcement character in a country on the brink of being a police state.
Interview with Kaveh Mir ‘Abbasi, author and translator, about crime and police literature
Note: Familiarity with police literature in Iran is more commonly acquired through television and film than novels, even though at one time, much of the popular literature published in Iran consisted of police novels.
When translations can no longer match the public’s demands, translators try their hand at writing their own novels and stories. Kaveh Mir ‘Abbasi, author and translator, is perhaps one of Iran’s best critics and translators to speak with concerning police literature in Iran.
His years of experience in the field of crime, police and mystery literature, along with his interest in and love for the genre, encouraged us to speak with Mir ‘Abbasi about the appeal of this genre in Iran.
First speak about the early days of translating police novels in Iran. They say that Iranian translators, in the name of translation, actually wrote their own novels.
More than 60 years ago, Afshari Publications began translating police novels on a widespread basis for the first time. Characters like Arsène Lupin, Commissaire Maigret, Janguz Raja’i Turk were introduced into Iranian literature at that time. And, of course, we can’t ignore the interest in the works of Agatha Christie.
The truth is that much of the work done in this era was a combination of translation and authorship. Iranian authors wrote some of the books themselves and published them under a foreign author’s name. Mike Hammer, for example, the well-known American fictional detective, was originally translated by Amir Mujahid and Muhammad Delju. Parviz Qazi Sa’id, as well, wrote novels for young readers which were set in foreign countries. In the realm of spy fiction, most of the translations were of the character James Bond.
Given all this, why is the genre not considered serious literature today? This huge wave of translation seems to have completely dissipated and it is rarely mentioned.
You see, interest in this sort of literature was a diversion and no influential translations were ever produced. Serious translators had a negative view of the genre and never translated any of it. Perhaps this is why none of these translations had any effect on our contemporary literature. Of course, we can also say that we have not translated even one thousandth of the important works in this genre into Persian. Instead, we’ve translated the popular and superficial works. When translating police novels, we’ve always worked in an unplanned and unfocused manner and have only translated works by authors whose novels lack depth and social criticism. Critics, as well, have been prejudiced against selecting and praising this genre.
Given that, as mentioned, a great number of novels have been translated, why do we not have a successful body of police literature in Iran?
One of the most important personages in police literature is the private investigator. This job does not have an analogue in our country and therefore the pivotal character of the novel is unfamiliar to our audience. They have difficulty finding him believable. Also, in order for this genre to gain a foothold in our country, serious writers must take it up for themselves. The depth and power of police literature is not understood in our country and thus no one wants to be branded a “crime novelist.”
You speak of depth and power, but honestly, I think of police literature as entertainment!
Today in the West, crime fiction is rooted in social problems and various other issues and subjects. Even psychological, philosophical and metaphysical matters are put before the audience in the form of the fascinating world of police literature. When we say that crime fiction has a great capacity for connecting with an audience, we are speaking of these very themes. We see that Paul Auster, a writer loved by Iranians, describes the deepest problems related to modern life in more or less the form of detective stories.
Even in the largely superficial characters of Agatha Christie we witness the birth of figures whose psychology is examined in great detail. The unnatural motivations in the translations of Khosrow Sami’i are a good indicator of these multi-dimensional characters. For example, speaking of psychology, we have the mystery of Mr. Ripley which completely broke the mold and studied crime from the perspective of a murderer. In this novel there was no trace of a mystery; instead, to create an atmosphere of challenge and suspense, it addressed the burning questions with which the murderer was forced to wrestle, which in turn could be a reasonable starting point for a culture of crime prevention.
Aside from the issue of authorship mixed with translation, are there original examples in Iranian literature?
Yes, but not many. Our police literature deals mostly with day-to-day police work. The novels of Isma’il Fasih and his characterization of Jalal Arin are the most skillful in this regard. Vintage Wine, The Pain of Siyavash, and Shahbaz and the Owls are lasting examples of our police and mystery literature. We must also mention Elephant in the Dark [by Qasim Hasheminezhad]; this novel was also successfully adapted for film with Faramarz Qaribiyan acting.
But is it possible that speaking about crime in the public sphere will, given enough time, propagate a culture of criminality?
You see, I believe that openess is the road to reform. It is true that crimes are committed in our society and it is sufficient that young readers, rather than studying targeted and engaged police literature, take a look at the newspaper crime pages. There the readers will face the truth and they won’t feel that these stories are unrealistic. Unfortunately, in literature one finds few examples of crime that reveal the bitter truth. We must not forget that denial is not the path to preventing crime.