I’ve written before about my love of mystery fiction set in exotic places, an obsession that began in childhood. Some things never change, and these days my iPad is bursting with books written about people whose names I can’t pronounce, doing unsavoury things in places I’ve never heard of.
I’m a law-abiding person, and I like crime fiction because it takes me to a different world. International crime fiction does that and more. It’s the details that draw me in: those everyday asides about food, attitudes, history, and values that are even more compelling than the plots themselves. Reading outside my home culture is teaching me about other cultures, one bloodied corpse at a time.
Here are some of my favourite authors:
THAILAND: John Burdett, featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police
Burdett, a Brit who lives in Thailand, has written several police procedurals about the underbelly of its craziest city. Bangkok 8 is the first — and best — book in the series. I’m going to tell you right up front that the plots are lurid and more than a bit out-there, but like I said, I don’t really read these books for the crime and punishment.
Sonchai Jitpleecheep is half American, which is both a blessing and a curse. He’s also a devout Buddhist whose ongoing search for Enlightenment colours everything he does, sometimes clashing with his job requirements. He’s the most fully-realized character; the others — his corrupt superior, Colonel Vikorn, and his transsexual colleague Lek — are more one-dimensional, but that doesn’t detract from their entertainment value. His mother Nong, for example, is a former prostitute who owns a go-go bar. From her I learned more than I ever wanted about the Thai sex industry.
Sonchai has an endearing habit of addressing the reader directly. It’s a nice touch; I quite like being called farang (foreigner) and chided for my restrictive thinking. “Does it surprise you, farang, that a good ten per cent of the entities you see walking around in human form are not human at all?” he asks at one point. It actually surprises me very much, which is why I need Sonchai in my life.
IRELAND: Tana French, featuring the members of the Dublin Murder Squad
French is an Irish author who writes awesome psychological mysteries. No one-dimensional characters here; everyone who makes an appearance in her books is full of human complexity that’s revealed one layer at a time. The main protagonist is a Dublin homicide detective; the twist is that it’s a different one in every book. This not only keeps the series fresh, it forces us to constantly readjust our perceptions of each detective.
My favourite book in the series is Faithful Place, in which a cold case involving Detective Frank Mackey’s missing girlfriend suddenly warms up with the discovery of her suitcase, 20 years after she disappeared. Mackey’s life is turned upside down, throwing him back into the bosom of the dysfunctional family he fled many years ago. Good stuff.
SWEDEN: Camilla Läckberg, featuring Detective Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica Falck
Although I’ve dabbled in the works of Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell, and of course, Stieg Larsson, Läckberg is my favourite among the Scandinavian mystery writers that seem to be multiplying like rabbits these days. She’s like a rock star in Sweden, where she’s sold more books than Mr. Larsson himself.
Her novels are set in the small fishing village of Fjällbacka, which suffers from a bad case of Murder She Wrote syndrome: it has a shockingly high murder rate for such a sleepy place. Despite all the killing and detecting, the heart of these books for me is the intimate look at the characters’ domestic lives. My favourites are The Ice Princess and The Stonecutter.
CHINA: Qui Xiaolong, featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao
I think the crime angle in the Inspector Chen books is just an excuse for Qui to write about his real love: China. The title of his 8th book in the series is The Enigma of China, but that could be the subtitle of any of these novels. The pace is a bit slow, and the politics bore me, but I love the insider’s view of a culture that’s evolving at breakneck speed.
That’s a small sampling of what’s on my virtual bookshelf. What’s on yours?