In 1997, Nina King, then editor of Book World, published the ingenious Crimes of the Scene, a guidebook to foreign countries as settings for mysteries. (Full disclosure: I contributed the chapter on Japan.) As King knew, glimpses of another culture -- whether it be tiger-stalked India or spirit-driven Laos -- as it reacts to homicide can make the difference between a thriller that merely kills time and one that inspires a reader to renew his or her passport. Five new titles succeed in varying degrees at combining imaginary mayhem and vicarious travel.
In the Land of the Lao
Colin Cotterill's Thirty-Three Teeth (SOHO, $24) features a cultural contrast. In Laos during the late 1970s, the communist regime coexists with a powerful folk religion. The protagonist is a cunning septuagenarian, Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner, who takes guff from no one. His powers of detection come into play after a series of bestial killings rocks the city of Vientiane.
In a set piece, communist bureaucrats call a meeting to pressure the nation's shamans into giving up their superstitious ways. The recalcitrant shamans stage an impromptu mass possession, from which their would-be censors flee in unseemly haste. The communists will not learn, however. Later they try to curtail the national festivals, which the people cherish as breaks from officially imposed austerity. The authorities, it seems, are "afraid of young people, with the same fire that had once burned in their own breasts, raging through the village festivals and leading to a popular uprising."
Cotterill, who lives in northern Thailand, is a crack storyteller and an impressive guide to a little-known culture.
Mia Couto's The Last Flight of the Flamingo (Serpent's Tail; paperback, $15; translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw) stretches the mystery genre about as far as it can go without losing its shape altogether. There is a puzzle here -- who or what is behind the balloon-like explosions of several men in the Mozambican bush at the end of that country's civil war? -- but above all the novel is a portrait of its milieu: steeped in folkways, awash in petty tyranny and corruption.
The book is also a showcase for Couto's extraordinary vision. Even in translation, his prose is suffused with striking images. For instance, an Italian peacekeeper "sat down in front of his report, chewing his pen. The page fell asleep without being written on." Later, defeated by the complexities of Mozambican culture, the same fellow "packed his clothes tidily in his case, [and] seemed to be folding his own soul."
As one might expect of an author who also works as a national-park biologist, the eponymous flamingo figures prominently in the story. This is an impressive novel, but it may not be for those whose most pressing concern is to find out whodunit.
The elements of Barbara Cleverly's The Palace Tiger (Carroll & Graf, $23.95) are redolent of a 1950s Hollywood jungle movie starring, say, Stewart Granger and Ava Gardner: backwater province of India in the 1920s, ailing maharaja whose death will set off a scramble to inherit the throne, expatriate Brits and Yanks, and a man-eating tiger or two. Indeed, at first, Cleverly's characters seem to be acting out a rather predictable script, especially as an American beauty flirts with a newcomer, series protagonist Joe Sandilands of Scotland Yard, who has been dispatched to India -- ostensibly to join a hunting party but in fact to sniff out skullduggery relating to the succession.
But just when the reader is about to cry out, "Seen this," Cleverly steers her material in new directions. For one thing, she mocks her expats for eating bland English food while the scents of one the world's great cuisines are wafting out of kitchens all around them. And so as not to give away the plot, let me just say that when a character who ought to have been safely off-limits winds up dead, the blow to one's sense of fictional rectitude is almost too much to bear. I'm still sorry it had to happen, but I applaud Cleverly for violating the rules.
In Carmen Posadas's The Last Resort (Random House, $23.95; translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero), Rafael Molinet Rojas, an elderly Spaniard, analogizes a Madrid philanderer's recent death by choking (he had a fatal run-in with an almond) to his own father's death in a domestic fall more than half a century earlier. In both cases, it appears that the wife stood by and failed to take action (calling for help, arresting the fall) that might have saved her spouse.
Molinet's interest in the almond case deepens after he travels to an exclusive resort in the Moroccan desert only to find the same standoffish wife there, shacked up with a boyfriend. It's time for him to do some detecting.
Although The Last Resort has moments of sophisticated amusement, neither Molinet nor his crime-solving methods were strong enough to hold this reader's interest. And anyone looking for local color will be disappointed: The cookie-cutter spa in which most of the action takes place might as well have been in Scottsdale or Texarkana.
Kidnapped in Kashmir
Based on actual events, Christopher Wakling's Beneath the Diamond Sky (Riverhead; paperback, $15) takes Kate and Ethan, its young English protagonists, to Kashmir, where Muslim separatists kidnap them during a Himalayan trek. The prelude to this catastrophe will strike a chord with anyone who has traveled without package-tour handlers in a developing country. When Kate becomes convinced that official mountain guides are quoting them rip-off prices, she rebels. At her insistence, she and Ethan hire a freelancer, who charges less but proves unable to protect his party.
Wakling employs the familiar device of heightening suspense by flipping back and forth from the main narrative to others -- in this case, the back-story of how Kate and Ethan became a couple and the efforts of Kate's family to get her released. Unfortunately, neither of these alternate plot lines is very engaging, and the temptation to vault over them and back to Kashmir becomes hard to resist. Sometimes a writer's material is too powerful for tricky treatment, and Wakling should have played it straight. *
Dennis Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.