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Find more A Hard-Boiled Gazetteer to the Pacific Rim
The Pacific Rim is typically defined as comprising the lands around the rim of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a big ocean, so that’s a lot of countries. The term is most often used in discussing international trade, but it works quite well, too, to define a thriving landscape for hard-boiled crime fiction. To do so in this space, however, we’ve had to impose a few of our own rules on the geography of the region. Since we’ve spent plenty of time over more than 20 years of hard-boiled gazetteers delineating the shades of noir to be found in North and South America, we’ve dropped the Americas from our version of the Pacific Rim. Ditto Russia, which we’ve also examined in detail in the past. Japan, however, is a different case. The Land of the Rising Sun is definitely deserving of coverage, but frankly, there is too much great crime fiction coming from that country right now to shoehorn it into this column. Expect Japan to get its own gazetteer soon.
Even with those exclusions, though, the Pacific Rim is as rich in crime fiction as it is in container shipping ports, and unlike many of the other areas we’ve examined in this column, there is no single landscape of crime around the edges of the Pacific. From darkness-shrouded mean streets through neon nightmares and on to bodies on beaches, crime novels set near the Pacific don’t look as much like one another as, say, mysteries set in Chicago do. Still, if in Chicago there’s always an El train rumbling by in the background, on the Pacific Rim, there’s always that behemoth of an ocean somewhere nearby doing its own kind of rumbling. Some think of the ocean’s roar as peaceful, but if you read the books on this list, you’re likely to hear in the sounds of the surf what Matthew Arnold called “the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.”
Blood Junction. By Caroline Carver. 2002. Mysterious, $24.95 (9780892967704).
We feel the alien outback landscape immediately as Sydney journalist India Kane arrives in the remote town of Cooinda for a reunion with an old friend and walks into a scene right out of Bad Day at Black Rock—tight-lipped townspeople clearly hiding something. That something starts with a recent murder but extends back to the 50-year-old massacre of an Aboriginal family. Carver has a marvelous ability to use landscape to create mood, and her charismatic heroine adds to the pleasure.
The Broken Shore. By Peter Temple. 2007. Picador, $20 (9780312427863).
This first in a series stars Melbourne homicide detective Joe Cashin, who has been temporarily reassigned to his hometown in rural Australia while he recovers from injuries only slowly explained. But despite its remote landscape, the little town of Port Munro generates some big-city crime. Evoking a view of the continent that is more Ian Rankin than Crocodile Dundee, Temple tells a troubling tale of race and class conflict—with an even darker crime at the heart of it. This deeply intelligent thriller starts slowly, builds inexorably, and ends unforgettably.
Chain of Evidence. By Gary Disher. 2007. Soho, $23 (9781569474617).
Melbourne police inspector Hal Challis and his partner, Sergeant Ellen Destry, make a great pair, though here Disher chooses to separate them, with Challis off to his dusty hometown deep in the “never-never,” while Destry is left to sort out a child abduction. This series boasts careful, realistic casework, but there’s enough darkness and ambiguity to suit John Harvey fans and a kind of which-way-is-up sense of the police force that recalls early James Ellroy. Moody, inventive, and extremely hard to put down.
Crucifixion Creek. By Barry Maitland. 2015. Minotaur, $25.95 (9781250072146).
Sydney homicide detective Harry Belltree is as hard-boiled as they come, a kind of Australian Dirty Harry with a little of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, who once said to a killer he was about to dispatch, “I just don’t want you to be alive anymore.” This installment in Maitland’s unsparingly dark series provides backstory, explaining how Harry got to be Harry and how he developed his investigative style: shake the tree, see who falls out, and kill them. So old school you can smell the cordite.
Gunshot Road. By Adrian Hyland. 2010. Soho, $15.95 (9781569479421).
Hyland’s second Emily Tempest mystery finds the half-white, half-Aboriginal police officer on the beat in a remote northern Australia town, where she serves as liaison to the Aboriginal community. Emily knows that an old prospector she knew as a child wasn’t killed accidentally and sets out to find the real killer. Like Caroline Carver, Hyland expertly matches the grit of her story and the toughness of her heroine to the hardscrabble landscape.
Wyatt. By Gary Disher. 2011. Soho, $25 (9781569479629).
Wyatt Wareen has been away for awhile, but he’s back in Melbourne and looking for a score. Disher’s series about the taciturn, unsentimental thief took its own hiatus, as the author concentrated on his Inspector Hal Challis novels (see above), making his return to the mean streets all the more welcome, especially since Wyatt senses his time may be about up: “He was an old-style hold-up man: cash, jewellery, paintings. . . . The trouble was, technology had outstripped him.” Wyatt may be a man out of time, but crime fiction like this is timeless.
CAMBODIA, LAOS, AND VIETNAM
Cambodia Noir. By Nick Seeley. 2016. Scribner, $26 (9781501106088).
International journalist Seeley’s debut puts the traditional noir on steroids. Will Keller, a once-great war photographer who now careens from drug to drug, works for a small paper in Phnom Penh and doubles at finding missing persons. In a fast-moving narrative that makes us feel like we’re riding through traffic-jammed streets on a motorcycle, Seeley delivers an up-close, jarring look at a city rocked with unrest and an atmospheric take on that enduring noir protagonist, the dissolute foreign correspondent. A sinuous, shattering thriller.
A Good Death. By Christopher Cox. 2013. Minotaur, $24.99 (9781250012319).
Cox’s debut begins with PI Sebastian Damon investigating the death in Bangkok of a Laotian refugee, but quickly the sleuth and an American expat are venturing far into the remote mountains of Laos. So begins a story that channels Conrad, Kipling, and Francis Ford Coppola, as Cox creates a vivid sense of place, ties his characters’ rich backstories to the Vietnam War, and illuminates the current plight of Laotian hill tribes. A unique blend of hard-boiled PI novel and transcendent adventure tale.
I Shot the Buddha. By Colin Cotterill. 2016. Soho, $26.95 (9781616957223).
Cotterill plunges readers into the percolating atmosphere of Laos in the 1970s, when the Communist nation, under the guise of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, struggled mightily to clamp down on people’s beliefs and the increasing tendency of Laotians to flee to Thailand. In this, the eleventh in Cotterill’s historical-political-humorous mystery series, Dr. Siri Paiboun, who has been retired twice as the national coroner of Laos, continues to fight his boredom and party rulers by solving mysteries on his own.
The Ghost Shift. By John Gapper. 2015. Ballantine, $26 (9780345527929).
At 23, Song Mei is pleasing party officials with her work on the Guangdong Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Matters get complicated when she’s asked to investigate the murder of a woman who could be her twin and finds herself working in tandem with an ex-CIA agent employed by an Apple-like company. Gapper, who has made multiple visits to China and written about the country as a columnist for the Financial Times, spins an involving tale of murder, corruption, and espionage in the burgeoning Chinese economy, as it struggles between the Communist Party and free enterprise.
Nine Dragons. By Michael Connelly. 2009. Little, Brown, $27.99 (9780316166317).
Harry Bosch, who lives and breathes Los Angeles, in Hong Kong? Two things get him there: the murder of a Chinese grocery owner in L.A. and the kidnapping of his daughter, who is living in Hong Kong with Bosch’s ex-wife. Over a lost weekend like no other, Bosch flies to Hong Kong and launches a one-man vigilante campaign aimed at rescuing his daughter and solving the murder case. By the end of his “39-hour day,” Bosch needs a shower, a new suit, and a therapist—and a lawyer. A full-throttle, blood-spattered narrative road race with a neon-sharp look at Hong Kong’s underside.
Shanghai Redemption. By Qui Xialong. 2015. Minotaur, $25.95 (97812500652678).
Character study, crime novel, insider’s look at the hypocrisy and corruption that riddles contemporary China—Xialong’s series delivers it all, with side dishes, in this installment, of ancient Chinese poetry, Confucian sayings, and noodle criticism. Xialong’s hero, Chen Cao, was once chief inspector of special investigations with the Shanghai Police Department and deputy party secretary of the bureau, but he has since been sidelined, fobbed off into heading the powerless Legal Reform Committee. But that doesn’t stop Chen from sticking his nose in where it doesn’t belong, as in this case of the “ernai,” women lured into the thriving sex-club and prostitution business.
The Wolves. By Alex Berenson. 2016. Putnam, $27.95 (9780399176142).
Berenson’s John Wells, a CIA freelancer, jumps from one global hot spot to another, and here he lands in Hong Kong, hoping to close the deal on American billionaire Aaron Duberman, who very nearly tricked the U.S. into starting a war with Iran. Duberman is ensconced in a seemingly impenetrable Hong Kong mansion, so what should be a simple snatch, grab, and shoot becomes something else entirely. As always, Berenson brilliantly blends global politics into an adrenaline-pulsing spy novel starring a stone-cold killer who nevertheless does what we all wish we could do: stand up to the powerful and make them pay.
Black Water. By Louise Doughty. 2016. Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $27 (9780374114015).
In 1998, amid the instability of Suharto’s collapsing regime, John Harper huddles in his Indonesian hideaway, awaiting the hit squad that his employers at the Institute of International Economics will soon be sending to eliminate him. Harper seems resigned to his fate until he meets fellow expat Rita. Doughty creates a jarringly realistic backdrop of Indonesia’s violent past, sharply contrasting the menacing atmosphere with the growing romance. A tense, contemplative literary thriller.
Jakarta Shadows. By Alan Brayne. 2003. Dufour/Tyndal Street, o.p.
Graham Young, an Englishman living in Jakarta, Indonesia, has a bewildering conversation with a stranger in a bar; hours later, a policeman appears at Graham’s door. The stranger, possibly a serial killer, has himself been killed. So begins an intoxicating, wonderfully atmospheric variant on the familiar wrong-man scenario. First-novelist Brayne doubles down by suggesting that Graham may be wrongfully suspected of killing the stranger because Graham could be the serial killer. Great premise and delightfully seedy ambience.
A Corpse in Koryo. By James Church. 2006. Minotaur, $23.95 (9780312352080).
This first novel in Church’s outstanding (and far too little known) series introduces North Korean Inspector O, who is asked to go to a certain part of a certain road at dawn and photograph a certain vehicle. Trouble. Inspector O is completely believable and sympathetic, a working cop who isn’t entirely sure he believes in the things his government tells him to believe in. There’s more than a little of Arkady Renko here, Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective similarly plagued with ambiguity in a totalitarian world. Like Renko, O’s misgivings only grow as the series matures.
Mr. Kill. By Martin Limón. 2011. Soho, $25 (9781569479346).
In the 1970s, a young Korean woman is savagely raped on a train from Pusan to Seoul, and the rapist is said to be a GI. Koreans are outraged, and army criminal-investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are assigned to work the case with Korea’s greatest police detective, Mr. Kill, a man famed for not only tracking down criminals but also dispensing justice personally. Throughout this critically acclaimed series, Limón has displayed a remarkable talent for weaving his background knowledge of the country into his plots.
American Blood. By Ben Sanders. 2015. St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, $24.99 (9781250058799).
Marshall Grade is an ex-cop in Auckland searching for a kidnapped girl and encountering as nasty a crew of killers as ever confronted a hard-boiled sleuth. Whether Sanders is breathing new life into familiar genre scenes (the motel shootout) or wowing us with Chandlerian turns of phrase (a pile of money giving off “the scent of beckoning dreams”), he hits every note perfectly. The novel is soon to be the basis of a film starring Bradley Cooper.
Death on Demand. By Paul Thomas. 2013. Bitter Lemon, $14.95 (9781908524171).
Maori police detective Tito Ihaki— overweight, unkempt, loud-mouthed, and incorruptible, and exiled to the hinterlands due to his issues with authority—has been summoned back to Auckland to follow up on the case that got him in trouble in the first place. Thomas’ gorgeous prose and zest for low comedy, along with his ability to evoke landscape, are the draws here.
The Laughterhouse. By Paul Cleave. 2012. Atria, $15 (9781451677959).
How can this New Zealand cop novel be such a knockout when it’s home to some of the genre’s most familiar stereotypes? Hero Theodore Tate is an ex-cop who lost his job for boozing. His wife is in an irreversible coma. He’s short of money and drives an elderly clunker. And yet, Cleave manages a fresh imagining of these chestnuts. The scenes with the comatose wife are beautiful and moving rather than pathetic. The inner musings of the characters have a poetic power, even a quirky humor. The final effect is that tingling in the neck hairs that tells us an artist is at work.
Swimming in the Dark. By Paddy Richardson. 2015. Upstart, $22.95 (9781927262054).
Fifteen-year-old Serena, “just one of the bloody Freemans,” disappears after being victimized by a predator in a position of power. Her teacher, Ilse, who saw promise in the troubled teen, and Ilse’s mother, an East German immigrant, become involved in an effort to find Serena. Award-winning New Zealander Richardson masterfully weaves the backstories of her primary characters into a compelling plot that focuses on how repression can exist in a nominally free society and what it may take to overcome it. A stunning thriller, grounded in love.
Smaller and Smaller Circles. By F. H. Batacan. 2015. Soho, $26.95 (9781616953980).
The hero of this surprising novel—set in a spot of grinding Philippine poverty called Payatas—is a Jesuit priest, Father Gus Saenz, a forensic anthropologist. He is tall and lean, he has an overawed sidekick, and the official police seek his “considerable intellect” when a crime has them baffled. Oh, my God! It’s Holmes in holy orders! But Batacan doesn’t just stop with the tantalizing premise; she brings an incredible emotional force to a novel about a serial killer preying on young boys and delivers an ending as artful as it is lurid. Perfect for Baker Streeters looking for an engaging multicultural incarnation of their hero.
The Singapore School of Villainy. By Shamini Flint. 2012. Minotaur, $25.95 (9780312596996).
The third Inspector Singh novel finds the beer-drinking, turban-and-white-sneakers-wearing detective working on his home turf—an unusual event, as homicides are rare in the authoritarian city-state of Singapore. With most of the suspects being expat lawyers, the investigation has high priority as long as Singh can pin the murder on a local. Naturally, it doesn’t work out that way. Flint combines delightfully quirky characters with a top-notch, twisty mystery. Earlier installments in the series find the inspector moving to other Pacific Rim settings, including Bali and Malaysia.
Bangkok Haunts. By John Burdett. 2007. Vintage, $14.95 (9781400097067).
Burdett’s Bangkok may be the most vibrant landscape of any in current crime fiction, and Sonchai Jitpleecheep—an improbable mix of West and East, the fact-seeking investigator meets the tranquil Buddhist, at ease with contrary realities—is certainly among the genre’s most intriguing sleuths. Bangkok police detective and co-owner, with his mother, of a brothel in the city’s notorious District 8, Sonchai explores the lower depths of depravity with a bravura mix of horror and black humor, taking moral ambiguity to almost sublime levels of complexity.
The Depths of the Sea. By Jamie Metzel. 2004. St. Martin’s, $22.95 (9780312322021).
Thailand, 1979. A CIA agent vanishes while on a top-secret mission involving Cambodian refugee camps. Only one man can hope to find him: Morgan O’Reilly, a desk officer at the agency who ran a spy network of street orphans in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Metzel’s knowledge of Washington politics and the refugee camps gives the story an air of realism that few similarly themed thrillers can match. A vibrant, well-paced novel dripping with the noir-tinged atmosphere of the immediate post–Vietnam War years.
The Fear Artist. By Timothy Hallinan. 2012. Soho, $14.95 (9781616952556).
Poke Rafferty, travel writer and sometime sleuth living in the notorious Patpong District of Bangkok, just wanted to paint his apartment, but instead, he finds himself on the run from the Thai secret police and matching wits with an aging American serial killer whose blood lust, ignited during the Vietnam War, now rages unchecked. Set against the epochal 2011 monsoon that nearly drowned all of Bangkok, this installment in Hallinan’s long-running series offers a full-sensory exploration of Patpong and modern expat culture.
Paying Back Jack. By Christopher G. Moore. 2009. Grove, $14 (9780802145116).
Disbarred American lawyer turned Bangkok PI Vincent Calvino is hired by a true ugly American to follow the “minor wife” of a wealthy Thai businessman who is running for a national political office. This tenth novel in a series that has achieved more fame in Europe than the U.S. combines a straightforward hard-boiled genre tale with a fascinating look at Thai social dynamics (Moore is a longtime Bangkok resident). For anyone who ever wondered what a purebred Chandlerian detective would make of vice-friendly Bangkok, this series is for you.
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