The cobblestone streets of European capitals make atmospheric, and popular, settings for crime fiction. But for this feature, PW spun the globe to find intrigue set elsewhere, in locales including Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
These regions are less represented in the genre, but new books are bringing them to prominence and offer different perspectives than those typically found in the news.
The authors of many of these books are not native to the countries they’re writing about, which can make for trouble, especially in a genre with a history of problematic portrayals. But they are making an effort to correct that legacy.
In the case of Pirata (Harper Perennial, July), author Patrick Hasburgh says avoiding caricature starts with rejecting common, ugly stereotypes associated with Mexico, where his book is set: “The idea of the sleepy Mexican in a sombrero is absurd.” A writer and co-creator of a number of Hollywood TV shows including 21 Jump Street, Hasburgh spent several years living in Mexico with his wife and children.
Pirata tells the story of an American who tries to evade capture after helping a fellow expat cover up a murder in a small, coastal Mexican town. He says, “My focus when developing the story was the people—to know them as deeply as I could and to let them tell me their stories in the voices of expats or Mexican nationals.”
Hasburgh is one among several authors whose forthcoming novels are backed up by years of research, on-the-ground experience, or a combination of the two.
With the politics of the Korean peninsula firmly positioned at the top of the news cycle, the timing is fortuitous for mysteries and thrillers set in both North and South Korea.
Bloody Sunday (St. Martin’s, June) is the eighth novel in U.S. author Ben Coes’s Dewey Andreas series, and the first set in North Korea. Coes says he struggled to find a believable way to send Andreas into a country known for its hostility to Americans, “where a Western spy would stand out like a sore thumb.” He found his answer with a story in which Andreas has no other choice after botching an attempt to poison a North Korean general. The only antidote for the poison is in Pyongyang.
“I’ve wanted to write a thriller involving North Korea since 2011,” Coes says, noting that it’s an atypical setting for such books. To facilitate his research, Coes tapped diplomatic and security contacts from early in his career, when he was a White House intern under Ronald Reagan; a speechwriter for former energy secretary James Watkins, under George H.W. Bush; and later a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In the case of first-time novelist D.B. John, a visit to North Korea inspired his forthcoming thriller, which is set in the largely cloistered country. John, who was born in Wales and lives in London, travelled to North Korea for two weeks in 2012 with an international tour group. While there, he observed centenary celebrations for the birth of the regime’s founder, Kim Il Sung. “Everything was choreographed and stage managed,” John says. “I saw the leader cult at its most excessive.” When he returned to Seoul, he rented an apartment and mapped out his story.
Star of the North (Crown, May) involves a traitor, a spy, and a criminal, all of whose stories converge. During the five years John spent writing the novel, he also coauthored The Girl with Seven Names (William Collins, 2015), the autobiography of North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee. The experience of working with Lee gave John the opportunity to understand what was behind the scripted world he saw when he visited the North. “Everyone wore a mask,” says John, “and you let it slip at your own peril.”
Martin Limón spent 10 of his 20 years in the U.S. military in South Korea, and he set his long-running series starring army investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom in the region in the 1970s. In the 13th installment, The Line (Soho, Oct.), a battered corpse is found in the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea from South Korea, and neither side wants to take charge.
In addition to his experience on the ground, Limón relies on decades of personal research into Korean history to inform his books, even if he opts against long history lessons in his text. “I do find myself sometimes going off and explaining something in geography or history, and I almost always end up cutting it down,” Limón says. Instead, “I hope [the research] comes through in the characters themselves.”
The main character in Nick Wilkshire’s Foreign Affairs Mystery series, who on his third outing finds himself in Japan, is less culturally attuned than those in Limón’s book, which is just how the author, a lawyer in Ottawa, wants it. In Remember Tokyo (Dundurn, Oct.), Canadian consular official and amateur sleuth Charlie Hillier is posted to the city of the title and ends up in over his head when he investigates a car accident involving a Canadian banker. Wilkshire says the series, which has previously been set in Havana and Moscow, is predicated on “the idea of the Canadian everyman thrown into the world.”
A substantial part of The Last Sword Maker (Blackstone, Oct.) is set in Tibet, so U.S. author Brian Nelson mined first-person accounts from refugees to accurately describe a part of the world that’s difficult for outsiders to visit. Nelson’s book begins with mass deaths in Tibet from an unknown disease, an event that’s denied by the Chinese government. The existence of the weaponized disease leads to an arms race between China and the United States and becomes the foundation for the revolutionary efforts of a Tibetan character named Sonam.
Nelson began working on the book in 2000 and spent years studying Tibet in order to capture an accurate portrait of the place without being able to visit. “When most people think about Tibet, they think about either the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere,” Nelson says. “But that’s not what it is. I wanted to capture a whole history here, from a young Tibetan’s point of view—a young radical who is trying to find a way to get his country back.”
Published in the U.S. in 2002, Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency gave readers here a glimpse of Botswana through the exploits of detective Mma Precious Ramotswe. The 18th installment, The House of Unexpected Sisters, pubbed in 2017. The series has not sparked a Nordic Noir–style boom in African crime fiction exports, but the coming months bring several novels that span the continent.
For British journalist James Brabazon, fiction was the best vehicle to convey what he saw during two decades of reporting from west Africa. Brabazon started writing The Break Line (Berkley, Jan. 2019), his first novel, as a way of sharing experiences that never made it into print. “There are a lot of things that I knew I couldn’t write openly as facts, I couldn’t corroborate, and I couldn’t state” because they were off the record, Brabazon says. The book follows Max McLean, an Anglo-Irish assassin who is sent to Sierra Leone by British intelligence. He’s soon drawn into a conspiracy and discovers that he’s less valuable to his handlers than he’d thought.
In fiction, Brabazon was able to represent the people he knows in Sierra Leone in ways that he says are often underrepresented for western readers. For instance, early in the book, McLean partners with a Sierra Leonean small business owner named Robert, who later ends up saving the assassin’s life. Brabazon says that, in Western fiction, Africans are rarely the heroes. “In books, quite often you get a white bloke in Africa who has a dustup and saves the Africans. That’s anathema to me,” he says. “I wanted to create characters true to my experience. I’ve had my ass hauled out by someone else, and it’s not the tough white guy who saves the day.”
Writing relatable characters from a different culture, even when they are not the heroes, was equally important to Robert Karjel, the Swedish author of After the Monsoon (Harper, July). Karjel, whose 2016 English-language debut, The Swede, received a starred review from PW, based his new thriller on his time with the Swedish Air Force.
While serving in the military, Karjel led helicopter raids of Somali pirate ships. He also learned that many pirates were making cell phone calls to Örebro, the small Swedish city where the author grew up, which has a large Somali immigrant population. “It became very clear to me that the world isn’t over there, the world is here [in Sweden] too,” Karjel says, adding that many of the calls were likely about routine domestic matters. The experience led him to research the lives of Somali expats living in Sweden, the barriers they face, and the ties between their lives and those of their families and friends still living in Somalia.
Karjel created a story line within the book that follows the life of a Somali-Swede and connects it to the main plot, which follows a well-to-do European family captured by pirates off the coast of Djibouti. But, even with all of his experience and research, he says the process of creating realistic characters was a persistent concern. He enlisted readers from disparate backgrounds to critique his manuscript, on the condition that they wouldn’t be polite in their edits. “I don’t want that,” Karjel says. “You need to find somebody who can articulate what’s right or wrong in the book and also has the guts to do it.”
Toronto author K.J. Howe also relies on a network of sources to help ensure accuracy in her work and to guide her through the remote locations where her books are set. “I’ve always been a firm believer that it takes a village to write a novel,” says Howe, author of the forthcoming Skyjack (Quercus, Apr.), which received a starred review in PW. In the book, which follows 2017’s The Freedom Broker, kidnap and rescue expert Thea Paris is escorting two former child soldiers from Africa to Europe when their plane is hijacked and forced to land in the Libyan desert.
Five years of research went into Skyjack, including interviews with former child soldiers in Africa and months spent living in a Libyan village. Since returning home, she’s continued to correspond with people she met abroad. “They get what I‘m trying to do,” Howe says, “and are willing to share with me [details] about their life.”
Unlike other authors mentioned in this piece, Nigerian writer Toni Kan needed only to turn to his front doorstep for the setting of The Carnivorous City (Cassava Republic, May), about a teacher who returns to Lagos to try to find his younger brother, a wealthy gangster who has gone missing. Kan, also author of the 2008 story collection The Night of the Creaking Bed, says he wanted to encapsulate the hidden barriers between neighborhoods in Lagos through the story of the two brothers, one wealthy and one poor.
Lagos is divided into two main areas: the mainland and the affluent island. “You may work on the island for 10 to 15 years and never know what it looks like inside the houses, while those on the island never go to the mainland except to go to the airport,” says Kan. “Every writer who has written about Lagos has had to wrestle with this dichotomy.” Kan does it by pulling the older brother into an underworld that carries him from neighborhood to neighborhood across the entirety of the city.
The Middle East
Like Kan, Beirut-born filmmaker and architect Meedo Taha made that city’s disparate neighborhoods a central element in A Road to Damascus (Interlink, Apr.). Taha’s debut follows a reclusive botanist, mostly referred to as Professor, who witnesses the gunning down of seven bus passengers, including a prominent politician. The key to the crime may be the rare plant the botanist is carrying with him at the time.
Taha, who was born and raised in Lebanon and now lives in Los Angeles, says that it was important to him to avoid caricature in depicting his home city. Also, he “didn’t want to portray the city in a way that [implies] this [kind of crime] is a daily occurrence.”
For authors not depicting their native regions, on-the-ground research can prove essential. The Pharaoh Key (Grand Central, June), fifth in Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Gideon Crew thrillers, is informed by Preston’s experience while on assignment for the New Yorker two decades ago.
In Egypt to cover an archeological expedition in the Valley of the Kings, Preston took an unplanned detour to the largely untouched Eastern Desert, where he spent time with the few villagers and nomads who live there. His interactions formed the basis of his characterizations of the people and the place in The Pharaoh Key. “The Eastern Desert just fascinated me,” Preston says, “with these black mountains rising up, so barren and so different than the Sahara Desert.”
Middle Eastern landscapes proved equally alluring to David Ricciardi, whose debut thriller and series starter, Warning Light (Berkley, Apr.), follows a CIA analyst whose commercial flight makes an emergency landing at a closed airport in Iran. As an experienced outdoorsman, Ricciardi felt comfortable in his ability to research and describe landscapes that he hadn’t seen in person. In creating his characters, he says, he started close to home.
“I would think of somebody that I knew,” Ricciardi says, and then morph that person into a character by creating a dossier, including stand-in photos pulled from the internet. The author acknowledges that cultural differences mean the task isn’t simply to transpose an American into a Middle Eastern character, but, he says, the technique helped him avoid exoticizing the people he depicts.
James Wolff, the pseudonymous debut author of Beside the Syrian Sea (Bitter Lemon, May), is a British government employee who has lived in the Middle East for extended periods and now lives in London. The novel, which follows a British spy whose father is kidnapped by ISIS and held for ransom in Syria, homes in on the experiences of Europeans and American who have joined the group.
“I wanted to try to tell a story that at least opened a window onto that aspect of this conflict,” Wolff says—the idea that “people we deal with on a daily basis are capable of that.”
This relationship between the everyday and the outré is on the minds of many of the authors we spoke with. With A Road to Damascus, Taha says he reveled in the task of crafting a somewhat absurdist plot while preserving a realistic sense of people and place: “It’s a difficult balance.”
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