Friday, May 27, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Crime Around the World

By day, Glenn Harper is the unassuming editor of Sculpture magazine, writes for numerous art magazines, journals, and books, and has edited several books about art and culture. But by night, Glenn has a dark side: he’s been reviewing international crime fiction since 2005 at Take a tour of the world of crime with him below or scroll through to find your favorite hot spot.

International crime novels offer much more than a portrait of crime around the world. The following novels (drawn from the last six months of my blog/reviews) are a window on the cultures of these diverse continents and countries, crime being a perfect vehicle for a portrait not of the high and mighty but the people on the streets (mean or otherwise).


Timothy Williams in the crime fiction world was recently included in a list of the top 10 European crime writers in The Guardian (yet he's surely the least well-known name on the list). His Commissario Trotti series is perhaps the best of the distinguished crop of non-Italian crime fiction writers whose work is set in Italy, a literary generation that includes Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, and Michael Dibdin.

All of these writers share a jaundiced yet appreciative view of Italy: dismayed by the politics and seduced by the culture. But Williams digs deeper into the real social and historical background, from the "years of lead" and the kidnapping of Moro through a series of scandals in government and church, as well as campaigns against corruption, leading to the "mani pulite" years of the '90s, which is the background of Big Italy, the fifth and latest of the Trotti novels. In all of his books, Williams filters the big, historical events through the lens of small, local events and people, accenting the impact of social patterns on the daily life of individuals.

That all sounds dry and stuffy, which the novels are anything but. As with all of Williams’ books, Big Italy progresses mostly through the often oblique dialogue of the Commissario, his associates, and the suspects. The effect is frequently both frustrating and comical, as well as reinforcing the overall sense that what is really going on remains resolutely below the surface of events.

Big Italy has, like the other Trotti novels and most crime fiction set in Italy, a less-than-conclusive ending, without the absolute resolution of much mystery writing. But there's a note of hope at the end: hope for the future of some of the individual characters and for the goals for which they had been striving, if not confidence in the future of the country as a whole.


The Big Mango, by Jake Needham (another émigré writer), is a confident thriller that builds up to its explosive conclusion rather than blowing people and things up from the beginning. The story is more in the line of author Eric Ambler than that of many recent thrillers, taking an ordinary guy and thrusting him, in frequently comic ways, into an unfamiliar and unfriendly situation. The writing is clear and evocative, whether in portraying San Francisco in the early chapters or Bangkok for the majority of the book, and the characters are lively and interesting. 

The story is set in the '90s (originally published in Asia in 1999, The Big Mango was reprinted in 2010 by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore; the only editions so far have been limited to Asian publishers and distributors). Eddie, a small-time lawyer and former Vietnam-era marine, starts getting threatening mail and visitors that refer to his time in Vietnam, when he worked in a squad involved in guarding the U.S. embassy in the waning days of the U.S. presence.

The maguffin is the stuff of legends, urban and otherwise: it seems the gold and currency from the Bank of Vietnam vanished during the chaos of the U.S. departure, and someone (several someones, as it turns out) thinks Eddie's former captain knows what happened to the money, and maybe Eddie does too. After a visit from the U.S. Secret Service, Eddie gets an offer from a mystery man offering him a lot of money to go to Bangkok to look for the captain and the money.

From there, Eddie becomes involved with a shady crew: his old Army buddy, a laid-back bookstore owner and Native American; an American in Bangkok who writes a column on the nightlife there; a DEA agent; and various other Americans, Thais, and Vietnamese. It's a story told from the point of view of outsiders, seduced by Thailand but not blind to the pollution, corruption, and violence of the capital city. 

The other book I've read by Needham, The Ambassador's Wife, is quite different, more of an insider's look at another Asian crossroads, Singapore (which Needham also views with a jaundiced eye). And The Ambassador's Wife is a police procedural whereas The Big Mango is more of a slowly building adventure story.


I liked the first Jade de Jong novel, Random Violence, by Jassy Mackenzie, and the second one, Stolen Lives, is even better. The first half of the novel dragged me along relentlessly. There's a plot line that in the second half seems a bit tacked on (though it leads to a twisty and cliff-hanger-y ending). It deals with a character who could be very interesting but isn't fully developed—but overall the novel (and especially that second half) are very good indeed.

Jade has returned (in the first novel, Random Violence) to her native Johannesburg to bring her private detective business there—as well as to a) inflict some revenge and b) reestablish contact with the object of her (mostly unrequited) passion, detective David Patel of the J-burg police. Patel refers a client to Jade, thinking that it's just a woman in need of straightforward bodyguarding after her husband has disappeared, but the case becomes complicated when Jade and the client are shot at and later the husband is discovered nearly dead from extreme torture and their daughter goes missing. Then David's son, who has been living with his estranged wife, is kidnapped...

There is a parallel case developing in England, concerning brothels and human trafficking, which ties into Jade's case and links to a deadly and mysterious character at the fringes of both: an African man whom we glimpse in a pawn shop and other locales in several chapters interspersed with the English plot and Jade's case. The threads come together in an unexpected way, forcing the reader to reassess his or her opinion about the characters. And Jade herself is very interesting: we follow not only her professional exploits but also her troubled relationship with David and a discovery about herself and her heritage that she makes in connection with her current case.

The novel offers once again a dynamic glimpse of post-Apartheid South Africa in all its grime and glory, as well as thematic consideration of violence and its roots in culture (and perhaps genetics), marriage, and desire: it's among the best of the substantial crop of South African crime fiction now becoming available.

Several recent crime novels published in the U.S. by African writers north of South Africa (from Ghana and Nigeria in particular) promise more crime fiction from the continent as a whole—not to mention one of the best books I’ve read this year, City of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris, which is set in Saudi Arabia (and is a novel that could probably only have been written by an outsider).

Wyatt, the latest Garry Disher novel to arrive in the U.S., is a continuation of his Wyatt series (about a dispassionate thief) rather than his police-procedural series (better known here in the States). Wyatt recalls the noir end of Donald Westlake's oeuvre. (For those not in the know, Westlake is one of the most prodigious and well-known U.S. writers of noir fiction). And in fact, Disher offers an homage to Westlake with two names that appear in Wyatt: Stark, one of Westlake's several pseudonyms, and Parker, one of his longest-running characters. Disher's Wyatt character has similarities with Parker, a master thief for whom things are always going wrong. But in the new novel, Wyatt is confronting problems that Parker didn't have to: money that moves electronically rather than physically, new security systems, and the constantly rising surveillance of our world today.

The characters in the Wyatt series are pretty much stock characters, interesting in their own way but reduced to their relevance to Wyatt (though the narrative does depart from the central character a good deal of the time). And Wyatt himself is always guarded, always careful, never emotional. He is a particular sort of sociopath: without empathy or even interest in his fellow humans; he's almost high-functioning autistic.

There's a telling passage in which he is attracted to the central woman character (who is one of the most interesting characters, as she veers from normal life into Wyatt's world and then into Wyatt's point of view). He feels the attraction but doesn't quite know what to do about it. Wyatt is super competent in other ways, and his inability to understand affection or to act on attraction keeps him human, in an odd way. He isn't vulnerable, but he's damaged.

The plotting is the outstanding characteristic of the Wyatt series. Through the twists and turns, Disher manages to manipulate the standard tropes of the noir-heist story in lively ways, much as Westlake did (though without the overt comedy that Westlake often employed). Disher's Wyatt (the novel and the character) are as dark as they come, but engaging and involving for the reader. Wyatt seems in some ways to be a posthumous tribute to Westlake, and is definitely both an excellent novel in its own right and the best "post-Westlake" take on that master's style that I've read.

South America:

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage’s fourth “Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation” is his best book yet. The language is lucid, it’s informative about Brazilian life and culture (the reader even finds out how Rio de Janeiro got its name), the characters are well defined (and their interaction is natural and often comic), and the plot moves along inexorably and rapidly. It is a story that is closer to the kind of crime novel I’m most interested in as well: the first three Silva stories dealt with big issues (organ theft, human trafficking, disparities of social class and property ownership) and often with torture, organized crime, and extreme violence. Every Bitter Thing, on the other hand, deals with murder and revenge at a personal level, committed not by professional criminals but by more-or-less ordinary people under extreme pressure (which could also be said of the victims of the crimes). There are, I should say, some vividly mutilated corpses, though.

It’s also a police procedural in the best sense of the term: each member of Silva’s team is a three-dimensional character, and each has his or her separate role in the investigation. The investigation ranges across Brazil, but is focused more on Brasilia (where Silva’s federal police team is based) than the previous books as well. The nose-to-the-ground view of the investigators at work gives a quite different focus, in comparison with the first three Silva  books, which showed a lot more about the crime and the criminals: Every Bitter Thing, as a result, is far more than just a mystery or a procedural. Though a reader may figure out what’s going on before the end, the investigators are figuring it out at about the same time (and both readers and investigators will will have figured it out by the final couple of twists).


  1. Glenn, you've listed some of our favorites here -- Leighton Gage and Zoe Ferraris, for example -- but I look forward to checking out some of these authors I'm not familiar with. Thanks for this great world tour!

  2. Thanks for this wonderful roundup of international crime novels, Glenn. Some of these names are new to me and I'll look forward to checking them out. City of Veils is also one of of my favorites in recent years. Have you seen the May/June issue of World Literature Today? They have a special section on German-language crime fiction.

  3. Thank yo, Glenn for bringing some amazing books to my attention. Oh oh, my to be read pile just got taller!

  4. My thrillers too are set in 'novel locations', Ukraine, Belarus, Saudi Arabia. I write about the places I have lived and worked in.

  5. Hi Glen, a great collection!

    You might consider adding my series, published by Harper Collins and in ten languages soon, starting with The Istanbul Puzzle.

    For details and if you want an advance reader copy (until all gone - I still have a few) go to