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What’s On YOUR Quarantine Reading List?

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!

Jonelle Patrick reading The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman in front of bookcase

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

This is the first in the series, but they’re all good to the last drop. I recommend starting here, though, because the continuing character arc between Merrily and her diabolically funny daughter is better enjoyed in sequence

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

Yeah, I admit, he had me at eunuchs. This one is the first and the best, but they’re all pretty readable

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 is the first, and a fine read, but this series gets more enjoyable as you read deeper into it. It takes a while to really know the main characters, and they do grow and change with experience

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

This is actually the sixth book in the series, but it’s the only one you can get from Amazon US. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Amazon UK region, though, you’re golden, because they sell all of them

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

There are tons of books in this series, but each “case” is short, some of them little more than short stories. These work really well as a “palate cleanser” in case some of your other reading gets too heavy

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

This is the first in the series, but they’re all good. I’d suggest reading them in order, though, because the background story arc is best read in sequence

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 one is a supremely delightful art mystery – it’s set in the modern day, but the mystery surrounds a painting that was made in the 1400s, so it delivers lots of surprising and delightful reveals about that time and place. I highly recommend it, but I think my favorite of Perez-Reverte’s is The Fencing Master, which isn’t exactly a mystery, but still a hella good read

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

This is the first Aurelio Zen. It’s the best place to start, I think, because it’s good to get to know Zen in his native Venice, before he gets sent off to other parts of Italy to solve crimes

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

This is the first – and one of the best – but my favorites are Acqua Alta (which takes place during one of Venice’s periodic floods) and A Sea of Troubles (which shifts the spotlight to Signorina Elettra, my favorite character)

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

This is the first in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, and it’s an excellent place to start, but my favorite is O Jerusalem, which dishes up a feast of early 20th-century Middle East

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.

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?

Wearing fluffy Japanese socks while reading
Who knew that my vast wardrobe of flurfy Japanese character sox would become so essential to modern life?

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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Jonelle Patrick writes mysteries set in Japan, produces the monthly newsletter Japanagram, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had 

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Stone Jizo figure wearing party hat

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Jonelle Patrick View All

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!

7 thoughts on “What’s On YOUR Quarantine Reading List? Leave a comment

  1. Thanks for all these recommendations! Several of these authors are new to me.

    I love Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries, which take place in Great Britain, with a minor foray to France in one. Her plotting effortlessly takes seemingly unrelated threads and weaves them together into satisfying conclusions.

    Also enjoy the police procedurals of Tana French, which take place in Ireland. Have read the first two and look forward to the rest.

    • Wow, thank you for reminding me of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodies – I’ve loved all her other books but never got stuck into the mysteries (WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?) so I will definitely nip right over to the bookseller and give those a try. And I’m super embarrassed not to have included Tana French, whose books are so good, I’ve read them all TWICE. Thank you for improving all our lives with your excellent suggestions!

  2. I love all of John Mortimer’s Rumpole books… and couldn’t get enough of them. They may not tecnically be considered ‘mystery’, but in so many ways, I feel he created his own unique genre.

    • OMG, how did I forget Rumpole! John Mortimer’s Rumpole books get bonus points for mixing in just the right amount of dry humor with the crime solving. That series totally deserves to be on everyone’s reading list right now. Thanks for the excellent reminder, Allan!

  3. I must admit the only mystery books I read are the ones you write! The books I read are fiction and character centered. I think I’ll start with “The Wine of Angels”. I dragged all of your recommendations onto my desk top, so I’ll see how this one goes! If I’m lucky, I’l find it at Barnes and Noble and have it sent out.

    Because of my advanced age (87 in July), all 300 of us at Kahala Nui are confined to quarters: meals are sent up. We are allowed to use the swimming pool by appointment only and no one else in the pool at the same time. I reserve Noon – 1pm as everyone else is having lunch while mine is waiting on my kitchen table. I swim laps for about 20 minutes, then do a routine with spongy barbells. It feels wonderful! We are also allowed to use the library, which consists of the many books residents brought from their homes and discovered they didn’t have room for all those in their KN apts. All the chairs have been removed from the library, so browsing is limited. It’s help yourself, so I bring home a bunch that look possible and return them when my shelves are full. Currently I have Hillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance , The Big Goodbye, Chinatown and the last years of Hollywood, by Sam Wasson (hint: Jack Nicholson is on the cover) Waiting on my shelf: Elephant Company, Vicki Croke; Lilians Story by Kate Grenville; Plainsong by Kent Haruf; Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro. So that’s an odd lot, but that’s what I find in the library, for better or for worse.

    Enjoy!

    >

    • Hi Phoebe, it looks to me like you’re well-stocked with reading material! I hope you can get a copy of The Wine of Angels, though – it’s a favorite of mine. And pretty much everyone I know would be amazed and admiring of your pool workout – I think those who usually exercise at gyms are feeling this lockdown most acutely. So glad you’re in Hawaii, where there’s so little chance you’ll be exposed to this virus (especially since Kahala Nui is taking such good care of you) and i hope we’re all out the other side of this sonner rather than later, so we can see you face to face again. Keep taking care, and happy reading!

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