I don’t know about you, but these days escapist genre fiction is about the only thing keeping me sane. Historical, space opera, international, all good. (Anything but those science-gone-wrong epidemic thrillers. NONE OF THOSE.)
So, just for a moment here, I’m going to trade my Only-In-Japan mystery writer hat for my international mystery reader hat (with matching fluffy slippers!) and let’s trade quarantine book recommendations!
I’m going to toss out my eleven favorite mystery authors from around the globe, in case you haven’t yet read them and you need some escapist reading too.
All these authors check my reading-in-the-time-of-virus boxes:
1: I’d like to spend time with their characters in real life – they’re not perfect, but not sociopaths or people with crippling psych issues either.
2: The plots are airtight, and deliver believable why-didn’t-I-see-that-comings (in a good way) right up to the end. And they don’t rely on dropping gruesomely murdered bodies onto every other page to keep me guessing. (I’m a dedicated thriller reader at all other times, but right now? Not so much.)
3: They whisk me away to places far beyond my four quarantined walls. Places like…
ENGLAND – Phil Rickman
I love this series. It features the Rev. Merrily Watkins, who happens to be the diocesian exorcist for the Church of England in a picturesque English village not too far from the Welsh border. But she’s also single mother to one of the most delightfully snarky teenage daughters you’ll even encounter between two covers. Rickman’s characters are quirky and delightfully flawed, and he’s such a fine mystery writer, even the slight paranormal aura becomes utterly believable through the skeptical eyes of the capable (but oh-so-human) Merrily.
TURKEY – Jason Goodman
This series gets extra quarantine points for being both exotic and historical, and it’s such a good read, I had a hard time leaving the Ottoman Empire to get up and cook dinner. Goodwin’s hero Yashim serves the sultan as his personal investigator, and because he’s a eunuch, no corner of the palace or the harem is off-limits to his sleuthing. These cleverly plotted mysteries dish up all kinds of fascinating factoids about a society and period I didn’t know much about before (although now I am an EXPERT, #askmeanything).
TURKEY – Barbara Nadel
This series is also set in Turkey, but these are modern mysteries featuring Police Inspector Cetin Ikmen’s team of diverse detectives. I love how Istanbul’s complex mix of cultures and religions plays a central role in both the crimes and how they’re investigated – the characters’ strengths, weaknesses, and religious/social backgrounds all come into play while pursuing a solution, and Ikmen’s deep knowledge of what’s permissible and forbidden to each allows him to deploy his team in creative ways while solving the crimes.
ISRAEL – Batya Gur
Superintendent Michael Ohayon of the Jerusalem CID is one of my favorite detectives ever. It’s such a pleasure to watch him direct his team as they solve crimes in the powder keg epicenter of the Middle East, because he does it with such intelligence and understanding of the cultural and religious backgrounds of the police and suspects alike. Jerusalem itself is a vivid character in every one of these mysteries, and every book in this series deepened my understanding of the tensions and points of view held by its citizens.
CHINA – Robert Van Gulik
I’m a sucker for surprising twists and clever methods of winkling out the truth, so it’s no surprise that I devoured these historical police procedurals set in Ming Dynasty China. Judge Dee is the regional magistrate charged with both investigating crimes and bringing the criminals to justice, and his ultra-tricky ways of unmasking evildoers also reveal fascinating insights into bygone Chinese society. These tales aren’t deep or psychologically insightful, but for sheer enjoyable puzzle-solving, they can’t be beat.
RUSSIA – Stuart Kaminsky
Soviet Russia is the setting for this police procedural, and these books are as much about how ordinary people made ends meet, and how they ducked the all-seeing eye of the State as they are about Inspector Porfiry Rostnikov’s smart and compassionate crime-solving. He heads up an excellent cast of sympathetic characters, and the way they dart and dodge out of the way of a behemoth system that could roll over and crush them at any moment is as compelling as the crimes they solve.
SPAIN – Arturo Perez-Reverte
This Spanish author doesn’t write a series, but each of his stand-alone novels instantly and completely transports me to another time and place. His specialty is vividly bringing 19th century Spain to life, while penning characters so real and appealing that I’m always sorry when I have to close the covers on them. The books all rely on craftsmanlike plotting and the tricky relationships between the characters, which make them my ideal kind of read right now.
ITALY – Michael Dibdin
Aurelio Zen is a wily Venetian police detective whose adeptness at manipulating the Byzantine and often-corrupt Italian legal system in order to bring criminals to justice is a pleasure to behold. Often funny, always witty, Zen is far from perfect, but against considerable odds, he manages to thwart both the good and bad guys arrayed against him and bring each case to a satisfying close.
ITALY – Donna Leon
I’m sure Donna Leon’s name isn’t new to you, as her Commissario Guido Brunetti mysteries are one of the most beloved and longest-running series in the world. Nevertheless, I can’t leave it off my list, because the combination of Brunetti’s entertaining family (not to mention his wife’s mouthwatering lunches) and multi-talented colleagues (including their creative maneuvering around their superiors) are the stuff of which reading binges are made. If by some chance you’ve been marooned on a desert island for the past twenty years and never read any of these, see you sometime next year when you re-emerge from your reading cave.
ENGLAND – Laurie King
I never imagined myself enjoying a continuation of a famous series by a modern author, but against all odds, this imagining of Sherlock Holmes in his later years (and, more particularly, the addition of the feisty Mary Russell) is so well done, it pays homage to the Conan Doyles, while extending them into delicious new territory. Holmes himself is rounded out in a way entirely in keeping with the original, but made much more human, and his investigations partnered with Mary Russell as she grows into her full glory are captivating and immersive.
Update: The latest in the series, Riviera Gold, is just out, and it’s an excellent pandemic read! Set in sunny Monte Carlo, it’s time travel escapism at its most page-turning. I know, because I gobbled it up immediately.
FRANCE – Cara Black
As private investigator Aimee LeDuc cuts a crime-solving swath through each arrondissement, we’re treated to delicious bites of Paris around every corner. It’s easy to spend time in the company of her main characters, and hard to say goodbye (which is why it’s good that there are nineteen of these just waiting to be binged). Even with various murderers afoot, fleeing to an un-virused City of Light sounds pretty damn appealing right now, doesn’t it?
So, those are my go-tos. What are yours? If you didn’t see your favorite author here, mention them in the comments and I’ll enthusiastically (not to say desperately) welcome any suggestions you have in return!
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Writing mystery books set in Tokyo is mostly what I do, but I also blog about the odd stuff I see every day in Japan. I'm a graduate of Stanford University and the Sendagaya Japanese Institute in Tokyo, and a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Mystery Writers of America, and Sisters In Crime. When I'm not in Tokyo, I live in San Francisco. I also host a travel site called The Tokyo Guide I Wish I'd Had, so if you're headed to Japan and want to check out the places I take my friends when they're in town, take a look!