As the Wicked Writers make time to write this week, you may be looking for a good book to take along for this summer's vacation. Glenn Harper, founder of the International Noir Fiction blog and editor of Sculpture magazine, has a few juicy recommendations. He's a pro at mining the treasure trove of international crime fiction, and below, he offers up a sampling of a few of his current favorites. Browse through until you find your location of choice, or like me, pack a whole lot of books. Enjoy!
I read crime novels while I ride the Metro to and from work every day, about 30 minutes each way. The train passes through new suburbs, old suburbs, and warehouse districts, passes by a cement factory, empty buildings covered in graffiti, a graveyard of buses and trolleys, a brightly colored church dome, and the backs of run-down row houses before passing into a railyard and a tunnel and then underneath downtown Washington, D.C. What I'm reading, though, transports me instead to all the continents, to exotic cities and threatening slums. Along the way, crime fiction gives me insights into the daily lives of people I'll never meet who share something with the commuters surrounding me on the train but also possess experiences that are absolutely unique. They demonstrate that international crime novels offer much more than an escapist tour guide to cities around the world. The novels described below—drawn from the last six months of my blog reviews—vividly investigate the social and cultural realities of the character’s lives and their diverse social milieu (on every continent except Antarctica), as much as they investigate the crimes that are their ostensible subject.
South Africa: The compression of time and action in Deon Meyer's 13 Hours is so condensed that the narrative is propulsive and addictive. Benny Griessel, who has been a major and a minor character in previous Meyer stories, is now an official "mentor" to a group of young black and mixed race police detectives (the new wave of police in the new South Africa), and is tiptoeing around his mandate to guide them without taking over their cases. Griessel oversees two cases, each full of violence, politics, social observation, police procedure, and vivid characters. While one plot drives forward with motion rather than mystery, the other is more of a puzzle, and the cops involved in these separate tracks use quite different techniques and skills in the pursuit to which they are assigned, another testament to Meyer's command of the material and the genre.
China: The followup to Diane Wei Liang's The Eye of Jade from a couple of years ago is a more assured novel though it retains the mixture of family, politics, and melancholy from the first book. The tone of Paper Butterfly has something in common with another Chinese emigre crime writer, Qiu Xiaolong, and perhaps it is the approximation of Chinese culture and speech that is the source of the similarity. Tiananmen Sqauare lies behind Liang’s characters' stories and motivations (and also is important to Liang’s own history). The second Mei Wang will keep you turning the pages with interesting characters, plot, and politics.
France: Dominique Manotti sets each of her crime novels in a particular historical milieu of late-20th-century France. Her most recent novel to be translated into English, Affairs of State, is set in 1985 and deals with the political and social conditions of the late Mittérand administration. The main characters (among a large cast) are a North African female cop (doubly unwelcome by other officers) and a pro-American leftist who is a behind-the-scenes advisor to the president. The plot deals with the international arms trade (specifically involving Iran, under an embargo at the time because of the Iran-Iraq war), a high-end brothel, competition among police and intelligence services, murder (deliberate and accidental), and the impossibility of prosecuting certain people for crimes ranging from prostitution to murder (because of their political influence). It's a terse, short book with few sympathetic characters and with sudden changes of direction and no simple or pat conclusion. Manotti demonstrates how a crime novel can effectively incorporate social events and political realities without sacrificing the story, as well as how a noir story can deeply investigate social circumstances.
Australia: Adrian Hyland's Emily Tempest is a half-Aboriginal woman who grew up in the Outback, left it to travel the world, and is now back. The mythologies of her Aboriginal friends and relatives are particularly important: in Gunshot Road, maps are a particular focus, and not only those graphed on paper, along with a legendary figure who apparently buried under a collapsed mountain years before. Emily has been hired as a kind of auxiliary police officer, and only occasionally in touch with the people of her village (where much of the crucial action took place in Hyland’s first novel, Moonlight Downs). She's adrift, and uncertain about which of the townspeople, miners, suspect, police, victims—and even a Chinese artist—she can trust. The story is a rich adventure with occasional violent action. The series reveals a very different facet of the Australian experience from the others in the crop of the current, remarkable burst of creativity in Australian crime.
Brazil: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, like all the author’s novels, follows the chief of a police precinct in Rio near the city’s famous beaches, and in this case, we get a bit more of Espinoa (whose childhood is related to the case at hand). Garcia-Roza’s novels offer portraits of personal flowing from the personality and life-history of the characters. Alone in the Crowd moves slowly, as the suspect ruminates on his love of walking in the middle of the city’s crowds and the detective puzzles over the crime, the suspect, and forgotten incidents of childhood. Espinosa pursues small-scale, personal crimes and meditates on their meaning, with the favela/slums of Brazil held at some distance, only briefly mentioned, unlike the more violent novels of Brazil by Leighton Gage; perhaps we need both in order to have some chance of understanding that culture, in its realities, potentials, and dangers.
Canada: Sandra Ruttan's Nolan, Hart, and Tain series has been unusual in several respects, including the balance among the three central characters, RCMP detective-constables assigned to Canada's Southwestern corner. But another important aspect of the series has been the substantial, unexplained backstory of the first case that the three worked on together, a case that has cast a shadow over them from the first novel, What Burns Within, uniting and dividing them at the same time. With the third volume, Lullaby for the Nameless, Ruttan uses multiple timelines to carry the story of Nolan, Hart, and Tain forward while also going back to the "myth of origin," the case that first brought them together, as well as the cases they've been on since then. The three characters orbit around various cases and one another, Nolan in isolation from the other two until the very end, when the cases intertwine and lead back to their original case. This is a police procedural of the first order, but with the story told through the characters and their conflictual histories more than through the serial murders and their echo in the current case. We do get glimpses of the murderers and their victims, almost as if caught momentarily in the headlights of a passing car, but for the most part Ruttan pulls off a jigsaw puzzle of information resulting from the investigation itself, in a fractured perspective of overlapping points of view, and what each reveals to and conceals from the reader. Lullaby for the Nameless is a vivid, noir portrait of the hard-scrabble small towns, ethnic tensions, dark urban corners, and deep forest environments of contemporary Canada, through the eyes of three fascinating, troubled investigators.
I’m currently reading a Polish police procedural that promises to deliver a compelling and sometimes comic insight into an Eastern Europe 20 years after the transformation of that region—and yet another vital international point of view on crime and culture. Check my site to see my review on this and other great books.