The World's a Mystery: International Crime Fiction
Everyone tends to read about the familiar; I’m never as contented as I am curled up with an English country-house murder mystery, for example. But challenging yourself to trying something new could open up—literally—a whole new world.
Just think about the places you could travel via mystery! From the remote stretches of the Arctic to the tip of South Africa, there are crime-solvers poised to bring you into their space, their world, their culture.
Let’s just take a whirlwind tour of some of my favorite places. I’ve made the choice here to select writers native to or at least longtime residents of the places in which their books are situated. Instead of literary tourism, I’ve chosen writers you will often be reading in translation.
Let’s begin with Scandinavian crime fiction, also called Nordic noir, which has certain common characteristics: books written in a minimalist style with a dark, morally complex mood.
Sweden has become extremely popular, with bestselling authors Steig Larsson and Henning Mankell—the creator of Wallander—leading the pack; but try some of the women crime writers, too: Kersten Ekman (novels set in the far north and capturing the tension between Swedes and the aboriginal Sami people) and Liza Marklund (author of the Maria Eriksson and Annika Bengtzon series) are both stunning.
Norway is home to Karin Fossum, whose Inspector Sejer series incorporates social issues of class inequality, misogyny, immigration, and exploitation.
Jari Järvelä lives and writes in Finland. The Girl and the Bomb alternates points of view in different chapters; and here’s a warning—don’t start reading unless you have a lot of time to finish it..
Iceland: Arnaldur Indridason's Jar City is the book that made Icelandic crime fiction fashionable and internationally popular; it also deals with loss in childhood but combines this with identifying social problems in modern-day Iceland.
Denmark: Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow is a compelling read about the investigation into the death of a young boy
The Middle East
Israeli mystery writing has unfortunately not been widely translated into English; but you should check out Batya Gur. Her detective, Michael Ohayon, is a complex intellectual and morose policeman who is a relative outsider in Israeli society. Also read Robert Rosenberg, who writes a Jerusalem-centered police procedural featuring Avram Cohen.
In talking about Palestine, I’m going to violate my own rule and introduce Kate Raphael, who is American but has lived for many years in the Middle East, and whose Murder Under the Bridge deals with marginalized persons in a number of ways, including featuring “the only female Palestinian police detective on the northern West Bank.”
Egypt: Ahmed Mourad leads a group that has rediscovered crime fiction as a way of addressing contemporary problems. Add Magdy al-Shafee and graphic novelist Ganzeer to the list.
Algeria: Not for the faint of heart, Yasmina Khadra’s Inspector Llob series was born out of the Algerian civil war and is just as violent.
Lebanon: Detective novels with a twist: the identity of the killer really doesn’t matter (which is good, since we never find it out) in Elias Khoury’s White Masks.
China has a number of talented writers now available in English translation. Qiu Xiaolong’s Detective Chen works on the Shanghair police force. He Jiahong’s Blood Crime features a lawyer and you’ll love his descriptions of everyday life.
India: Vikram Chandra explores the world of cops and gangsters in the Bombay underworld. HRF Keating is English but lives in India and writes the historical Inspector Ghote mysteries.
Japan: Natsuo Kirino's Out is told from the point of view of the killer, a woman pushed to her limits. All She Was Worth by Miyake Miyabe deals with a woman who has vanished and had her identity stolen. Shizuko Natsuki is Japan's bestselling mystery writer: try Murder at Mount Fuji.
Latin American crime fiction is flourishing, though it has a very different tone from its North American counterpart: it’s political, surrealist, and very, very dark.
Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro creates edgy crime dramas reminiscent of Hitchcock thrillers—if Hitchcock had been more political. Ernesto Mallo’s Inspector Lascano series is historical, set in the days of Argentina’s military junta.
Brazil brings us Patricia Melo, who often writes from the point of view of the murderer with sensitivity and élan. Also from Brazil is political activist and Dominican friar Frei Betto, who checks out criminal activities in Rio in Hotel Brasil.
Cuba: Havana is the backdrop for Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s series featuring Mario Conde, a cop who’d rather be a writer.
Colombia’s Juan Gabriel Vasquez also writes in the past: The Sound of Things Falling takes place pre-FARC and cocaine trade.
Peruvian novelist and playwright Alonso Cueto’s protagonist is forced to face his father’s violent past after his mother’s death.
Luis Sepulveda's The Shadow of What We Were explores three decades of Chilean history through planning a final coup that goes disastrously wrong.
Eastern Europe may have shifted the borders (and even the existence) of its various countries over the past century, but that’s only increased the sense of exoticism in its mystery literature.
Pre-Czech Republic Prague is the setting for Josef Skvorecky’s police procedurals
Russia: Boris Akunin combines history with mystery in both his Sister Pelagia and his Erast Fandorin series (an Orthodox nun and a policeman, respectively, living in tsarist Russia).
Ukraine: Andrey Kurkov has a compelling protagonist in aspiring writer Viktor Zolotaryov, who’s accompanied by his penguin, Misha.
Africa is far more than the sum of its various countries. A few novelists to check out:
Botswana: Unity Dow brings a uniquely African perspective to her work, evoking a world where witchcraft is practiced and taken very seriously.
South Africa: Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak is a brilliant thriller.
Ghana: Kwei Quartey also talks a lot about tribal beliefs; Wife of the Gods is especially riveting.
Swaziland: Malla Nunn explores the racial segregation experienced by her parents’ generation; she too intertwines mystery with history, and the results are amazing.
Nigeria: Adimchinma Ibe’s Detective Peterside mixes politics with detection.
What have I left out? Europe and North America! For an English-speaker, those are two continents that deserve their own article. As soon as I write it, you’ll have it!
Any great mystery writers I’ve left out? Please add them in via comments!