Mysteries enjoyed far away and long ago, too


It takes a bit of research to find mysteries by foreign authors that have been translated into English. Although the setting may be Japan, China, Russia, or Brazil, the book is often written by an American or British author.

The Chinese have been writing crime and mystery stories for more than a thousand years, but until this century few have reached the West. Perhaps your impression of a "typical" Chinese detective was formed from reading E.D. Biggers' Charlie Chan novels or seeing Charlie Chan movies. Although Chan was portrayed as intelligent and honorable, his character also reinforced certain Oriental stereotypes, such as an inability to speak fluent English and an overly subservient nature. One of the first Chinese mysteries to reach the West was an 18th century detective novel translated by Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) in 1949 titled "Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee." Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and scholar spent WWII in China's interior avoiding the Japanese and translating these three tales. The main character, Judge Dee, was based on the real statesman and detective Di Renjie who lived in the seventh century during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 600-900). Judge Dee was a district magistrate, a combination prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner (if necessary). Magistrates had wide authority to interrogate anyone, and use any method to get a confession, including beatings and torture. But, if a magistrate executed someone who was later found to be innocent the magistrate was executed. The three celebrated cases that Van Gulik translated were "The Double Murder at Dawn," "The Strange Corpse" and "The Poisoned Bride." Van Gulik went on to write a fictionalized Judge Dee mystery series in the 1950s and 1960s using the exploits of other fabled Chinese crime solvers from different periods of history. The first book in the series, "The Chinese Maze Murders," (1957) features Judge Dee and his assistants solving three mysteries involving poisoned plums, a mysterious scroll picture, passionate love letters, a hidden murder, and a ruthless robber.

For mysteries featuring modern China you might want to try one written by Qiu Xiaolong. He has published six crime-thriller/mystery novels set in Shanghai in the 1990s when the People's Republic of China was making momentous changes. These include "Death of a Red Heroine" (2000), "A Loyal Character Dancer" (2002), "When Red is Black" (2004), "A Case of Two Cities" (2006), "Red Mandarin Dress" (2007) and "The Mao Case" (2008). The booksfeature Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poetry-quoting cop with integrity. Each book gives the reader insights into Chinese cuisine, architecture, history, politics and philosophy as well as criminal procedure. Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China in 1953. While visiting the United States in 1988 he was forced to remain following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 to avoid persecution by the Communist Party of China. He currently resides in St Louis, Mo.

Four mysteries by prolific Japanese author, Seicho Matsumoto's (1909-1992) have been translated into English. "Points and Lines" (1995) relies on the clockwork operation of Japan's railway system to demolish an alibi. "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" (1989) is a police procedural featuring Inspector Imanishi Eitaro, a typical Japanese detective fond of gardening and haiku, who must follow a killer's trail across the social strata of Japan. "The Voice" (1995) is a collection of short mysteries, many of which spring from encounters between strangers. The most recent translation of his work, "Pro Bono," (2011) tells the story of a young woman who vows to prove her brother's innocence even though he has confessed to murder. Matsumoto's books depart from traditional styles of Japanese mystery and detective fiction by investigating not just the crime but also the society in which the crime was committed. Japanese society is often charged as an accomplice in Matsumoto's books.

Russian author, Grigory Chkhartishvili (1956- ) uses the pen name Boris Akunin when writing historical crime novels set in Imperialist Russia. He published his first crime stories in 1998 and in a very short time has become one of the most widely read authors in Russia. He has written 11 novels featuring Erast Fandorin. The first book in the series, "The Winter Queen" takes place in the spring of 1876 just as 20 year old Erast Fandorin enters civil service as a clerk in the Criminal Investigations Department of the Moscow Police. While investigating a scandalous but seemingly quite straightforward case of public suicide by a rich young man, Fandorin uncovers a powerful and terrible conspiracy. The series follows Fandorin's career and his rise in the Russian government.

Dorothy Knudson enjoys the Inspector Espinosa series by best-selling Brazilian author Luiz Alfred Garcia-Rosa (1936- ). The first novel in the seven book series, "The Silence of the Rain" (1996) introduces us to Inspector Espinosa of the Rio de Janeiro police department, a jaded intellectual who'd rather visit a used bookstore than a crime scene. He's presented with a puzzling case when an important executive is found shot to death in his car in the parking lot of a downtown office building. Other translated works include "December Heat," "Southwesterly Wind" and "A Window in Copacabana."

Last month we started our international mystery tour with Swedish author Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, it's only fitting that we end our tour with another Swedish author to complete the circle. Martie Shilling recommends mysteries by Swedish author Henning Mankell (1948 - ) who writes the Detective Kurt Wallander series. In the first book, "Faceless Killers," (1996) we meet Wallander, a middle-aged detective with no shortage of personal problems -- broken marriage, troubled daughter and aging father. Martie notes that the Wallander mysteries are global bestsellers and have been adapted for television as an award-winning BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh.

Reading international mysteries adds the element of an exotic setting to the scene of the crime plus learning about the culture and customs of the country -- just make sure to check the nationality of the author to see if you are reading from a visitor's or resident's point of view.


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