Detective novels take on the world
When he picked up a new mystery novel about a Laotian sleuth, Indiana bookstore owner Jim Huang prepared for the worst. Not only was the story based in Southeast Asia - hardly a hotbed of memorable detective fiction - but the plot also was set three decades in the past.
"You know the place is a mess, you know the Communists are going to wreak havoc on the country," Mr. Huang says. "That's not an inherently interesting situation."
But Huang fell for 2004's widely lauded "The Coroner's Lunch" and its tale of septuagenarian coroner Dr. Siri Paiboun's struggle to find the truth behind a series of murders. First-time novelist Colin Cotterill "makes us understand what the system allows [Paiboun] to do, what the system prevents him from doing, and what he manages to accomplish anyway," says Huang, owner of The Mystery Company in Carmel, Ind. [Editor's note: The original version misnamed the bookstore.]
An academic tome might have accomplished the same goal of enlightening readers about Laotian culture. But detective novels are usually easier to read, and now, to a greater extent than ever before, they're shedding light about the world outside the United States and Britain.
By far, the biggest successes on the international mystery front are the best-selling novels about a charming female sleuth in Botswana ("The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and others) written by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. But reviewers and readers are also raving about detective series set in Sweden, Canada, Spain, and Italy. Such unexpected locales as Bosnia, Algiers, and the Himalayas also serve as bases for fictional detectives. Some of their escapades are landing on American bookshelves, thanks to English translations.
This is a far cry from just a few years ago, let alone the Golden Age of mystery fiction in the 1930s and 1940s, when American and British sleuths - along with a mustachioed Belgian named Hercule Poirot - had the detective genre almost entirely to themselves.
Why the interest in worldly detectives? Some observers say readers are tired of poor products by assembly-line American writers. The Botswana novels and 9/11 also get credit for boosting interest in international detectives. Otto Penzler, owner of New York City's Mysterious Bookshop, has another theory: "If I had to pick a reason, I would say that the writers from foreign countries have simply gotten better."
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.
If they do, they'll tap into a deep human fascination with crime and justice, says Huang of the Indiana bookstore. "That's the main thing about mysteries: You want questions answered and the bad guys brought to justice. That's something that any mystery reader can relate to, regardless of where the book is set."
In the Golden Age of mysteries, the 1930s and '40s, American and British characters had the crime-solving field virtually to themselves. Today, mysteries set in exotic lands and written by foreign writers are gaining popularity. Here are some foreign sleuths and their beats:
Sleuth: Detective John Cardinal
Setting: Ontario, Canada
Author: Giles Blunt
Sample novel: "Forty Words for Sorrow"
Critics say: Gripping tale is Canada's first great crime novel
Sleuth: Detective Kurt Wallander
Author: Henning Mankell
Sample novel: "The Fifth Woman"
Critics say: Dark police procedural style reflects the Scandinavian character
Sleuth:Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Setting: Sicily, Italy
Author: Andrea Camilleri
Sample novel: "The Terra-Cotta Dog"
Critics say: Sardonic look at the Mafia and Sicilian life.
Sleuth: Precious Ramotswe
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Sample novel: "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency"
Critics say: Charming story of Botswana's first female detective.
Sleuth: Inspector Cetin Ikmen
Setting: Istanbul, Turkey
Author: Barbara Nadel
Sample novel: "Belshazzar's Daughter"
Critics say: Evocative, engaging exploration of Turkey's underground world.
Sleuth: Commissioner Guido Brunetti
Setting: Venice, Italy
Author: Donna Leon
Sample novel: "Death at La Fenice"
Critics say: Smart plot filled with local flavor.
Sleuth: Shan Tao Yun
Author: Eliot Pattison
Sample novel: "The Skull Mantra"
Critics say: Exciting, enlightening thriller reveals Tibetan culture.