The Ultimate Escape: Crime Fiction in Faraway Places

If youre looking for a new detective thriller to read, its tempting to reach for a British or American known name. But there are dark treasures to be had, further afield. Top ten Murder Room writer Deborah Valentine gives us a taste of whats in store for those willing to travel . . .

A mini-holiday. That’s what books set abroad are. No faff with tickets or passport. No crippling expense. It’s ‘beam me up, Scotty’ transport.

You can even go back in time.

Peter Cheyney took a break from his Lemmy Caution thrillers to write Dark Bahama, a slice of 1940s noir. With tropical locations, louche anti-heroes and dangerous ladies Ian Fleming could raise a martini to, it’s vintage crime with more than a touch of Bond before Bond existed.

M. M. Kaye’s crime series is another good case in point. Death in Kashmir drops us into the last year of the Raj, into an India, for better and worse, for ever lost; to gorgeously rendered landscapes peopled by an extinct breed of colonial Agatha Christie would recognise. Kaye knew it well; she lived there, and she makes it live for us, those intoxicating scents, social hierarchy, frisson of political tension all a voyeuristic thrill. Death in Zanzibar takes us to a romantic African paradise. First stop, Nairobi, where we get the enchantment of a bygone era, deliciously waspish dialogue and our first glimpse of simmering Cold War threats.

On that note, The Honey Guide by Richard Crompton plonks us squarely into the Nairobi of today, where the simmer has come to a boil. Maasai detective Mollel is assigned the case of a murdered prostitute, and from that the tentacles tickle tribal tensions, political unrest and general corruption. Poverty abounds; the elite rule, or attempt to. The city has not lived up to its expectations.

Yet amid all this are acts of heartbreaking kindness. And while Mollel may have migrated to the city, the legends and practices of the Maasai haunt him, guide him. An utterly compelling, poignant tale of people doing the best they can under ghastly circumstances.

Meanwhile, on the Continent . . .

Bernhard Schlink, author of the much-lauded Holocaust novel The Reader, flies us to Germany via the PI Gerhard Self books. The prose is sparse, the humour wry, the very title Selfs Punishment a clever play on words. His elderly but spry Self investigates computer hacking in a chemical plant with a dodgy war history. Self’s own end-of-war backstory is one that slaps him in the face as the facts unwind – and, as a former prosecutor, questions of ‘cause and guilt’ torment his thoughts. When he gets his answers, his response is shocking.

Another country dealing with a Fascist past is Italy. After seeing the TV series, I can’t help but envision Rufus Sewell as Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen, an added attraction to the beautiful writing. A great example is the opening of Medusa. You can actually feel the fog on your skin, the claustrophobia of the tram. From this, we’re drawn into a thirty-year-old cold case. Seamlessly woven into the narrative are the politics and passions of post-war Italy alongside current dirty political machinations. Ever present is the country’s glorious ancient history, not only in the architecture but from those that mourn its passing. Without realising it, we get sociological history wrapped up in an engaging contemporary story. It educates, it entertains.

As you might expect from the French, their fiction is very cinematic. Multi-award-winning author Pierre Lemaitre’s Alex is brilliant, original and not for the squeamish. Commandant Verhoeven, traumatised after the kidnap and murder of his pregnant wife, is assigned – what else? – a kidnapping case. A pretty Parisienne is bundled into a van and there is only one not-very-observant eyewitness. As they search for the victim’s identity, the plot twists and turns and then ricochets in a completely different direction. Who is Alex? On so many levels, who is the real victim? The investigative team is an engaging group, a delightfully eccentric set of contrasts in looks and temperament. Fractious as some of these relationships are, as the true depravity of the crimes committed are uncovered, they unite. Truth might not be served, but justice is. Because some people aren’t as bad as you think – while others are worse than you could imagine.

Brilliant and original too is Michel Bussi’s After the Crash. Again, labyrinthine twists. But oh, so different. A plane crashes in 1980, killing everyone except a three-month-old baby. Who is she? Should be simple to identify, oui? Non. Eighteen years later, and the wrangle between two socially diverse claimants continues. PI Grand-Duc is about to commit suicide over his failure to find the truth. But then . . . ha! I’m not going to say. In the pot are unreliable narrators, class divisions, madness and media manipulations, blood and love. Nothing and no one is quite what they seem. No event takes you quite where you think it will. It keeps you glued to the page; it makes you care. Even about the most roguish. Even about the dragonflies (read it – you’ll understand). Stunning.

For lovers of crime fiction, death is a holiday. But we cannot escape the messages beneath these escapades; the potted histories that coax us to learn more; the politics that still resound. No matter how different the culture, how exotic the country, we mull over our commonality, the thread of humanity running through the most inhumane of circumstances.

Or, as our Self might add, ponder cause and guilt.


Do you have a favourite crime novel or series by a writer not from Britain or the US? Tell us about it, in the Comments. (And yes, Scandi Noir is allowed!)

A Collector of PhotographsDeborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website.