Exotic and Mysterious Places
Some of the best "place" mysteries are written about countries most of us would love to visit. Thus, I present a selection of truly special mysteries that will transport you to new lands and cultures.
If we start with a Latin flair then I strongly recommend the great Argentine poet, Jorge Luis Borges, who was a devoted mystery fan and writer. He wrote many short stories including one of the very best - "Muerte y la Brujela" (Death and the Compass) in The Aleph and other Stories, (E.P. Dutton, 1978). With Adolfo Bioy-casares he wrote a number of stories collected in Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (E.P. Dutton, 1981). They are indeed parodies and the detective who solves the crimes sits in jail! For more recent reading try Paco Ignacio Taibo III, a Spanish/Mexican writer who turns the mystery upside down in which the bad guys are the police and the authorities while the good guys are the criminals! Life itself (Mysterious, 1995) is a wonderful example of this flexibility in the genre. If we move to the roots of Latin mysteries there is a wonderful story set in Spain entitled Flander's Panel, (Bantam, 1996) by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Any of his mysteries are worth a read and capture the energy and allure of Spain.
In northern Europe, Sweden in particular, there have been some superb writers. The legendary Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, a wife and husband team, planned and wrote ten excellent mysteries set in Stockholm that serve as remarkable social commentaries on the Swedish social system. Their geography is outstanding and their very leftist politics shine through these special books. One of the best of the series is The Laughing Policeman (Vintage Books, 1992) which won an Edgar in America. A more recent excellent Swedish place writer is Kerstin Ekman whose mysteries have a superb sense of place. Her novel, Blackwater (Doubleday, 1995), is set in the far north of Sweden and captures the stress between the Sami people and the Swedes.
A bit more east in Europe one can find some fascinating mysteries written by Czechs. One of the truly great writers of the current century was Karel Capek who wrote a series of short mysteries set in small towns in pre 1939 Czechoslovakia. They are available in a collected set in Tales From Two Pockets, (Catbird Press. 1994) and capture the full flavor of the Czech countryside and Czech humor. In contrast, the sights and frights of socialist Prague are beautifully rendered by Josef Skvorecky in his series featuring Lt. Boruvka of the Prague Police that eventually culminates in Canada with the exile author. My favorite is The Mournful Demeanour of Lt. Boruvka (W.W. Norton, 1991). Edith Pargeter (Ellis Peters) also wrote some very atmospheric mysteries set in the former socialist Czecholslovakia which she knew very well since she traveled there extensively and translated many works from Czech to English (a beautiful novel of hers is A Means of Grace,Trafalgar Square, 1995).
Further east still one comes upon Russia where the mystery has a wondrous history. Suffice it to say that today's really excellent Russian writers are not available in translation but you can read about them on my web site atRussian Mysteries. You can get a good sense of Soviet Siberia from Lionel Davidson's Kolymsky Heights, (St. Martin, 1994). Stuart Kaminsky's series set in the former USSR and Russia is worth a try - my favorite is A Cold Red Sunrise, (Ivy Books, 1988). Another excellent American writer of mysteries set in Soviet Russia is Anthony Olcott who wrote the outstanding Murder at the Red October (Bantam, 1982) .
Moving to the Holy land, there are at least two outstanding Israeli writers who can deliver the political and cultural geography of that country with great skill. Robert Rosenberg is a master of the hills and kills of Jerusalem. His most recent is An Accidental Murder, (Simon and Schuster, 1999) but my favorite is the dazzling Crimes of the City (Poisoned Pen Press, 1997). .The other writer is Batya Gur and one should try any of her mysteries but be sure to read Murder on a Kibbutz (Harper Collins, 1994).
In the Orient, mysteries are also popular, especially in Japan. Two very special Japanese writers are Seicho Matsumoto and Natsuki Shizuko. Matsumoto set his stories in Tokyo but conveyed the entire island nation culture in his novels. And like all Japanese mysteries his hero is a policeman and guns are rarely if ever involved in the action. His Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Soho, 1989) is a geographic gem where the crime is solved with the help of a map of Japanese dialects. Shizuko, often called the Agatha Christie of Japan, writes beautiful novels set around the islands. One of her best is Murder on Mt. Fuji, (Ballantine, 1987).
Time and space prohibit a full discussion of a number of other great place writers who use and used exotic locales to enliven their stories. Some of those who must be mentioned include the following. Robert van Gulik was a master of the culture of Tang Dynasty China with his Judge Dee mysteries. Arthur Upfield was far ahead of his time in terms of environmental and racial issues in his incredible series featuring the delightful half caste Napoleon Bonaparte . Donna Leon is much better than any guide book of Venice and entertains royally via Inspector Brunetti. There are more, but, later.
Enjoy your vicarious journeys!!!
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