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Foreign mysteries

Originally published in the Ketchikan Daily News, January 2010; written by Lisa Pearson.

We seem to see an upturn in the number of travel videos and guidebooks that get checked out after the holidays. While January is a really good month to plan a trip someplace else – anywhere else, really – I think perhaps some people might be watching videos about Cancun as a way of escaping mentally to a warmer place.

Unfortunately, your average Fodor’s guide doesn’t have a real strong narrative thread. They’re great for sussing out which restaurants to avoid and where the bargain hotels are located, but they’re not a great cover-to-cover read. I recommend sitting down with a gripping mystery that just happens to take place in a warm and sultry climate, where the air is heavy with the aroma of exotic spices. Let’s take a little global tour of some of the foreign mystery series you can find at the public library.

Sicily: Andrea Camilleri has written 11 novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, the newest of which (“The Wings of the Sphinx”) we have on order. Set in the seaside town of Vigata, the mysteries themselves often involve corruption, politics and the Mafia, and they’re very entertaining. The body count is low, the language a bit strong, and the backdrop is wonderful: the food, the dialects, the conflict between pious old Sicily and the newer, flashier Sicily all come out of the pages. Camilleri can make you feel the hot, dusty wind and smell the tang of salt and tar with just a sentence or two dropped into the story. The translator Stephen Sartarelli does an excellent job, and provides a helpful glossary in the back of each novel to further explain the passing references to political events and regional cuisine.

Brazil: Set in Rio de Janeiro, with a protagonist who tries to distance himself from the corruption that runs rampant in the Rio police force, the Inspector Espinosa series by L.A. Garcia-Roza can captivate a reader. Stationed in the relatively prosperous Copacabana district, Espinosa is an introspective character who likes to read novels from English and American writers. The Rio of these books is a real city populated with real people, not a flashy, noisy mass of drunk tourists celebrating Carnivale. To really feel the oppressive heat and humidity, try “December Heat”.

Australia: The Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte series was originally written by Arthur Upfield in the years bracketing World War II. Bonaparte’s constant encounters with racism (he is half-Aboriginal) may seem heavy-handed to modern readers, but the stories themselves are very well-written and they give you a real sense of life in the Australian Outback. The dust storms, the cracked earth, the hardscrabble vegetation and weather-beaten ranchers barely staying ahead of drought and devastation are all vividly brought to life. These books may not inspire you to visit the Outback, but you’ll reach for a cool glass of iced tea after finishing them.

Palestinian Territory: Not usually a location associated with pleasure reading, the hot, crowded streets of the Gaza Strip are the setting for one book in a mystery series featuring Omar Yussef: “A Grave in Gaza”. His job as a history teacher at the Dehaisha camp forces him to see the suffering of refugees, while his connections with the U.N. allow him the opportunity to work against corruption in the violence-plagued area. Author and former journalist Matt Benyon Rees is Welsh, but lived in Jerusalem for years, and he manages to convey what it’s like to deal with unrest on a daily basis.

Mallorca: Roderic Jeffries’ Mallorcan-set mystery series is much more lighthearted than the other books I’ve listed. Far from being an introspective, sardonic crusader against corruption, Inspector Enrique Alvarez has his priorities firmly set on delicious food and copious amounts of cognac. These mysteries, such as “An Air of Murder”, usually involve a certain amount of conflict between the snooty British expatriate colony on the island, and the laid-back, practical Mallorcans. Author Jeffries is himself an expat, so he writes about the beautiful Mediterranean island with a real sense of love.

So turn on your sun lamp, sprinkle a little sand on the floor, make yourself something to drink in a coconut and let your imagination wander away to warmer, drier climes this winter. And best of all, you don’t need extra vaccinations!

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