I'm back from an utterly unforgettable trip to Shanghai, where I was guest of honour at the first International Mystery Game Expo last weekend. My first trip to China proved to be a brilliant and at times surreal experience. Surreal? Well, for one thing, I never imagined that I'd ever be interviewed on stage by a Chinese magician wearing a Spiderman mask who happens to be a vlogger with a million-plus subscribers. Or that I'd witness two eminent locked room mystery novelists, one Japanese, one French, crooning Beatles songs ("Michelle" and "Yesterday") to a Chinese audience in English. But these were among the memorable moments of a short but action-packed visit.
What was it all about? I was pleasantly baffled when the original invitation came to attend. I was told that offline murder mystery games are massively popular with millions of young Chinese people. And these games are heavily influenced by the classic detective novels of the likes of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. Locked room mysteries are very popular in China (as they are in Japan) and at least twenty Carr books are now in print in China. The expo involved a large number of game-sellers exhibiting their wares to fans. The organisers were keen to strengthen the connection between mystery game enthusiasts and present day exponents of the classic mystery.
So they invited a number of guests, French board game designer Guillaume Montagi, Japanese author Soji Shimada (author of the Tokyo Zodiac Mystery) and Paul Halter, French author of about forty locked room mystery novels, as well as myself. Janet Hutchings, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, sent a video message, and copies of EQMM were available to attendees. I must admit that I had some anxieties in advance of my trip. It felt very much like a venture a long way outside my comfort zone in more ways than one. But my hosts looked after me royally. I was flown out business class, taken on sight-seeing trips and also had the pleasure of visiting the home of Elliot Han, whose collection of signed and inscribed classic crime is quite breathtakingly impressive. A number of rare inscribed classics by the likes of Christie, Carr, Queen, Stout, and E.C. Bentley (Trent's Last Case, a first edition inscribed to John Arlott of all people) were on display at the expo.
The expo was attended by thousands of people (up to 5000, I was told, on the Saturday alone) and what struck me very, very forcibly was their youth. I hardly met a single Chinese person under the age of 35, and believe me, I met a lot of people in the course of a short trip. Their enthusiasm for mystery fiction and the classic examples of the form is palpable. It's really quite exciting. As for the mystery games, Paul, Soji, and I each took part in one of these games. They can last for up to seven hours, but ours were restricted to two hours. It was very much an interactive experience - this is clearly part of the appeal: the games have a social side. I played with a group of four women and one man (the games are equally popular with men and women) and they were good companions - that's us, below, with the game's designer. Suffice to say that the game was highly convoluted, and I struggled to keep up...
As well as my appearances on stage with Paul, Guillaume, and Soji, I was asked to give a short talk on British mystery games at the Guoman Hotel, where I was staying, and a lecture on classic UK fiction and the Detection Club. The latter was held in the historic Sinan Mansions, and I was startled to be greeted by a packed, standing-room-only crowd. Watching people queue up before the doors open from our vantage point in a coffee shop across the road was quite an experience. Thankfully, I had a very capable and charming young translator.
My hosts were delightful. Special thanks to Fei Wu, who went to great lengths to make sure I had a great time - and that the meals suited my rather narrow tastes perfectly. Fei Wu is himself a crime writer to watch. He was the first from China to contribute a story to EQMM and he has just produced his first novel, The Lost Winner, which is a highly innovative book. I hope to host a guest post from him in due course to tell you more about it. I was, of course, pleased to meet Paul and his wife Martine and Soji and to ask them to sign my copies of their books. The group who worked hard to look after us included Daisy Suo, Zheng Liu, Fan, Mr Weird the magician and vlogger, and Elliot, and I met a good many pleasant crime fans. All these young people made a great impression on me, and I feel that the detective story in China is not only safe in their hands but also promises to have an exciting future.