RARA-AVIS: Emailing: NYTimes Crime Fiction Goes on the Road

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Date: 31 Aug 2004

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Death Takes a Holiday
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                       Garcia-Roza, Luiz Alfredo

                       Leon, Donna

                       Dibdin, Michael



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              Death Takes a Holiday
            By MARILYN STASIO

            Published: August 29, 2004

            LTHOUGH I haven't yet made a trip abroad because of something I read in a detective story, I can't say I haven't been tempted. Mysteries set in faraway places make me want to toss some clothes in a bag and take off at dawn for:

            . . . Cuba, Jose Latour's ''Havana World Series'' in hand, to imagine that wild time when American mobsters were fighting over control of the casinos and making bets on everything but a political coup.

            . . . the sleepy back-country township in South Africa where Thobela Mpayipheli, a onetime government agent who has reinvented himself as a peaceable man, is reluctantly coaxed back into action in Deon Meyer's ''Heart of the Hunter.''

            . . . the shady precincts of modern-day Shanghai patrolled by Chief Inspector Chen and fellow officers charged with investigating politically sensitive crimes in Qiu Xiaolong's ''When Red Is Black.''

            . . . Brazil, clutching ''Southwesterly Wind,'' the latest mystery in a beguiling series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, in the hope of catching Inspector Espinosa on one of his meditative walks through Rio.

            . . . and, in a fanciful moment, time travel to the Australian city of Melbourne in the 1920's, the setting for Kerry Greenwood's ''Murder in Montparnasse'' and other whimsical mysteries in a series featuring a fashionable liberated woman, Phryne Fisher, as amateur sleuth.

            But my first stop would have to be Italy, which teems with resident mystery writers. Although they view their respective regions from a morbid perspective, acute observers like Magdalen Nabb (in Florence), Donna Leon (in Venice), Andrea Camilleri (in Sicily) and Michael Dibdin (who won't stay put) are vivid chroniclers of the daily drama of life and death. And while their sleuths are no less familiar than Virgil with the infernal darkness of the national soul, they make more cheerful tour guides. Their Italian detectives are pensive souls who ponder cases over robust meals in noisy trattorias and refer to Cicero for insights into the human condition. Actually, Andrea Camilleri's cop, Inspector Salvo Montalbano, is more partial to Sicilian philosophers like Giovanni Gentile, and in ''The Terra-Cotta Dog'' he declares himself ''deeply moved'' by fried mullet, boiled squid and poached baby octopus. Michael Dibdin's urban investigator, Aurelio Zen, out of his element!
  in the northern reaches of the Dolomites in ''Medusa,'' struggles to understand the archaic Ladino dialect and has even more trouble digesting the region's smoked meats and gamy stews.

            Italian sleuths are also great walkers, invariably taking the most scenic route on their way to break the news to some poor old widow that her good-for-nothing son has been arrested for murder. Ardent admirers of all things beautiful, they will often stop to look at the frescoes in a church. In ''Uniform Justice,'' Donna Leon's sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, even exchanges greetings with a mynah bird in a pet shop.

            The point, of course, is that these fictional detectives and amateur sleuths are naturally inquisitive and supremely perceptive. They know their territory intimately and study it obsessively, alert to the slightest signs of change -- and danger. Kurt Wallander, the melancholy police inspector in Henning Mankell's Swedish procedurals, is an eloquent ruminator on the creeping evils of the postmodern era. ''What's happening to the world?'' he demands in ''Firewall'' when two teenage girls show no remorse after killing a taxi driver. Karin Fossum's ''Don't Look Back'' asks the same question in neighboring Norway when the murder of a well-liked girl awakens the residents of a picturesque village to a chilling fact: there are no more islands of tranquillity in a changing world. ''They hug their children close, and nothing feels safe anymore.''

            Scandinavian cops may be the most morose of an angst-ridden breed, but they aren't alone. Fictional police officers throughout the world are shaking their heads over criminal behavior that would have been inconceivable to earlier generations. Investigating the murders of two illegal Albanian immigrants in Petros Markaris's ''Deadline in Athens,'' Inspector Costas Haritos visits the street where the couple lived and is stunned by their neighbors' blatant bigotry. ''Why all this fuss about two Albanians?'' demands the owner of a grocery store. ''After all, with two Albanians less and another one in prison, Greece is a better place.''

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