I recently read two translated works of crime fiction, The 65 Lakh Heist by Surender Mohan Pathak and The Cage by Kenzo Kitakata, that are both worth your time for various reasons.
First, reading these books got me thinking about translated crime fiction. In the mystery and crime fiction genre there is, over all, a good bit of translated and international fiction. Serpent’s Tail, SOHO and Akashic are all regularly bringing translated works to the UK and US markets. Some of the more popular books of the last couple of years, The Millennium trilogy by Steig Larson for example, are translated works. With all of those contributions duly noted it’s also fair to say that the bulk of translated work is from European countries and that there is a dearth of translated mystery and crime fiction from Asian countries. Enter Blaft Publications and Vertical Books. Blaft is bringing us “bestselling Indian crime novels, experimental fiction, pulp art, and graphic novels” and Vertical is publishing “exciting titles that require no prior knowledge of Japanese culture and are not intended to primarily familiarize readers with it”.
Of the Asian countries in general, and the two being discussed here, specifically Japanese crime fiction by far is the better represented in terms of English translations. One can easily find books by Miyuki Miyabe, Natsuo Kirino and Ryu Murakami just to name a few.
This brings me to my second point. These two books were not written with an American, UK or English speaking audience in mind. Surender Mohan Pathak is considered the “grandmaster of Hindi crime fiction” and Kenzo Kitakata is considered the “undisputed don of hardboiled and mystery writing in Japan”. As a result, these books have their own feel and frequency that U.S. readers will be forced to try and tune into. This is the same as some other translated crime works, like the Swedish crime novels for example, but is worth pointing out as it requires some sharing of the workload by the reader.
Putting aside all of the reasons why we should read these books, because they really aren’t a plate of vegetables, on their own merits they are really good.
I think that in the U.S. we tend to think of the pulp industry lasting up until a certain point in the 20th century. But the interesting thing is that this is arguably a narrow view. One could argue that within the African American community the pulp industry extended into the 80’s, primarily with the prodigious output of Holloway House. But what I didn’t know until I read The 65 Lakh Heist was that India had a thriving pulp fiction industry going back decades and lasting up until the 90’s. Books are, on average, 150 pages and authors crank them out at the rate of 40, 50 and 60 books a year. If ever a writer needed to be enshrined as a Legend of the Underwood, some of these guys are it. It’s rare as an adult but I felt like an entire world had been opened up for me.
The 65 Lakh Heist is filled with pulpy-action-out-of-the-pan-into-the-fire goodness. This is the third book in a long running and popular series featuring the character Vimal. He is a great pulp action hero with echoes of others better known in America but retains his own unique sensibilities. Pathak had a long running series about a newspaper reporter and he wanted to write darker, more hard-boiled material and was dissuaded from doing so. He gained a new level of popularity through his acclaimed translations of Ian Fleming and James Hadley Chase which he was able to parlay into the Vimal books. The Vimal books tapped into an audience that didn’t realize they wanted this type of story but ate it up once it was made available.
Vimal’s back story is simple enough. In the first Vimal book his wife and her lover betrayed him, sent him to jail and he escaped becoming a wanted criminal who has to hide his identity. His continued adventures through the underworld and run-ins with the characters that inhabit it make the backbone of the series. In 65 he is forced to pull a bank job, which goes wrong, and then try and hunt down the man who has the money and betrayed him. This brings him in contact with the Punjab underworld.
The simplest review of this book that I can say is that I want more Vimal books now and I hope Blaft continues to bring them. If you love crime fiction and pulp fiction then you owe it to yourself to check out The 65 Lakh Heist.
I can only begin to imagine that this is the tip of a much larger iceberg and hope that Blaft will find enough sales to continue bringing this fiction to us. I had no idea it was there, and I’m sure others don’t as well, but have become hooked now that I know it is.
One of the more common plots in the mystery genre is to have the crime (typically a murder) and the ensuing investigation cut through layers of socio and economic strata as well provide a bridge through time usually linking the past to the present in some capacity. In The Cage, a bit of a twist to this approach is applied. More specifically, a different perspective. The central crime is one that cuts through the strata (in this case businessmen, yakuza, police detectives, a private investigator, among others) but instead of the crime, or more specifically the investigation of the crime, acting as a central point from which everything else revolves around Kitakata elevates one of the characters that would normally be relegated to the side to protagonist. The protagonist in The Cage is, at best, only on the edge of what might otherwise be the main plot in another book. For someone used to reading books with the previously mentioned plot types the book takes some time getting used to, feeling almost wobbly at times.
The word wobbly though isn’t intended to convey any type of weakness in the book but more like trying to walk on a boat until you’ve found your sea legs.
But even after readers get used to the internal rhythms of The Cage some may struggle with it. It is a novel that requires, in some ways, a higher concentration level from the reader. The reader is going to have to share some of the work here. That alone means that some readers won’t like it. But those that are willing to work with Kitakata will be rewarded greatly. Part of the struggle is that Kitakata seems to have an almost casual disregard for plot. The way that he handles set-ups and reveals for example may frustrate some readers. I haven’t read enough of his work to say whether this is a personal style of his or is more emblematic of the Japanese crime novel. But I find grappling with the question to be interesting. His style goes well past understated and subtle and instead requires an almost code breaker like ability to piece everything together. In a genre that values lean prose Kitakata’s may rank with the leanest.
While I may nibble around the edges of what made this book a frustrating one to read at times I don’t want the exploration to diminish my praise for the book. The Cage was one of the most engaging reads last year and, after one book, I consider myself a fan of Kenzo Kitakata and can’t wait to read his other crime books (my understanding is that he was a literary writer before turning to crime novels).
These two gentlemen have each written hundreds of novels. With that much material to draw from I hope more of their novels are translated. In addition to the three Kitakata novels that have been translated to English he has a new novel coming out later this year called City of Refuge which was his first foray into crime fiction and Blaft is bringing another Vimal book called Daylight Robbery. Check them out, seriously.