Asian protagonists in Mystery/Crime Fiction: Book Recommendations?
April 11, 2019 7:27 PM   Subscribe

[Book Recommendation Filter] Seeking recommendations for mystery and crime fiction that feature an Asian protagonist or a predominantly Asian cast of characters. It's not required that the books be set in Asia, but it's fine if they are. Open to books set in any time period, or written in any time period, or that involve persons from any Asian background (East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, et cetera). A few extra details below the fold.

My definition of "Asian" is broad and inclusive- if you consider the character(s) Asian, go ahead and recommend it.

I want to hear any recommendations you have, but bonus points if the book has an especially gritty or noir style. In the past I've enjoyed books like "The Power of the Dog" by Don Winslow, "Galveston" by Nick Pizzolatto, Patricia Highsmith novels, and so on.

Thank you in advance!
posted by Fizz to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
You might enjoy The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. There are also others in the series but I've only read the first one. Not profound but well written and enjoyable.

I've also heard extremely good things about The Widows of Malabar Hill, but have not actually managed to read it myself yet.
posted by peacheater at 7:41 PM on April 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Detective Inspector Chen books by Liz Williams! Set in Singapore 2, they’re a near-future world where heaven and hell play more direct roles and sometimes you have to negotiate with demons or heavenly agents. They’re mysteries, and they’re very rich and full of great characters.
posted by PussKillian at 7:47 PM on April 11, 2019 [8 favorites]

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (not a single mystery but more about how family secrets can play out; some characters are involved in crime)

Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, both by Celeste Ng (not a noir style at all, but both involve crimes/mysteries central to the plot)
posted by sallybrown at 7:48 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sorry if this is too obvious but... Charlie Chan? Gotta be one of the most famous and earliest Asian detectives in western fiction. Those books are all classic mystery/detective schtick, gritty and noir. Fun stuff, but they are also problematic. Wikipedia points out
The character of Charlie Chan has been the subject of controversy. Some find the character to be a positive role model, while others argue that Chan is an offensive stereotype. Critic John Soister argues that Charlie Chan is both...
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:56 PM on April 11, 2019

John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 et al fit the mystery category.
posted by childofTethys at 8:00 PM on April 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This might be cheating, but the Tozai Mystery Best 100 includes lists that focus on authors from Japan. Iridic's FPP about it has more detail on a couple of the authors. I've personally enjoyed things by Seichō Matsumoto and Miyuki Miyabe.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is a translation of an interesting collection of mystery stories from China, dating at least to 1890. The translator went on to write a ton of stories about the main character that I read a long time ago and would guess haven't aged well, although I understand they were translated into Chinese and gained an audience [PDF]. But I'm reminded of a book of actual legal cases from 18th C. China that I enjoyed.

More randomly, I recall Tamil Pulp Fiction anthologies and one mystery recommendation in a Twitter thread on contemporary Malaysian fiction that might at least be starting points for some "readers also enjoyed" navigation.
posted by Wobbuffet at 8:06 PM on April 11, 2019 [5 favorites]

There are some really great Japanese mystery writers. I really enjoyed these two.

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino.

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama.
posted by carolr at 8:09 PM on April 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

William Marshall's Yellowthread Street series, written in the 70s (and looks to be out of print). The lunatic goings-on at a police station in pre-handover Hong Kong. Bizarre, off beat, hysterical.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:10 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Could the Japanese crime series mentioned above be the books by Barry Eisler? The main character is John Rain and I think there are nine books in the series.
posted by bookmammal at 8:21 PM on April 11, 2019

Ian Hamilton's Ava Lee series is decent. Set in Toronto, and China mostly, she is a forensic accountant. Not particularly gritty, but decent reads none the less
posted by Ftsqg at 8:37 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

If manga counts, Detective Conan is a ridiculously popular and longrunning series about a teen genius who apparently died after being poisoned by an evil crime syndicate, but actually just turned into a little boy. Now he Solves Cases™ while hiding his true identity and trying to find a way to return to his original body. (It's been 25 years now; you'd think that wouldn't be a problem anymore...)
posted by J.K. Seazer at 8:41 PM on April 11, 2019

Sounds like you might like Ed Lin. I read and enjoyed Ghost Month.

Maybe also Tetsuya Honda (The Silent Dead, Soul Cage).
posted by ferret branca at 8:45 PM on April 11, 2019

Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh investigate series. There's 7 of them now all over Southeast Asia. I have a soft spot for Ovidia Yu who writes cosy mysteries set in Singapore - a Peranakan tai-tai and a 1930s Chinese girl detective.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 8:48 PM on April 11, 2019

The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church is the first in a series of mysteries set in North Korea.
posted by juliapangolin at 8:55 PM on April 11, 2019

I second the John Burdett series. They are most excellent with some grit.

Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri books are fun with just the right amount of whimsy versus harsh reality.

I'm trying to sell it as a mystery because it's totally awesome but it's not really a mystery, Barry Hughart's magical trio of books starting with Bridge of Birds. So so good.

Haruki Murakami has been known to write mysteries, although all of his books are much more than that. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World could be a good start.

The First Rule of Ten by Gay Hendricks. Tibetan monk turned LA cop turned private detective. Not really gritty but there are some gruesome scenes. I found it enjoyable enough to want to read the next book.

Altered Carbon! Would a sci-fi mystery count? The protagonist is Asian but it's the future so who knows what that means. And there's body swapping. Either way, grit bonanza!
posted by ashbury at 8:56 PM on April 11, 2019

There's the other Detective Chen series, by Qiu Xiaolong, set in modern China with a police inspector as protagonist.
There's James Melville's Superintendent Otani series, set in Japan of the 70s and 80s (the author is VERY British but he really knew Japan and there's almost never a false note, except in some of his deliberately bizarre "foreign" characters).
There's Naomi Hirahara's mysteries about a Japanese-American Hiroshima survivor.
Of these, Hirahara's books are darker in tone with regard to personal events, and Qiu's politically.
posted by huimangm at 9:10 PM on April 11, 2019

Kido Okamoto's The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi; Seichō Matsumoto's Inspector Imanishi Investigates and Points and Lines; Liz Williams' Detective Inspector Chen series; Robert van Gulik's translation of the anonymously-authored Judge Dee series.
posted by mumkin at 9:16 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ovidia Yu has a delightful series set in contemporary Singapore about Aunty Lee, a widow and a somewhat accidental entrepreneurial baker. The titles are all food word play like Chilled Revenge. I love it because it actually shows Singapore with warts and all, not the Crazy Rich Asians version. It's not at all noir, it's close to a "cozy" mystery but not cloying, despite the bakery themes.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:29 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Keye Street books have a Chinese-American protagonist.
posted by Violet Hour at 9:54 PM on April 11, 2019

(Afterthought: the clankingly named African-American-Korean protagonist of Snow Crash, Hiro Protagonist, fits the bill. Snow Crash is more SFian thriller than mystery, but it's def noirish, so perhaps?)
posted by mumkin at 10:01 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jade City by Fonda Lee!
posted by raw sugar at 10:10 PM on April 11, 2019 [3 favorites]

Abir Mukherjee's Wyndham & Banerjee series is set in Raj-era Calcutta and features British and Indian characters.

Henry Chang's Jack Yu series is about a Chinese-American police officer working in NYC's Chinatown.
posted by Violet Hour at 10:11 PM on April 11, 2019

I don't know whether you'd consider Australian Aborigines Asian or a group apart, but even if the latter, there was a very significant admixture event ~4000 years ago with people from the Indian subcontinent – and they're the ones who brought the Dingos!

And I've been thinking of rereading Arthur Upfield's Inspector Napoleon 'Bony' Bonaparte books.

Bony is half white and half aborigine, and I rememember him as likable, sophisticated, and intelligent, as well as eminently capable of navigating both of his disparate though united realms.

I expect to do a lot of cringing, not only at Upfield's conscious and unconscious racism, but at my own naïveté and racism the first time around, but we'll see.
posted by jamjam at 10:27 PM on April 11, 2019

The most popular Japanese author of crime fiction was Seishi Yokomizo with his Detective Kindaichi series. It seems like The Inugami Clan is the only one translated to English, but the manga adaptation can be found fan-translated around the internet.

The first novel in the Kyogokudo series by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, The Summer of the Ubume, was translated to English but I think it's sadly out of print. If you find it, give it a go. It's set in postwar Japan and despite the series being structured around yokai (supernatural entities in Japanese folklore) they are metaphorical and it ends up being straight crime novels. It also has the most awesome ass pulls from the author's stand-in character. As for the next books, Mouryou no Hako had a shortish anime and Ubume, Mouryou and the third book, Kyokotsu no Yume, can be found in fan-translated manga form.

Now, for Western authors, Laura Joh Rowland wrote the Sano Ichiro series about a crime investigator for shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, and in a much grittier vein, Eliot Pattison's Inspector Shan novels are set in contemporary China and circle about the treatment of ethnic minorities in Tibet or Xinjiang.
posted by sukeban at 11:58 PM on April 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

If you don't care whether the author is also Asian, Alan Carter writes Australian detective fiction with an Asian policeman as the lead figure. I've only ever heard dramatized versions of his books though, so can't directly recommend them as literature.
posted by AFII at 1:37 AM on April 12, 2019

Bangkok Tattoo is an excellent crime thriller set in Thailand.

It's one of a five part series called the Sonchai Jitpleecheep series.
posted by Dwardles at 1:59 AM on April 12, 2019

My mom who is a murder mystery SUPERFAN highly recommends the Rei Shimura books by Sujata Massey.
posted by LeeLanded at 3:05 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.

Akimitsu Takagi's noir The Tattoo Murder Case.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:10 AM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Death of a Red Heroine and other books in the Detective Chen series by Qiu Xiaolong. I haven't read all of them, but I really liked the first ones' evocation of China in the nineties.
posted by Frowner at 5:00 AM on April 12, 2019

I’m hesitant to recommend these because I haven’t read them, only heard of them, and they’re by a white guy from the first half of the 20th century, so they may be very terrible. But Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries are historicals about a magistrate in Tang Dynasty China.
posted by LizardBreath at 5:18 AM on April 12, 2019

I've read two of Nina Revoyr's books that would fit this, both with Japanese-American protagonists, and both set across multiple decades of 20th-century Los Angeles. The Age of Dreaming is about a silent film star in early Hollywood, looking back from the 1960s (pretty clearly inspired by real actor Sessue Hayakawa and a real unsolved Hollywood murder), and Southland is about a law student in the 1990s digging into her family's history, from the 1930s through the Watts riots in 1965 and up to her present.
posted by josyphine at 5:20 AM on April 12, 2019

Maybe Steph Cha's Juniper Song series? Definitely on the gritty/noir side.

Robin Stevens' Wells and Wong series is narrated by a girl from Hong Kong at a British boarding school in the 1930s, if you are interested in reading middle-grade fiction in the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers vein (I am a 40 year old woman and this is one of my favorite series, they're really well-written and well-plotted).
posted by leesh at 5:22 AM on April 12, 2019

Barbara Ismail's "Mak Chik Maryam mysteries" are set in rural Malaysia. They are more like Miss Marple or The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in style, rather than gritty or noir.
posted by belladonna at 5:33 AM on April 12, 2019

Yeah I've never been sure how the legit the Van Gulik novels are--my impression was that they're entirely fictional with a "discovered novel in translation" premise, but I've never been quite clear on that.

Unfortunately a lot of the detective fiction featuring Asian protagonists is by white people and is pretty problematic. I would sorta count Bangkok 8 in there honestly, although unlike the Charlie Chan shit it's fairly self-aware and has a lot of interesting detail/research.

Qiu Xioalong and Seicho Matsumoto are both good places to start with Chinese or Japanese detective fiction in translation, respectively, although both are perceived as quite "western" stylistically.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:42 AM on April 12, 2019

HRF Keating's Inspector Ghote is a procedural series set in Bombay. Keating was white, but his books were well-received in India, apparently. Here's an interesting article about him and the books:

I only read the first one in the series, and would happily read more; Inspector Ghote is dogged and righteous, and that's how I like my fictional detectives! :) The first one was well-structured and fun to read, but decidedly NOT gritty or noirish.

John Burdett's series Bangkok detective series are gritty, and I nth that recommendation.
posted by hiker U. at 6:45 AM on April 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah I've never been sure how the legit the Van Gulik novels are--my impression was that they're entirely fictional with a "discovered novel in translation" premise, but I've never been quite clear on that.

The first book is the translation of Di Gong An, a Chinese 18thC detective novel based on a real man who lived on the 6th Century, the rest were van Gulik's own.
posted by sukeban at 7:16 AM on April 12, 2019

I've also heard extremely good things about The Widows of Malabar Hill, but have not actually managed to read it myself yet.

I love most of Sujata Massey's books - she has a second one out in that series, which is set in India in the 1920's. I really liked her Rei Shimura novels, as well, which are set in contemporary Japan.

I'll also recommend Yang-sze Choo's new novel, The Night Tiger. It's not being marketed as a mystery novel, but it has that feel. It's set in Malaysia in the 1930's.
posted by Kriesa at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2019

Inspector Saito's Small Satori is unusual and brilliant. It's written by a Dutch mystery novelist.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:27 PM on April 12, 2019

The Masao Masuto mystery series is a bit aged, but fits many of your criteria.
posted by contrarian at 12:33 PM on April 12, 2019

Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh. Chinese-American college athlete from Los Angeles investigates his immigrant father's murder.
posted by JonJacky at 1:20 PM on April 12, 2019

You might enjoy The Corpse Reader which is a fictionalized account of Song Ci and his Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified.
posted by porpoise at 2:27 PM on April 12, 2019

My dad liked the Mas Arai mystery series (protagonist is a Japanese-American gardener / reluctant detective).
posted by creepygirl at 2:53 PM on April 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Shirley Jackson award nominee, The Hole by Hye-young Pyun. It's on my to read list, but based on the reviews should fit the bill.
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:13 PM on April 12, 2019

Best answer: Keigo Higashino, already recommended in the thread, writes Japanese crime novels that I seize on with glad cries when they turn up in English translation. They're more twisty and clever than hardboiled and noir. As often happens with books in translation, they aren't turning up in strict series order, but here are lists of the "Detective Galileo" (eight books, with volumes 3, 5 and 6 translated so far) and Detective Kaga series (ten books, with only volume 4 available in English). I think Journey Under the Midnight Sun is standalone; and Naoko I don't recall thinking of as a crime novel, though apparently it won the Japan Mystery Writers Award.

Other Japanese crime writers I've enjoyed include Miyaki Miyabe, Masako Togawa, Akimitsu Takagi, Seicho Matsumoto, Hideo Yokoyama and Natsuo Kirino.

Another recommendation for John Burdett's Bangkok series, starting with Bangkok Eight. These are rather darker and more gruesome than Higashino's books.

And another recommendation for Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen series, starting with Death of a Red Heroine.

I don't think anyone's recommended Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolas Obregon yet: it's set in Japan, with a Japanese protagonist, and is hopefully going to turn out to be the first of a series. The Goodreads reviews there will give you a better feel for it than I can.

Finally, a quick comment on this:
The most popular Japanese author of crime fiction was Seishi Yokomizo with his Detective Kindaichi series. It seems like The Inugami Clan is the only one translated to English, but the manga adaptation can be found fan-translated around the internet.
- the manga adaptations linked to there are a sequel/homage series featuring the grandson of the original Detective Kindaichi. They're fun, but closer to Scooby-Doo-style "It was Old Man Tanaka all along!" teenage mysteries than to hardboiled detective fiction. If you do fancy manga, though, you might enjoy the tone of Naoki Urasawa's Monster, in which a Japanese doctor working in Germany finds himself in pursuit of a serial killer.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:59 AM on April 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate is set in London and has an Indian protagonist; it was recently adapted into a film starring Riz Ahmed. I've read it and enjoyed it.
posted by RubyScarlet at 10:56 PM on April 28, 2019

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