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Detective novels take on the world

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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.

Foreign detective novels aren't for everyone. They are often pricey: Many are trade paperbacks that cost about $15, compared to $6.99 for mass-market paperbacks. They also tend to be more literary and less action-packed than their American cousins, says Peter Cannon, mysteries editor at Publishers Weekly.

Some common mystery genres aren't well-represented outside the United States and Britain. With the exception of Mr. Smith's Botswana series, there aren't many foreign mysteries in the "cozy" category - the soft-boiled Jessica Fletcher-type mystery that typically takes place in some delightfully quirky village.

There's also a shortage of foreign equivalents of American novels by the likes of Janet Evanovich, and Robert B. Parker, which are filled with snappy dialogue. But that's not to say that all foreign writers lack firsthand knowledge of English. Several well-respected mystery authors who set their books in other countries, including Donna Leon (Italy) and John Burdett (Thailand), are Americans or Britons who live abroad.

It's hard to predict the next hot region for mystery novels, but some observers expect to see more detectives from Asia and Africa. And booksellers are still waiting for South America and Germany to produce mystery fiction.

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