The Irish Times, on July 8, carried the above-mentioned article by Declan Burke. In the article, Burke mentions some of the outstanding authors who are writing books in settings that old-school mystery writers would not have imagined. When I got pulled into the mystery genre, the locales were the United States, especially New York City and Los Angeles, and England. Now engrossing mysteries and thrillers are being set all-over the world, including Laos (Colin Cotterill) and North Korea (James Church), places that have been secret.
Now, the world is the mystery reader’s oyster.
Declan Burke writes:
“The classic dramatic conflict between have and have-nots forms the backdrop to Leighton Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva novels, which are set in Brazil.
“Brazil is a rich country,” [Leighton] says, “but it’s still a developing country. As such, it continues to have highly inequitable income distribution. That’s changing, and changing rapidly, but it’s still true that this country’s taboos (unlike the ones Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler et al had to contend with) can vary immensely depending upon where you stand in the socioeconomic pecking order. Forcing one of your children into prostitution is repugnant, for example, but there’s no taboo against it if the alternative is to let your other children starve.
“That’s an extreme case, obviously, but Brazil is full of societal issues that don’t arise in so-called First World countries. Liberation theology, for example, has been condemned by the Princes of the Church, but many of Brazil’s poorer priests practice it. Excessive concentration on the promise of reward in heaven, they say, often propagates social injustice on earth. So, at one end of the scale, a defence of liberation theology is taboo. And, at the other end, not embracing it is equally taboo.
“How could I possibly live here, be a writer, and not want to tell people what a fascinating place this is?”
Authors who live in the countries about which they write, like Timothy Hallinan (Bangkok) and Matt Beynon Rees (Jerusalem) have moved from their western roots to build lives with, and among, the people they write about. Like Gage, they write in the country and of the country, not about the country.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland), Jo Nesbo (Norway), Andrea Camilleri (Italy), and Fred Vargus (France) are natives of the countries about which they write, bringing a different sensibility to their books, one distinct from that of a writer who has come to the country from another place. Leighton Gage is Brazilian but not in the same way that Andrea Camilleri is Italian. One is of the country by choice, the other is of the country by birth. Neither is more than the other.
Writers like Gage, Hallinan, and Rees bring to their writing the sort of “eyes wide open, taking in the surroundings” of a stranger in a strange new place even if they have lived in the country for twenty years. Things that are taken for granted by those born to the place are a feast to the senses of in-comers. Christmas in Bangkok isn’t like Christmas in Los Angeles. Easter in Israel is a far different experience than Easter in Wales.
Readers experience the best of both experiences of time and place. And through that comes the recognition that the more things change the more they are the same. A police procedural is, by definition, the process by which police work to solve a crime. The method is the same no matter the place of the crime. Writers of mysteries present the truth that death at the hands of another is destructive of soul no matter where it happens. The human experience is shared by all humans for good and for evil.
The world of mystery readers is now, really, the whole world and there are new authors being added to the list all the time who bring new perspective to even these new places. The Botswana of Michael Stanley’s Detective Kubu is not the Botswana of Kwei Quartey’s Inspector Darko Dawson. Fiction is a fantastic teaching tool: we become educated as we read our favorite authors and, through articles such as this, we expand our list of must-reads exponentially.
“How The World Became One Big Crime Scene” is great reading for a Saturday morning; I wish I were reading it in Dublin.