All summer I have been working on a detective novel in an apartment in Puerta Plata, the northern villages of Haiti, and now in the furnace of Chongqing. It has been slow going but it has been one of the most interesting writing expereinces of my life. Most of my life I have not been interested in writing fiction except for a small novella, a few short stories, and some poems. Until recently I have never seen the point of writing fiction. History, philology, biology have been my passions and seemed much more interesting. But lately I have begun to discover that I can say things in fiction that I can not say neither in a scholarly essay nor in a preface to a translation of a Syriac text, or in the description of an exotic butterfly
Today I have been doing research on a Dutch scholar/diplomat who lived in Chongqing during the late 30’s and 40’s: Robert Van Gulik (1910-1967). He translated a body of Case Histories of Crime from a 13th century text from Chinese to English. This got him interested in writing a crime novel. He was a true renaissance man. He became a student and expert on the Chinese Zither and would often play it at parties in Chongqing to raise funds for charities during the war years in China. It was part of his diplomacy.
In studying his life he has gone through some of the same processes that I have. His early work was in the study of languages and the translations and study of ancient literature. This grew into a facination with Chinese art, music, and literature. Toward the end of his life he began to write and publish detective novels. Through this medium he was able to share with the world the beauty and inner aesthetic of asian cultures. There are some things that can only be understood by those immersed in a language and culture except for the use of fiction which can transcend the bounds of culture and language. Storytelling is a primal function of the human species. We expereice things that can only be told in metaphor and dramatic image, song and movement. Mere words often fail until they are handed off to the power of story. This is what I am discovering writing my detective novel called “The Columbia River Murders.”
It is about a Chinese student who gets caught up in a human trafficking ring and ends up dead in the fictional town of Eagle Landing on the Columbia River. A small town detective investigates the crime that takes him into the immigrant world of Chinese Americans. His father is an eccentric scholar who lives in China and through his research is able to help his son solve the crime.