Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why do crime writers set stories overseas?

My recent immersion in Dashiell Hammett implies no abandonment of international crime fiction. Hammett set "Ber-Belu" in the Philippines and "The Road Home" in Burma, and his friend Raoul Whitfield spent part of his life in the Philippines and set an entire series of stories there.

Henning Mankell took Kurt Wallander to Latvia in The Dogs of Riga, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö sent Martin Beck to Budapest in The Man Who Went up in Smoke, and Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole does some far-flung travelling in a pair of books not yet available in English.
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What other crime writers send their protagonists overseas? Why do they do this, and what does it add to a story? Have crime writers' reasons for setting stories overseas changed over time? (Keywords: Wanderlust, exotica, curiosity, exploration, Edgar Allan Poe.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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34 Comments:

Blogger Dorte H said...

The question is if it *does* add to the story. The first Harry Hole story in Australia is not bad, but I don´t think it is as good as his later works.

Another example is Swedish writer Irene Huss. She sends her protag off to other countries on a case now and then, and I am not the only reader who has noticed that these sections are less credible than those from Sweden (her account of police work in Spain was downright ridiculous).

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You mean Swedish writer Helene Tursten who sends her protagonist Irene Huss ... Her overseas travels must take place in books not yet translated into English. The ones I've read are set at home in Sweden, so thanks.

Naturally I was too tactful to include an author's desire for an excuse to travel and write off the expenses as a reason for setting a book overseas. Perhaps Tursten just wanted a vacation in Spain.

Your criticism of Irene Huss' Spanish adventures gets to the heart of this question. These days, a writer has to offer convincing reasons for taking a protagonist abroad and to make his actions plausible -- or divertingly exciting -- once he gets there. Mankell does this very well in The Dogs of Riga.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

So, what makes Irene Huss' Spanish adventure ridiculous?

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Kiwicraig said...

Michael Connelly took Harry Bosch, who is the epitome of the contemporary LA crime fighter, to Hong Kong in NINE DRAGONS...

Mark Billingham took his London detective Tom Thorne to Spain in FROM THE DEAD.

Both authors write terrific gritty modern crime series that live and breath the city they're set in, but I guess each decided to try something different as a one-off. Both books were pretty good - not the best in their series, but still quality reads.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Tursten writing about Huss, you are right, this is bedtime in Denmark :D

I don´t recall much about Huss´ Spanish adventure, but one could not possibly take their ´work´ seriously.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Craig, what brought those detectives to their new destinations?

I wonder, too, how true to life such border-hopping is. How often do local police officers cross international borders in real life?

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Godnat, Dorte. I'll look for information on the Huss-in-Spain book.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Even Jack Reacher, the quintessentially American knight in shining armor was sent to Paris by Lee Child in, I think, THE ENEMY. Reacher's mother was French.

Laurie R. King sent Holmes and Russell to Palestine, India, San Francisco. Mostly it worked because King made it so. The one that worked best for me was the sojourn into Palestine. (O JERUSALEM) Though the other two came close.

Robert Crais sent Elvis and Joe, two creatures of L.A. culture to NYC/Connecticut and once to New Orleans. It worked wonderfully. Possibly because watching two men so different from everything around them work their special magic on Manhattan mafia hoods and then some really nasty Cajun bad guys was so much fun.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. When you take a character out of his 'special' place you'd better have a damn good reason as well something going on to fill up the space.

Harry Bosch didn't work for me in Hong Kong. But I am not as big a fan of Harry as some.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I didn't know until now that Jack Reacher was American. His situation in the military, not to mention his French mother, would certainly seem to provide palusible reasons to travel.

In the old days, a P.I. agency like Pinkterton's or its fictional counterpart, the Continental agency, had offices all over the country, which offered detectives the opportunity to travel. I'm not sure how PIs operate these days -- or whether a guy like Elvis Cole would be licensed to practice his profession across state lines.

In any case, the jurisdicitonal issues -- and perhaps the necessity for suspension of disbelief -- come more to the fore in police procedurals than in PI stories.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

THE ENEMY was a prequel, Peter. The later books all take place in this country. Reacher served as an M.P. in the Army. His late brother worked for the FBI. Lee Child, though British, has a good grasp of the often dangerous American countryside.

Elvis went to try and track someone down. But yes, his p.i. license would have probably not served. Not that that would have stopped him and Joe from taking on the bad guys AND a very scary killer snapping turtle down Louisiana way.

February 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

The book in which Connelly sent Harry Bosch to Hong Kong did not work for me either.

We discussed this in earlier posts, that some of the loyal Bosch fans thought that "Nine Dragons," was more of an action-packed fast-plotted thriller, uncharacteristic of the usual Bosch books. In those Bosch does a lot of thinking, which is reflected on the pages; that's one characteristic his fans like.

I think international trips and issues flopped in Harlan Coben's latest Myron Bolitar book, "Long Lost."

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette: I guess Elvis Cole's experience in L.A. prepared him to deal with a killer snapping turtle.

An author who takes a protagonist across borders to investigate a crime has to be not accurate, but convincing. Sjowall and Wahloo take Martin Beck to Budapest in The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, and Beck's occasional dealing with diplomats helps ease the way to probablility.

February 10, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, interesting that Harry Bosch's overseas trip should turn into a thriller. I have a suspicion, and not much more than that, that overseas crime stories are likely to wander into thriller territory. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke does not do this; I wonder to what extent that book is an exception.

February 10, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Thrillers, action-packed , fast-paced, espionage, "war on terror," etc., all aspects of overseas crime stories.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Peter my first experience with this was when Robert B. Parker sent Spenser and Hawk to Montreal during the Olympics in 1976.

It can sometimes make sense for a private eye to travel where issues like jurisdiction don't come into play, but with police it's trickier. Though I liked the Rebus novel where he went to London.

February 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I hate Henning Mankell's excursion to Africa, mostly because it's a distraction.
And Reacher is altogether American, American military police originally. The more interesting question is why British authors set their thrillers and mysteries in the U.S.
As for me: my guy travels. He does so because it makes for a change, because it lets me introduce some interesting cultural or geographic facts or plot devices, and it fits his profession as a civil servant. In other words, there has to be believability and not just the sense that the place was dragged into the novel for extraneous reasons. (In Mankell's case a political agenda).

Oh, and yes, Rebus in London was miles better than on his home turf. Weird, that.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Speaking of Rebus and political agendas, what about when they come to you? One of the Rebus novels was set against a summit (G7 maybe?) in Edinburgh. It seemed to me that it became as much a distraction as if the character had gone to another country (though there was a funny scene of George W. Bush on a bicycle).

February 11, 2011  
Blogger L.M. Quinn... said...

I recall a Michael Dibden mystery where he sends Aurelio Zen to Iceland. It was an brilliant piece of work showing Zen's inability to accept living anywhere else but in Italy. Actually, Zen even had this problem moving from city to city within Italy.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John: Which novel brought Spenser and Hawk to Montreal? And are English and Scottish police forces administratively separate? Would it be a big deal for a Rebus to work in London -- other than the metropolitan police perhaps looking down on him?

All this talk of jurisdictional border-hopping reminds me of McCloud, of course.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thrillers, action-packed , fast-paced, espionage, "war on terror," etc., all aspects of overseas crime stories.

Which is one reason "The Man Who Went Up in Smoke" was interesting. Sjowall and Wahloo defied expectations when they took their detective abroad and had him proceed with an ordinary missing-person investigation. That gave the authors a chance to concentrate on other things.

Perhaps I'll make a separate post out of this even though I've written about the novel already.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., does travel play a special part in the Japanese public imagination? Many centuries after the time when you set you books, Hiroshige (and probably other printmakers as well) created marvelous series of prints about the great roads and memorable sights of Japan. Part of this would jibe with your observation about travel fitting a civil servant's life. Sometimes these series would illustrate the route of a delegation brining gifts from the shogun to the emperor. Later, Seicho Matsumoto's mystery novels are filled with train travel. So a large proportion of my limited experience with Japanese cultural expression has to do with travel.

Lee Child sets his books in the U.S., and so does John Connolly, who's Irish. In addition to whatever other attractions this great land holds for them, the vast potential of the American market may play a role.

I've read just three Rebus novels and a short story. Which book puts him in London?

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I've never quite got Rankin, but the summit book sounds worth a look. (I'd known that he set a novel against such a meeting, but I'd heard nothing about it.)

I can well believe Rankin might create distractions of the kind I think you mean. One of his novels, I think Black and Blue, sets a sizeable portion of the story on a North Sea oil rig. These scenes are convincing, and they are part of a larger warning against excessive dependence on oil. But they sure do slow the story down and bulk the book up.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

L.M., I sometimes got the idea that Dibdin deliberately set challenges for himself, such as building a novel on the structure of an opera in Cosi Fan Tutti. Usually these worked. He was the cleverest of crime writers. I haven't read the Iceland book, but I'll put it near the top of my list.

February 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

The Rebus novel in London is, I think, TOOTH AND NAIL.
In Japan, there is a later comic novel by Ikku Jippensha (HIZAKURIGE),which tells of the adventures of two lower middle class characters walking the great Eastern Road from Tokyo to Kyoto. The same places are depicted in the Hiroshige series of prints.
But a civil servant in the eleventh century was sent on official assignments to provincial administrations across the country.

I have had problems with Dibdin, especially with the later ones, but I applaud setting challenges.

February 11, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not exactly on your point Peter but I just re-read Death of a Hawker by Janwillem van der Vettering (sp?).
What a classic locked room mystery set on an Amsterdam canal. Totally riveted me and I'd forgotten the end and it knocked me in the gut. Now I plan to read more van der Vettering and hope you post about him!
Cara

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., 東海道中膝栗毛 sounds like a verbal countpart to the roadside scenes in Hiroshige's "53 Stations ot the Tokaido Road." Maybe it contains ribald tales of the kind he'd have liked to illustrate.

Dibdin managed to make the opera-based book work and to make a language school seem an inevitable setting for crime. I'd say he made the cleverness work an impressive proportion of the time.

February 11, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cara, Van de Wetering has to fit in here somewhere. He was Dutch, but he crossed a number of borders in his career, to Japan, South Africa, and the U.S. Why did he send Grijpstra and de Gier to Maine in "The Maine Massacre"? Probably because he was living there at the time.

Back in Amsterdam, he contributed to the sense of place by having his detectives make wry, soemtimes caustic remarks about the city, themselves, and their place in it.

One reason I haven't posted much about him is that he predated my blogging days. I read all the "Amsterdan Cops" books before I started this blog, though I did list them among my favorites in my very first post.

February 11, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Van de Wetering is wonderful most of the time, primarily because of his scurrilous characters. The Japan excursion din't work very well for me, though the comical turns tended to obscure some over-the-top plotting.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Lauren said...

Where to start on Irene Huss in Spain - is it the ridiculous connections between the Spanish police and organised, the casino massacre that Huss miraculously survives, the speedy recovery from a gunshot wound, or the ridiculously good-looking Spanish good cop (who appears to be a bad cop, but is then again a good cop)?

Irene and her colleague Kasia in Paris in a different book is also fairly silly, and yet another trip to London also ignores all rank conventions in the British police...and then there's the superhuman FBI agent who shows up at some point...

(I don't mind minor flaws - Stieg Larsson has a direct flight to Canberra that simply doesn't work; and another author solves a crime by arguing that a character would only have taken a particular flight to avoid being arrested...as if there weren't other reasons to avoid Ryanair! - but complete idiocy is grating.)

Oh, and you don't have to leave the country to make mistakes. I read a decent German book recently where a character playing football in England wants to travel home during the winter break - which may happen in the Bundesliga, but doesn't exist in the premier league.

Maybe they don't think readers will notice?

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I had never seen or heard Van de Wetering's characters called scurrilous before. I think of them as wryly philosophical, vain (De Gier) or ill-tempered (Grijpstra).

The Japan book veered into traveloguery at times, though some of the descriptions were interesting. I also liked Van de Wetering's book about his time in a Zen monastery in Kyoto. It was more humorous and less wifty than I'd have expected from such an account.

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, thanks for that rich bounty of absurd plotting. It sounds as if Soho Press may have chosen wisely when deciding which of Helene Tursten's books to have translated into English. The Spain book sounds like the Perils of Pauline.

Maybe those German authors just didn't know the Premiership schedule [What delicious overtones of pomposity and ridiculousness that word has to we North Americans! If only our baseball World(!) Series could pit the National Leagueship vs. the American Leagueship each year!] Or maybe they and Helene Tursten were simply too lazy to check that they had the details right.

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Well, the Komissaris with his turtle is pretty peculiar, and then the two detectives go off on drums all the time, and one of them keeps painting the same painting over and over again. But mostly the dialogue between them is spacey. Now mind you, all of this is entirely charming (and yes, philosophical in a Zen-sort of way where all is nothingness anyway), but their behavior is not normal for policemen. Take note that I said the books were great!

February 12, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

All are accurate descriptions, and it's no surprise that the characters show Zen-like tendencies given their creator's history. But I remember nothing scurrilous about any of them.

I always enjoyed Grijpstra and De Gier's office jam sessions.

February 12, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

OK, the term "scurrilous" is not entirely appropriate, though there is a lot of "buffoonery" (part of the dictionary definition) in the characters. However, the humor tends to be gentle and in good taste. "Carricature" might come closer, though one of the most attractive aspects in Van De Wetering's handling of his humor is that it is never very far from the tragic.

February 13, 2011  

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