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Reviewed by:
  • Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction
  • Robert A. Rushing (bio)
Investigating Identities: Questions of Identity in Contemporary International Crime Fiction. Edited by Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate M. Quinn. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. 348 pp. Paper $104.00.

Detective or crime fiction was, for a long time, both understudied and undertheorized. While it may still remain undertheorized (outside of poor Poe's "Purloined Letter"), the last decade or so has seen a significant number of works addressing detective fiction as a central locus for the construction of race, class, gender, and nationality—in short, identity. The central premise of Investigating Identities is that a comparative approach is necessary for a study of the genre and for the ways in which it serves both to strengthen and disrupt national, racial, sexual and linguistic identities. I should be clear at the outset that Investigating Identities is a welcome addition to the field. Perhaps even a necessary one, since most scholars of detective fiction until now have remained within narrow limits of traditionally recognized national literatures. It does not always arrive at the comparative approach it hopes for, but where it does not, it paves the way for future scholars—scholars who have read Investigating Identities, and what I hope will be other books like it.

It has flaws, of course—like most edited volumes, there is an occasional unevenness in the selections, and, like any edited volume, it cannot address the whole globe. Investigating Identities largely remains within the traditional areas of comparative literature: Europe and the Americas (although two essays address Africa, neither addresses literature written in an indigenously African language; Asia remains outside of the scope of this volume). In several essays, the approach is more multinational rather than international, recounting the history of detective fiction of a specific national literature, divorced from a global or comparative context. Such histories are often fascinating and revealing (see Marieke Krajenbrink and Kate Quinn on Austria and Chile [End Page 463] respectively), but others run into trouble when they make generalizations about the national specificity of certain forms of detective fiction—or about the characteristics of the nation itself. Constantino Maeder, writing about Italy in what may be the weakest essay in the volume, blithely reduces its cultural production to a list of stereotypes, claiming that "Italian investigators . . . like food, literature and art and they love their cars and women" (261). Willem Weststeijn, giving Maeder a run for his money, argues that Russian detective fiction prominently features suffering because suffering "is deep-rooted in the Russian soul" (167). This argument, which pace Dostoevsky would certainly be labeled as essentialist or even racist if it were made about a different group of people, also fails on a different ground: the kind of personal suffering in the detective that Weststeijn describes is prominently featured in almost all police procedurals irrespective of national origin (for example, those by Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin, Raymond Chandler, and many others). Anne Walsh's much better essay on Spanish detective fiction runs into similar trouble, however, when she claims that the playful, parodic, and ironic elements of writers from Montalbán to Pérez-Reverte are distinctively Spanish, shaped by a history of Francoist suppression, which largely forbade the representation of crime within the country. But we can see the problem with this claim about historical specificity just by perusing the pages of Investigating Identities itself: the same suppression occurred in Algeria (185) and Italy (264)—in fact, the Italian case is nearly identical. Walsh singles out Pérez-Reverte's bibliophilic and postmodern El club Dumas and its self-conscious irony as "particularly Spanish" (74): unfortunately, Pérez-Reverte's metacommentary, faulty patterns and solutions based on coincidence, and his playfulness and bibliophilia are rather more indebted to Umberto Eco's Il nome della rosa (1980) than they are to his Spanish predecessors or to his national character. Eco's novel was in turn indebted simultaneously to the English Conan Doyle (who was not above some playful metacommentary himself) and the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, making for a complex and decidedly international genealogy. Moreover, the playful, ironic, and postmodern detective novel has appeared in many...


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pp. 463-466
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