Mysteries go global: Part One

October 24, 2009 at 10:33 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

This past Tuesday morning, thirteen of us gathered together to talk about mysteries. I had an hour in which to cover the genre (HAH!!) and felt an urgent need to impose some structure on my material. So I chose as my theme, “Mysteries go global.” I was doing this presentation on behalf of the Howard County Library, which graciously produced a book list for the occasion.

I started off by reading from “The Mysterious Travel Guide,” an essay by G.J. Demko. (This piece, as well as other sprightly commentaries on the roll of setting in crime fiction, can be found on Professor Demko’s website, Landscapes of Crime.) It seems that some years ago, Demko  led a tour to China. He placed Dorothy Gilman’s novel Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station on the list he assembled for members of his group:

“About halfway through the trip, as we left Urumchi in western China, the group informed me that they were best prepared for the excursion by the Mrs. Pollifax mystery. The story had prepared them for each place we visited by describing the main tourist features but, more importantly, it explained much about the culture and people in each place we visited. The political issue related to the Muslim Uyghur people had been explained and they were ready to encounter the Kazakhs on the grasslands and much more. And all this was conveyed via an interesting and informative Mrs. Pollifax adventure, infinitely more pleasant than a boring tourist guide or long political text on contemporary China.


Professor Demko’s concluded that”…more often than not, mysteries can be the best guides for a journey, foreign or domestic.”

I’ve not read the Mrs. Pollifax novels, but since we were on the subject of mysteries set in China, I took the opportunity to rave about another of Professor Demko’s favorites,  the Dutch writer and diplomat  Robert Van Gulik. robert_van_gulik I’ve written about Van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories in previous posts, but only briefly. Van Gulik was also an accomplished orientalist and musician; the story of how he came to write the mysteries featuring Judge Dee – a real personage from Chinese history – is almost as fascinating as the books themselves. Click here to read more.


[First digression: I little expected to find a connection between Judge Dee and, of all things, this: bluebook How did I get from one to the other? Curious as to who posted the illuminating explication of the Judge Dee mysteries, I scrolled down to the bottom of the post and clicked on Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. Professor Ross is obviously and justifiably proud of this family connection!]


dee This (rather garish!) edition of Judge Dee at Work is owned by the Howard County Library. I also highly recommend the audio versions of the Judge Dee stories, superbly read by Frank Muller.

In “The Mysterious Travel Guide,”, Prof. Demko goes on to extol the virtues of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels: “The squares, districts, canals and the waterway system as well as a typical Venetian diet are regularly and brilliantly described in this truly fascinating series.” Tuesday morning, I naturally extolled right along with him, as I have so often done in this space.

Donna Leon

Donna Leon

As of this writing, Prof. Demko is recovering from a stroke. He declares on his site that a vital aid to his recuperation process has been the reading and re-reading of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels:

“Most of the Paris stories are set in the 50s and 60s but, once immersed in a Maigret story, I can smell the bistros and brasseries on the romantic sounding boulevards. His apartment on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir and his office at the Quai des Orfevres beckon me to visit Paris and wander around those well known sections of the city he describes so well in his tales. I can envision myself sitting in the Brassiere Dauphine sipping a calvados and imagining Jules and Madame Maigret, arm in arm, coming in the door.

As I recently told a group in Hanover PA, the Maigret novels, so redolent of mid-century Paris, are only minimally disturbing, tending rather to reassure the reader with the inevitable restoration of order and dispensation of justice; while the non-Maigret novels are quite the opposite: deeply unsettling with their open-ended angst and refusal to provide easy answers to life’s most vexing questions.



I was astonished and delighted to find this video featuring Simenon on YouTube. True, the interview is completement en francais, but even though I can comprehend only a fraction of what’s being said (a really tiny fraction), it was nevertheless a pleasure to see le maitre soi-meme holding forth!

I warmly urge you to listen to the four Maigret novels read by Andrew Sachs for Audio Partners. I’ve done so myself – numerous times and with the greatest pleasure. He reads the books in English, of course, but his pronunciation of French places and names is flawless. Sachs obviously possesses considerable skill with languages, as he proved so memorably when he transformed himself into the hapless Manuel of Fawlty Towers!

Andrew Sachs

Andrew Sachs

Of course, we can’t long discourse on the subject of setting in crime fiction before coming to the subject of the astonishing Alexander McCall Smith.  mccallsmith5522 His Number One Ladies Detective series has an enormous following, and justly so. The books are simultaneously sad and sweet but never bathetic or mawkish. The films are wonderfully done and serve to enhance the popularity already enjoyed by the novels.ramotsweMany readers who fell instantly in love with Precious Ramotswe – that’s her on the cover of the DVD, delightfully portrayed by Jill Scott – did not have the same reaction to Isabel Dalhousie, protagonist of McCall Smith’s Edinburgh series. sunday1 right-attitude careful

I think they may have been somewhat put off by the first novel, The Sunday Philosophy Club, in which Isabel may come across as somewhat too cerebral. I actually enjoyed that book, but with its sequel, The Right Attitude To Rain, l found myself truly enthralled. Isabel Dalhousie a fascinating character – fiercely intellectual and at the same time capable of great passion.( Just how great, you find out in Right Attitude.)  The fourth book in the series, The Careful Use of Compliments, is a real triumph. Into it McCall Smith pours all his love for Scotland in general and Edinburgh in particular. I was so caught up in his vision that I found myself ordering books of Scottish art and poetry – whatever I could get my hands on.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the paintings that I was able to find online:

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

Isabella McLeod, Mrs. James Gregory, by Henry Raeburn

I recommend Davina Porter’s marvelous reading of these novels. And while we’re “feeling Scottish,” I’m a great fan of M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth series. Davina Porter also reads these, but I like Graeme Malcolm’s soft, lilting  burr even better.  gentle,jpg


[Second digression: As I was trawling the web for a picture of Alexander McCall Smith that seemed fresh and new, I found a site of an organization called the American Academy of Achievement. I was delighted with the photo of McCall Smith, and then I noted , top right, a picture of Dr. Paul Farmer, one of the founders of Partners in Health, a terrific organization dedicated to providing quality health care for the poor throughout the world. Read Farmer’s compelling story in Tracy Kidder’s (equally compelling) book:  kidder]


Coming soon: Part Two: the Scandinavians, and more…


  1. Mysteries go global, part two: Scandinavia « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] 29, 2009 at 1:04 pm (Mystery fiction, books) From our consideration of Alexander McCall Smith (Part One), we moved on to the Scandinavians. The Nordic genius in this genre first became apparent with the […]

  2. Jacquelyn said,

    Wow, a post with Hamish MacBeth, Mrs. Pollifax and Isabel Dalhousie! What luck! I love reading your posts because they always set me on to new authors that are in a similar genre.

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