Crime fiction: Around the World in 80 sleuths
Published 22/07/2008 | 17:15
Holmes and Watson would be proud. Crime fiction is booming as never before - and with dozens of new titles translated into English for the first time, there’s a detective for every holiday destination. Jonathan Gibbs tracks down 80 of the best sleuths to escape with this summer....
The murder takes place in Copenhagen, but it is to the unforgiving Greenland coast that Smilla Jaspersen follows the trail. Peter Hoeg's book, with its slow pacing and heightened atmospherics, was surely the one that whetted the international appetite for Scandinavian crime.
'Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow' (Harvill)
If there is a pretender to Henning Mankell's crown, it could well be Arnaldur Indridason. His Inspector Erlendur novels have the bleak setting, social realism and gentle pacing we associate with Scandinavian noir.
Read 'Tainted Blood' (Vintage)
3. Shetland Islands
Ann Cleeves had 18 books under her belt when she won a Gold Dagger for Raven Black, the first in her Shetland Quartet. It's an inspired location, with its bleak landscape and close-knit community for detective Jimmy Perez to unpick.
Read 'Raven Black' (Pan)
If you find Ian Rankin's books a little Miss Marple, try Denise Mina, who has written two crime series set in Glasgow. The Garnethill Trilogy, featuring ex-psychiatric patient Maureen O'Donnell, is as grimly realistic as it is taut.
Read 'Garnethill' (Bantam)
The success of Rankin's Inspector Rebus novels can't be put down to the plots, topical though they often are. It's the double act – love story, even – of his misanthropic policeman and Edinburgh itself that make them so popular.
Read 'Knots and Crosses' (Orion)
6. Northern Ireland
Cosy crime is the term for the Agatha Christie strain of the genre, but it can be twisted to strange ends. Ian Samson's Mobile Library series features the hapless librarian Israel Armstrong as he solves mysteries and collects fines in Antrim.
Read 'The Case of the Missing Books' (4th Estate)
7. Rural Ireland
Miss Maple is not your average sleuth. For a start, she's a sheep. This doesn't stop her investigating when her flock finds its shepherd with a spade through his heart. A gentle, literate whodunit from the German writer Leonie Swann.
'Three Bags Full' (Black Swan)
Benjamin Black's Quirke novels evoke 1950s Dublin, but for the shady side of the Celtic tiger today, try Declan Hughes. His Ed Loy, a private eye who learnt his trade in LA, brings West Coast thrills to the Irish scene.
Read 'The Wrong Kind of Blood' (John Murray)
Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone is revered as much for its sophisticated plot as for its status as the first British detective story. But the setting – a remote country house – is a big part of its appeal.
'The Moonstone' (Penguin Popular Classics)
10. South Wales
This comic Welsh noir series, the Aberystwyth novels, features Robert Lewis's young, alcoholic PI Robin Llewellyn.
Read 'The Last Llanelli Train' (Serpent's Tail)
Inspector Morse is really the last of a type: the glum intellectual copper, happier solving murders over a pint than in a forensics lab. Colin Dexter's novels revel in their donnish Oxford setting.
Read 'Last Bus to Woodstock' (Pan)
Home to Sherlock Holmes, obviously – but why not try the Factory novels by Derek Raymond (aka Robin Cook, born just around the corner from Baker Street)? Blistering British noir, beloved by the French. We're just catching up.
Read 'He Died With His Eyes Open' (Serpent's Tail)
The South Coast has never been more sinister than in these novels featuring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace. Peter James writes about Brighton as if it were some godforsaken American town.
Read 'Dead Simple' (Pan)
You might think that Maigret, Georges Simenon's gruff, obstinate detective – would be synonymous with Paris, but he did venture out of it. One atmospheric excursion was to a quiet town on the Normandy coast.
Read 'Maigret and the Old Lady' (Penguin)
For a contemporary police procedural that lives up to the legacy of Maigret, look no further than the dense, gripping Chief Inspector Adamsberg novels by Fred Vargas, two times winner of the International Dagger award.
Read 'Seeking Whom He May Devour' (Vintage)
Domingo Villar's classy modern noir, featuring disillusioned cop Leo Caldas, starts with the gruesome murder of a young saxophonist. And why not? Jazz is the true soundtrack to the noir thriller, even when it is set in sunny northern Spain.
'Water-Blue Eyes' (Arcadia)
British author Robert Wilson astutely sets his crime books off the beaten track. As well as series set in Spain and Africa, this stand-alone novel featuring an Inspector Zé Coelho tackles present-day Portugal and its dark Nazi past.
'A Small Death in Lisbon' (HarperCollins)
You'll be hard pressed to find a stranger sleuth than Carlos Clot, but then nothing is simple in Rafael Reig's Madrid. The dead investigate their own murders, Spain is part of America and a droll, warped surrealism rules.
Read 'Blood on the Saddle' (Serpent's Tail)
The sunlit Côte d'Azur gets a severe going over in Jean-Claude Izzo's books, which are full of gang warfare, racism and crime, both organised and disorganised. His Inspector Montale is a classic noir hero, hard-bitten and sensuous.
Read 'One Helluva Mess' (Arcadia)
20. Berne, Switzerland
No Alpine meadows in Friedrich Glauser's Sergeant Studer books. Very little ornamentation, in fact, to these classic 1930s mysteries, if you don't count the knowledge of how Swiss mental asylums work. Glauser began writing while inside one.
Read 'In Matto's Realm' (Bitter Lemon Press)
21. Meiringen, Switzerland
Strange that Sherlock Holmes should meet his (supposed) end high in the Swiss mountains. The Reichenbach Falls – "the long sweep of green water roaring forever down" – are the setting for the Final Solution.
'The Complete Sherlock Holmes' (Penguin)
Michele Giuttari knows of what he writes; the creator of Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara is a former police chief of Florence, and his books set their insights into the reality of police work against an authentic Italian backdrop.
Read 'A Florentine Death' (Abacus)
Michael Dibdin made it a virtue of his Aurelio Zen novels that, as much as the melancholy detective stayed the same, Dibdin moved him around all Italy. Cabal and A Long Finish are set in Rome, Cabal featuring a death by falling from the St Peter's dome during Mass.
Read 'Cabal' (Faber)
Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano books are one of the most popular foreign crime series at the moment. They have a mischievous sense of humour and a lovable hero in the compassionate, cynical person of Montalbano.
Read 'The Shape of Water'(Picador)
Inspector Costas Haritos is another unhealthy, morose middle-aged homicide detective, but the merit of Petros Markaris's books is the alternative they offer to tourist visions of Greece – the traffic, the weather, the people.
Read 'Zone Defence' (Vintage)
Most European crime is police procedural, but this first novel by Paulus Hochgatterer transplants the psychological thriller to the Austrian Alps. His sleuths are a detective and (like Hochgatterer himself) a child psychiatrist.
Read 'The Sweetness of Life' (Quercus)
The former Czechoslovakia is a strange hole in European crime fiction in English. Playwright and novelist Pavel Kohout's The Widow Killer features a Czech detective who must team up with a Gestapo agent in occupied Prague to catch a serial killer.
Read 'The Widow Killer' (Picador US)
Sometimes it takes an outsider to be a great detective, and Kemal Kayankaya is just that: a Turk working as a private investigator in Frankfurt. Jakob Arjouni's books are fast-paced and grimly realistic thrillers that take their underworld setting seriously.
Read 'Happy Birthday, Turk' (No Exit Press)
Inspector Piet Van der Valk is a solid successor to Maigret, surfing the changes to Dutch culture from the early 1960s to 1972, when his author killed him off. Nicolas Freeling was British, but his books couldn't be more European.
Read 'Because of the Cats' (Arcadia)
No list of supersleuths would be complete with Emil Tischbein, the serious young hero of Erich Kästner's children's classic. His adventures on the streets of Weimar-era Berlin are the perfect introduction to the world of fictional crime detection.
Read 'Emil and the Detectives' (Red Fox)
31. Wroclaw, Poland
Marek Krajewski's quartet of books featuring Inspector Eberhard Mock start before the Second World War in the German town of Breslau – which, in 1945, became Wroclaw in Poland. Now, there's a plot twist for you.
Read 'Death in Breslau', the first of the quartet (published in translation by Quercus)
The fashion for densely observed historical crime fiction suits Michael Gregorio's book down to the ground. His magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, is our guide to the hidden horrors of the Prussian city at the time of the Napoleonic wars.
Read 'Critique of Criminal Reason' (Faber)
33. Ystad, Sweden
There's an Inspector Wallander walking tour in the small town of Ystad, testimony to the popularity of Henning Mankell's books and his slovenly hero, which began the boom in Scandinavian crime fiction.
Read 'Faceless Killers' (Vintage)
Per Toftlund has all the character traits of your average morose homicide detective, but he's been promoted to the Danish Secret Service. Leif Davidsen's novel is more political thriller than whodunit, but it's topical and utterly gripping.
Read 'The Serbian Dane' (Arcadia)
Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer books have propelled her to the top rank of Scandinavian crime writers. She puts story above plot, and character above setting. Not much local colour but wonderfully truthful thrillers.
Read 'Don't Look Back' (Vintage)
No one goes further north, on land, to seek out and combat crime than Kerstin Ekman's Constable Torsson, who has to track his killers on skis.
Read 'Blackwater' (Picador)
Matti Joensuu's Finnish detective, Inspector Harjunpaa, was an important forerunner of Wallander. Joensuu served in the Helsinki police for 35 years, and his unforced realism and sympathetic stance makes Harjunpaa one of the most appealing sleuths around.
Read 'The Priest of Evil' (Arcadia)
38. St Petersburg
Another period piece, this time by the British author RN Morris, who cheekily borrows Dostoevsky's detective Porfiry Petrovich from Crime and Punishment. He has written two novels so far, showing St Petersburg snowbound by winter, and stinking by summer.
Read 'A Gentle Axe' (Faber)
It's strange that there's no contemporary crime fiction coming out of Putin's Russia, but Boris Akunin makes up for that with his intricate, allusive Erast Fandorin books, set at the turn of the last century.
Read 'The Winter Queen (Phoenix)
The Turkish capital is a growing hot-spot for crime fiction, both contemporary and period. The Cetin Ikmen books by Barbara Nadel, a British writer, are full of local colour but are more soft- than hard-boiled. Perfect holiday crime.
Read 'Belshazzar's Daughter' (Headline)
A typically left-field addition to the crime genre from hip American author Michael Chabon. Detective Meyer Landsman is a policeman in an alternative reality where Alaska, not Israel, became the national home for the Jews after the Second World War.
'The Yiddish Policemen's Union' (Harper)
He is one of the iconic sleuths, but there are only six Charlie Chan novels from the hand of his creator, Earl Derr Biggers. The Chinese-American Chan holds the sleuth record for family size: he and his wife have 14 children.
Read 'The House Without a Key' (Leonaur)
The rainy city finds its match in GM Ford's Frank Corso, a journalist-turned-writer with a heart of ice. If you prefer some caper with your cadavers, try Ford's lighter, more goofy Leo Waterman books.
Read 'Fury' (Pan)
44. San Francisco
It's Los Angeles that Easy Rawlins calls home, of course, but in Cinnamon Kiss he's up the coast in San Francisco, smack bang in the middle of the Summer of Love. As ever, Walter Mosley mixes hardboiled thrills with a deep compassion for his characters.
'Cinnamon Kiss' (Phoenix)
45. Los Angeles
The original noir city. You could make a list of 80 sleuths who have trodden the mean streets of just this town alone. But James Ellroy is the writer who has done most to bring LA up to date. His ultra-hardboiled LA Quartet is an essential crime read, but for a more gentle introduction try the novels featuring Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins.
'LA Noir' (Arrow)
46. Las Vegas
This isn't the only crime series set in Las Vegas, nor is it the only one to feature a feline sleuth, but for sheer silliness Carole Douglas's Midnight Louie mysteries – inspired by Damon Runyan – take some beating.
Read 'Catnap' (Forge)
For a female PI, there's no beating VI Warshawski. Sara Paretsky's tough heroine is perfectly at home in Chicago, which in these novels seems to run LA pretty close as the true home of American noir.
Read 'Fire Sale' (Hodder)
48. Northern Ontario
Giles Blunt always makes the most of the icy setting in his novels featuring Canadian detective John Cardinal. These are perfectly acceptable thrillers: gripping and twisty as they come.
Read 'Forty Words For Sorrow' (Harper)
Patricia Cornwell may have invented the forensic procedural, but many prefer Kathy Reichs, and her fashionably gruesome Temperance Brennan books, usually based in French-speaking Quebec. Perfect holiday reading for the CSI generation.
Read 'Déjà Dead' (Arrow)
50. West Point, New York
Louis Bayard's period novel brilliantly evokes the misty remoteness of West Point, where the famous military academy overlooks the Hudson River. His sleuth, a retired New York City policeman, finds help from the unlikely source of Edgar Alan Poe, who trained at West Point.
'The Pale Blue Eye' (Harper Perennial)
Robert B Parker's Jesse Stone series are set in the fictional Paradise, a small town where Stone, an alcoholic former LAPD detective, tries to get his life together. Paradise may be a long way from LA, but the dead bodies keep turning up all the same.
Read 'Night Passage' (No Exit Press)
52. New York
Apart from Ed McBain's 87th Precinct books – the epitome of the solid police procedural – you could go back in time to discover Rex Stout's novels about the legendary obese detective Nero Wolfe, who never leaves his house if he can help it.
Read 'Black Orchids' (Bantam US)
Four years before Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jonathan Lethem wrote this literary thriller with an amateur sleuth, Lionel, who suffers from Tourette's syndrome. A great off-beat New York novel.
'Motherless Brooklyn' (Faber)
54. Washington DC
George Pelecanos has written a dozen crime books set in his native Washington, spanning six decades, but all with an acute sense of politics and place. Fans' favourites are the DC Quartet.
Read 'The Big Blowdown' (Serpent's Tail)
55. New Orleans
Dave Robicheaux is one of the great misfit sleuths. James Lee Burke's writing simply drips with Louisiana atmosphere, and in The Tin Roof Blowdown he wrote a great, heartfelt response to Hurricane Katrina.
Read 'Heaven's Prisoners' (Phoenix)
Most people would agree that Carl Hiaasen is the king of Florida crime, but it's not really detective fiction. Brit Nick Stone gave us that with his two books about Max Mingus, a corrupt Miami cop turned private eye.
Read 'Mr Clarinet' (Penguin)
The four books featuring Leonardo Padura's Cuban detective, Mario Conde, certainly conform to the general conception of Cuba as a soiled idyll, both sultry and gritty. Translated from the Spanish, these are more rum-soaked than hardboiled.
Read 'Havana Blue' (Bitter Lemon)
Paco Ignacio Taibo IIis Mexico's top crime novelist in his own right, but a book co-written with Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos? Well that's too good to pass up.
'The Uncomfortable Dead' (Serpent's Tail)
The Caribbean is another improbable blank on the map of international crime fiction. There is at least this undemanding mystery from Agatha Christie, in which Miss Marple takes her holiday on the fictional island of St Honoré.
'A Caribbean Mystery' (Harper Collins)
60. Rio de Janeiro
Inspector Espinosa moves easily between the seedy downtown and the beautiful parks and squares of Rio's moneyed areas in these gentle, intelligent whodunits. Author Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza is more interested in weaving multiple stories than in piling up corpses.
Read 'The Silence of the Rain' (Picador)
61. Buenos Aires
In private detective Pepe Carvalho, Manuel Vazquez Montalban created one of the great characters of mystery fiction. Barcelona is his stomping ground, but The Buenos Aires Quintet is a marvellous introduction to this philosophical gourmand of the highest intelligence.
'The Buenos Aires Quintet' (Serpent's Tail)
The publishers claim this is the first Arabic detective story to be translated into English, and though Abdelilah Hamdouchi's novel may be a little simple for crime aficionados, it does give a – so far – unique perspective on a much-visited country.
'The Final Bet' (Modern Arabic Literature)
Best known for her recent books set in Afghanistan and Iraq (such as The Sirens of Baghdad), Yasmina Khadra has also written a crime series about the Algerian detective Inspector Llob. Khadra is the female pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former officer in the Algerian army.
Read 'Double Blank' (Toby Press)
64. Israeli-Occupied Territories
Not many people are going to be holidaying in Gaza or the West Bank, but these gripping thrillers by a British journalist are excellent – not least because they are based on real events. "The killers really killed this way," Matt Rees prefaces his two Omar Yussef novels, "and those who died are dead just the same."
Read 'The Bethlehem Murders' (Atlantic)
One of Hercule Poirot's most famous exotic excursions, Death on the Nile is a classic of travelogue crime and one of Agatha Christie's most enduring mysteries.
'Death on the Nile' (Harper)
Zoë Ferraris has picked a telling setting for her debut novel. Her sleuth is Nayir, a desert guide, who is employed to find the missing daughter of a rich Saudi family, only to find her murdered.
'The Night of the Mi'raj' (Little, Brown)
The prolific Alexander McCall Smith is the undisputed king of cosy crime, the antithesis of the much-touted Tartan Noir movement. His Precious Ramotswe novels may not feature much blood and guts, but readers love them for their humour and respect for African traditions.
Read 'The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' (Abacus)
It almost seems an understatement to call Vikram Chandra's 950-page book "Dickensian". Certainly, Dickens would have loved his detective, Sartaj Singh, and the huge scope of the novel, which takes in Indian history, Islamic fundamentalism and Bollywood, as well, of course, as murder.
'Sacred Games' (Faber)
Satyajit Ray is best known as a film director (Pather Panchali, etc) but he also wrote a series of novels and stories about Calcutta (now Kolkata) private eye Feluda, aimed mainly at children.
Read 'The Adventures of Feluda' (Puffin)
This debut from Michael Walters starts off in the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, where a British geologist has been found murdered, but it soon heads out to the desert. Walters pairs up British CID man Drew McLeish with Negrui, a local former detective.
'The Shadow Walker' (Quercus)
71. The Bering Sea
You can't beat Martin Cruz Smith's second Arkady Renko book for setting. The sequel to Gorky Park has the former Moscow homicide detective solving a murder mystery on a factory fishing vessel in the Bering Sea.
Read 'Polar Star' (Pan)
It's hard being a private investigator at the best of times. For Mei Wang it's worse. She's a private eye in China, where it's illegal. Diane Wei Lang's books capture China as it is today, uneasily caught between past and future.
Read 'The Eye of Jade' (Picador)
There are a couple of home-grown Japanese detectives (for example, Seicho Matsumoto's Inspector Imanishi), but lovers of seriously hardboiled fiction should turn to the first of David Peace's projected trilogy, set in Tokyo after the end of the Second World War.
'Tokyo Year Zero' (Faber)
Qui Xiaolong's Inspector Chen mysteries mix a rather conventional detective formula with a keen eye for the country's changing political climate over the past decade. Chen's Shanghai is a vivid city of bathhouses, karaoke bars and corrupt officials.
Read 'Death of a Red Heroine' (Sceptre)
The Dr Siri Paiboun series by Brit ex-pat Colin Cotterill has been joyously received, both for its humour, and its intriguing historical setting, in newly communist 1970s Laos. The books start when 72-year-old Siri is forced to become the country's chief coroner.
Read 'The Coroner's Lunch' (Quercus)
Christopher G Moore has long been a big name in crime for his Vincent Calvino books, based on the exploits of an American private eye in Thailand's seedy underbelly, but they're only now coming out in the UK.
Read 'The Risk of Infidelity Index' (Atlantic)
77. Northern Territories
This terrific debut by Adrian Hyland features Emily Tempest, a half-Aborigine woman who returns to the outback village she grew up in to find an old friend murdered. Hyland promises more books, with Tempest becoming a bona fide police detective.
'Diamond Dove' (Quercus)
78. Victoria, Australia
For some backwoods Australia, try Peter Temple's Joe Cashin novels, about a burned-out Melbourne cop who moves to the sticks, but finds corpses enough there to keep him occupied.
Read 'The Broken Shore' (Quercus)
79. New Zealand
Little-read these days, Ngaio Marsh was one of the original "Queens of Crime", along with Christie, Sayers and Allingham. Born in New Zealand, she set most of her books in Britain, but her detective, Roderick Alleyn, was seconded to the Antipodes for a few books.
Read 'Vintage Murder' (Harper)
80. South Pole
The North Pole has Ice Station Zebra and The Thing. Antarctica has Greg Rucka's graphic novel about US Marshall Carrie Stetko, out solving murders in the most desolate continent on earth.
Read 'Whiteout' (Oni Press)