“Are you an ‘Eastsider’ or ‘Westsider’?” I often heard that question growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. As a young boy living in the “southern burbs” I never gave it much thought. It wasn’t until much later I realized it meant do you hail from the east- or west-side of the Cuyahoga River. The river divides the city and back then–as I understand it–you didn’t venture much to the other side unless with good reason, and then stayed within your safety lane.
You could say from the late-1800s to early-1900s similar division existed for American mystery readers. The literary Sleuths of “The Golden Age of Mystery” primarily hailed from the West (Europe). However, on the East (Pacific) as far as literary protagonists go, well, not so much. And those that did cross over from that direction took on more dastardly natures, like, Dr. Fu Manchu, Quong Lung, and Mr. Motto. This was a prolific time of Anti-Asian sentiment in America. So, it’s not surprising that America’s literary interests leaned towards the West, where many of her first ancestral origins lie.
That happily is not the case today. International travel speeds us across continents, the internet places the world at our fingertips, and the literary works of others abroad are translated to English regularly. We can enjoy sleuths from around the globe now via simple download or hard copy sales. And what a joy they are! So here are four picks from the four corners of the world I thought good reads for those lazy hazy days of summer. (Hurry! Summer ends September 22nd):
Up North – Norway. The Leopard (2012), Joe Nesbo. Alright, technically from the West (Europe), but let’s count this one as north since the author and his protagonist Inspector Harry Hole are from Oslo, Norway, which is detached from the continent (otherwise, it’ll be Canada’s Inspector Armande Gamache, who I’m guessing most are readily acquainted with?) After reading the opening chapter of The Leopard, I could not stop thinking about it for weeks! The gruesome-shocking-painful-agonizing-ingenious opening, where Nesbo describes a woman’s unimaginably painful death, will haunt you awhile—guaranteed. This is the eighth in the Inspector Harry Hole series, there are twelve in all. I’ve read at least four others, but that opening sequence in The Leopard is squeamishly good! More bizarre murders follow by a fiend known as The Leopard, who strikes with the same silence and stealth as his namesake. The character Harry Hole is an anti-hero, damaged and with lots of baggage. If you want to try just one book in the Harry Hole mystery series, pick up The Leopard.
Down South – Botswana. The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency (2002), Alexander McCall Smith. This one I’d describe as a sort of African Cozy mystery, but it’s much deeper than that. You can’t help but to fall in love with Precious Ramotswe and friends in this first title of the 19-book series. Each incident she investigates seems rather humdrum, at first. Yet, the suspense builds nicely as does the development of each character under McCall Smith’s skilled hand. After the death of her cherished father, Precious Ramotswe, a traditionally built woman, decides she would be better at detecting, than farming on the inheritance her father bequeathed her (cows). So she sells the farm and opens Botswana’s first and only female-run detective agency. There she follows her calling “helping people solve their problems” big-and-small, such as; uncovering a con-man, tracking down a missing husband, and finding a missing boy possibly taken by a witch-doctor! The author, a Scotsman born in now Zimbabwe, taught law at the University of Botswana and eloquently describes the beauty found in the simplicity of this nation at the bottom of the African Continent and in the people there. A feel-good mystery series guaranteed to boost one’s faith in mankind.
Far East – Hong Kong. The Borrowed (2014), Chan, Ho-Kei. (2016 edition, translated from Chinese to English by Jeremy Tiang.) This Hong Kong mystery novel entails a series of six short stories, following the life of Hong Kong Detective Kwan, Chon-Duk. Kwan is nicknamed “The Eye of Heaven” for his deductive powers over a 50 year career on the force. A twist, it begins present day (2013) at the end of his career as Superintendent and Commander of the Central Intelligence Bureau’s Division B (CIB). Then, each story works its way back decade-by-decade to his beginnings as a rookie cop (1967). The time sequence also ties in pivotal events in Hong Kong’s history (such as the 1997 handover from Britain to China.) Kwan also mentors a younger detective along the way, passing on his wisdom to this protégé he sees one day replacing him. A good read especially considering today’s world events affecting this “Pearl of the Orient.”
Out West – Italy. The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders (1999). Marshall Browne. This first, in a 3-part series, finds Rome, Italy Police Inspector Andres as he’s given one final case to solve before his early retirement. Ten years prior, he closed-down a huge anarchist group and become a national hero. However, he lost his leg in the action—and also his nerve! In this first book, he investigates the case of a well-respected judge, murdered in southern Italy. A handsome guy, Anders becomes involved with the judge’s widow and meanwhile must navigate his way through the many layers of corruption in southern Italy’s police and politics. This is a very good read with an unusual sort of cop. And the wooden leg turns out to be as useful as it is a hinderance. A unique detective and an interesting story line. I definitely plan to follow-up on the last two books in the series.
OK, four suggestions from the four corners of the map. Of course if you prefer your murders dished out in one serving, there’s a murder in every port with Charlie Chan Carries On (1930). Hop aboard the “Lofton Round the World Cruise” that sets sail from New York. You’ll find murders in England, France, Italy and Japan, with Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard hot on the trail. But on the final leg of the journey from Honolulu to San Francisco, Inspector Charlie Chan must Carry On! Happy Summertime Reading.
“He who squanders to-day talking of yesterday’s triumph, will have nothing to boast about to-morrow”Charlie Chan Carries On, 1930, Chapter 23