During my visit at the Kuala Lumpur Book Fair, my Malaysian publisher asked me to give a talk on crime fiction. I was quite surprised as my books in Malaysia, the ones that have been translated into Bahasa, are my earlier works prior to joining the mystery/thriller book world. For example, my first novel, Burning the Map, became Cuti Cuti Cinta (literal Malay translation: “Love Holidays"), The Night I Got Lucky became Malam Yang Indah (“Beautiful Night,” a title I like more than my own) and The Year of Living Famously is Bukan Cinta Glamor (I confess I never got the translated title of this except to learn that “glamour” means the same thing in Bahasa that it does in English and “cinta” is “love”).
Because I was impressed with KarnaDya, a family-run Malaysian publishing business, and the fantastic job they’d done with my books, I said no problem to the speaking engagement on crime fiction. After all, I’d spoken on this topic numerous times at writer’s conferences, and recently, Marcus Sakey and I had discussed crime fiction at the Midland Authors Society, which was then broadcasted by NPR.
Yet I was surprised when I learned why my publisher wanted me to discuss such a topic—because there are essentially no authors writing crime fiction in the country of Malaysia. (Apparently there’s one, but he had to go to a Chinese publisher in order to sell it). Although Malaysia has a large Muslim population, the reason for the lack of mysteries didn’t seem to be a religious or moral opposition to it. Rather novels in which someone usually dies simply weren’t of interest.
A glance at the country’s newspapers, like the Star and the Straits Times, showed Malaysians certainly aren’t lacking for interesting material. Some of the headlines the day I left were Most Wanted Fugitive Dies in Jail, Ex-doc stabs eight, and Killing of snake seen as bad omen: Workers found reptile just days before their death.
But apparently, times have changed in Malaysia and their authors are ready to start killing off their characters. The talk I gave was attended by newspaper journalists, magazine writers, and three groups of writing students from local universities. I realized I would have to discuss crime fiction in a way I really hadn’t before. I would have to go back to the basics. So I told them about importance of research and knowing your subject matter. Even if most of what you learn doesn’t go into the manuscript, I said, your knowledge gives the book a certain authority, and readers learn they can trust you to nail the details. I talked about how many mystery novels contain beautiful writing, but gorgeous prose doesn’t make a mystery novel; the plot does. And that plot has to hit almost on page one or at least be foreshadowed there.
There were many questions about whether a crime writer could get into trouble for writing a book that closely shadowed real life events. I explained that in the U.S. copyright laws protect you if you’re writing fiction, and criminally, you can’t get arrested for writing about someone who sounds an awful lot like a local politician. Yet I soon learned about a set of laws in Malaysia that allow someone to be arrested without cause. Kind of like our ‘enemy combatant’ version, but used much more frequently. So maybe they had cause for concern. Maybe that was the real reason there was no crime fiction in Malaysia.
I left Malaysia loving the country and the people as much as I love my publishers. But as I settled in for a long flight home and delved into writing, playing around with a character that resembles a certain police chief from Chicago, I was glad to be heading home.