I grew up a bookworm, and I still read or listen to about a book a week. Like many of us, I grew up reading mystery books. In my rather unique world (a “township” in the Eastern part of India) the stories were from two distant lands separated by an ocean. Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers to start with; then a jumble of numbers of investigators – the famous five, secret seven, three investigators and so on.
Here’s the thing: at fifty, I remain a mystery books fan. This, of course, means that I must bear condescension from more intellectual types, though I suspect some of them mainly read email. I have written about the intellectual heritage of the mystery genre elsewhere.
Dickens is said to have created the first detective in Bleak House; Chekov wrote The Shooting Party. I do not get into arguments these days. We all have our preferences. I like books with voice, character and social commentary. I like the feeling of understanding society from the lens of a person who breathes its air and likes it. And I like my mystery books without goriness.
Fascinating Mystery Books To Read
International mystery books have become a big name in recent years, with Scandic noir leading the charge. There is much more to it, though. A couple of years ago, I discovered Philip Kerr’s superb Bernie Gunther series set over the 1930s and 1950s in a range of countries, with Germany being the center. Andrea Camilleri has created the Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily, with characters and setting so likable that I happily overlooked the flimsiness of some plots.
Wherever in the world you live, writers such as Boris Akunin, Colin Cotterill, Fred Vargas, Jean Claude Manchette, John Burdett, Keigo Higashino, Michael Stanley, Kwei Quartey, Qiu Xiolong, Seljuc Atun, Shamini Flint, Tarquin Hall, Tony Hillerman and Yasmina Khadra will take you distances that might subject you to serious jet lag in the physical world. TV shows have become incredibly sophisticated. Spiral, Foyle’s War and The Wire are my favorites.
I mention all this as a background to this list of favorite “cerebral international thrillers” among the mystery books. All lists are flawed. I had to leave out some authors I love, including Amara Lakhous, Friedrich Glauser, Gopal Baratham, Massimo Carlotto, and Paco Ignacio Taibo II. And you’ll have guessed that I started with a target of ten books.
Best International Mystery Books
If I ranked this list tomorrow, I may do it differently. Each number below has a link to a review of the book.
#11, I’m Off and One Year by Jean Echenoz, France, 1999
In I’m Off, an art dealer tells his wife he’s leaving her. “I’m Off” is the first line. The narrative moves back and forth and involves the theft of an art stash. In the book One year, a girl Ferrer met wakes up to find her husband dead and takes off for a year. She becomes a homeless person. Both protagonists have surprises waiting for them, mildly speaking. Echenoz’s writing is atmospheric.
Buy I am Off and One Year at Amazon.IN
#10, The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion, Friedrich Durrenmatt, Switzerland, 1948
Inspector Barlach lives alone, does not lock his house, doesn’t talk too much, is close to retirement – and has been diagnosed with cancer. He has one year left to live. In the first novella, one of his subordinates is murdered. In the second, he unearths a Nazi doctor who operated without anesthesia in concentration camps.
The edition that I read (University of Chicago Press), the back-cover text nails it by saying that Durrenmatt brings “existential philosophy and the detective genre into dazzling convergence”. Unfortunately, the undoubtedly astute writer of this text also put in two huge spoilers into the short text. See if you can read the book without reading the back-cover.
Buy The Inspector Barlach Mysteries: The Judge and His Hangman and Suspicion Amazon.IN
#9, Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, Joseph Skvorecky, Prague. Published in 1961
Lieutenant Boruvka is an elderly, rotund police chief who goes around cracking cases without talking much – but conveying a lot when he does. I couldn’t decide whether the author was making fun of cozy thrillers or writing one. In any case, I loved everything about it, starting with the title. I also liked the technical bits of physics and music woven into the stories.
Buy: Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka at Amazon.IN
#8, Adios Hemingway, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, Cuba, 2005
Mario Conde is a cop-turned-writer in Havana. His successor in the police tells him that a corpse has been discovered buried in Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s residence near Havana. The man was buried with his FBI badge. Mario is asked to investigate and figure out whose body it might be. Mario’s investigation proceeds as the real events from Hemingway’s POV are revealed. Hemingway was an idol to Conde when he was small, later Conde started to dislike him as a person. Through his investigation, Conde gets a better understanding of the man. An outstanding study in character development.
Buy Adios Hemingway at Amazon.IN
#7, To Each His Own, Leonardo Sciascia, Sicily, 1966.
The town pharmacist receives an anonymous letter with some trepidation. It turns out to be a death threat. He dismisses it as a joke and goes on a hunt with his friend. Both are killed. A literature teacher plays sleuth. He does solve the crime with his analytical skills, but only up to a point. Gore Vidal has praised Sciascia’s insight into Mafia thinking. This work is several levels above the commercial bestsellers that glorify the Mafia with their portraits of honorable families. It exposes the culture for what it is: petty, close-minded and savage. The amateur sleuth’s character is sketched out to make you feel for him.
Buy To Each His Own at Amazon.IN
#6, The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Spain, 2001.
A story within a story. When he is a child after World War II, Daniel Sempere’s father takes him to a “book cemetery” from where he can select one book for keeps. He takes a book called The Shadow of the Wind by a Julian Clarax. He loves it and starts searching for more books by Clarax, but apparently, a ghostly man has been searching out and burning all of Clarax’s books. Then he gets to know about the ill-fated affair between the poor Julian and the rich Penelope, daughter of Julian’s benefactor… and his own life follows some parallels. A classic-style adventure told with a modern voice and touch of magic.
Buy The Shadow of the Wind: The Cemetery of Forgotten Books 1 at Amazon.IN
#5, The Death of the Little Match Girl, Zoran Feric, 1990s Yugoslavia, 2002.
Fero, a pathologist, is called into the investigation of the death of the little match girl, who is actually a ladyboy. On this one, I noted when I read many years ago that this is the definitive book of black humor and social commentary. Enough said.
Buy The Death of the Little Match Girl at Amazon.IN
#4, Death and the Penguin, Andrey Kurkov, Ukraine, 1996.
Viktor is a writer who has adopted a penguin. The penguin became his when the zoo gave away animals to those who could keep them (this actually happened). Viktor gets a break when a guy gets him to write obituaries of people who are still alive – but… er… about to die. This is an outstanding work for atmospherics, device, characters and social commentary. And its last line.
Buy Death And The Penguin at Amazon.IN
#3, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Peter Hoeg, Denmark/ Greenland, 1992.
Smilla is a spunky 37-year-old single woman. Isiah is a small boy with a single alcoholic mother. Isiah gets close to Smilla and into her life. One day he jumps off the roof of their block, to his death. The police treat it as an accident, but Smilla knows that he had a fear of heights. She starts an investigation into the death. The investigation is not welcomed by some powerful people, but Smilla is not deterred. Superb stuff. For once, the comparisons to Greene and Le Carre in the “praise for” pages are valid. The writing has a hypnotic quality; the details are solid. Password cracking is based on watching someone type, not some genius hacking into a system at free will.
Buy Smilla’s Sense of Snow at Amazon.IN
#2, The She-Devil in the Mirror, Horacio Castellanos Moya, El Salvador, 2000.
Laura Rivera narrates the events that follow her friend Olga Maria’s murder. Magical stuff right from the opening line. Moya’s style is unique. The narrative is paragraph-less. Small, telling details to make this novella a great book. Laura’s descent into insanity is done very well. “The truth” is impossible to find; there are too many motives and possibilities.
Buy The She-devil in the Mirror at Amazon.IN
#1, Borges and the Eternal Orang-utans, Luis Fernando Verissimo, Buenos Aires, 2000.
A homage to both Poe and Borges, laced with history and occult insight. The title contains a reference to a hypothesis put forward by one John Dee, who said that an orang-utan with unlimited time could churn out all the known texts in the cosmos. They don’t come any more original than this.
Buy Borges And The Eternal Orang-Utans at Amazon.IN
A.K. Kulshreshth has had short stories published in literary magazines and anthologies in eight countries and has translated three books from Hindi to English. He is the author of Once Upon a Time in the Future, a collection of short stories (including mysteries) based on the Mahabharat. His website is www.akkulshreshth.com. He is not the most industrious blogger but does have posts on his Goodreads blog.