A rich roundup of some of the best international 'tecs.
This article originally appeared in #111 Fall Issue, 2009.
Jill Scott stars in the HBO series based on Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels. The first season, gorgeously filmed on location in Botswana, is just out on DVD. Photo courtesy HBO.
Once upon a time, it was easy enough to believe that the “private eye” was 100 percent American. Oh sure, there were always exceptions, but for many fans, that’s all they were. Exceptions. Curiosities. Rarities. Something to cleanse the palate between more red, white, and blue fare.
Oooh, look! An African gumshoe! A Greek private eye! How quaint!
These days some of the most interesting—and successful—private eye action is taking place in the rest of the world. It ranges from the genteel, charming adventures of Botswana’s number-one lady detective Precious Ramotswe (the latest novel, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, was climbing the charts just as the HBO series featuring Jill Scott was winding down its first season) to the surprisingly popular, grisly noir of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, by the late Stieg Larsson, which introduced mismatched Swedish detectives Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.
If you haven’t heard the buzz about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, you really should get out more often. It’s simply one of the hottest and most acclaimed new series around. Blomkvist is a disgraced middle-aged reporter and Salander’s a high-maintenance punkette and computer whiz. Their wallow through some of Sweden’s dirtiest secrets while pursuing a 40-year-old cold case has been snapping up major crime fiction and literary awards left and right, from Sweden to South Africa. The Girl Who Played With Fire, has recently been translated into English and is out now, while the third and final book in the trilogy waits in the wings.
Sweden too cold for you? On the increasingly busy Bangkok beat, Timothy Hallinan’s third book featuring American travel writer and sometime eye Poke Rafferty is due to drop any moment. In Breathing Water, Poke is coerced into writing a biography of one of Thailand’s most controversial (and richest) men. In the just-published Paying Back Jack, Christopher G. Moore’s tenth Vincent Calvino novel, the American expat gumshoe is hired to tail a Thai politician’s “minor wife” and soon gets involved in a steaming tangle of corruption and revenge.
It's not just the boys walking the Bangkok beat. Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney has, so far, only appeared in one book, 2006’s critically acclaimed Behind the Night Bazaar, which introduced her hardboiled Bangkok private detective. For those craving something a little off the beaten track, this foray into the mean streets of Thailand ought to do the trick. There’s corruption and greed and plenty of good old violence and a wonderfully intense seediness about the whole thing as Jayne, an Australian ex-pat, goes through her paces, investigating a gruesome murder in the wide open city of Chiang Mai that may have huge personal implications for her. Jayne’s descent into the nastier parts of that sexual demimonde, where child hookers openly cater to pedophiles, is not for the timid. The good news is Savage has just finished a sequel which we can look forward to in 2010.
Surprisingly, India has not inspired much PI fiction even though H.R.F. Keating’s Mumbai policeman, back this summer in the intriguing Inspector Ghote’s First Case, has been a longtime reader favorite. British writer Tarquin Hall introduces Vish Puri, the head of Delhi’s Most Private Investigators Ltd., in The Case of the Missing Servant. As in both Keating and Smith’s novels, the charm here comes from subtle and gracefully nuanced character studies and vividly rendered cultural color, rather than fisticuffs and gunfire. Chubby, eccentric Puri is middle-aged and married, a Delhi version of Horace Rumpole, but with better grooming skills. Most of his cases consist of background checks on potential spouses. But don’t be fooled—he’s not quite the complacent, dandyish buffoon he appears to be. When push comes to shove, as it does when he’s called upon to look into the disappearance of a servant girl whose employer has been charged with her murder, it soon becomes apparent that Vish possesses a keen wit and a razor-sharp mind.
And if there's a spot on this planet just begging for its own gumshoe, it's gotta be the Middle East. Maybe it's time Matt Beynon Rees had his series character, Omar Yussef, a Palestinian history teacher and so-far amateur sleuth, ditch school for what is obviously his true calling: private investigation. The fourth in the series, The Fourth Assassin takes Omar from his home in Bethlehem to Brooklyn where his youngest son lives.
Then there’s Diane Wei Liang’s Mei Wang, working the Bejing beat in the recent Paper Butterfly, which I’ve already praised (Summer #110), and we can’t forget Ireland, the Celtic Tiger of private eye fiction. What with the likes of Ken Bruen (Sanctuary), Declan Hughes (All the Dead Voices) and a host of others, the Emerald Isle now seems to have almost as many private eyes wandering around as Southern California.
Meanwhile, over in Australia, Peter Corris, “the father of Australian crime fiction,” is still going strong, clocking in with his 29th (!) Cliff Hardy novel, Deep Water. Criminally hard to get in the US these days, this series is the real deal. Hardy is a feisty nod to the classic two-fisted tough guy with a smart mouth, a nose for trouble and an eye for the telling detail; a “cold bastard… good at his job.” Think television’s Joe Mannix transported to the beaches and dog tracks of Sydney and you’re halfway home.
The truth is today’s private eye is a citizen of the world. Grab your passport and go along for the ride.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #111.