I’ve never been very fond of puzzles. Slowly deducing how to put something together, or take it apart, has always seemed deathly dull to me. Of course this could be due to the fact that I suck at it and am easily frustrated. My eventual answer to the Rubik’s cube was a large hammer and I’m a big fan of Alexander the Great’s Gordian knot solution.
Because of this fact, you wouldn’t think I’d be a very good candidate for becoming a mystery reader. But I’ve actually come to enjoy mysteries… of a certain type. After lots of trial and error, I’ve learned that the two things I really like about certain titles in the mystery genre are their strong sense of place and, for lack of a better term, a general dark tone.
Imagine my delight when I came across a new series of books published by Europa editions titled World Noir. This unique ongoing series highlights international crime fiction and features many titles that have been published for the first time in English, a great help to the language challenged such as myself. I’ve come to think of these books as cultural travel guides, albeit with a body count. Here are three of my favorite locales so far.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored by Philippe Georget
This city on the French Mediterranean shore is gearing up for the summer influx of tourists, when a murder in a nearby town and then a kidnapping in Perpignan break the vacation atmosphere. Both victims are Dutch. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Either way police detective Gilles Sebag is tasked with getting to the bottom of the situation.
The setting for this novel is unique, with Perpignan being a few miles from the border with Spain and having a mixed Catalan culture. In addition Sebag is an intriguing character, a world-weary family man who stumbles through the investigation in a pleasingly existential, but not necessarily despairing, way. If you read this novel you will start feeling the overbearing heat of the Mediterranean sun and begin looking up unfamiliar terms like Pastis.
The Midnight Promise by Zane Lovitt
It doesn’t get any more hardboiled than this series of ten cases involving “private inquiry agent” John Dorn set in the southern Australian city of Melbourne. Each case is unique but they have a cumulative effect, slowly revealing why Dorn is such a troubled soul. The author likes to play around with the temporal to great effect and the main character has an intriguing weakness for a gumshoe: he actually cares at times.
Lovett’s Melbourne is a great setting, being at once familiar and unique. Moneyed interests battle for supremacy as the underclass struggles to survive and an often corrupt police force tries to keep the lid on things. As a side benefit, the lead character’s massive alcohol consumption will make those of us who imbibe feel better about our lesser drinking rates.
The Crocodile by Maurizio De Giovanni
Inspector Giuseppe Lojacono, disgraced due to false accusations of bribery in his native Palermo, has been transferred to a dead-end position in the Naples police force where he splits his time between playing computer poker and visiting the local trattoria. When a series of seemingly random shootings goes unsolved, he is drawn into the investigation by the prosecutor Laura Piras who recognizes his superior deductive skills.
This mystery is more of a “why did they do it” with the narrative being equally split between the perpetrator and the pursuers. The real star of the show though, is Naples: A city seemingly in a permanent state of decay and peopled by indifferent citizens, yet stunningly beautiful and magnetic none the less. Truly a perfect noir city.
If you like to discover new and vivid locales, and don’t mind a little darkness, these three books will take you there. Just don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.