Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pearls, Princesses, and Perspective

Way back when my book idea first started taking shape, it took me a while to figure out how to frame it, even whether to write it as fiction or nonfiction. If it were fiction, I figured, it would probably be of the literary sort, because that’s mostly what I read back then, plus I knew I wanted to pluck interesting details from history and current affairs to layer my story. Then I stumbled across a unique mystery series by Sujata Massey, and it changed everything.

I wish I could remember which of her books I’d read first. It may have been Zen Attitude or The Samurai’s Daughter. I don’t remember now because after I read that first one, I devoured the rest of the series in a matter of weeks. The series follows Massey’s protagonist, Rei Shimura, a hip, twenty-something Californian with a Japanese father and American mother, on her adventures between San Francisco and Tokyo, two worlds in which she is equally comfortable, as she hops between jobs and love affairs across the continents. 

Along the way, Rei gets swept up in various intrigues, mostly involving murder, and readers get to learn about all kinds of interesting stuff—from antiquing, diplomacy, pearls, tropical storms, homophobia abroad, war crimes, age-old Japanese customs, and so much more. Massey’s writing is always a treat. I was sorry when in 2008, she ended her successful series with the tenth installment, Shimura Trouble. (On the upside, she has a forthcoming historical suspense novel set in India we can look forward to. Can't wait.)

I hadn’t read many mysteries before these, but soon I began devouring other mystery subgenres, such as police procedurals, cozies, thrillers, historical, and futuristic. And yet Massey's series still stands out. She featured a main character who essentially grew up in several cultures and so approached life and crime-solving from her own unique perspective. As a reader, I loved the ease with which her protagonist moved from one world to another and how Massey was able to cover so many elements through this type of fiction that I too wanted to write—cultural themes, obviously, but also generous dabs of historical context, societal issues, travel, and of course, lots of adventure and mystery.

It’s taken me a while to find other authors who bridge such cultural divides, but they’re out there. My favorites are the Scandinavian authors. Of course, most everyone’s heard about, if not read, Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s runaway-bestselling thrillers. But there are quite a few fine novelists from his part of the world whom you should not miss.

One of my favorites is Icelandic author, Arnaldur Indradason, and in particular, his book, The Draining Lake. It features a detective investigating a crime that connects two cultures I knew very little about—Iceland, of course, but also communist-era Leipzig, Germany. Don’t let the remoteness of either place put you off. It’s an incredible story that weaves readers between the present and the Soviet era and two fascinating cultures that will leave you wanting to know more about each of them.

Henning Mankell connects crimes that take place in his native Sweden to events around the world, using settings as compelling as China, Eastern Europe, and across Africa. Norwegian author, Karen Fossum, wrote a novel called The Indian Bride that I found especially intriguing because it gave me a balanced view on how rural Norwegians view both immigrants and India.

Another of my favorites is Lisa See’s fascinating Red Princess Mystery series. Her powerful, intricate thrillers center on a pair of main characters—one an ethnic Chinese raised in the States and another an American who moves to China—caught up in international intrigue. See weaves in cultural and political topics seamlessly.

What books have you enjoyed, mystery or otherwise, that gave you a glimpse into life in other countries?


  1. I'm a big fan of Indian authors. Not only do I adore their magical prose, I find the history and glimpses into family life and romance intriguing. I love Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie and R K Narayan. And thanks for making my "to be read" n list a bit longer after this post!

  2. When I read "The Draining Lake" I wanted to got right on a plane and fly to Iceland. It wasn't the physical description of the place that captivated me, but the way he portrayed the people and their lives. It fascinated me!

  3. Supriya, I am so honored by your words about the Rei series--and I am looking forward to reading your work soon. Funny, we would be in the same Sisters in Crime chapter if I hadn't moved from the Baltimore/DC area! Kudos for setting up the kind of group writers' blog you have done.

  4. Oh, Sujata, it's a bit surreal seeing you here!

    Re Sisters in Crime: I'd forgotten about this but I actually joined SinC back when I first read your books and found out you were a member! That's also where I met my fellow bloggers. So your inspiration has led me where I am in more ways than I'd realized.

    Thanks for your kind words. The thought that you'll be reading my work inspires me all over again.