Sunday, December 13, 2009

Detecting Asia

We live in a golden age for thriller and mystery fans.

As the title of this site suggests, any reader can now investigate dozens of places and cultures through the lens of the mystery or thriller novel. Mysteries are great books for armchair exploration -- as many have noted, the detective is classless, able to interact with people at all levels of society; mysteries and thrillers, by definition, lift up a corner of the social fabric and peer beneath it; and what other genre revolves around a character whose primary function is to ask questions?

The bloggers who contribute to MURDER IS EVERYWHERE live on, and write about, four continents: Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia. I'm the Asia hand, and I thought it might be fun to talk about the writers who I think are the best at capturing the countries they write
about. Disclosure: I'm limited to writers who write in English or are translated into it.

HONG KONG -- Eric Stone's four Ray Sharp books mostly begin in Hong Kong, although Ray goes wherever the story takes him, memorably to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, mainland China, and other points East. Ray (like Eric) is a former journalist who (unlike Eric) now works for a company that does due diligence in the feverish climate of modern Asian business. As a result, he bumps up against bad guys of all descriptions, in settings that are always persuasive. You can feel Asia in Eric Stone's writing -- in fact, you can almost smell it. Living Room of the Dead, Flight of the Hornbill, Grave Imports, and the current Shanghaid -- they'll all take you to places you haven't been, and some you probably wouldn't want to get anywhere near.

CHINA -- Qiu Xiaolong is a Chinese-born poet and mystery writer who now lives in St. Louis and whose Inspector Chen books look closely at the fastest-changing country in the history of the world. Qiu brings a poet's touch and a moralist's eye to the
challenges of a nation where everything has been turned upside down in a matter of years, where the police can't touch certain people (often the most guilty) and frequently don't know which laws they dare to enforce. Inspector Chen is a man I'd like to meet. He has wit enough to survive in a system where the only constant is change, and a moral core that holds him steady when the points of the political compass suddenly reverse themselves. Death of a Red Heroine is a great starting point, but you could also pick up Red Mandarin Dress or A Loyal Character Dancer-- any of them.

THAILAND -- I write about Thailand, but the guy who owns Bangkok, from a literary
perspective, is Christopher G. Moore. If the Bangkok private eye has become a cliche -- as was suggested in a review of one of my books by a critic who hasn't laughed since the day the hogs ate grandma -- it's Chris Moore's fault. He invented the genre, and his Vincent Calvino set
the mold. A nervy, bright New York lawyer, now disbarred, Vinnie brings a distinctly farang attitude to Bangkok's mean streets, which are rarely meaner than they are when Vinnie walks them. Without Vinnie Calvino, there wouldn't be a Poke Rafferty, and I wouldn't have a publishing contract and a tiny (but deeply appreciated, guys!) fan base. Among the many very good things about Christopher G. Moore is that he's written lots of books. One of the earliest, Spirit House, has been published recently in America by Grove Press, as have two more recent titles, The Risk of Infidelity Index and the wonderful Paying Back Jack. (Are those great titles, or what?) And you can get his "Land of Smiles" trilogy, beginning with (I think) A Killing Smile at Amazon. Nobody writing today knows Bangkok better.

LAOS -- Colin Cotterill is the guy. Even if he weren't the only writer I know who sets
mysteries in Laos, he'd almost certainly be the best. His 73 year-old-hero, Dr. Siri Paiboun, is a French-educated physician who is drafted by the totalitarian (and totally inept) government of Laos as the state coroner. An interesting thing happens to Dr. Siri as he accepts dead patients -- he discovers a previously undiscovered ability to commune with them. The Laos are among Asia's spacier groups -- there's a saying in Cambodia: "The Vietnamese own the rice, the Cambodians plant the rice, and the Laos listen to it grow." Cotterill handles his characters and their beliefs with empathy and seriousness, even as the books shade into gentle comedy. I suggest starting with the first, The Coroner's Lunch, followed by the second, Thirty-Three Teeth, and then reading the rest of the series pretty much as they come to hand. They're a continuing delight.

JAPAN (modern) -- Natsuo Kirino is a writer of prodigious talent and the subject of the most dramatic author picture I've ever seen. Her books, especially Out and Real World, are densely
woven psychological thrillers that show the reader a Japan that's never on The Discovery Channel. In Out, a group of women who work together at a factory plot to kill the brutal husband of one of them and then carry the plan out -- and from then, it's "The Telltale Heart" times five. Real World is the most chilling novel of alienated youth I've ever read; after teenage boy murders his mother, he begins to text the girls in his class, each of whom reacts in a completely different way. It's unlike anything I ever read. Grotesque was actually too strong for me -- its picture of a teenage girl who's a sociopath was so convincing I felt like I'd been trapped in a bell jar with something poisonous and vicious. Kirino is the real thing.

JAPAN (medieval) -- Laura Joh Rowland is the author of the Sano Ichiro series, which, happily for readers, comprises many books and which, taken as a whole, recounts an epic of Wagnerianproportions -- a complex, meticulously researched tale of treachery, betrayal,
and jockeying for power at the highest levels of feudal Japan. Rowland's hero, Ichiro, rises high through his service to a weak, easily manipulated emperor -- with the (usually) secret help of his spirited wife, Lady Reiko. I actually don't know how Rowland does what she does. I sometimes pick one up thinking I'm not really in the mood for it, but, what hell, I'll give it a try -- and then realize that I've been reading for three or four hours. This is one series you definitely want to read in order, so kick back and start with Shinju, in which Ichiro begins his ascent to the treacherous peaks of power.

So many books, so little time. Such a long blog. Such eccentric margins.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. What a great idea to expose us to other mysteries set in Asia. I only know Christopher Moore's work. My pile of to-be-reads is growing rapidly.

    I am currently reading a chilling book by South African writer, Margie Orford. It is a story of young girls who disappear in the murkiness of the gang lands of Cape Town. Daddy's Girl is keeping me awake at night.

  2. thanks for the book list on Asia...I love Laura's books but Natsuo Kirino is new to me

  3. I have read all of Qiu Xiaolong's and Colin Cotterill's book. Beyond the difference in the locations, Inspector Chin is pretty much all business while Dr.Siri sometimes has trouble getting down to business.

    Has anyone read James Church's Inspector O series set in North Korea? The author creates a great sense of place especially even though so little is known about that country.

    I have read three books by Miyuki Miyabe that were translated from Japanese. I found the first one, ALL SHE WAS WORTH, at the Japanese Pavilion in Disney World. Published in Japan in 1992, it is a story about identity theft. The nephew of a police inspector comes to him when his fiancee disappears and he realizes that everything he knew about her is false. CROSSFIRE finds the police tracking a woman vigilante with the power of pyrokinesis who is out to avenge crimes against other women. In SHADOW FAMILY, the police discover that two murders in different areas are connected through role playing on the web. THE DEVIL'S WHISPER has a 16 year-old boy working to help his uncle, a taxi driver accused of manslaugher when he kills a young woman.

    Miyabe's stories are complex and fascinating. She is the author of science fiction and children's books and some of that is brought to her mysteries.

    Asa Nonami is the author of THE HUNTER. A female motorcycle police officer is transferred to the detective unit. Her first case on the new job has her investigating a case of spontaneous combustion. This book and CROSSFIRE have some things in common with Cotterill's books in that things outside the realm of general human experience seem perfectly reasonable.

  4. I'm familiar with LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD. Excellent book. I come across Eric Stone's name from time to time and wonder why I haven't read more of the Ray Sharp books. Then I look at my TBR pile. That has a lot to do with it; as you said, there are a LOT of excellent writers around right now. Still, I need to get back to Stone's books.

  5. Hi, everybody -

    The blog says 4 comments but only 3 show, so sorry if I'm skipping someone.

    Stan -- will get DADDY'S GIRL. Can't wait, actually.

    Beth, I completely forgot James Church, which is inexcusable (1) because he's so good, and (2) because I know him. I also left out Eliot Patterson on Tibet and a few others. I think I'll do a follow-up blog next week. And I love Miyabe (incuding her enormous YA novel) but am less enthralled with Nonami. For me, though, Kirino is the most powerful of the three.

    Dana, I'm thinking about buying a second house for my TBR shelves. Just bookshelves everywhere, a fireplace, one great chair with a lamp just behind it, and stuff in the refrigerator. Bare wood floors gleaming.

    Maybe I should make some money.

  6. THERE we are -- Cara's response just popped up. I love both writers (Rowland and Kirino) for very, very different reasons. Hard to think of two writers with less in common. I love both of them.

  7. Thanks, Tim. My list of books to read just got longer. I'm especially looking forward to reading Kirino. I'll add some of these to the list I culled from your recent posts at The Blog Cabin, then get busy. There's enough material to keep me occupied through next summer.

  8. Hey, Phil --

    Try James Carlos Blake's A WORLD OF THIEVES. Just a terrific Bonnie & Clyse-era book. Guy can really write.

    Also, the new Thomas Perry, RUNNER, although I haven't finished it yet.

  9. Obviously, "Clyse" in "Bonnie & . . . " should be "Clyde." Maybe so obviously this post is unnecessary.

  10. Actually, yeah, 'cuz I read it as "Clyde" in the original.