Strangers in a Strange Land

If you have been a regular reader of this column you are aware that my focus has been on mysteries written by indigenous writers for each country I cover. I have always been wary of writers who set stories in a foreign place and do it without the requisite knowledge of the culture, geography and "sense" of the country and the people. This column is dedicated to the issue of mystery writers who know (and in some cases, do not) know their place.

There are a dreadfully large number of writers who have set mysteries in foreign locales who know little about those places or even who denigrate the people and places in which they set their stories. Some of the early classic authors such as Christie use foreign settings as nothing more than props around which English-speaking characters solve crimes among indigenous servants and in the shadow of the pyramids or other great sites. This is still not an uncommon practice. For example, one of the best-known British writers in a book published in 1983 sets a story in China and all the main characters are English. One of the local Chinese characters, the guide, is described as slant - eyed and given lines like, ""You take anti-malaria pill evly Fliday, I hope?" An American mystery writer describing Africa notes that Leopoldville, Congo has "60,000 or 600,000 Blacks. I’ve read both figures but it doesn’t make any difference. There are an awful lot of them segregated in their own tremendous village". How’s that for sensitivity? In a recent collection of international mystery short stories (published in 1996) the editors start the collection with a story under the regional heading of "The Caribbean". The only story in that section is, however, set in Tahiti! Wrong body of water and wrong hemisphere!

So, given these examples of insensitivity and stupidity, I would like to identify a number of mystery writers who set their stories in foreign lands but know what they are doing! One of the most accomplished of these was Robert van Gulik, a Dutch scholar and diplomat who knew a number of languages fluently and lived in China and Japan for long periods of time. His Judge Dee mysteries, based on an actual Chinese magistrate’s records, are some of the most accurate and remarkable views into the culture of early China. One of my favorite mysteries set in China by a foreigner is The Peking Man is Missing by Claire Taschdjian (Harper and Row, 1977). It is based on the actual disappearance of the Peking Man skeleton during the Japanese occupation of China (that disappearance is still unsolved). Taschdjian lived and worked in China and knew the culture well. Unfortunately, it is the only mystery by this author.

The renowned Ellis Peters (aka Edith Pargenter) not only wrote the famous Brother Cadfael series and a number of other mysteries set in England but also set a number of stories in Czechoslovakia. She was fluent in Czech and received an award from the Czech Government for her translations of Czech literature. Two of her novels are worthy of note - The Piper on the Mountain, set in Slovakia (Warner Books, 1996) and A Means of Grace (Headline Books, London, 1994). The latter is set in Prague is a superb story with a line that I treasure. The main character is about to leave Prague and, reflecting on the changes the socialist government has wrought in this beautiful place, she utters aloud, " Places like people can be loved placidly and pleasurably until one awakes to the fearful realization that they can be lost".

A number of Brits and Americans have used the Soviet Union/Russia as backdrops for their thrillers and mysteries and most are flawed but valiant efforts. One of the very best is Anthony Olcott who wrote two Soviet era mysteries — one set in Moscow (Murder at the Red October, Academy-Chicago, 1981) and one set in northeast Siberia (May Day in Magadan, Bantam, 1983). They are superb and capture the essence of the politics, culture, and ambiance of the Soviet period.

An American, Robert Rosenberg, who now lives in Tel Aviv has written a set of superb mysteries set in Jerusalem. They are all remarkably place sensitive and reflect the social and religious strains in modern Israel. His latest is An Accidental Murder (Scribner, 1999) but my favorite is Crimes of the City (Simon and Schuster, 1993).

Regarding Japan, one of the best foreign writers to use the land of the rising sun was James Mellville. His Kobe police superintendent Otani books were very authentic and provided excellent insights into the Japanese mind. He wrote more than a dozen novels set in Japan (see for example, The Ninth Netsuke, N.Y., 1982; The Chrysanthemum Chain, N.Y. 1986). A more recent author to employ Japanese settings is Dale Furutani, a third generation Japanese American. He writes a Ken Tanaka series featuring a Japanese American sleuth in Los Angeles.  The second in the series is set in Japan (Toyotami Blades, St. Martins, 1998) and very entertaining.  He has also written a historical Samurai trilogy set in 17th Century Japan, (Death at the Crossroads, William Morrow, 1998; Jade Palace Vendetta, William Morrow, 1999; and Kill the Shogun, William Morrow, 2000).

Another very accomplished foreigner who sets mysteries in Italy is Donna Leon. She has lived in Italy (Venice) for many years and clearly knows the territory, the people and the culture. Her Inspector Brunetti series is superb and the latest is A Sea of Troubles,( Heinemann, 2001).

If I lower my snobby academic standards a bit there are some additional writers whose work I admire and find useful. Barbara Wilson has created a lesbian, Spanish translator, amateur sleuth who travels the world and, with wit and panache, solves mysteries. She gets the settings right and especially the politics . My favorite is Trouble in Transylvania, (Virago, 1993) in which one can learn a great deal of the political geography of eastern Europe. Dorothy Gillman in her Mrs. Pollifax series sends her little old lady sleuth to all points of the globe and, although the plots may be a bit improbable, she does her homework on place. I have assigned her novel set in China (Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station, Fawcett Books, 1990) as one of a set of readings for a group I led from Beijing to Kashgar and the participants found it the most accurate, useful, and most fun of all the readings!

I know there are more examples of informed foreigners writing about foreign places but these are my favorites. Send me your suggestions and additions if you think they merit placement among my list of well-informed strangers in strange lands.


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