The case of the woman who loved international crime fiction

The case of the woman who loved international crime fictionI’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?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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8 Responses to The case of the woman who loved international crime fiction

  1. artsygenius says:

    This is great Maria! I love international spy stories. I’m going to look for these on Audible.
    Thanks!

  2. Judy says:

    Oh goody, new authors to add to my Amazon wish list! One question, though, are any of them very violent? The rape scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo really put me off reading the rest of the series, even though I loved the rest of the book. Either I’m getting wimpier or crime movies and books are getting more graphic. Reading with your hands over your eyes is really hard!

    • Maria says:

      Lackberg and French, definitely not. The others might have a bit of violence, but it’s more likely you’ll read about the end result (ie., the corpse) than the action itself. BTW I saw both versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and I can tell you that scene was more horrific to watch than it was to read.

  3. Renee says:

    Hi! Am new to the blog (saw the 2011 post about repatriation as we’re torn on leaving the expat life and returning to the US, but I’m an American married to a Dane who is having a hard time coming to terms with not living in Denmark ever again. I emigrated from the US in ’02 with him when we got married (and thought I said my goodbye’s to the US), but he then realized how small Denmark was after living in Chicago, took an international job that has moved us to 4 other countries in the last 8 years (been in The Hague for 6 months now) and we’re almost coming full circle again. Ah, the expat life…..

    ANYWAY (haha) try Jussi Adler Olsen (Danish author) – “Mercy” and his follow up “Disgrace” are two excellent books in the genre you (and I!) enjoy. Adler is considered the Danish version of Camilla Lackberg—whose novels I love and own about 6. His characters are based in Copenhagen, but they investigate throughout Denmark because they’re “cold cases” none of the other jurisdictions could solve. His main characters make me laugh and the Danish translation was done well enough to capture Danish “irony” accurately.

    Also, I loved Nelson Demille’s Up Country set in Vietnam where a retired Army Chief Warrant Office (and former Vietnam Vet) investigates a decades old murder of an Army Captain during the war. The same author wrote “The General’s Daughter” which turned into the movie with John Travolta. It may be a one-off in Demille’s series being set outside the US, but it is really and excellent read and the virtual travel in Vietnam both in the past (during his war years) and present was very interesting.

    Stig Larsson turned me onto Scandinavian crime novels. His 3 books are amazing and enjoyed each one even with the graphic and brutality of the content. I own the Swedish movies (subtitled) and Daniel Craig version (also done very well). Sadly we won’t see more from Larrson but have fortunately found Camilla Lackberg as a substitute and am in the middle of her “The Hidden Child” now.

  4. chris dingo says:

    just started enjoying your blog ….. my book suggestion is more in the spy genre …. you cant go past any of the Quiller series of books … the best of english writing from the sixties and seventies etc … a must read! … regards, chris

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