I had a customer in the shop the other day who very much enjoyed Donna Leon’s clever mysteries set in Venice featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a native Venetian adept at moving through the labyrinthine paths and waterways of the city, and the many, many layers of Italian beaurocracy, all the while negotiating the subtle yet powerful mores of Venetian and Italian ( – do not think that they are same thing at all) society.
Leon’s new book is The Golden Egg (William Heinemann) which will be in store early April. It is the 22nd Brunetti novel from this award- winning novelist, who has lived in Venice for 30 years. The crime/mystery element is really good but it is the depiction of the private Venice of her citizens, a world of incomparable beauty, family intimacy, shocking crime, and insidious corruption that keeps you eagerly anticipating the next book.
The question our customer was wanting help with was “Who else is writing crime with such a strong and evocative sense of place?”
One author that immediately sprung to mind is James Lee Burke, a long time chronicler of the once-Edenic South Louisiana of New Orleans, New Iberia and its bayous, a land and people shaped in ways good and bad by their fascinating and mythical but corrosive history. Burke’s tales of deeply human, deeply humane, flawed-but-trying cop Dave Robicheaux and his fight to protect both a people and a land overcome by profiteers both legal & criminal, are simply outstanding. His response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, 2007’s The Tin Roof Blowdown (Phoenix) is an amazing piece of work, an angry wrenching keening for a wounded city and people. The UK’s Independent on Sunday said the book “…is more than a crime novel; more than a literary novel even. It is a work of profound historical value and importance”. His latest work in the Robicheaux series, Creole Belle (Orion) is as lyrical, gorgeous and interesting as its predecessors – you can practically smell the dampness of the bayou, feel the sticky Louisiana heat and hear the breeze in the dilapidated plantation live oaks. The acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates has praised him for “the luminosity of his writerly voice”, and his writing is extraordinarily powerful.
Several years back, Burke started another series based in South Texas, near the border with Mexico. Featuring septuagenarian sheriff, Hackberry Holland, the latest book in this newish series is
Feast Day of Fools (Orion). These are as menacing, mysterious and dry as the sun-blasted desert they are set in, you can taste the grit between your teeth and it gets in your eyes too.
Also, I just had to tell the customer about the Quebec-based crime fiction from Louise Penny, featuring Montreal policeman Chief Inspector Gamache. The latest in the series is The Beautiful Mystery (Sphere) set in a monastery beside a lake – these are very clever books, psychologically acute and with finely drawn characters that feel very real, I found this last book quite devastating, I had got so familiar with, so invested in, some of the long-running characters. I have also developed a fascination with Quebec and Montreal and have been reading up on the history. The francophone Gamache is more Brunetti-ish than like either of Burke’s slightly more ‘assertive’ creations but the books are like those above: they have a real sense of place, places that from NZ seems extremely exotic, showing how the troubled and still-disputed histories of this unusual place, an island of French language, institutions and culture, in North America, still effects and shapes people today – and their crimes.
Some other quick suggestions that get the travel writing/crime mix just right, so right that all of them have a very satisfying back-list to read through…
Fred Vargas: quirky French crime fiction, with one of the oddest detectives ever, set in Paris and in various French provinces.
Tim Dorsey: the loopy, violent and funny Florida adventures of anti-hero Serge Storms and sidekick Coleman, a mix of Hunter S. Thompson, Carl Hiaasen and the Marx Brothers.
Vanda Symon: an NZ author, her Sam Shepard series starts in Mataura and follows up in (yay!) Dunedin with a sidetrip to Aramoana.
Paul Cleave: another NZer, v. v. dark psychological thrillers set in Christchurch before and after the shaking.
Colin Cotterill: Set in Thailand and featuring the acerbic Dr Siri, these are fresh, original and exotic.
Mons Kallentoft and Camilla Lackberg: Swedish authors writing two really good crime series set in Sweden – not your usual scandi-crime.
Yrsa Sigurdardottir: Crime in Iceland: volcanoes, lava fields, thermal springs and very, very few trees.
Michael Connelly: After Harry Bosch, glamorous and squalid Los Angeles is the main character – the bright sunshine just makes the shadows deeper.