- Post by Molly Odintz
Last year, I posted a list of my top international crime novels, and a list of my top novels of the year, foreign and domestic. This year, as part of my life-long attempt to destroy all hierarchies and question all assumptions, I have decided to include my top international crime fiction as one list, and my top domestic crime picks as another.
Below, you’ll find an eclectic group of novels, united only by the scattered and distant nature of their geography. Next week, I’ll be posting my list of top picks for US-based fiction – more concentrated geographically, but just as diverse in subject matter
1. Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius-Kovály, Translated by Alex Zucker
Explore the world of 1950s Prague, where the men are either Russian occupiers or in the gulag, and the women who try hardest to do the right thing are the ones most morally compromised by the Soviet system. This darkly atmospheric novel was written by a woman who had worked to translate Raymond Chandler into Czech, and functions as a perfect Soviet noir. Available in English for the first time!
2. The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated by John Cullen & A Curse on Dostoevsky by Atiq Rahimi, translated by Polly McLean
I value both of these books so highly I feel guilty placing them in the same slot, yet the two share conceptual similarities too fascinating to not explore. Each is a fractured, post-colonial take on classic writings. The Meursault Investigation reinterprets Camus’ The Stranger, seen by many as an early noir classic, from the perspective of the Arab victim’s family; the novel shows the long-term consequences of violence, and the redeeming power of revenge.
A Curse on Dostoevsky plops Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment into the middle of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. A young Afghani man kills and robs his landlady, and attempts to atone for his crime, but in the midst of war, neither the Taliban or his fiance care. His attempts to secure his own punishment are both tragic and heroic in their absurdity.
Both Atiq Rahimi and Kamel Daoud, long-term residents of France, chose to publish these incendiary meta-masterpieces in French, rather than in Pashto or Arabic, using the language of their adopted nation to tell stories of their homelands. I hope that you and others will find this to be a less restrictive interpretation of the authors’ choice of language.You won’t find either of these in the mystery section, but I promise you, they are both steeped in enough violence and moral quandaries for the noir reader to feel right at home.
3. French Concession by Xiao Bai
Set in 1930s Shanghai, a city divided into several zones and with multiple secret services competing over the city’s control, this espionage assassination thriller will have you weeping, laughing, racing to the end, and occasionally pausing to google Shanghai in the 30s (in a good way). The novel is based on archival documents detailing the antics of a double agent, found by the author and filled out to provide a rollicking good story.
4. Blood Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, translated by Alison Entrekin
After his father commits suicide, a young man moves to a tiny fishing village. His plan for processing his father’s death includes obsessive triathlon training and an attempt to discover the story behind his grandfather’s murder in the village, many years before. Things do not go well.
5. Zagreb Cowboy by Alen Mattich
Join Alen Mattich’s (anti)hero Marko della Torre on a wild ride across crumbling Yugoslavia as he tries to avoid being murdered by his corrupt Serbian boss long enough for an independent Croatia to emerge. While Mattich’s characters may live in a failed utopia about to implode, they certainly don’t let it get them down, using maudlin humor and crazy antics to not only survive, but occasionally enjoy themselves.
6. Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner, translated by Michael Hofmann
After finishing this novel, I felt both inspired and haunted. Ernst Haffner, a social worker in Weimar Germany, wrote this novel about a gang of adolescent criminals in just before Hitler’s rise to power. The novel was banned in Nazi Germany for its frank discussion of crime, sexuality, and poverty, and its author disappeared during the war. Thanks to Other Press, we can now all read this forgotten classic of conscience.
7. Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan
In this stirring tale, Jesuit priests and forensic scientists take on a monstrous serial killer preying upon their city’s most vulnerable denizens. The novel took the Phillipines by storm upon its initial publication, earning high praise for its unflinching look at many of the Phillipines’ toughest issues. SoHo Press has brought this international treasure to American audiences for the first time this year.
8. Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville
Like many of Neville’s novels, Those We Left Behind tackles the legacy of violence and the redemptive power of compassion. Two brothers are reunited after a long imprisonment for murdering their foster father. Their case worker and the murdered man’s grown son both suspect the wrong brother may have confessed, but each has a drastically different way of dealing with their suspicions.
9. Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbø
This stand-alone from Jo Nesbø follows a hitman ordered to kill the boss’ wife and her lover for sleeping around. The only problem? The hitman takes out her lover, and he’s a more prominent individual than expected. Nesbø’s hitman protagonist is quiet, thoughtful, and deadly. This one should please Nesbø fans and the uninitiated alike.
10. The Lady from Zagreb by Phillip Kerr & Murder on the Champ de Mars by Cara Black
All other books on this list may be international to the American reader, but have authors native to their settings. Philip Kerr and Cara Black represent the other side of international crime fiction: they choose settings they may feel quite at home in now, but first came to as strangers.
Philip Kerr’s The Lady from Zagreb continues the saga of Bernie Gunther, as he aids a Swiss femme fatale while attempting to keep her war criminal father’s activities a secret. Cara Black’s Murder on the Champ de Mars uses a murder plot to tackle French discrimination against gypsies, while still preserving the Parisian allure that first charmed me in her series.
You can find copies of the above listed books on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.