As the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes draws to a close, the wealthy Gus Esmond, Sr. accuses Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) of wanting to marry his son for his money. Lorelei Lee responds that she is not interested in his son’s money, but rather in his—Esmond Sr.’s—money. She immediately defends this blunt confession by noting, “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?”
I like reading mystery novels. I’m not going to defend this interest by declaring that mysteries are an unappreciated form of elevated literature, or an art form that puts one in contact with a deep-seated, inner subconscious awareness of the need for cosmic order and justice amidst apparent chaos. I, personally, would consider that “meaningless blather.” The truth of the matter is that I like reading mysteries, not because they are high art, but because they are fun to read.
The fact that mysteries are fun, however, doesn’t mean that they can’t also be something more. For anyone with a high level of “need for cognition” (an inner drive to discover and comprehend), mystery novels can be a wonderful way to learn about places where one is about to travel; professions with which one is unfamiliar; intriguing aspects of a foreign culture; or historical periods that are only superficially covered in high school textbooks. One can also learn about any or all of these things by reading a guide book, a sociological treatise, or a historical tome, but, to be quite honest, all too often such works are—dare I say it—boring. A good mystery writer, however, can bring these subjects to life amidst a good story. So, “You might not read a book just because it’s fun, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” (Thank you, Lorelei Lee.)
Now comes the hard part: producing a short list of what, for lack of a better term, I will call “educational” mysteries. The list will focus purely on mysteries that are set in interesting locales. It will be anything but inclusive; it is being offered up simply as a brief but illustrative sampling of how mystery novels can be fun while at the same time instructive.
For starters, if you want to read a single mystery series but be transported to an array of exotic foreign locales, such as Tunisia, Peru, Malta, the Orkney Isles, and other ports of call across the world, I would recommend the Lara McClintoch series by Lyn Hamilton. Her books are usually listed as “archeological mysteries,” although the lead character is an antique dealer, not an archeologist. The moniker “archeological mysteries” comes from the fact that each of Hamilton’s books contains two stories running simultaneously—a contemporary story, in which Lara McClintoch becomes accidentally but deeply involved in a murder scene, and a second story, in which the voice of a not fully identified speaker calls out from an ancient, mythically driven past.
Hamilton becomes both a better writer and better at integrating the two stories that run simultaneously in her novels as the series progresses. While her early works are still quite good, by the time she got to the middle of the series, I couldn’t wait for the next book to appear. With this in mind, if you want to test the waters and see if this series is to your liking, you might begin with one of her later books and then go back to the beginning. Sadly, Hamilton recently died of cancer, and there will be no new additions to the series.
Quite understandably, one’s preferences might not run to globe trotting around the world, but rather to learn about and become comfortable with a single foreign locale. Then, when a new book in the mystery series comes out, it will be a bit like returning home. Botswana first appeared on the radar screen of mystery readers with Alexander McCall Smith’s very genteel The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. As popular and appealling as McCall Smith’s novels are, I prefer a second, less warm and fuzzy, series of mysteries set in Botswana, written by Michael Stanley (who is actually a pair of authors, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, writing under a single combined name). Each of their novels introduces the reader to a major social or economic issue confronting Botswana: diamond mining, ecotourism, prejudice against the native Bushmen, and (very regrettably) the tendency for African folk medicine to use the body parts of albinos in its ritualistic healing ceremonies.
The Michael Stanley books are not all about crime and punishment; the novels offer up interludes in which we get glimpses of the lead detective’s home life. Inspector Kubu has a loving wife, and resides in a modern, ranch-style home, not much different from what one would expect to find in America. In contrast, he and his wife periodically pack up the car, take the dog, and visit his parents, who live in a more traditional and crowded section of Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. While Kabu and his wife have nothing but respect for his parents, still, there is a bit of underlying tension, and we see an older Africa meeting up with and trying to comprehend the new—Botswana in the midst of a generational transition.
Reading about the exotic is not the only reason to turn to mysteries set in faraway places—one of the funnest ways to prepare for a trip is to find a mystery series set in one’s intended destination. Italy, for example, is a popular European vacation spot, and, for whatever reason, quite a number of top-notch mystery writers have set their stories there. The three writers that are most often mentioned in this regard are Donna Leon, Andrea Camilleri, and Michael Dibdin. The commonality among these authors is that they portray an Italy rife with corruption. Their stories feature lead detectives who not only have to solve serious crimes, but do so in the face of either indifferent or outright interfering superiors. Hopefully, the Italian social system is not as broken as these authors make it out to be.
If I had to opt to read just one of these authors, my vote would be for Donna Leon. Her novels may or may not be the best of the three as far as the actual mysteries go (lots of room for debate here), but Leon’s work has the added feature of scenes in which her lead detective, Guido Brunetti, enjoys good food, good wine, and a wonderfully endearing family. It is hard to finish one of Leon’s novels without imagining oneself transported to Venice and enjoying a glass of Prosecco in anticipation of an artistically prepared meal. Amidst all the corruption, Leon makes Italy a place I want to be.
Another genre of “educational” mysteries is stories that are set in a historical period. Honestly, I doubt that I would ever make it through a historian’s account of life in ancient Ireland—it would strike me as nothing more than an endless series of strange sounding names of kings, lords, and long lost feudal villages, together with a smattering of Gaelic words to display authenticity. Yet Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mystery series contains all of these faults—and I love it.
Much akin to Patrick O’Brian’s popular seafaring series, Tremayne’s books are written as if they were meant to be read by someone actually living in the period described (in this case, seventh-century Ireland). One gets the sense one is actually there. As far as all of the obscure names and references go, one learns to read over them and accept them as background color while one concentrates on the broader lessons that are being presented. One of Tremayne’s constant themes is that during this period of time, Ireland has a quite advanced social system, far more sophisticated than what could be found in neighboring England. Included within this social fabric is an advanced legal system. Sister Fidelma is portrayed as a roving investigating magistrate, a position which gives Tremayne a perfect opportunity to serve up—guess what—a murder mystery.
For the fifth and last entry in my short sampler of educational mysteries, I will mention a relatively new series that has only three novels to date, with a fourth one due soon: M. L. Longworth’s Verlaque/Bonnet mystery series, set in Aix-en-Provence, France. While this series is quite capable of standing on its own (I was not surprised to hear Longworth recently interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition), my reason for including it on my short list is that, in my case, it represents the opposite end of the spectrum from novels that are set in an exotic, unfamiliar place. My wife spent a year studying in Aix, and together we have visited this delightful city twice. So instead of introducing me to something new and unknown, Longworth’s works become a “remembrance of things past.” (Proust) For those who have never been to Aix, Longworth’s mysteries can be treated on a par with the others mentioned in this essay, as an introduction to a new part of the world yet to be experienced.
With a little searching about, one can usually find a mystery series set in a time and place that will resonate with what is familiar. Seeing one’s own backyard turned into the literary equivalent of a Hollywood stage set can be fun and exhilarating, an enterprise well worth pursuing.
So, back to square one. I enjoy reading mystery novels, and I openly admit that I enjoy them because they are fun. But in response to the refrain in Peggy Lee’s classic hit single, “Is That All There Is?” I have to say “no”—or at least that need not be all. There are mystery writers, and not just a few, who seek to transport the reader to some inherently interesting place or time. The stage set becomes every bit as essential to the play as the dialogue. These are the mysteries that I enjoy the most, because in addition to providing entertainment, they instruct and inform. Bravo!
Roger Rigterink grew up in New Jersey, but has spent most of his adult life in Wisconsin. He has a mathematics degree from Carleton College and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin. He spent thirty-six years teaching philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Fond du Lac, and is now retired. In addition to reading and traveling, his hobbies include bird watching and cooking.