Thursday, September 21, 2006

Detectives Beyond Borders

Welcome to my new forum devoted to international crime fiction – "international" in my case meaning outside the United States. The Web is all about openness and freedom of information, so I have no compunction about taking David J. Montgomery's 10 Greatest Detective Novels idea, ringing some changes on it, and coming up with a debate/discussion of my own. He focuses on American writers; I'll take the rest of the world and ask these questions:

What are your favorite crime novels and stories set in countries other than your own?

– Why do you like these stories?

– Is living in a country a prerequisite for writing a successful crime story set in that country?

– What makes crime stories especially attractive to the armchair traveler?

– Do people even read in armchairs anymore?

Setting has been integral to some of the finest crime fiction through all periods. Think the misty docks and streets of Conan Doyle's London. Think Hammett's San Francisco, Chandler's Los Angeles, Lawrence Block's New York. Or think Georges Simenon's Paris, its suburbs, and the villages where Maigret loves to relax, drink white wine, and play cards. Given the importance of setting, it seems natural that crime stories should prove especially attractive to those of us who like to travel in our minds as well as in trains, planes, cars, buses and boats. Indeed, this is a good time for such readers, with Soho Crime, Bitter Lemon Press and Serpent's Tail, among others, offering much of interest.

I'll begin with some of my favorites, along with a few books I don't much like. Feel free to disagree with me, especially on the latter. Nothing would please me more than to be talked into recognizing virtues I had not seen before in an author – or to be forced to better understand and justify my dislike.

In no particular order, here is some of my favorite non-American crime fiction:

1) Lovely Mover, by Bill James, though several of the other novels from the middle of James' Harpur & Iles series are about as good. The series hits its stride around its seventh book and becomes a kind of grand and cracked portrait of Britain's shifting urban and social landscape, of the murky boundaries between police and criminals, of suburban social climbers who happen to be killers and drug dealers, of the strange ways people build families in changing times. The books are violent, dark, and often very funny. And James just happens to be the best prose stylist who has ever written crime fiction in English.

2) Death of a Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong. A clear-eyed view of 1990s Shanghai that meets every traditional requirement for a full-blooded crime novel. The setting is evocative, the protagonist is unusual (though not the strongest feature of the book), the supporting characters are compelling, and the story has a surprise ending that could only have happened in China.

3) Cosi Fan Tutti, by Michael Dibdin, is an exception to my general distaste for novels set in "foreign" countries by writers not from those countries. Such books often degenerate into travelogues. This novel is formally daring, and talk about surprise endings! Dibdin, an Englishman, spent several years teaching in Italy, according to various accounts, and his charmingly named protagonist, Aurelio Zen, offers a kind of Baedeker's guide to official Italian corruption and internecine rivalry, each novel set in a different region: Naples here, the Vatican, Venice, the south in other books. And Rome. Always Rome. "Zen" is a name characteristic of the protagonist's native Venice, but it also has overtones of the detachment with which this Zen moves through the sometimes deadly worlds of Italian officialdom and gangsterdom. Of course, the character's other name, Aurelio, is another clue that he is wise and given to occasional musing, if not outright meditation.

4) "Brown Eyes and Green Hair," a short story by Pentti Kirstila available in "The Oxford Book of Detective Stories (An International Selection)." This delightful, deadpan, at times almost surreal story by the Finnish Kirstila is an exception to the rule that writers from Scandinavia, the Baltic countries and Iceland are morose -- and is the only Kirstila to have been translated into English. Let's raise a fuss and get more of his work translated and published. (Some of his writing is available in German and in some less widespread European languages.)

5) Points and Lines, by Seicho Matsumoto. This Japanese police procedural is a kind of road movie on the rails, a look at people and places in 1960s Japan through the eyes of a police inspector who travels the length and breadth of the country by train as he tracks down clues to a young couple’s death.

6) No Happy Ending, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. The protagonist shares a cramped Mexico City office with a plumber, an upholsterer and a sewer engineer. The book begins with a Roman soldier found dead in a bathroom. What more could you ask for? Like Dibdin's Aurelio Zen, Taibo's one-eyed hero, Hector Belascoaran Shayne, bumps up against official corruption and violence. Unlike Zen, Shayne attacks it headfirst. He also has a profound sympathy with victims of police and other official and corporate brutality.

7) The Prone Gunman, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. Another author with a distinct political viewpoint. His short, grim novels have a certain formal similarity to Jim Thompson's. But Manchette's protagonists are not fortunate enough to die. Rather, they are brought low, chewed up, and spit out, destroyed or disoriented but still alive, by powerful forces who use them to achieve their own ends before discarding them.

8) Thumbprint and Fever, by Friedrich Glauser. This 1930s Swiss writer, translated and brought back into print by Bitter Lemon Press, offers that rarest of detective protagonists: a man who has hit rock bottom professionally without lapsing into alcohol and self-pity. Sgt. Studer works in small corners of a big world: Villages, prison cells, cramped apartments. An insane asylum. An isolated Moroccan Foreign Legion post. He is mordant and humane in a world of which his creator takes a deadpan view. Some say Glauser influenced his countryman Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Maybe, but Glauser was better.

9) The Amsterdam Cops series, by Janwillem van de Wetering. This Dutch author has been a businessman, a world traveler, a reserve Amsterdam police officer, and a student at a Zen monastery in Kyoto. All, especially the last three, figure prominently in this series, which includes 14 novels and two overlapping short-story collections. Detective twosomes are a nickel a dozen; Van de Wetering offers the only three-headed protagonist I can think of: the grumpy Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, the younger and sometimes vain Sgt. Rinus de Gier, and their unnamed commissaris, or chief, an elderly mentor with sometimes excruciating knee pains who is a sly collaborator and a kind of guru to Grijpstra and de Gier. Start with Hard Rain, in part for the larger role it gives the commissaris. Van de Wetering has an interesting approach to translation: He does his own, and he regards the results as versions, rather than translations, of the original. The one book in the series that I read in Dutch has slightly different chapter divisions from the English version and an opening chapter with more physical description. And the first in the series, An Outsider in Amsterdam, reflects the Dutch language's more frequent use of the present perfect where English would use the simple past. This results in occasional odd sentences such as "I wonder if he has done it."

10/11) Tales From Two Pockets by Karel Capek and The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skvorecky. These books of tales are full of sharp observation, wry and wistful humor, and detection of the classic and other kinds. Both just might lay to rest the notion that "literary" crime fiction equals bad crime fiction.

=======

OK, what do these stories have in common, other than that none is set in the United States or in an English village and each offers a vivid sense of place? Damned if I know. Maybe I'll know better once I hear from you.

What about books that didn't make my list? Ruth Rendell's superb The Veiled One seems far more interested in its killer's psyche than in the story's setting. The great Ken Bruen's Brant and Roberts novels are like Ed McBain 87th Precinct gang whacked out on beer and cocaine. Their violent, good-hearted, hilarious characters clang and crash together in stories that are all action, all character, without much focus on the setting. By all means, read them. (Bust, on the other hand, Bruen's excellent collaboration with Jason Starr, could qualify for this list with an asterisk, as an Irish writer's view of New York.)

Two books I did not care for helped form my thoughts on international crime fiction. The one Magdalen Nabb "Marshal Guarnaccia" story that I read got the details of its Florence-area setting convincingly right, but the story could have happened anywhere. John Burdett's Bangkok 8, on the other hand, was all local color, all weird exotica, all too much like a travelogue, albeit an especially weird one, for my tastes.

A last note: I've omitted Murder Must Advertise, the one Dorothy Sayers novel that I've read, though it is set in a country where I've never lived. Yet I might include Peter Lovesey's fine The Last Detective, which takes place in the same country. The reason is simple: In crime fiction, the past is not a foreign country. Sayers, and perhaps Christie, Chesterton and all the rest, created worlds so familiar to crime-fiction readers that they are no longer foreign.

Thanks, and keep those posts coming,

Peter

© Peter Rozovsky 2006

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I have come here via Books Inq., and have enjoyed reading your post. My blog is called Petrona and is at http://petrona.typepad.com

I was particularly interested in your post becuase I have read none of your "first choice" books, which surprises me as I love crime fiction and have read a great deal of it in my life. In your "also rans" I have read the Rendell and the Sayers.

I am from, and live in, the UK. I adore reading crime fiction that is set in other countries, eg Michael Connelly, Robert Crais (California); Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland), Henning Mankell and Liza Marklund (Sweden), Sarah Paretsky (Chicago) and so on. I feel I have got to know some of these places well by reading novels about them, particularly a series.

Do you have any favourite series that are set in a "place"? (Of course there are many such in the UK also, eg Ian Rankin (Edinburgh) and Peter Turnball (Glasgow). I like those too, but the "foreign" ones have an extra element for me.

Hope to see you over at Petrona sometime. I link to some other great crime fiction blogs there too, eg Eurocrime, CrimeFicReader.

September 21, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the comments and the links. I'll try to make sure I link to them from here.

I like Arnaldur Indridason a lot. "Jar City" is something like "Death of a Red Heroine": The author built his plot around conditions unique to the story's setting. That is, for me, the highest form of creating a sense of place, more difficult to achieve than fine description.

My prize for creating a sense of place over a series goes to the Bill James "Harpur & Iles" novels. James does this by following the characters over time, showing their changes as expressed through their surroundings. Oddly enough, the books take place in an unnamed city -- reviewers seem to think of it as a medium-seize city in southwest England, which makes sense. A seaside location figures prominently, James is from relatively nearby Cardiff, and characters are always fearing an invasion of the real tough guys from Manchester and London. (Parenthetically, James is not all that well known in the U.K. or the U.S., despite the rapturous critical praise he gets.)

I never know whether the mood in Scandinavian/Icelandic crime books comes from their bleak setting or their characters' bleak outlooks. Come to think of it, that could be another example of creating a sense of place through character. Mankell is very good. I like especially the scene where Wallander is trapped inside the library in "Dogs of Riga." And "Firewall" is probably a unique mix of small-city police procedural and international thriller.

"Stalking the Angel" is all I've read of Robert Crais, but I have a feeling he, too, uses character to enhance the sense of place. I mean, the book opens with Elvis Cole standing on his head while welcoming a client. Where else could we be but in California?

Rankin is the king of "city" authors. People mention him and Edinburgh the way they mention Chandler and Los Angeles. I like his stories better than his novels, though. He's been so phenomenally successful from such a relatively young age that there's bound to be a backlash. I think you can see some of it on David J. Montgomery's "10 Greatest Detective Novels Ever."

I think I'll look into Liza Marklund and Peter Turnbul. What can you tell me about them? And I need to correct your impression that the Sayers and the Rendell were also-rans. Both are excellent books, as were the Ken Bruens that did not make my list. They just did not fit into this somewhat narrowly circumscribed discussion. The discussion may be narrow, but I am not; I enjoyed both and would recommend them to anyone.

Peter

September 21, 2006  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

Hi Peter, I'll be adding your blog to mine :-). I loved 'Fever' and have listened to 'Just a Corpse at Twilight' by Van de Wetering but wasn't too keen. That's all I've read on your top ten!

September 22, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for your comment. I've just added your blog to mine. Fever was superb, and I heard from Francois von Hurter at Bitter Lemon, who tells me that the company plans to publish the rest of the Sgt. Studer novels, one a year. I think there were six or seven altogether.

"Listened" to Just a Corpse at Twilight, you say? On an audio book? Hmm, I wonder what that would be like. In any case, I purposely listed the Amsterdam Cops series rather than any of the individual novels because it's the series than makes the big impression -- the way Grijpstra and de Gier work together, for instance. Some of their best scenes together are like a kind of sly Zen slapstick comedy, if you can imagine such a thing. Read the short opening chapter of Tumbleweed when you get a chance. (Incidentally, there is a current or recent Dutch television series called, I believe, Grijstra and de Gier that also fails to capture the flavor of the books, at least in the one episode I saw. It was a competent story about a pair of cops that just didn't get at the sly humor and wry, detached Zen-influenced ways of looking at the world that is everywhere in the books.)

The two cops have a wonderful habit of escaping from their cares by playing music in their office, and those scenes are like nothing else in crime fiction. It's how these guys think, how they escape, how they meditate.

The characters are probably stronger than the plots in these books. In fact, there's one annoying plot device that Van de Wetering resorts to toward the end of many of them. I singled out Hard Rain in part because in it Van de Wetering pokes fun at this particular device in an especially delightful way for readers who know the series. And I think I know where Van de Wetering got the plot device, but that's a topic for another post.

Peter

September 22, 2006  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

Good news about the Glausers. Amazon.co.uk doesn't list anything yet for next year but early days.

I listen to books whilst commuting and use the format to try authors I might not usually pick up. I prefer a good plot to good characters - I'm a big fan of the 'puzzle' mystery - which is perhaps why I didn't warm to G & G - it was a bit too absurd :-). In spite of me not being too keen on it, the performance/book has stayed in my mind much longer than others have. It was a very good narration.

September 23, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

You may not have taken to Grijpstra and de Gier, but if you found them absurd, you may at least have picked up on what makes the books special.

My latest post speculates about differences of taste between Americans and Britons in the matter of crime fiction. I think British writers and readers have tended to prefer puzzle and plot, while Americans tend to favor mood and character. Of course, that's no novel observation, and the distinction has probably evaporated, for the most part, if it ever existed. But maybe traces linger, at least in some readers.

Re Glauser, I liked Thumbprint so much that I ordered both In Matto's Realm and Fever from the U.K., where both were published several months before their American release.

I'll look for that Van de Wetering audio book. Who released it? Who's the narrator?

September 23, 2006  
Blogger Euro Crime said...

'Just a Corpse at Twilight' narrated by George Guidall. In the UK it's available from UK Audiobooks (who kindly send me review copes).
http://www.ukaudiobooks.co.uk/titles.php?&t=1708

On the box it says produced by Recorded Books, Inc. Tel 1-(800)- 638-1304 for a free catalogue.

September 24, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. I'll be in London soon. I'll pick it up on my way to Murder One to look for the two new Bill Jameses

September 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It beats me how you've missed out on Australian writer Peter Temple, both his Jack Irish series and his standalones. The Broken Shore is far and away the best crime novel published in 2006. For characters, settings and style, Temple leaves most crime writers for dead. And he's funny to boot.

September 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS: On the subject of Peter Temple, I heard Jesse Kornbluth from headbutler.com give his Identity Theory a well-deserved rave on NPR. (The link is http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6131514) It's the best thriller I've read since the early Charles McCarry's.

September 26, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Many thanks for the heads-up on Peter Temple. Funny? Strong on character and setting? He sounds like someone I might like very much. I'll look for him this week and report back to you.

September 26, 2006  
Anonymous Rob Preece said...

Hi Peter,

I enjoy Andrea Camilleri a lot. These Sicily-set mysteries combine fascinating characters, a great setting, and, of course, the Mafia in the background.

On a more personal note, my company, BooksForABuck.com, recently published "A Full English Death" by Anthony Perham. It is set in an English village, but it's definitely not a cozy. It's an eBook, available for only $3.99 at www.booksforabuck.com/mystery/mys_06/full_english_death.html.

Rob Preece
Publisher, www.BooksForABuck.com

October 01, 2006  
Blogger Jerome Weeks said...

I also came to this site via Crime Fiction Dossier and I'm busy compiling my own highly individual and thoroughly indefensible top 10 list of crime novels (specifically defined in a way that barely justifies my whimsical tastes).

At any rate, I found your list quite fascinating because I know some of them very well (like the van de Wetering) but others I'd never heard of. For me, that's the great, if not the only, reason for a 'top 10 list.'

Speaking of van de Wetering, have you read his marvelous account of his time spent in a Zen monastery in Japan? It's The Empty Mirror and it remains one of the most accessible and entertaining introductions to Zen Buddhism, I believe. (He flunks out.) Along the way, it also provides a through-the-backdoor entry into the thinking of his detectives.

And I thoroughly agree, by the way, with your assessment of Bangkok 8. I found the entire concept very intriguing, got hooked by the milieu and style and then over the long haul was disappointed by the over-reliance on macabre exotica and elaborate violence. It was as if he tried to wed a police procedural and its street-level social insights with an Asian fantasy.

So all right, now my puzzled objection: You include a police procedural novelist like van de Wetering, yet not a single mention of Georges Simenon or Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo???

I am not a huge fan of Simenon (his work is soooo low key as to be almost a murmur), so I can understand leaving him off the list. But he's such a trailblazing, classic "international" figure in crime fiction that I thought you would at least include a defense for excluding him. As for Sjowall and Wahloo, well, I have to say, as much as I like van de Wetering, he's really just following in their footsteps, and I don't think anything he's written has matched The Laughing Policeman.

October 10, 2006  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and kind comments. I'll look forward to reading your list. You'll see that I left myself several outs and excuses in case anyone called my list indefensible. Perhaps you'll do the same.

Yes, I've read The Empty Mirror, and I agree with your assessment. The accounts of the difficulty of the regimen and the vignettes of daily life in the monastery lend the book a human touch that I'm sure many such books lack.

There may be no mention of Simenon on my list itself, but the introduction to the list singles out Simenon as a kind of epitome of what I like about international crime fiction:

Setting has been integral to some of the finest crime fiction through all periods. ... Or think Georges Simenon's Paris, its suburbs, and the villages where Maigret loves to relax, drink white wine, and play cards.

So, while I may be unable to single out one from the ten or twelve Maigrets I've read, I recognize that Simenon was in every way a trail blazer for the kind of crime fiction I like best. OK, I will single out one book: Maigret's Memoirs.

As for my omission of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, I've never read any of the Martin Beck books. I'll take your objection as a recommendation, and I'll try to get to my copy of The Man on the Balcony before too long.

October 10, 2006  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I've finally completed my first Ruth Rendell, 'Talking to Strange Men': a hugely impressive, brilliantly constructed, spectacularly implausibly contrived, delightfully original novel.
(I know how you luhve your adverbs!)

Have you read it and if so can you or your contributors recommend me more in the same vein

October 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Veiled One, a Wexford novel from 1988, remains to this day the only Ruth Rendell novel I have read. Now, as then, my verdict is that the novel was not quite my preferred type of crime novel but contained some daring and brilliant writing.

Sounds like we have similar opinions, but I can offer no useful suggestions other than that you might try that book and then, perhaps, another Wexford book from around the same time.

October 23, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I've been told by a Rendell fan that, as with Simenon and his non-Maigrets, her best novels are the non-Wexfords.
So you might want to try a non-Wexford, also
perhaps a Kilkenny!

October 23, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, maybe I'll try Talking to Strange Men, then. Thanks.

October 23, 2012  

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