China’s long quest to produce a great crime novel
Deep in an alley in Shanghai’s Huangpu district, a group of young bystanders hover over the chalk outline of a body.
But this is no crime scene: Under the scrutiny of the portraits of a dozen of the most influential crime writers in history, including Arthur Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler, and China’s own “father of detective fiction” Cheng Xiaoqing (程小青), these young “deduction fans (推理迷)” are celebrating the opening of Lonely Island, Shanghai’s first crime-centric bookstore. The shop’s owner, mystery writer Shi Chen, dreamed of this bricks-and-mortar haven for the nation’s growing community of crime readers “completely as a whim” for fans of the genre like himself.
Unfortunately, like many a crime fiction character, the store suffered an untimely demise (the pandemic saw it shuttered within a year), but the genre itself is anything but dead. Figures from leading online book retailer Dangdang ranked detective, suspense, and mystery as the third most popular novel category in 2021, occupying 15 percent of overall sales on the platform that year. The category has long been a broad one, encompassing true-crime, police fiction, mystery, detective, thriller, and other sub-genres.
In the current market, Chen Zijin’s 2013 novel Bad Kids and its 2020 streaming TV adaptation brought massive mainstream critical and commercial success to China’s domestic crime fiction output. The show, which features violence committed against or by minors, with a suspenseful crime at its center, debuted as the highest rated Chinese drama within 18 months of its release on the rating platform Douban, with a score of 8.8 and over 1 million reviews.
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Can China’s Detective Novels Finally Make Crime Pay? is a story from our issue, “The Data Age.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.