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Mysteries from Around the World

Planning to travel to another country? Why not read a mystery set there?

I’ve always liked reading mysteries with foreign settings, and, if I know I am going to visit a foreign locale, I like to try to find a mystery set in my destination. (Before the Internet, this was not always easy. I knew of one book on the subject, Scenes of the Crime, which wasn’t very comprehensive, and that was about it.)  

A year and a half ago, we visited my daughter in Granada, who was studying there for a semester.  I looked for a mystery set in Granada and found one called Blood Wedding by P.J. Brooke. (P.J. Brooke is actually two people, a husband and wife named Philip O’Brien and Jane Brooke, who spend half their time in Granada and half in Scotland.)

I thought the book was good, if not outstanding, but I’ll always be grateful to it for the unintended restaurant recommendation it provided. It mentioned a terrace restaurant boasting a fantastic view of the Alhambra. We went there and the place was so spectacular, both the food and the view, that we ate there twice. Though set in the present, a good deal of the plot of Blood Wedding had to do with the lingering effects of the Spanish Civil War.

I did the same thing before we went to Prague, where my son was studying a few years ago. Finding mysteries set in Prague or the Czech Republic was a little harder than finding any set in Granada, but I did find four short story collections by Joseph Skvorecky featuring Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague Homicide Bureau. The stories are playful and ironic and give one a really good feel for what life was like under Communist rule.  

Another enjoyable series is one by Janwillem van de Wetering that is set in Amsterdam and features the police team of Grijpstra and de Gier. The novels are somewhat whimsical, but very entertaining, with a streak of Zen Buddhism running through them, which becomes more pronounced as the series progresses. (Van de Wetering worked for the Amsterdam police and studied Buddhism, so he knows a lot about both subjects). Another great detective series, by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, another husband and wife team, is set in Sweden. The main character is police detective Martin Beck.

There are ten novels in the series, and the characters grow and change from book to book, so it is best to read them in order. They are first rate mysteries, but also act as a commentary on modern Swedish society.  Like the Henning Mankell (Sweden) and Arnaldur Indriaason (Iceland) series, the Martin Beck novels are solemn, even dreary, but very compelling all the same. One of the Martin Beck books, The Laughing Policeman, was made into a movie starring Walter Matthau and Bruce Dern, with the setting changed to San Francisco. 

Moving on to Africa, the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, which is set in Botswana, is absolutely delightful. It was also made into a TV series (which I haven't seen yet); and, in Australia, Arthur W. Upfield’s half-Aborigine detective, Napoleon Bonaparte (sic), otherwise known as Bony, is also a delight.  Having mentioned all of the above series, I have saved my favorite for last: the Inspector Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. 

Simenon, Belgian by birth, wrote in French and was one of the most prolific major authors of the 20th century.  He wrote nearly 200 novels, 75 of which were novels in the Maigret series. (The first Maigret novel was published in 1931 and the last in 1972. There are also 28 short stories featuring Inspector Maigret.)  Most of the novels are set in Paris, but there are a good number set at the seaside or in the country, and there are even a few set in other countries (the Netherlands and the U.S., for instance). 

The novels are very atmospheric and Simenon has a wonderful way of using Paris as a backdrop.  Although the stories are police procedurals, Maigret is not your typical police detective. He often arrives at his solutions not so much by drawing conclusions from evidence as by using his keen understanding of human nature.  He is as much a psychologist as a detective.  The great thing about the Maigret novels is that, if you enjoy them, there are plenty of them.  I have read 55 and am currently reading my 56th. (I discovered the Maigret series in the early 80s, when I was in charge of the mystery section of a bookstore.)  

A comprehensive list of the Maigret stories can be found at http://trussel.com/f_maig.htm. When looking for Maigret novels, you have to be careful.  Often the same novel will have been published under two different titles. The only way to be sure you haven't already read the book is to also know what the original title was in French.

The library owns books by the authors mentioned above, except for Skvorecky, and there are many more mysteries set in many other countries, which I have failed to mention. (One particularly popular series, by Donna Leon, is set in Venice.)  If you want to see what mysteries the library has that are set in other countries, just go to the library catalog at http://catalog.cranfordlibrary.org/polaris/Search/default.aspx?ctx=3.1033.0.0.2 and do a keyword search using the word mystery and the name of the country you are interested in. And, of course, if we don't have what you're looking forward, you can always request a book through interlibrary loan by going to http://www.cranford.com/library/intercontact.asp

Bon voyage!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Donald December 02, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Nice piece, John! As director of the Cranford Public Library, John is one of the town's most dedicated and accessible people. Cranford is fortunate to have him.

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