As I grew older, I discovered the unique advantage that mysteries have in being set in a very particular time and place. Mysteries are strongly grounded in a time and place, whether it’s some winter-bound Agatha Christie novel set in a European mansion or the industrial landscape of Detroit bled out on the page by Elmore Leonard. Before I ever got to see New York with my own eyes, I felt that I had walked the streets with Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. I’ve run the dirty river in Boston with Robert Parker’s Spenser, gotten down in the Bayou with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux and worked the South Side of Chicago with Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.
As it turns to summer in America and the masses clog the freeways, suffer at the pumps, and generally make each other miserable, it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge and, even better, to get out of America in general. Why bog down with a beach read when you can take your own journey to faraway lands with exotic peoples and even stranger crimes?
Perhaps none of this month’s offerings are more exotic than Bangkok Tattoo, featuring the return of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, one of the more diverse characters in recent memory. Both of his chronicles are written in first-person -- present tense, no less -- by the long-suffering Sonchai, an honest detective in a city corrupted by both foreign and native appetites for sex and drugs. In the much-lauded Bangkok 8, Sonchai, the son of an American father and a Thai mother, leads us through the city’s electrified bars and back alleys to find the murderer of his partner and Buddhist soulmate, Pichai.
Although the books read as though they were translated from the hallucinogenic prose of a native, British author John Burdett, long traveled in Europe and Hong Kong, brings Sonchai to life. Back in District 8, the detective is back banging up against the local foreigners when he starts investigating the murder of a CIA agent. The elaborate plot of Bangkok Tattoo ties together Sonchai’s brothel-owning mother and his mad boss Captain Vikorn while putting Sonchai up against Yakuza gangsters, Japanese tattooists, Muslim fundamentalists and more. It’s a unique look into a alien culture through the eyes of a terrifically drawn anti-hero.
There’s just no escaping the heat this month. A world away in Rio de Janeiro, cops are getting killed but they’re being assassinated by a very cold-blooded killer for the South American heat. A Window in Copacabana sees the return of Inspector Espinoza, the deadpan and oddly intellectual detective introduced in three earlier novels by the Brazilian academic Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza. When three policemen in Rio are killed in the course of a few days, Espinoza and his fellow officers in the 12th precinct don’t have much to go on. Over the course of this rich police procedural, translated from the original Portuguese, Espinoza uncovers a murky conspiracy involving a band of corrupt policemen by using his interesting combination of philosophy and straight-ahead investigation. More compassionate and bookish than his American counterparts, Espinoza’s stories make for an interesting diversion from the gun-toting, big-bang crime novels of North America.
Back in Europe, there’s still mystery to be found in the Island that is Paris. Just long enough for that transatlantic flight, American author Cara Black has returned to the City of Lights for Murder in Clichy. The book stars Black’s feisty detective Aimee Leduc, a kind of French-American superwoman who kicks ass and takes names as well as any of her male counterparts. Leduc is also interesting in that she takes some hits that take longer to heal. By this point -- the fifth book in the series -- Leduc is suffering from reduced eyesight from a previous assault. Although she’s promised both her partner and her fiancée that she’ll stay out of trouble, a botched delivery job soon gives her a mystery involving the Vietnamese population of Clichy and a bullet in the arm. Although Black still struggles with the language of her genre, telling the reader about Leduc’s adventures more than showing, her passion for the Parisian spirit is obvious and it’s fair to say that she’s done her homework.
Under the radar is a clever take on the British spy novel, Good News, Bad News, by David Wolstencroft, the creator of the BBC television series Spooks. Although the series, known as MI:5 in the States, is a hugely popular, large-scale look at counterterrorism, Wolstencroft’s novel is a funny, sprawling near spoof of the genre that Le Carre and Ludlum built. Aging Brits Charlie Millar and George Shaw work together in a tiny photo-processing book in the London Underground, both unaware that each is a spy and has just been assigned to kill the other. In a terrific tale that takes them from London to Canada, Wolstencroft has built a sharply funny look at the neurotic nature of the spy game.
Finally, I can’t talk about detectives in self-imposed exile without mentioning Arkady Renko. The hero of Martin Cruz Smith’s five novels featuring the grim Russian homicide detective quietly returned last year in Wolves Eat Dogs. Although most famous for Renko’s dramatic introduction in Gorky Park, the series is some of the best-written crime fiction available.
Although the books are written in the third person, Smith has always had a remarkable ability to show the world through Arkady’s eyes. They also make for a terrific travelogue all by themselves. Gorky Park is a singular look at Communist Russia when a murder victim is found in snowbound Moscow. In Polar Star, Renko has been excommunicated from the Soviet state, fleeing Moscow to work on a murky fish processing ship in the Arctic Sea, a perfect setting for a sort of locked-room mystery involving a dead American girl. Red Square brings Arkady back from the dead, “rehabilitated” and pitted not only against the newly vibrant Russian mafia but the delicate lies of his lost love, Irina Asanova from Gorky Park.
The cold warrior Arkady even gets to visit hot-blooded Cuba in Havana Bay and it’s interesting to see the tortured romantic set adrift in a revolutionary paradise where he’s out of his element. Finally, last winter brought Wolves Eat Dogs, the latest of Renko’s literary outings. When Pasha Ivanov, a billionaire businessman takes a header out a Moscow window, it leads Arkady straight into the blasted heart of Russia -- the eerie, radioactive environment of post-meltdown Chernobyl.
Like many of the books above, it does what books are supposed to do -- take you to places you might never visit or imagine on your own. From Bangkok to Moscow, there’s a little murder everywhere this summer. Happy trails.