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Okay, this is a challenge because, as some of you will recall, I did a post on bookish locales a few months ago and went through a lot of the obvious choices. Still, this post isn’t so much meant to be about variety of places, as much as about a variety of books, so I’ll probably end up doubling up here and there. Once again, the reason this is interesting (at least to me) is that I really love books that have a pronounced sense of place. This is why, for instance, I’ve talked about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind in a number of these posts. Zafón’s books (and that one in particular) are intimately connected with Barcelona in Franco’s Spain. Anyway, that’s what I’m looking for, so let’s see if I can find some other good stuff.
1. Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog
This is the fourth of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books. They’re all set in the United Kingdom, although Atkinson likes to shift things around. The first in the series, Case Histories, was set in Cambridge, while the next two (One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News?) are set in Edinburgh. The Brodie novels all have an air of melancholy, and this is the darkest of the lot. It’s set in and around Leeds, one of the bleaker industrial areas in England, but even when Brodie gets out into the country things are dark. Still, Atkinson has an almost unmatched talent for weaving complex stories that manage to come together without feeling the need to tie up every thread.
2. Colin Dexter, The Way through the Woods
Many people know Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels through the television versions, in which the eponymous detective is played with perfect grumpiness by John Thaw. The books have a little different flavor, but the essentials are the same, particularly the setting: the Thames Valley in and around Oxford. As you might expect from the university connection, there is a pronounced literary element to this series. In The Way through the Woods, Morse and his partner DS Lewis are brought in to look into a cold case in which a poem has been found among the effects of a missing woman. There is some literary interpretation to be done, but also a lot of good old fashioned detective work and Dexter’s ability to combine the two kept people coming back to the Morse books through thirteen volumes.
3. Patrick Taylor, An Irish Country Doctor
Taylor’s series is set in the small town of Ballybucklebo in Northern Ireland. They begin with Barry Laverty, a newly qualified MD, taking up a position in a small town and learning its people and its ways. There is a passing similarity to James Herriot’s All Creaturs novels, substituting life in small town Ireland for that of the Yorkshire dales. But Herriot’s books focus on the relationships between people and animals, while Taylor’s books are about the ways, sometimes tense but more often than not heartwarming, that people relate to each other. Taylor’s writing is straightforward and unassuming, and his characters are as well. This is not to say that the plots are bland, but rather that he gives his characters a lot of credit for breadth of spirit and warmth of soul.
4. Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
This the first in Ferrante’s series of novels about girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s. They made a big splash a couple of years ago, and rightly so. Ferrante’s writing is beautifully crisp and conveys with precision the lives and conflicts of people in the very inward looking communities of postwar Sicily. Ferrante’s characters struggle with school and boys, but also with violence both inside and outside the family, with the dangers posed by organized crime (even if it’s only organized at the neighborhood level) and with the need to find one’s way in a world in which girls are mostly being groomed for marriage at the earliest possible point. Ferrante mixes interesting and varied storylines with an expert eye for detail and the result is gripping and beautiful.
5. John LeCarré, The Constant Gardener
LeCarré cut his teeth in the British Foreign Service in the days when the sun was finally setting on the empire. It clearly left its mark. Throughout his books, from his series centered on the MI 6 operative George Smiley to his freestanding works, LeCarré makes place crucial to his stories, from London, to Cold War Berlin, to the Far East. The Constant Gardener starts off in Africa and then moves all over, all the while harkening back to the problems of the less developed world and the role of countries and corporations in making them worse or better. The main character’s search for the reasons behind his wife’s murder are told in a number of places and time frames and LeCarré lends the whole story the feel of a spy novel without it being about an actual spy.
6. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone
This book is set in a foreign country both in the sense that it’s set in Germany and that it’s set in Nazi Germany (see David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country for the meaning of that gag). Written in the space of a month or so, Fallada’s novel is inspired by the exploits of a married couple who left anti-Nazi propaganda in public places as a means of resistance. Their goal was to overcome the isolation that totalitarianism forces on people and, given that doing so was punishable by death, it took incredible courage to do so. It’s worth reading for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the way that it lets the reader in to the connections between the topography of Berlin and the flavor of life in Nazi Germany.
7. Haruki Murakami, After Dark
This is another case in which foreign country has sort of a double meaning. The Japanese settings of Murakami’s novels give the western reader a real insight into how different Japanese culture is from our own. But After Dark is also about the way that night itself can be a foreign country (see Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London for a nonfiction take on this idea). Murakami’s novels tend to have an element of the surreal, and After Dark is no exception. The setting is a series of cafés and no-tell motels in Tokyo where a succession of really weird things are going. Murakami likes getting readers out of their comfort zones, and After Dark does this both with its peculiar stories and with its shifting narration (it’s often hard to tell who is telling the story). As always, Murakami’s stories are beautiful, if somewhat disturbing.
8. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Ever since the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö started getting translated in the 1970s, there has been a pretty consistent market for Scandinavian detective fiction. It’s hard to explain why. Maybe it’s the oddly flat emotional response that many of the characters have, or the opportunity to see what life looks like from one of the smaller European countries. Whatever the case, from Henning Mankell, to Jo Nesbø, to Arnaldur Indriðason, people can’t seem to get enough of this genre. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is my personal favorite of them all. Larsson, a former political reporter from Stockholm, wrote characters who were weird, and interesting, and fundamentally believable. His main character, the reporter Mikael Blomskvist, gets brought in to try to solve a decades old missing persons case. Along the way, he enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander: punk rocker, rape victim, hacker, and one of the most resourceful characters in modern detective fiction. Larsson used his knowledge both of Stockholm as well as small town Sweden to give his series (continued in The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) a range and depth that stands out from the run of Scandinavian mystery fiction, or mystery fiction in general, for that matter.
9. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
Can this really be only Eleanor Catton’s second novel? The Luminaries is a sort of detective novel set in 19th century New Zealand, but with a lot of time shifts, and puzzles, and a plot that is dazzlingly (some might say dizzyingly) complex. Still, they didn’t give her the Booker Prize for nothing. The fact that she was able to keep this all together and coherent over the long haul is quite an achievement. She uses her frontier setting to good effect, and it will remind Americans of a mix of the wild west and a Herman Melville novel. Reading this book take a bit of doing, but it is really entertaining and has twists and turns that make the whole thing worthwhile.
10. Mat Johnson, PymPym is Mat Johnson’s very odd retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s extremely weird The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the only novel Poe wrote and conclusive proof that the novel was just not his best format. Johnson stands this already bizarre story on its head. The main character decides to retrace the (wholly misguided) expedition to the arctic from Poe’s original novel, resulting in numerous catastrophes and the discovery of a bizarre subterranean race living beneath the ice. Along the way he weaves in meditations on people’s strange ideas about race. I’m not making this sound very attractive, but in fact this is one of the few novels that I’ve read recently that actually made me laugh out loud. Allegorical novels can sometimes be a grind, but I got a lot more out of this book than I ever thought I would, and it’s a lot more pleasant than reading Poe’s original.