Travel This Summer Without Leaving Your Beach Chair
By Crime HQJuly 12, 2022
Introduction by Sarah Stewart Taylor, author of The Drowning Sea, part of the Maggie D’Arcy Mystery Series set in Ireland
When I’m traveling, my favorite moments—and memories—are those when I suddenly see a place in a way I couldn’t have if I’d stuck to the tourist quarter or only visited the highlights in the guidebook. It can be a domestic scene played out on a side street, a rare view glimpsed between city buildings, a bite of food, or a local ritual so specific it couldn’t happen anywhere else.
My favorite reading experiences are the ones that lift me high above the mundane details of everyday life and take me far away from my chair (or hammock), the ones that help me see a place and immerse me fully in the daily life of another spot on the globe, across oceans or mountain ranges or sprawling deserts.
Internationally-set mysteries offer a particular pleasure, I think. I love being dropped, through the urgent window of a criminal investigation, into the details of a different life, different food and architecture and language and customs. I love experiencing on the page the varying attitudes toward law enforcement and the myriad ways that cops and private detectives and amateur sleuths go about their work.
And I love the universalities as well, the way that investigations proceed in certain ways the world over, the way that the motives for murder often remain the same in Australia or Jamaica, the way that marriages and professional partnerships fray and fail, or heal and survive, no matter the geographic location. And of course, the definition of an “international” mystery is quite subjective. If my reading chair is in Tokyo or London, then a crime novel set in Pasadena is international. Perhaps we should think instead of ensuring our TBR piles are geographically diverse? My favorites eschew any exoticization or romanticization of the places they’re set and instead celebrate and reveal what’s unique and specific and true about the setting.
When I read Ann Cleeves’s Jimmy Perez novels, I feel invited into daily life in Scotland’s Shetland Isles. In their historical series set in colonial India, Abir Mukherjee and Nev March spin intricate mysteries while making felt the reality of colonialism for the colonized. In his wonderful Emma Djan and Inspector Darko Dawson series, Kwei Quartey drops me in the middle of gloriously vibrant Accra, Ghana, a place that now lives in my imagination until I can visit there. How I love Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series and their flawed, admirable hero, who has taught me more about life in late twentieth-century China than any history book could. A recent obsession of mine is the series of Dolomites-set crime novels by Ilaria Tuti, so specifically atmospheric that I have found myself Googling their Northern Italian setting just to learn more about the history of this ancient border region. Speaking of border regions, I am always up for a visit to my beloved Ireland through the crime novels of Brian McGilloway, set in the Donegal and Tyrone communities straddling either side of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland border, which perfectly capture the nature of daily life in a place where a national border is invisible—until it isn’t.
The internationally-set novels that I return to again and again are Donna Leon’s Venice, Italy-set Commissario Guido Brunetti series. What a privilege to visit this magnificent and troubled city over the years with Brunetti and his family and colleagues as my guide, to eat with them (Oh, to eat with them!) and to watch their bonds and allegiances shift and change and mellow as the modern world irrevocably alters La Serenissima. Kind, decent, stalwart Brunetti feels like a part of my own family now, his city and its now-familiar canals a part of my own imaginative geography.
We asked Minotaur authors from all over the globe to write about their favorite international-set mysteries. Enjoy!
007 in Paradise
Selected by Brian Klingborg, author of Wild Prey, part of the Inspector Lu Fei series set in China and Myanmar
One critic described his writing as “sex, snobbery and sadism.” Another said his books are “about 80,000 words, with enough plot for 8,000 and enough originality for 800.” The author himself admitted “the target of my books lies somewhere between the solar plexus and…the upper thigh.”
I am referring, of course, to Ian Fleming. And although Fleming and his “blunt tool” James Bond are inarguably a creaky relic of a far less enlightened time, for my money, few writers have ever come close to his talent for transporting readers to exotic locales and stimulating their five senses. When you read a Bond book, you can almost feel the hot sand under your toes, smell the “nauseating” smoke and sweat in a late-night casino, taste the Beluga caviar and champagne, and hear the roar of a tricked-out Aston Martin.
As Fleming himself summed up perfectly: “The sun is always shining in my books…most of the settings…are in themselves interesting and pleasurable, taking the reader to exciting places around the world, and…a strong hedonistic streak is always there to offset the grimmer side of Bond’s adventures.”
It is no longer advisable to drink buckets of booze, smoke upwards of 60 Balkan-Turkish cigarettes a day, gamble all night, and go scuba diving without giving a thought to applying SPF 50 sunblock—but we can still live vicariously through Fleming’s books. And while James Bond is undoubtedly a dinosaur when it comes to his gender and sexual politics, as the cold war grows hot anew, his clashes with Russian agents in Paris, Berlin, Istanbul, and the Caribbean aren’t quite as far-fetched as they may have once seemed.
A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain
Selected by Nev March, author of Peril at the Exposition and Murder in Old Bombay, set in British Bombay
They say “The past is a foreign country” but what if you’re suddenly in the past AND in a different country? Julie McElwain’s A Murder in Time is the first book of her Kendra Donovan series set in 1800s England.
FBI agent Kendra is furious about the betrayal of her team and travels to England to investigate drafty old Aldrich castle. To gain access, she slips into a film production as an extra, dresses in costume, when…kabamm! She’s back in 1815. Since she’s a modern woman, she’s hopelessly out of her depth and appropriately doubts her sanity (wouldn’t you?) while trying to figure out how to get back. Add in a sympathetic aristocrat, his too-attractive nephew, and a deranged killer, and Elwain’s mystery exudes both complexity and angst.
A wonderful set of minor characters and a host of curious period details brought this one to life. From the details of dress, the class system among the help—did you know what a tweeny was?—to food, modes of address, and location, surprises abound. How would a crime on a country estate be investigated in 1815? Who’d call (or pay for) a bow-street runner? What if a member of the nobility was suspected, could they even be arrested? By whom?
Reading a mystery, let alone a time-travel mystery in a foreign country, requires the suspension of disbelief. Doing so yields nonstop action and quick turns of humor. Kendra is an experienced and savvy FBI agent, but the intricacies of polite behavior, the fuss over clothes, avoiding the cut direct or its various flavors, and social mores of the time make questioning suspects an arduous task. McElwain’s research was just right. Not too much to swamp the story, but just enough to fully color it.
The Bernie Gunther Series by Philip Kerr
My pick for the best series set in Europe happens to be the series I recommend no matter the classification: the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr. Many things about these books propel them to the top of the list for anyone wanting a Euro-bound reading list. First, they will take you to most countries on that side of the pond—Germany for the most part, but also France, Austria, and as far east as Russia itself. And because the books are meticulously researched, you can depend on wonderfully accurate descriptions and depictions of everywhere Bernie Gunther goes.
Another reason, and Kerr’s wonderful research also helps with this, is that the books bounce around in time a little. They are centered around the events of WW2, and so his stories come out you from that universe, through that lens, but the broad span of time allows for a variety of real, historical characters to appear (and sometimes disappear!).
Perhaps more than anything, people should read the books for Bernie Gunther himself. The range of time and geography opens this grumpy, boozy policeman up in front of our curious eyes. He is such a fascinating character, a cynic with a strong moral code, one that’s tested time and time again for more than a decade, and the middle of a war. To top it off, the mysteries themselves are fascinating, because of where they’re set, who’s involved, and because Bernie is the one doing the hunting. At least, most of the time…