Around the world with detective fiction

As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (review forthcoming), it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me.

  • Alexander McCall Smith immerses the reader in the laid-back civility of Botswana through the continuing exploits of Mma Precious Ramotswe in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, providing a fascinating vantage-point on the only former colony in sub-Saharan Africa to have avoided military coups or civil war.
  • Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti delves into the corruption and mulish bureaucracy of Venetian society, giving a sense from the inside looking out on the impact of unending waves of tourists who invade his beautiful city.
  • In the Inspector Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, set in Edinburgh, we view the workings of politics in Scotland’s capital and the interplay of the criminal underworld with the city’s establishment — noting in the process just how different is Scottish society from English.
  • Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins.
  • Racing through the streets of Moscow, Senior Investigator Arkady Renko explores crime-ridden post-Soviet Russia in Martin Cruz Smith’s excellent novels.
  • Henning Mankell’s alter ego, small-town police detective Kurt Wallender, probes the dark recesses of Swedish society, exploring the widespread racism, alcoholism, and depression.
  • Elizabeth George’s series of novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley provides a window on English society, both in London, where Lynley is based at New Scotland Yard, and in the countryside, where he and his investigative team are called so often to tackle the country’s toughest murder cases.

Every one of these series of detective novels is well worth reading for sheer enjoyment. Yet they all help illuminate the world we live in.

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