Looking for great crime novels with some depth
December 2, 2012 6:36 AM   Subscribe

Seeking recommendations for (non-American/British) crime novels that also serve as interesting social commentary

I've made an effort this year to expand my reading of English-in-translation lit and in the process have particularly enjoyed crime novels that go beyond simple mystery or suspense to say something about the culture of their setting as well.

Examples of authors I enjoy who fit this criteria: Natsuo Kirino (Japan), Jo Nesbø (Norway), Tana French (Ireland). While I very much enjoy Alexander McCall Smith's "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" series in Botswana, that's the sort of thing a bit cozier than what I'm searching out. Also, works set in Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, or South America would be particularly good to hear about (and must be available in English).

posted by 1901gunner to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Death of A Red Heroine and other books by Qiu Xiaolong, almost all of which are set in Shanghai in the nineties. Something I did not know: Qiu, though Shanghainese, has been living in the US since 1989 due to some fund-raising for the student protesters at Tiananmen, so I don't know how spot-on his portrayal of nineties Shanghai is, although I assume that he got all the news via friends and colleagues as you do. As a foreigner who lived there in the nineties (and who knew some people who had been at Tiananmen) they bring back lots of memories anyway.

Also, I know you're not looking for UK ones, but I assume you've read the incredibly depressing David Peace "Red Riding" books and GB84, which is about the miner's strike, although it's not exactly a mystery. (Who did it? Thatcher! In the fields with police helicopters and billyclubs, and in Parliament!)
posted by Frowner at 6:58 AM on December 2, 2012

Andrea Camillieri's Montalbano series is really great. Set in Sicily against the background of the mafia, it's a very different look at Italian culture and life. He has other books which I hear are also very good.

They're written in English, but Iain Pears has some crime mysteries focusing on art crime (mainly in Italy.) They're amusing and informative about art history and the tangled web of Italian cultural laws and entities.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:58 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
posted by 99percentfake at 6:59 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Louis de Bernieres did a trilogy (iirc) of books relating to the cocaine wars in South America during the 80s. They've got a bit of magical realism in them and are simultaneously depressing and hilarious. I believe the first one is Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, although it might be the War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts.
posted by elizardbits at 6:59 AM on December 2, 2012

Zoe Ferraris has written a few mystery novels set in Saudi Arabia (Finding Nouf is the first one). I found it fascinating to read something in a setting I knew so little about. The author is American (I think), but she lived in Saudia Arabia for several years IIRC.

There's a lot of social commentary about Italian politics and life in Donna Leon's Brunetti mysteries, set in Venice (though Leon is American as well).

I'm interested in what suggestions others have here!
posted by msbubbaclees at 7:25 AM on December 2, 2012

Another vote for Andrea Camilleri, especially if you are open to reading descriptions of lots of different Sicilian dishes - although honestly, I often find the translator's end notes more interesting than the plot itself.

My personal favourites in this pseudo-genre are Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin novels set in Tsarist Russia, because they are just a ridiculous amount of fun and often parody some of the more nonsensical genre tropes.

Akunin also wrote three novels starring a crime-solving nun, Sister Pelagia, which are set around the same time period but in a completely different, and much more religious, environment. They have had some mixed reviews but I like them.

(In the same vein as Frowner's recommendation for the Red Riding novels, and because the past is another country: Ellis Peters's Cadfael series, set in medieval England, is worth checking out as well.)
posted by smcg at 7:39 AM on December 2, 2012

The blog Detectives Beyond Borders had an interesting post recently on crime fiction in Israel. I have to admit that the one novel by Batya Gur that I've read was rather disappointing (perhaps it was the fault of the translation) but this has persuaded me to give her another go:
Saturday Morning Murder, which appeared in 1988, was Batya Gur’s first novel and it introduced her most enduring creation: Chief Superintendent Michael Ohayon. Ohayon, a quiet, sensitive man who seems more intellectual than policeman, would traverse through the course of six novels into one closed community after another, interpreting their cultural norms and taboos on the way to solving the case.

Ranging from the psychiatric community and the academia to the kibbutz, from the world of classical musicians to the ethnic tension in a Jerusalem neighborhood and the backstage of a television channel, Gur’s subjects were communities trying to maintain their identities against outside forces while serving as stages for internal struggles. As it matured, Gur’s work became increasingly political. Her resentment towards Israeli policies in the occupied territories as well as her frustration with discrimination in Israeli society featured more and more prominently. Her last novel, Murder in Jerusalem, was a critique of Zionism and Israel society after the crash of the peace process in 2000.
You may already know Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen mysteries, which, though written in English, have a lot of depth to their description of Italian politics, and a great deal of satirical bite.
posted by verstegan at 7:50 AM on December 2, 2012

Another noteworthy Italian example is Leonardo Sciascia. His novels are difficult to describe. They frequently use the templates and conventions of crime fiction -- murders, mysteries -- but they're basicly really interested in exploring Sicilian identity and models of social relationships that are perculiar to Italy. I'd especially recommend 'To Each His Own'.
posted by hydatius at 8:11 AM on December 2, 2012

Seconding Sjöwall/Wahlöö (the Martin Beck series) as exactly what you're looking for.

Georges Simenon's "hard novels" (the non-Maigret ones) have a good deal of social commentary, and some of the Maigret books do too.

The Bernie Gunther books ("Berlin Noir") are largely about German society before and during WWII, and at least one of the later ones that I read is set (postwar) in Argentina.
posted by pete_22 at 8:41 AM on December 2, 2012

Eliot Pattison (Inspector Shan Tao Yun, China and Tibet)
Gail Bowen (Joanne Kilbourn, Canada)
Colin Cotterill (Jimm Juree, Thailand)
Arnaldur Indridason (Detective Inspector Erlunder, Iceland)
Louise Penny (Armand Gamache, Canada)
posted by Daily Alice at 8:49 AM on December 2, 2012

Henning Mankell (Wallander) should certainly be on this list. Much of his writing in the series is obliquely about what he calls (something like) "The Swedish Problem" -- the way that the success of Sweden's social model backfires on or undermines itself.

To a certain extent Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy also deals with similar issues.
posted by dhartung at 10:15 AM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, I was going to suggest Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther novels as well. The series now spans from the 1930s to the 1950s, and mostly takes place in Germany, but there are also books (or portions of books) set in Austria, Argentina, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and the U.S.

Olen Steinhauer has also written a number of great thrillers set in Eastern Europe during the early days of the Cold War. I've only read one (The Confession), which was excellent, but they all get good reviews.
posted by scody at 10:46 AM on December 2, 2012

Disclaimer up front: I haven't read the book, in English or Spanish. I saw the movie that was based on the book, The Secret in Their Eyes, by Eduardo Sacheri. The story is a murder mystery set in Buenos Aires and comments on political and government corruption in the '70s. The movie won the Adademy Award for best foreign language film in 2010.
posted by kbar1 at 12:09 PM on December 2, 2012

Mo Hayder's Tokyo covers cultural taboos on several levels past and present in that city and is a rattlingly good and gory crime novel to boot.
posted by vickyverky at 12:27 PM on December 2, 2012

Try Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 2:07 PM on December 2, 2012

Had another thought: try John Burdett's series set in Thailand, starting with Bangkok 8
posted by msbubbaclees at 3:42 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great, thanks for all of the suggestions. Will check them out and try to come back and mark any that particularly stand out.
posted by 1901gunner at 12:00 PM on December 3, 2012

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