What is the story told between the lines of crime fiction? More than a genre with deep literary histories in many cultures, it is a mirror of how law, politics, and society are perceived. Be it procedural, cozy, or noir, it often deals with injustices faced by the marginalized, the displaced, the underdogs.
In the People’s Republic of China, a country undergoing rapid social and economic changes, the climate is an ideal setting for crime fiction. Wang Shuo’s Playing for Thrills is a rare and unique example of Chinese hardboiled pulp with a punk-rock noir feel. (The government refers to this genre as “hooligan literature,” to the delight of the writer I’m sure.)
Set in the seedy underside of Beijing, the story revolves on a rogue main character’s attempts to ascertain whether he really committed the murder he was accused of 10 years ago. The thematic elements explored are the decay of Communist revolutionary ideals, mass market liberalization, hyper-materialism, and disenfranchised youth stratified in a turbulent, morally bereft society.
Despite the fact that Chinese crime fiction has gained popularity in the West, Chinese writer Murong Xuecun, at a recent gala in Melbourne Town Hall, commented on why crime fiction written about China doesn’t pay in China. Though the Chinese government has significantly relaxed standards in recent years, conventions and tropes in crime fiction are still rigidly limited.
Censorship issues in China highlight the difference between ‘law in literature’ and ‘law as literature.’ All forms of media (television, film, press, etc.) are subject to approval by the State. Deviations from politically correct beliefs and ethics are labeled “dangerous.” Of course, in turn, there is a huge black market for Hong Kong gangster cult films and similarly for hardboiled fiction.
After all, censorship is a double-edged switchblade.