The Mysterious Travel Guide
A few years ago I was to lead a trip through China and had copies of Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station sent to all the participants as one of the many things to read prior to departure. About halfway through the trip, as we left Urumchi in western China, the group informed me that they were best prepared for the excursion by the Mrs. Pollifax mystery. The story had prepared them for each place we visited by describing the main tourist features but, more importantly, it explained much about the culture and people in each place we visited. The political issue related to the Muslim Uyghur people had been explained and they were ready to encounter the Kazakhs on the grasslands and much more. And all this was conveyed via an interesting and informative Mrs. Pollifax adventure, infinitely more pleasant than a boring tourist guide or long political text on contemporary China. The point to be made is that, more often than not, mysteries can be the best guides for a journey, foreign or domestic.
There are some caveats, of course. The mystery will not identify the best restaurant or recommend the best or cheapest hotel but, since that information is very time sensitive and often a matter of opinion, the traveler will not have missed much. Well written mysteries by place sensitive writers will provide information about things that matter and in ways that entertain as well as inform. And, historical mysteries can even restore important features and contexts that are long gone. In short, good mysteries can provide the traveler with important cultural, economic, historical and geographical information that would make a regular guide book author blush in shame.
Excellent examples are found in the mysteries by Donna Leon set in Venice and featuring her sleuth Inspector Brunetti. The squares, districts, canals and the waterway system as well as a typical Venetian diet are regularly and brilliantly described in this truly fascinating series. Leon often provides an historical background for many of the regions of Venice, many of which are important for understanding the present. For a true learning experience it may be best to read the entire series or a goodly number of them because she often provides an historical context for different parts of Venice in different books. At any rate, each book is so enjoyable it will not be an odious task. Another excellent author focused on Venice is Magdalen Nabb, an English author who’s somewhat laconic Marshal Guarnaccia is fun to observe and in a city captured well and realistically.
Istanbul is similarly well done by Barbara Nadel, an English writer of considerable skill and knowledge of Turkey. Her policemen are fascinating contrasts because of their different ethnic origins and she runs them around the very different sections of the city encountering religious tensions, murder, and mayhem while they wrestle with personal problems that provide truly unusual insights into Turkish family life. Her stories are an excellent preparation for the problems Europeans expect, if and when, Turkey joins the EU.
I am particularly partial to the Maigret mysteries by the remarkable and prolific Georges Simenon, a Belgian writer who’s hero everyone knows is a French police inspector. Most of the Paris stories are set in the 50s and 60s but, once immersed in a Maigret story, I can smell the bistros and brassieres on the romantic sounding boulevards. His apartment on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and his office at the Quai des Orfevres beckon me to visit Paris and wander around those well known sections of the city he describes so well in his tales. I can envision myself sitting in the Brassiere Dauphine sipping a calvados and imagining Jules and Madame Maigret, arm in arm, coming in the door.
If one is planning to visit Israel, you can do no better than to read the stories of Batya Gur and Robert Rosenberg. Although Ms. Gur recently died, her novels are a sure way to understand some of the contemporary strains of the nation. Her stories are set in various places that capture Israeli reality from a Kibbutz to a symphony orchestra and are brilliantly written and sensitive glimpses of a nation still in the making. Rosenberg is a master of place and neighborhood. His novel, Crimes of the City, will certainly bring Jerusalem alive before you get there.
For the U.S. traveler there are so many excellent mystery writers to explore before you go anywhere. I dare say no one will dispute the fact that Tony Hillerman is a must read for any journey to Navaho country. His people, landscapes and culture are brilliantly portrayed in his mysteries - so much so that the Navaho nation has given him awards for his work. There is also a map published showing the locations of the main places and artifacts of all the Hillerman mysteries that one can arm oneself with before traveling off to the mesas and buttes (Tony Hillerman's Indian Country Map and Guide - 2nd Edition - 2002 - Time Traveler Maps).
If one has a mania for the nation’s National Parks, why would one even think of leaving without reading the relevant mystery by Nevada Barr featuring her ranger Anna Pigeon? Every one of her stories is set in a different park and I have been dazzled by her maps, descriptions and plots. Don’t even think about going to the Statue of Liberty until you read Liberty Falling (most people don’t even know that it is a National Park!). My favorite is the relatively unknown A Superior Death set in Royale National Park on Lake Superior in Michigan. Barr’s works are good examples of literature providing ideas about where to go!!
Many U. S cities can be visited vicariously via the mysteries of some of the best tour guides one will ever find. For Baltimore, Laura Lippman’s stories are better than any guide book ever written for the city and they are filled with the wonderful adventures of avid rower Tess Monaghan. This lady really knows her place. I am very fond of S.J. Rozan and her New York novels filled with fascinating New York characters and places from the Bowery to Chinatown with Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Julie Smith is in love with New Orleans and this is immediately evident in her mysteries set there. She is irreverent, smart and will prepare anyone for a visit to the Crescent City. And as for Boston, there are so many good writers to visit the city with including Robert Parker, Dennis Lehane, Jane Langton but, for me, none are better than Linda Barnes. She really has an eye for the city and even its changes and idiosyncrasies. Her P.I. and part-time cabbie Carlotta Carlyle knows every nook and criminal in Boston. My favorite is the Snake Tattoo.
It is possible even to take a time capsule and visit some places via mysteries. Rome is a wonderful example where you can traipse through the sights of the great city by reading Lindsey Davis’ work led by her hero Marcus Didius Falco or Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder. The place has certainly changed but the main monuments are still there. One has only to use some imagination and be transported back to an earlier time and relive the antics of two of the most interesting detecting personalities of all time.
There are so many more superb mysteries and mystery series that might be cited and recommended as travel guides for intrepid travelers. So forget about the best restaurant and the best hotel and walk in the footsteps of some of the most unusual characters in literature created by some of the most talented writers today. It may take a bit more reading than a dull guide book but I promise the read is worth the wait and the pleasure of traveling informed will be unparalleled.
George Demko, September 2006
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