Biblio File, The Ticketless Traveler
Travels as an Armchair Detective: Mysteries with a Sense of Place
Summer's almost gone, and I haven’t been able to travel very far out of the city, so I’ve been doing the next best thing, vicariously experiencing far flung locales, and occasionally time periods, in the company of some of my favorite sleuths. Enjoy visiting these detectives' beats from your couch, in the park, on a beach, on the subway, or anywhere else you like to read.
Recently, I made a brief but delightful visit to the Périgord region in the southwest of France in the company of Benoit Corrèges, aka Bruno, Chief of Police of the fictional town of Saint Denis. When we first meet Bruno he is surveying his beloved town and preparing to thwart hygiene inspectors from Paris, come to enforce E.U. regulations that do not allow for the sale of home produced cheeses and other regional delicacies at the town’s centuries-old market. The peace of Bruno's tight-knit rural community is soon shattered by the brutal murder of an Algerian war veteran, which might be a modern hate crime or might be rooted much further back in the town’s history. While reading the novel, I could almost taste the Bergerac wine, truffle omelettes, and other Périgord specialties that Bruno, an accomplished cook, prepares for his friends. Martin Walker, the author of the Bruno novels, is an award-winning journalist who spends part of each year in the Périgord, and both his local and political knowledge inform the Bruno, Chief of Police series. After reading, I felt I had not only a sense of the sights, people, history, and flavors of the region, but also some insight into the concerns of the community and into the local, national, and European-level politics at play there today. I look forward to catching up with the rest of the series and to a future physical trip to the Périgord!
Writing about his favorite fictional detectives for the Huffington Post last summer, Martin Walker observed, "But of all the genres, the detective story seems the most durable, perhaps because the tales are less about crime, more about character." He also noted that “Almost as important as the characters is the place.” Like his own character Bruno, Chief of Police, most of Walker’s favorite fictional sleuths operate in very distinctive settings, such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in 1940’s Los Angeles, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti in Venice, Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther in Nazi Berlin, Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret in 1930s Paris and Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus in Edinburgh, to name a few. Many of Walker's favorite sleuths are also among mine, and looking at his list reminds me of how important setting and cultural and historical insight are when I'm choosing a mystery to read. A good plot, and interesting, well-developed characters are key, but learning something about the history, society, and culture of a place as I’m trying to unravel a mystery along with the detective greatly enhances the reading experience for me.
After a trip to the Périgord with Bruno, here are twelve more mystery series that will make you feel like you've visited another place and maybe even learned something while you were there:
I once met someone who had planned an entire vacation based on the settings of Henning Mankell’s dark and gripping Wallander series. The official Visit Sweden website even includes a section on "Wallander's Ystad" to help you follow in the dour inspector's footsteps. I have yet to travel in Sweden, but after reading the series, I felt almost as if I really had been to Ystad and its envrirons. Kurt Wallander, the obsessive and talented poiceman who is much more successful at solving crimes than tending to his personal relationships, is certainly a complex and memorable character. But one of the aspects of Mankell’s Wallander series that I found most fascinating was the insight into how newly open borders after the breakup of the Soviet Union and increased immigration have affected Swedish society. The Wallander series begins with Faceless Killers, originally published in Swedish in 1991.
For a detailed look at Scandinavian crime fiction authors, see Jeremy Megraw’s post A Cold Night’s Death.
Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series takes place in Venice, Italy. Commissario Brunetti loves his native city, his family, his wife’s cooking, reading Tacitus on his balcony while sipping a glass of wine or grappa. He hates crime, corruption, and entrenched privilege. While he’s nearly always able to solve the crime, he may not always be able to bring the culprit to justice. These atmospheric and wryly cynical mysteries make you feel like you’re walking the streets (or calle) of Venice with Brunetti . The series begins with Death at La Fenice, originally published in 1991. Bonus: the descriptions of Brunetti’s meals are so mouthwatering that they inspired a cookbook, published in 2010.
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, is set in the fictional town of Vigàta in southwestern Sicily, which is based on the author’s hometown, Porto Empedocle. The character of Montalbano is a classic, the honest detective working within a corrupt system, and who, like Brunetti further north in Venice, is something of an epicure. He's also synesthetic, and he's quite moody, as he suffers from meteoropathy. Within the confines of entertaining crime novels, Camilleri manages to comment meaningfully on contemporary issues affecting Sicily and Italy, such as political corruption and the influence of the Mafia, all while conjuring the atmosphere of a Sicilian town by the sea. The series begins with The Shape of Water ,first published in Italian in 1994.
Perhaps a coffee at a Parisian cafe is more to your taste. Private investigator Aimée Leduc lives in a historic and somewhat decrepit apartment right at the center of Paris on the Île St. Louis, but Cara Black’s mystery series takes the reader through many neighborhoods of Paris not on the typical tourist itinerary, such as Belleville and Clichy, as well as frequently visited areas like the Latin Quarter and Monmartre. Aimée’s cases bring her into contact with all echelons of French society, from clandestine immigrants to influential politicians and business leaders. The series begins with Murder in the Marais (1999) .
The Commissaire Adamsberg novels by Fred Vargas, translated from the French by Siân Reynolds, offer another look at Paris through the eyes of an eccentric police officer, Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, who does not rely on deductive reasoning alone to solve cases. Adamsberg works in Paris but hails from a small village in the Pyrénées, and his cases sometimes take him to other regions of France, such as Normandy in This Night's Foul Work and The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. Vargas is an archaeologist and historian by training, so in addition to enjoying quirky characters and vivid settings, you will also find yourself learning a bit of Medieval history along the way. The series begins with The Chalk Circle Man, originally published in French in 1991 .
Kwei Quartey's Darko Dawson series is set in Accra, Ghana, "a city of noise and chaos." Inspector Dawson is one of crime fiction’s devoted family men, not a loner cop. He’s doesn't kowtow to authority or respect political connections, and his investigations take him to the inner city slums of Accra, to a rural village in the Volta region, and to coastal oil rigs at Cape Three Points. in addition to describing the people and places of Ghana in these mysteries, the author provides a glossary to explain important Ghanaian terms and customs to the reader. The series begins with Wife of the Gods (2009), which examines Trokosi, a system of ritual servitude in which young teenage girls are sent to live with fetish priests to bring good fortune to their families.
Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, featuring the wise and kind-hearted Precious Ramotswe, offers gentler mysteries on the whole, with more corruption, dishonesty, and communication miscues to be dealt with than actual murder. McCall Smith clearly delights in describing the landscape, history, and customs of Botswana and draws his characters with great warmth. I can almost picture the road from Gaborone to Mochudi although I’ve never been there. Who wouldn’t want to have a soothing cup of rooibos tea with Mma Ramotswe? The Series begins with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998).
Inspector Espinosa, the philosophizing (his name is no accident), book loving detective created by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, lives and works in the Copacabana section of Rio. The first book in the series, The Silence of the Rain, introduces the reader to the quirky detective, a divorced cop who lives in an apartment that has been taken over by his books, seems to exist mainly on microwaved meals, and has a tendency to ruminate over his cases and to become romantically interested in some of his female witnesses. The local color, however, is not strongly in evidence until the second book, December Heat, where the the city of Rio de Janeiro is more vividly described, becoming an important presence in the novels. The Silence of the Rain was first published in 1997 in Portuguese, English translation by Benjamin Moser.
Shanghai born writer and translator Qiu Xiaolong, who has lived in the United States since 1988, writes the Inspector Chen series set in Shanghai in the 1990s. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, police officer, poet and translator, must navigate the rapidly changing political and economic landscape in China as he works at solving murder cases with the help of Sergeant Yu, a survivor of the Cultural Revolution. The mysteries themselves are almost secondary in these books, which offer a vivid portrait of an entrenched party bureaucracy and a society in flux, with some prospering and others left behind by new capitalist initiatives. The reader can also savor a taste of China’s literary heritage when Inspector Chen quotes from great classical poets. The series begins with Death of a Red Heroine (2000).
Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series takes the reader to Laos after the communist takeover in 1975. Retired septuagenarian physician Siri Paiboun is forced to become the nation’s coroner as he is the only qualified person who has not fled or been killed. This eccentric sleuth brings a sense of humor to his work and uses both his forensic and shamanic skills to solve murder cases with the help of his two faithful assistants, Nurse Dtui (Fatty) and developmentally challenged Geung. In addition to evocative descriptions of the people and locales in Laos, Cotteril interweaves political and folk history into these mysteries featuring a charming and unique detective. The series begins with The Coroner’s Lunch (2004).
When we first meet Philip Kerr’s cynical, wisecracking detective Bernie Gunther in March Violets, it’s 1936 in Berlin, and the former police inspector is trying to make a living as a private investigator without running afoul of the Nazis or completely compromising his humanity, an impossible task. As the series continues in The Pale Criminal, Bernie is forced to join the S.S. although he continues to refuse to register as a member the Nazi party. In A German Requiem, Bernie travels to Vienna in 1947 to conduct an investigation while coping with the personal and national aftermath of war. These three novels comprise Kerr’s original Berlin Noir trilogy, completed in 1991. He returned to the character in 2006, adding six more novels to the series so far, filling in more of Bernie Gunther's experiences before and after the war. Bernie’s (or Kerr's) gift for colorful description brings the Berlin of this era darkly yet vividly to life.
Jason Goodwin’s investigator Yashim solves mysteries for the Ottoman court in mid-19th century Istanbul. Because Yashim is a eunuch, he is allowed access to some forbidden parts of the city, such as the harem, where he discusses cases and borrows French books from the valide sultan, the sultan’s mother. Before creating investigator Yashim, Goodwin wrote a history of the Ottoman Empire, The Lords of the Horizon, and some of this historical knowledge is imparted as Yashim goes about his investigations. The sights and sounds of 19th century Istanbul are lovingly recreated in these engaging mysteries, and the descriptions of Yashim’s cooking will make you want to race to nearest Turkish restaurant. The series begins with The Janissary Tree (2006).
Who are your favorite fictonal sleuths and where do they do their detecting? Please share your suggestions for further armchair detective travels below.