A writer, critic, professor and world traveler confesses a terrible, trashy secret: his love of detective fiction. In an essay that yokes his experiences as a traveler with his newfound desire to write the first Vietnamese American detective fiction, Khanh Ho meditates on the role mystery novels played in forming friendships in every corner of the third world during a three year backpacking odyssey. Touching, witty and funny–this essay asks the important question nobody has yet answered: where is the middlebrow in our literary landscape? You can follow Khanh’s blog at http://www.losangelesmystery.com
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So I decided to start writing a mystery novel. I’ve never worked in the mystery genre before. I have always read detective fiction with a guilty pleasure, mainly because I spent so much time studying literature as if it were art. But when I spent three years backpacking the world, after finishing my Ph.D. in English Lit, all I could get my grubby little hands on was detective fiction. That’s when I caught the bug.
If you like to read, there are limited options on the road: it’s either Detective Fiction or Chick Lit. That was all you could get at the dusty hostel book exchange. Guess what I read? I read tons of Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver. You name it.
If it was sitting on the shelf, I picked it up and put another book down. Sometimes I even filched one or two…just to make sure nobody would snatch it up. I’m a bit compulsive.
I’d swap mystery novels with fellow backpackers and this was the best way to make a friendship with a Norwegian, a German, an Englishman. They’ll invite you to drinks at the rooftop restaurant (almost always there’s a rooftop bar). And voila, you’ve got a new best friend, for at least three days—someone to see the sights with, someone who will turn you on to great new writers, someone who will teach you choice curse words in their mother tongue, someone who will stick up for you in a tight situation. Like a bar fight on a rooftop. An added plus: if they just came from the opposite direction, these fellow lovers of detective fiction will tell you about which hotel has a hot shower. And this is an important thing on the shoestring that gets you through India or South America or Cambodia.
In the course of my travels, detective novels came to mean more than just good plots. They were about friendships, connection and resources.
Maybe a year into reading detective fiction, I started thinking there were things I would do differently. I started noticing how there are a lot of wise guy white guys who do a lot of hard talking and all the cool solving. Occasionally, there’s a black one. Oh yeah, there’s a woman or two. And this got me a bit disgruntled…because I’m Asian American–more precisely, Vietnamese American–and I didn’t really find one of my kind on the hostel shelves.
Then, when I got home and had unfettered access to bookstores, I really didn’t enjoy what other stuff I came across: too ching-chong, opium den, sex slavery for me. What about an Asian American detective who lives in a world that I know—who likes Japanese Anime and Giant Robot and boba? Who actually has a job outside of Chinatown? Who doesn’t have to talk in italics to show that he knows all sorts of exotic words and phrases that will somehow prove he’s authentic?
I finally realized that I could become a mystery writer, too. After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Anyway, I thought, “How hard could it be? Right?”
Well, I just started it. And its damn hard. I’m determined to finish, too. And I’m going to put it up for sale on Amazon.com as an e-book at a recession proof price. Why? Well, times have changed. You can travel with a kindle now. You can download all sorts of junk. You never have to rely on the randomness of hostel book shelves. But still the pickings are slim. So, I’m no longer on the road but I often feel the pull of the backpacker’s life and I want to send out a digital lifeline to a fellow traveler who is looking to find something—something different but familiar–that speaks to him…or her.
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