Detective novels take on the world
When he picked up a new mystery novel about a Laotian sleuth, Indiana bookstore owner Jim Huang prepared for the worst. Not only was the story based in Southeast Asia - hardly a hotbed of memorable detective fiction - but the plot also was set three decades in the past.Skip to next paragraph
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"You know the place is a mess, you know the Communists are going to wreak havoc on the country," Mr. Huang says. "That's not an inherently interesting situation."
But Huang fell for 2004's widely lauded "The Coroner's Lunch" and its tale of septuagenarian coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun's struggle to find the truth behind a series of murders. First-time novelist Colin Cotterill "makes us understand what the system allows [Paiboun] to do, what the system prevents him from doing, and what he manages to accomplish anyway," says Huang, owner of The Mystery Company in Carmel, Ind. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed the bookstore.]
An academic tome might have accomplished the same goal of enlightening readers about Laotian culture. But detective novels are usually easier to read, and now, to a greater extent than ever before, they're shedding light about the world outside the United States and Britain.
By far, the biggest successes on the international mystery front are the best-selling novels about a charming female sleuth in Botswana ("The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and others) written by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. But reviewers and readers are also raving about detective series set in Sweden, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Such unexpected locales as Bosnia, Algiers, and the Himalayas also serve as bases for fictional detectives. Some of their escapades are landing on American bookshelves, thanks to English translations.
This is a far cry from just a few years ago, let alone the Golden Age of mystery fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, when American and British sleuths - along with a mustachioed Belgian named Hercule Poirot - had the detective genre almost entirely to themselves.
Why the interest in worldly detectives? Some observers say readers are tired of poor products by assembly-line American writers. The Botswana novels and 9/11 also get credit for boosting interest in international detectives. Otto Penzler, owner of New York City's Mysterious Bookshop, has another theory: "If I had to pick a reason, I would say that the writers from foreign countries have simply gotten better."
No longer are Japanese and Swedish authors, for example, simply copying the style of Raymond Chandler or Agatha Christie, Mr. Penzler says. "Rather than trying to sound like Americans or Brits, they're trying to sound like who they are."
Reflecting the issues facing the nations in which they take place, many international detective novels are more than simple whodunits. Scandinavian authors tend to be on the dark side and bemoan the decline of the welfare state, while Italians often examine their country's pervading corruption. The Japanese, meanwhile, frequently explore their country's changing social mores.
A lot of the appeal of the books "has to do with the feeling that you're getting a little bit of a different perspective on things," says Celia Sgroi, a foreign mystery fan and professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego.