Traveling to a far-flung destination is a great way to get away from it all. But you don't always have the money, time or health to cast off for ports unknown. If this summer you couldn't get farther than a poolside chair, it's not too late to refresh your mind with novel ideas. Exotic suspense fiction can take you elsewhere and teach you something in the process.
A foreign setting heightens the intrigue of a mystery or thriller. There's a certain uncertainty about the rules of the game. What is normal in a different culture?
Numerous thrillers and suspense writings titillate us by hopping from country to country -- a la James Bond. But let's take a look at some successful examples of exotic suspense written by people who live where they write -- natives or expats. These writers are long-time residents whose understanding of the culture extends beyond the tourist highlights.
Rosa at 10 o'clock (Rosaura a las Diez) stands out in my mind as an early classic. It's one of the first mysteries I read, decades ago in high school. No doubt that, plus its being one of the first books I read in Spanish, magnified its suspense to my immature mind. Besides its Argentine atmosphere, it has a psychological bend, like early Hitchcock thrillers. I think you will like it. And you now can read it in English on the web for free!
Vodka, suicide and violence frost murder most Russian in Boris Akunin's The Winter Queen. It's an international bestseller, but not the smoothest read in English. Yet with a culture quite divergent from our own, it can catch you off guard in the Russian roulette of what comes next. The men are ruffians or saps and the women, whether femme fatales or angels, are expendable. Russia has changed since its Czar-era setting, but this snowy story is so deeply soaked in Russian atmosphere and suicide culture that you'll feel you stumbled through the culture tunnel.
If Venice floats your boat, consider the best-selling Commissario Brunetti series by expat Donna Leon. I also like Venice, and her main characters are quietly likeable. So although her gondola moves a bit slowly for my taste, I gave the series a second chance. If you skip the first book and start with the award-winning Friends in High Places, you'll encounter the Byzantine workings of the Italian government and Venetian loan sharks of Shakespearean proportion.
I guess I should mention Alexander McCall Smith's hit series with The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Its African setting and plucky women call in some charm, so you might like it. I'm not a big fan. By many accounts occultic power is commonplace in Africa; but for me magic, like science fiction, is a wild card that spoils the mystery game.
"Dashing and debonair" certainly don't describe Vish Puri, Inspector Singh, and Dr Siri, the sleuths of three series set in Asia. But if you can look beyond the grease spots and flying crumbs, you catch insightful glimpses of their societies. Vish's cases, family life and food descriptions which verge on recipes, give us the lively flavor of Indian culture.
Responsible fiction can, I believe, like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom Cabin, expose problems and falsehoods. I attempted this with my novel The Topkapi Secret. Retired Singapore lawyer Shamini Flint feels the same way about her writing. Take the Inspector Singh series. I find the style of A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder a bit loose, but the premise is good and the ending satisfying. The plot exposes a problem resulting from the Islamic Law that gives custody of children to the father. For example, in a country that recognizes Islamic Law, a man can convert to Islam to keep the children after divorce.
Dr. Siri's world is Laos after the communist takeover. Wow, what a setting! The series' author Colin Cotterill is a former journalist who lives in South East Asia and knows it well. I don't enjoy sending my mind into 1976 Laos, but it really makes one think. What it would be like to live in a closed, post Vietnam War era nation with a trumped up government having numerous vacancies and no competent candidates -- even for coroner?
Cotterill's writing developed beautifully into a second series, and I love it. When someone can create a perfect trinity of suspense, comedy and exposé, they gain my deep admiration. Jimm Juree, the series' protagonist, is a former journalist exiled by fate to a "dull" corner of South Thailand. The books do nothing to dispel stereotypes of promiscuity and corruption in Thailand. Cotterill has bigger fish to fry -- and he does it on the beach of the cheap "Lovely Resort" run by Jimm's wacky family. The stories shine light on injustice, like Asian-on-Asian prejudice and the perilous plight of Burmese emigrants. But frankly, the wit, black humor and light touch of his writing are so savvy that I would read him even if I already knew why the chicken crossed the road.
And finally, serendipity happens. I started reading Farahad Zama's The Marriage Bureau for Rich People expecting exotic suspense in India. After the first chapter, I was disappointed. It was simply a novel. But intrigued by its off-beat story and subtle humor, I kept on reading. It wasn't the main plot, one scarcely beyond formula romance; but the cases of the mom and pop marriage bureau which drew me in. I learned a bit and was curious to learn more. Although somewhat favoring Islam, the book presents the challenge of arranging marriages within India's myriad castes, religions and taboos. With tradition abutting progress, it presents changing India in a colorful and upbeat way.
Reading international fiction helps me keep abreast of literary styles and trends, learn culture, and relax.
If we're not dead, we can keep learning. And to keep living we need to relax. By reading select exotic suspense fiction you can give your mind a vacation, learn a little, and have fun all at the same time.
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