Summer Sleuths

 

CRIME SPECIAL:A collection of spinechillers located all over the globe. that will make sure the hair stands on the back of your head whenever - and wherever - the mood takes you this summer. Prepare to leave the beach behind.

‘BAD THINGS happen in beautiful places,” the doyenne of British crime fiction, PD James, recently observed. She’s so right. When we’re sunning ourselves on some idyllic beach or downing grilled prawns and dry white wine in some sheltered harbour, we like nothing better than a good murder – fictional, of course – to keep us entertained. A strong sense of place is one of the most attractive elements of a top-notch crime novel, and it needn’t be a remote wilderness place, either; it can be a pulsating city neighbourhood, or even a single apartment building. Arminta Wallace suggests some striking locations for a spot of summer sleuthing.

LOUISIANA

James Lee Burke: Purple Cane Road

(Orion, 2000)

“I remember the slot and racehorse machines, their chromium and electric glitter among the potted palms in the old Frederic Hotel on Main Street, and the cribs on either side of the train tracks that ran the length of Railroad Avenue . . .”

James Lee Burke has been called the Faulkner of crime fiction, and with good reason. The graceful prose of his Dave Robicheaux books is born out of a sultry, sweat-drenched southern land of cottonmouth snakes and burning fields of sugar-cane, not to mention Haitian superstitions with sinister French names: gris-gris and loupgarous. Robicheaux is a cool Cajun dude, but when he learns that his mother was a prostitute who was murdered in a mud puddle on the edge of the bayou, he goes into meltdown.

YORKSHIRE

Reginald Hill: Midnight Fugue

(HarperCollins, 2009)

“He passed through the cathedral porch and had to pause to let his eyes adjust from the morning brightness outside to the rich gloom of the interior. . .”

The latest volume in the Dalziel and Pasco series is a cracker – much pacier and less comedy-driven than the telly adaptation. Hill’s mid-Yorkshire is conveyed through dialogue rather than descriptive passages – lots of “nobbut a bairn”, and so forth – but it’s no less solidly northern for that. The plot involves a missing husband, an ambitious Tory politician (is there any other kind?) and a pair of sibling assassins.

VENICE

Donna Leon: A Sea of Troubles

(Arrow, 2002)

“The launch turned left into the main canal leading back towards San Marco . . . and spread before them was the sight that had welcomed most arriving eyes ever since the great centuries of the Serenissima. Bell towers, domes, cupolas – all disported themselves for the eyes of the passengers and crew. . .”

As colourful as a shop full of Murano glass, Donna Leon’s evocations of Venice have earned her a huge international following. Perhaps only Venice could produce a cop such as Commisario Guido Brunetti, whose murderous schedule never – ever – interferes with his lunch plans, and who likes to curl up with a volume of Greek philosophy of an evening. This time he’s on the trail of two murdered clam fishermen; and speaking of trails, if you’re going to Venice don’t forget to pack Toni Sepeda’s Brunetti’s Venice: Walks With the City’s Best Loved Detective, published this year to coincide with Leon’s 18th Brunetti novel, About Face.

BOSTON

Dennis Lehane: Darkness, Take My Hand(Bantam Books, 1997)

“Meeting House Hill is the dividing line where my neighbourhood ends and Field’s Corner begins. The hill starts below the pavement, sloping the streets into a steep upgrade that turns a car’s third gear into reverse on icy nights . . .”

Dennis Lehane is a seriously classy crime writer. The sights and sounds of Boston pervade his books: but it’s not the sunny, laidback Boston of the harbour area, with its restaurants, cafes and throngs of tourists. His is a darker, post-industrial city, populated by grim, obsessive killers: think of the film adaptations of Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone. This book obeys exactly the command of its title, and is a shiver-inducing delight.

BANGKOK

John Burdett: Bangkok Tattoo

(Bantam, 2005)

“Out on the street the night is in full swing. The whole town is alive with disco music and flashing neon signs from cheap hotels. A tall and very thickset Malay in his late thirties is ushering three girls into his hotel as we pass . . .”

Nobody expects Bangkok to be populated by shy, retiring, intellectual types, but Burdett shakes prostitution, drug-taking, cop corruption, Buddhism and Al-Qaeda into a high-octane hallucinogenic cocktail which veers wildly between sassy and downright sleazy. I hated it. You might love it. But don’t say I didn’t tell you about it. OK?

DONEGAL

Brian McGilloway: Bleed A River Deep

(Macmillan, 2009)

“Patterson turned the car up a narrow side road, and Orcas hove into view: sixteen acres of Donegal bogland which now housed Ireland’s largest goldmine. . .”

Inspector Ben Devlin is, in the local parlance, up to his oxters in trouble. A body has just been dug out of a local bog; he’s scouring Letterkenny in the hope of finding a fluent Chechen speaker who can help him identify another body; and on top of all that, his wife adores the necklace she has been given by the owner of the new mine. Like the other books in the Borderlands series, this is steeped in the landscapes of the north-west, from Limavady PSNI station through drizzly villages to some of the most isolated places on this island.

ALASKA

Barbara Vine: No Night is Too Long

(Viking, 1995)

“The sky was like no sky I’d ever seen, a huge sweep of grey cloud across which black cloud streaked as if a comb had been drawn through it. . .”

It would be so easy to kill someone in Alaska, one of the characters in this book remarks. On the Mendelhall Glacier, for instance. All those crevasses; you could push someone into an ice-blue gulley, and they’d just disappear. With Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine, this isn’t a whodunnit so much as a creepily sinister ghost story. But when it comes to conveying what it’s like to be on an Alaskan cruise chugging northwards from Juneau – fjords sparkling in the sunlight, islands looming up out of the rain – it’s the business.

SHANGHAI

Qiu Xiaolong: Death of a Red Heroine

(Sceptre, 2006)

“Obtaining a new apartment in Shanghai was an occasion calling for celebration. On a moment’s impulse, he had sent out invitations. It would not do to just have a homely meal, as Lu, nicknamed Overseas Chinese, had warned him. For such an occasion there had to be a banquet . . .”

Reading this novel is like stepping into Shanghai’s manic streets, where you take your life in your hands just walking along the pavement. Sichuan Road, Nanjing Road, the glittering skyscrapers on the Huangpo riverfront, the beautiful young girls doing lunch in designer clothes, the old folks doing their qi kung in the park at dawn – it’s all here. Chief Inspector Chen knows these bustling boulevards like the back of his hand, but when a prominent Party member is found murdered, he finds himself completely out of step with his colleagues and superiors.

BOTSWANA

Alexander McCall Smith: Teatime for the Traditionally Built

(Little Brown, 2009)

“And here’s another thing, Mma Ramotswe. Have you heard of evolution? What will happen if we keep on getting lazier and drive everywhere? I can tell you, Mma. We shall start to grow wheels. That is what evolution is all about . . .”

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency has been accused of being the cosiest of cosy crime – not so much soft-boiled as downright runny - which is exactly why we love it. The author’s affection for Botswana is threaded through almost every beguiling sentence, and provides what may be the only consistently positive impression of an African country in recent Western cultural experience. In this book Mma Ramotswe decides to walk to work, with unexpected results – while in the Double Comfort Furniture Shop, Violet Sepotho sets her cap at Mma Matsuki’s unsuspecting fiancé.

REYKJAVIK

Arnaldur Indridason: Jar City

(Harvill, 2004)

“In the top drawer was a photograph album. All black-and-white, old photographs of people from various times, sometimes dressed up in what appeared to be in the sitting room in Nordurmyri, sometimes on picnics: dwarf birch, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir . . .”

It rains a lot in Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik, but not as much as it rains in the heart of the lugubrious Detective Inspector Erlendur. “It’s all one great big bloody mire,” he sighs, when he’s enmeshed in murder and rape and weird genetic goings-on. These books present Reykjavik as a laidback kind of place, trim and neat on the surface but with occasional mad, Björk-style outbursts of unconventionality exploding into the mix.

WASHINGTON DC

George P Pelecanos: Hell to Pay

(Orion, 2003)

“Quinn drove east, over the P St Bridge and onto the edge of Dupont Circle. He found a spot on 22nd Street, walked past a gay nightclub that had been there since disco’s first wave, and stopped at a coffeehouse . . .”

There’s nothing soft-boiled about George P Pelecanos, whose canvas shows the grim side of this most polarised of cities, all runaways, teenage hookers, drugs and implacable gang warfare. This outing takes private investigators Derek Strange and Tony Quinn into the vicious and secretive world of dogfighting – and that’s only the start of it.

SICILY

Andrea Camilleri: The Scent of the Night

(Picador, 2005)

“Before setting out the next morning, he had to wait at the Bar Albanese for the fresh ricotta cannoli to arrive. He bought about thirty of them, along with a few kilos of biscotti regina, marzipan pastries, and mostaccioli.”

Whatever you do, don’t read the Inspector Montalbano books on an empty stomach – the Sicilian detective’s appetite is legendary. The real charm of the series, though, lies in its sense of mischief. Camilleri isn’t afraid to poke fun at his fellow-countrymen; and given the contradictions and corruptions of la dolce vita, Sicilian-style, he has no shortage of source material. In this particular escapade, Montalbano is on the trail of a financial adviser who has disappeared – along with several billion lire belonging to the good citizens of the town of Vigàta.

LONDON

Reggie Nadelson: Londongrad

(Atlantic Books, 2009)

“Past sleeping houses, doors gleaming with fresh paint, red, black, past pink, white, purple flowers tumbling from window boxes, I walked toward the church at the end of the street, light glistening from it, turning the stone gold . . .”

Those born within the sound of Bow Bells will say Reggie Nadelson – she of the Artie Cohen books, with their quintessentially New York settings – has a bloomin’ cheek, exporting her investigator across the pond in pursuit of the murderer of a Russian girl. As it happens, the laconic Artie feels right at home in London’s Little Russia, surrounded by oligarchs, City traders, owners of Premiership football clubs, and all the luxury trappings of a ludicrously wealthy émigré community.

BRESLAU

Marek Krajewksi (Quercus, 2008)

“The city pulsated with subcutaneous life. A tram carrying workers from the second shift at the Linke, Hofmann and Lauchhammer factory grated on the corner, gas lamps flickered . . .”

The elegant city of Wroclaw is now in Poland, but has changed hands many times over a long, rich and often brutal history. Its quirks and eccentricities are explored in Krajewski’s quartet of novels featuring Eberhard Mock and set in the 1930s. If you’re looking for a totally different voice to that of English-language crime fiction, look no further: here be ancient manuscripts in oriental scripts, Gestapo spies, Jewish merchants, Freemasons, dark sexual goings-on – and death by scorpion.

DUBLIN

Declan Hughes: All the Dead Voices

(John Murray, 2009)

“The wheels might have been coming off the economy at a frightening rate, but you wouldn’t have known a thing about it if the only place you ate your dinner was Shanahan’s on the Green . . .”

Declan Hughes has an unparalleled grip on the parallel universes of contemporary Dublin, and his Ed Loy series just keeps getting better. In the city’s sylvan suburbs, middle-class life continues as it always has; meanwhile, inches away from all that cappuccino, gangsters and cocaine-meisters are slaughtering each other with impunity. This volume has an elegiac post-Tiger, post-Troubles feel – which just turns Hughes’s stylish noir an even darker shade of black.

PARIS

Fred Vargas: The Chalk Circle Man

(Harvill, 2009)

“A hailstorm swept over the Boulevard Saint-Marcel, blurring its outlines and making a Parisian avenue look like any country road drenched by a sudden flood . . .”

Forget Dan Brown – if you want to read about Paris, read Fred Vargas. Her bars and apartments are full of the kind of chic, articulate oddities who inhabit French films. It’s all very character-based, so there’s lots of conversation and not much action – unless you count the weird chalk circles which somebody is inscribing on the pavements at dead of night. This is actually the first of the excellent Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novels, though the fifth to be translated into English. Formidable.

NEW YORK

Ed McBain: Ice

(Orion, 2002)

“Well, there it is, Carella thought. Same old precinct. Hasn’t changed a bit since I started working here, probably won’t change after I’m dead and gone. Same rotten precinct . . .”

Ah, the swish and slush of downtown New York, its laundromats and brownstones and underground car parks. Ed McBain wasn’t so much a crime writer as a force of nature, and the 87th Precinct novels not only redrew the boundaries of genre fiction, but also influenced the look and feel of a generation of TV cop shows, from Kojak through Columbo to NYPD Blue. The ice in question is, of course, the narcotic variety, not the naturally occurring crystalline solid.

EDINBURGH

Ian Rankin: The Falls

(Orion, 2001)

“This was the heart of tourist Edinburgh. A hotel up by the traffic lights, a knitwear shop across the road. A kiltmaker’s only 50 yards away. John Knox’s house, hunched against its neighbours, half hidden in scowling shadow . . .”

These days, “tourist Edinburgh” includes an obligatory stop to gaze at the boxy modern block that is the St Leonard’s cop shop, home to one of the best-loved investigators ever. This DI Rebus tells a diverting tale of tiny coffins, containing miniature wooden dolls, which turn up on the picturesque hillside known as Arthur’s Seat. But the main attraction, as ever, is the extraordinary double-act that is Rebus and Edinburgh.

SEVILLE

Robert Wilson. The Hidden Assassins(HarperCollins, 2006)

“Jesús Alarcón was a traditionalist, a practising Catholic, a believer in the power of business to do good in society, and also a lover of the bulls. . .”

Southern Spain oozes out of every page of this intricate political thriller: sunny courtyards overflowing with geraniums, peeling paint, wrought-iron grilles, faded gentility and, of course, bullfighting. Wilson used to write about Lisbon and the legacy of Portugal’s imperial heyday. Now he has moved across the border to Seville, a city which may look and feel Spanish but which is, emotionally and culturally, as close to Africa as to Madrid.

Inspector Javier Falcón isn’t averse to a glass of Rioja and a tapas as he attempts to unravel a complicated plot which blends Islamic terrorism, right-wing Catholicism and the ins and outs of the Andalucian parliamentary elections.

Arm yourself with a plate of jamón and a few olives, and join him.

ISTANBUL

Barbara Nadel: River of the Dead

(Headline, 2009)

“The nineteenth-century wooden house had five storeys and this apartment was on the fifth. Even with the thunderous traffic on the Atatürk Bridge pounding across to hip and happening Beyoglu over the water, the sight of the great inlet with the European city beyond was still absolutely breathtaking . . .”

The covers of Barbara Nadel’s Inspector Cetin Ikmen series feature the dreaming spires of the old Ottoman city, but the intrigues of Ikmen’s Istanbul are entirely contemporary.

They cover just about every aspect of 21st-century Turkish life, from the difficulty of finding a parking space for your Porsche in trendy waterside Ortakoy to murderous commotions among celebrity arabesque singers. This volume takes Ikmen out of town to Mardin, where the faceless body of an American soldier has been found floating in the Euphrates.

LOS ANGELES

Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

(Vintage, 1988)

“Dead men are heavier than broken hearts . . .”

Chandler’s books are truly classics of the crime genre and this is his first and, arguably, his best. As well as the wizard of the one-liner he’s the sorcerer of the sordid location, and as Chandler’s anti-hero, Philip Marlowe, delves into blackmail, porn and various disappearances, you’re transported to the LA of 1939 as promptly and completely as if you’d pressed a “beam-me-up, Scotty” button in your brain.

If it’s LA you’re after, there are acres of other books set in and around the city, among them Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, James Ellroy’s dark, daring LA Quartet, and Joseph Wambaugh’s blackly comic Hollywood cops.

NAIROBI

John Le Carré: The Constant Gardener

(Hodder, 2001)

“Just another bloody Monday in late January, the hottest time in the Nairobi year, a time of dust and water shortages and brown grass and sore eyes and heat ripping off the city pavements. . .”

Fulminating against the evils of unbridled capitalism may have turned John le Carré into the conscience of our race, but he hasn’t lost his ear for the kind of bitchiness, gossip and in-fighting which, back in the Cold War days, made his Smiley novels so riveting. Here he applies his sharpest scalpel to the claustrophobic world of the British High Commission in Nairobi.

But there’s also a sense of the wide open spaces of Africa as the action – in the shape of the murdered wife of a diplomat – shifts to Lake Turkana in the north of the country.

MAINE

John Connolly: Dark Hollow

(Hodder Stoughton, 2007)

“Nutley wore two pairs of socks, long johns, denims, a T-shirt, a cotton shirt, a wool sweater, a Lowe ski jacket, thermal gloves and a grey alpaca hat with two little flaps . . .”

Dang, it’s cold out there. Connolly’s Maine man, the investigator Charlie Parker, loves his rugged, craggy part of the world, with its rolling mountains and forested interior – which is just as well, because the body count in these books is famously high. This one, the author says on his website, is “filled with images of predatory nature” – very creepy, scary stuff to you and me.

SWEDEN

Stieg Larsson: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

(Quercus, 2008)

“He followed a narrow, partially overgrown path that ran along the bay on the north side of Hedeby Island. Gottfried’s cabin was on a point about two and a half kilometres from the village. . .”

Larsson’s bestselling Millennium Trilogy is built on the non-conformist, social-justice ethic which is a staple of Swedish crime writing and familiar from the Kurt Wallander novels of Henning Mankell. Here we have a crusading journalist, a dysfunctional computer hacker, a wealthy industrialist, lots of picturesque islands and mosquitoes the size of elephants. After reading this, proceed to volume two – The Girl Who Played With Fire – before waiting, with bated breath, for the final instalment.

NORFOLK

PD James: Death in Holy Orders

(Faber, 2001)

“Above the cross the sandy cliff was a rich terracotta and looked in places as if it had been sliced with a spade. At the cliff edge a fringe of grasses trembled in the gently moving air . . .”

PD James is 90 and still writing, which just goes to show that for all its murder and mayhem, crime fiction is very, very good for you. All of her Commander Adam Dalgliesh books are accomplished and assured: but this tale of carry-on in the cloister, set in an Anglican theological college clinging to a desolate stretch of the East Anglian coast, is so redolent of the wild landscape of Norfolk that when you finally put it down, you can practically taste salt on your fingers.

May she live long and prosper.