Thursday, June 08, 2006

Non-Anglo Detectives

We met last night to discuss “ethnic detectives,” or any detective coming from a non-Anglo cultural base, writes Jeannine. Native American, Russian, Italian, South African, Algerian, Thai…. We had multicultural decorations and refreshments. There were blue corn tortilla chips (Native America) with salsa (Mexico) and hummus (Mediterranean/Middle East). Milano (Italy) and Brussels (Belgium) cookies, rice cakes (Asia), watermelon (southern Africa – I looked it up!), and several members brought other tasty treats. That puts you in a good mood right there. Except for those fish-bait smelling cans from Russia. We can see by the picture that one can had squid, but the other is a mystery. A mystery that will remain unsolved, ‘cause we ain’t opening that can!

Decorations were matched up with related books – Swedish horse with a Henning Mankell titles, kimono with Laura Joh Rowland, Mexican figure (with unopened tequila) with Rudolfo Anaya, Australian aboriginal art with Philip McLaren, a lovely picture of gondolas in Venice with Donna Leon, one of 1940s Los Angeles with Walter Mosley, an Indian incense vessel with H.R.F. Keating, a photo of Sicily with Andrea Camilleri, an African basket with Alexander McCall Smith and others.

We talked about books too.

In the past, these sessions where everyone discusses a different title have been especially rewarding, but also especially long. Sometimes members try one book but didn’t like it and tell us why, then try another (didn’t like it, tell us why), then another… until they find one they like. Or there are those that read A LOT (which we do encourage!) and bring a whole stack to share. Which we like, but…. So we thought we would start kind of a 5-minute rule, like at the Oscars. If your speech runs over, the orchestra starts playing. We don’t have an orchestra, so we brought out C----‘s dancing hamster. Talk too long the hamster sings and dances. Keep talking and you dance with the hamster. Now with staff, threatening to whip out one of C----‘s musical items is very effective and keeps everyone in line quite nicely. But Mainly Mysteries members are obviously a new breed. They liked the hamster. Someone kept talking. She was fine with dancing with the hamster. The hamster had a great time at the meeting.

This was a great idea whose time has not yet come. We’ll keep working on it.

Now for the books:

Our first titles for discussion were Gorky Park and Havana Bay by Martin Cruz Smith. Both feature detective Arkady Renko, “the cynic of cynics,” who tries to work around the KGB and the Soviet system he despises to reach the truth in each investigation. The reader enjoyed the comparison of the two books because of the different settings and time periods. In Gorky Park, Renko is working in Moscow as part of the Soviet Union, and in Havana Bay, he works for the Russian Federation on an investigation in Cuba. She found it interesting to compare the coping mechanisms of the Soviets/Russians and the Cubans with Communist oppression. She said the Russians were cynical and drank, and the Cubans were cynical and drank and had a good time. We decided that was because it’s so much warmer in Cuba.

Our next title was The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleria featuring Inspector Montalbano of the Sicilian police force. One of the Sicilian police forces. There are rather a large number of law enforcement entities in Italy. There are the carabinieri, local police, highway police, railway police, port police, anti-Mafia commission, antiterrorism commission, antidrug commission, antikidnapping commission, and, well, the list does go on. And on. Corruption is rife, and the people who work for the government are seldom the ones actually running the country. And within all this, Montalbano is an honest cop who knows how the system works, how to work around it, and how to make it work for him. There is a great sense of place in the book and feel for the people, as well as a good police procedural mystery.

Our next member read a clunker before she found an interesting title. The clunker was The China Trade by S.J. Rozan which features the Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin. She liked the character all right, but the mystery and writing was simplistic and not worth the time. She then tried Bangkok 8 by John Burdett which she says “catches you from the beginning.” It follows the investigation of Thai police officer Sonchai Jitpleecheep (no, we don’t know how to pronounce it either), and is loaded with atmosphere, Thai culture and Buddhism references.

Quite a few people read various titles from Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. One read Skeleton Man, as well as The Shaman’s Game by James D. Doss, but chose to leave Hillerman for another to discuss, and instead told us about The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison. In Pattison’s books, Chinese Shan Tao Yun is exiled and imprisoned in Tibet, then released so he can make a special report there. Our reader found the book so well written and the situation in Tibet so dark that she was horribly depressed. Another member who had enjoyed the series said that, yes, the circumstances were dire, but Shan Tao Yun’s view of life despite this was quite optimistic.

The next Hillerman reader said she read the stories specifically for the cultural information, rather than the mystery. The final Hillerman reader was equally interested in Hillerman’s background growing up in the Southwest and being educated in various Indian schools and then spending years as a journalist before switching to fiction. Hillerman was so popular at this meeting that even the book on the display was snatched up to be checked out.

Our next Native American character was Cherokee Molly Bearpaw in Ravenmocker by Jean Hager. The member said that the mystery and characters were interesting, but she was especially fascinated by how clues were found and interpreted, and the tracking skills of one character.

From America now to Africa. Mainly Mysteries' very first discussion was about The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, and many of us have continued to read subsequent books in the series. The next member said that even though a few books in the middle of the series were not as good as the first (a problem with most series), she felt this one was back to the quality of the original. She especially enjoys the character of Mma Precious Ramotswe because she is so good at kindness and enjoying people.

And on to a colder climate. Really cold. An author whose name kept coming up was Henning Mankell of Sweden. The member who read Firewall said that Mankell is every bit as good as Pattison. The stories follow Inspector Kurt Wallander, a deeply depressed and complex individual pursuing what can turn out to be complex crimes. She found the stories very introspective, and also mentioned that there are two editions available by two different translators, and that while both are very good, she prefers the one that includes maps with each book. Another member recommended two web sites that are quite elaborate and useful (see here and on the “official” site).

Another writer of Native American mysteries is Margaret Coel. Her novels take place primarily on the Wind River Arapaho reservation, and feature two “detectives,” Catholic priest John O’Malley, and Arapaho attorney Vicki Holden. These come highly recommended, and the reader found it especially interesting to compare the Arapaho culture presented in these with that of the Navajo in Tony Hillerman’s books.

We now leave the present for the past, and the culture of classical Rome. In Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis, Marcus Didius Falco is a private detective on the mean streets of Rome, where you never know what beautiful dame is going to walk through your door. Sound familiar? The hardboiled p.i. persona works amazingly well in Imperial Rome, dirty streets, crowded tenements, rampant corruption and greed, political backstabbing (as well as the regular kind with a knife), and silver ingots (the silver pigs of the title) just waiting to be stolen - all the elements that make for a good mystery with fascinating historical details thrown in for good measure. The historical detail was so interesting that the member pursued the subject further, reading a novel about Attila and the Roman general Flavius Aetius (probably the one by Ross Laidlaw, Attila: the scourge of God), which then took her to a children’s Newberry winning book The White Stag by Kate Seredy, which “Retells the legendary story of the Huns' and Magyars' long migration from Asia to Europe where they hope to find a permanent home.” And a reminder of the obvious which we all miss, Hun as in HUNgary (the Magyar Republic). Sometimes it really is just staring you in the face.

From the northern Mediterranean we move now to the south and Algeria. Our next member chose a Superintendent Llob mystery by Yasmina Khadra because, well, it was short. Short, but packed with power and content as Sup. Llob tries to do his job amidst the intense violence and terrorism in contemporary Algeria. With great depth, Khadra tries to find meaning in all the violence, only to clearly demonstrate that the violence is meaningless. Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym or a male author who chose a female’s name so his writing would not have to undergo severe censorship in Algeria (women’s words obviously of little worth or danger). He has also written non-mystery novels such as The Swallows of Kabul (life in Afghanistan under the Taliban) and Wolf Dreams (follows the transformation of a sweet boy to fanatic terrorist).

Our next member had quite a range of titles to present. She started with The #1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (subject of the book club’s very first discussion!) and enjoyed the first part about Precious Ramotswe’s background, but did not care for the “little stories” about the detective agency itself. So she moved on to another book by the same author, The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa which she thought would be something like an African Aesop’s Fables. Instead it was like a very grim Grimm’s Fairy Tales, extremely graphic violence and horror, so she set that one aside as well. Then, being interested in Gypsy culture, she tried The Hummingbird Wizard by Meredith Blevins. She said the writing and mystery were okay, but there was not enough information about Gypsy culture to whet her appetite. So our reader fell back on an author she had had previous success with, Lou Jane Temple and her “Spice Box” series (culinary historicals). The first, The Spice Box, is about a young Irish immigrant working in a Jewish household in 1860s New York with requisite murder and mystery, and a lot of fascinating Jewish culture. The spice box itself was an interesting cultural item, for in addition to the various spices in each tiny drawer, was a special drawer with one recipe from each of its owners. The second in the series, Death du Jour moves back to Paris and the French Revolution. As you can see by the length of this paragraph, the hamster was used. Several times. Dancing was enthusiastic.

Our next member read The Twelfth Card by Jeffrey Deaver. In it a Harlem teenager trying to solve a 140-year-old mystery about an ancestor is targeted by a killer. It’s part of the Lincoln Rhyme series which is also interesting for exploring the situation of a quadriplegic police detective. But a rave review now goes to a nonfiction title, The Lost German Slave Girl: the extraordinary true story of Sally Miller and her fight for freedom in old New Orleans by John Bailey. It explores the intricacies of Louisiana slave law and the status of black women as Sally’s identity is debated as either a light-skinned black woman or an illegally enslaved white German woman. This title comes highly recommended.

Our final reader had three books to share (the hamster was not used). He first tried Deon Meyer’s Dead before Dying which is a thriller/police procedural that takes place in South Africa, featuring Zatopek van Heerden. He had read it before in the original Afrikaans, but was quite disappointed in the English translation which he said “washes out” the sense of country. So, wishing to remain in Africa, he tried Henning Mankell’s White Lioness which takes place in both Sweden and South Africa, and offers a complex story about a plot against Nelson Mandela. He highly recommends Mankell and his Inspector Wallander. Finally, in an effort to read as many African authors as possible, he also tried a Yasmina Khadra Superintendent Llob mystery, which he said had vivid characters wresting with corruption, but it had so much country/cultural detail that the police story was lost.

The interest in Africa brought forth a recommendation for The Flamingo Feather by Laurens van der Post, a novel about a Soviet plot to overthrow South Africa, and full of historical and cultural background of South Africa.

Are you still there? At this point we called it a day.

Future meetings:
  • July 6: in honor of Independence Day in the United States, we will be discussing American historical mysteries, or any mystery taking place in the geographical area of the United States during any time period. So anything from the Anasazi mysteries of Kathleen O’Neal and W. Michael Gear to the Elvis mysteries of Daniel M. Klein is acceptable. That meeting will be in the Library Board Room instead of the big Ford Community Room.
  • August 10: back in the Ford Community Room, we will delve into controversy (we hope) with a discussion of The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Whether you read the book or watched the movie, hated it, loved it, liked bits of it, wonder what the fuss is about, we want you there with your opinion. For more information and links, take a look at Wikipedia's Da Vinci Code article.
  • September 14: we hope to discuss Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs, sort of the original desperate housewives. We won’t know until early July if sufficient copies will be available to order or not. We’ll let you know immediately if we have to switch titles. Or get a head start and read one of the old copies already in the system.
  • We have not decided what to discuss for October. Some kind of tie-in with Halloween could be fun. Paranormal mysteries? Vampire mysteries? A particular title? Be thinking about it and bring your ideas to the next meeting.

For those of you who were unable to attend or share more of your favorite ethnic detectives, don’t forget to blog here. There’s more than enough room – and time – for all your comments and opinions.

Till next time.

PS: If you would like to read and discuss along with us:

* send an e-mail request to mainly.mysteries at for an annotated reading list;
* look at lists on African Crime and Mystery Fiction available from Northbrook Public Library, Mid-Continent Public Library, and Morton Grove Public Library. We can also send you a a larger annotated list by request;
* click on "Comments" below this post for a list of ethnic detectives available in the Douglas County Library System.