I will read a book just for its setting.
Now, sure, stories are usually at their heart about people. And, I love twisty plots, but I will go through a book that has less-than-sparkling characters or story to get a description of the world in which they move. I suppose this is one of the things that draws me to well-written fantasy books as well. World building is so important for me as a reader.
Perhaps one of the books that first made me sit up during the reading and think, 'hey, this is like traveling, only I'm not moving,' was M. M. Kaye's Death in Cyprus, about a young woman who is traveling on a boat to Cyprus when someone is murdered. I quickly became enthralled with M.M. Kaye's work, and still consider Trade Winds (set in Zanzibar, involves pirates...what else do you need?) to be one of my favorites.
So I was musing about this recently and decided I would actively search out some mysteries that take place in exotic locales.
With that in mind I was browsing through the bookstores in Hong Kong two months ago and came across a few titles I was happy to take home with me. The first I'd heard about before but never read, one of the Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency series, by Alexander McCall Smith, about a conservative Botswanan lady who solves mysteries in a very proper manner. I've only read one of the books in the series, but am on the lookout for more of them. I've heard that it's also been made into a BBC/HBO show.
I enjoyed the book I read from the series, the Tears of the Giraffe, because it was so fresh and different from the mysteries I had been reading—usually set in England or the United States, full of police jargon and procedure. In contrast, this book examined the social mores of the middle class in a country I know nothing about. It was filled with descriptions of Africa that made me want to grab my camera and book the next flight out. The only thing I wondered, after devouring the too-thin book, was how accurate the characters in the book are. The detective is an African woman who hasn't been to university but who has decided to start her own business; the writer is a male Scottish physician. For me, the book worked, but I'd be interesting to hear if any African women had read the series and felt it rang true.
Another book that I picked up in Hong Kong and enjoyed through to the last page was the first volume of the Inspector Singh Investigates series by Shamini Flint. Called Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder . The book is about a Sikh detective who is a misfit in his own department in Singapore so he gets sent off around SE Asia on loan to other police outfits. This one took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a city I've explored on numerous occasions, so it was fun for me to see how well the descriptions in the book matched my memories. The subsequent books take place in Bali, Singapore and Cambodia and I'm looking forward to picking them up for a browse, maybe when I visit Singapore next month.
Still on the shelf, I'm looking at reading a book called The Night of the Miraj (also called City of Veils), by Zoe Ferraris, about Saudi Arabia, and I think next time I go to Hong Kong I'll pick up a book I considered but ultimately didn't buy, Murder at the Ashram, by Kathleen McCaul, about India.
I have been looking for some contemporary mysteries about China, seeing that I live here, but haven't come across any. Suggestions are welcome!
Beth is an American freelance writer who has lived in Europe and Asia since 2003. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel, expatriate living, and many other topics.