Scott’s Top Five International Crime Novels

As we begin our celebration of International Crime Fiction Month, we’ll bring you top lists of world crime writers all week, leading up to our panel discussion on the highly debatable topic of what international crime fiction is the “best.” Join critic Hopeton Hay, authors Janice Hamrick and Mark Pryor, and booksellers Scott and Molly for our Crime Fiction Around the World event, coming up this Sunday from 2-4 PM. The event takes place on BookPeople’s 3rd floor, and we’ll have giveaways galore!

Scott Montgomery’s Top Five International Crime Novels

magdalen martyrs1. The Magdalen Martyrs by Ken Bruen

This is Bruen’s third book to feature Jack Taylor, the drug and alcohol addicted, self-loathing, and poetically bleak Galway “finder” (the term detective if not looked on favorably by the Irish). To get out from under the thumb of a local gangster, Jack has to track down the nun who helped the hood’s mother escape the infamous Magdalen Laundry,  where the Church put unwed mothers into indentured servitude. Dark, uncompromising, with a unique style. You can find copies of on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

the thief2. The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

A robber-turned-pick-pocket’s simple life of crime gets overturned by a kid, his sex worker mother, and his old partners in crime who pull him into one last score. Nakamura uses his minimalist style to create a heist novel that surprises you with its humanity and gives you a great look at Tokyo’s underbelly.  You can find copies of The Thief on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

gbh3. GBH by Ted Lewis

A great example of British nastiness in crime fiction. Told in two time frames, we follow the fall of a London porn king, and his search for who set him up as he licks his wounds in a sea side town during the winter. The book is blunt with a cast of irredeemable, yet human, characters, and uses violence like a guillotine hanging over every one’s head.  You can find copies of GBH on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

97819355542024. Happy Birthday, Turk! by Jakob Arjouni

Picture a German Rockford Files with Jim Rockford as a Turkish immigrant and you basically have series character Kemal Kayankaya. This second book has him looking into the stabbing of a fellow Turk that the police have ignored, His investigation keeps getting him roughed up, gassed, and occasionally getting chased down by a Fiat. Hardboiled and humorous with an insight into immigrant life in Germany.  You can find copies of Happy Birthday, Turk! on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

total chaos5. Total Chaos by Jean Claude Izzo

The fist in Izzo’s Marseille trilogy has cop and criminal hunting down their childhood friend’s killer. This book beautifully languishes in its grungy corrupt setting and the emotional ennui of its protagonist. A tough poetic look at male code and camaraderie.  You can find copies of Total Chaos on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

7% Solution Book Club to Discuss: THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura

the thief


This Monday, June 1st, the 7% Solution Book Club will be discussing Fuminori Nakamura’s award-winning exploration into the world of pickpockets, The Thief. The 7% Solution Book Club meets the first Monday of each month at 7 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor to discuss an eclectic range of detective fiction. Book club selections are 10% off at the register in the month before discussion.


– Post by Molly

Fuminori Nakamura, a Japanese novelist who bridges the gap between literary fiction and noir, broke out onto the international crime fiction scene in 2010 with The Thiefpublished in English translation through SoHo Press, and winner of the Kenzaburo Oe and David Goodis prizes. The novel tells the story of a pickpocket at the top of his game, yet increasingly aware of his own mortality.

The titular character mentors a young shoplifter, mourns the loss of his partner, and watches his choices narrow as he finds himself increasingly drawn in to Yakuza business, all while skillfully – nay, artistically – picking the pockets of Tokyo’s wealthiest. Nakamura lists some sources at the end of his novel, and his careful research into the techniques and argot of the pickpocket’s world shows throughout the novel.

The Thief is a mystery novel, a minimalist roman noir, but it also carries on the tradition of the outsider novel, telling the stories of the lumpen-proletariat realistically, without glamorizing the underworld. If Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal had been written with the same noir sensibility of The Stranger, it perhaps would have read like this. I thought of Jean Genet frequently while reading The Thief. 

The Thief is a novel about petty criminals, buffeted by forces they have no power against and may or may not ever affect them. It is set in a world where the gap between those who commit nonviolent crimes and the masterminds that occasionally (and dangerously) recruit their labor is such that no reader would lump each into the same dehumanizing category of “criminals.” The Thief is one of those fascinating explorations of underworld society where the authorities are those who are higher up in the criminal world, and the police exist only as figures to avoid, rather than as the prime impediment to criminal activity.

“This tension, between the neutrality of looking and the citizen’s burden of response, seeps from the narrative into the reader’s own sense of self, drawing attention to the voyeurism inherent in all fiction, but especially crime fiction.”

The cops are shadowy, ominous presences, appearing to the story’s characters in the same way that the prosperous may lay awake at night, worrying about the spector of home invasion. What matters to Fuminori Nakamura’s characters is that with which they can allow themselves to be concerned – namely, their day-to-day hardscrabble existence, mixed with the long-term fantasies of their broken dreams, or the fiendishly complex schemes they embark on that cannot possibly go wrong – at least, for the man in charge.

I chose Nakamura’s latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, for last November’s MysteryPeople Pick of the Month, and while the two are very different narratives – Last Winter, We Parted follows a journalist’s investigation into the psyche of a murderous photographer who burns his victims alive – the two novels are equally obsessed with the act of watching others, and the overlap between observing others and targeting them.

Last Winter, We Parted stars a photographer whose obsession with capturing beauty leads him to kill his victims, while the protagonist of The Thief spends his days observing others intently, using observation to pick targets and execute theft – another blurring of the barrier between observation and action, recording the present and determining the future. This tension, between the neutrality of looking and the citizen’s burden of response, seeps from the narrative into the reader’s own sense of self, drawing attention to the voyeurism inherent in all fiction, but especially crime fiction.

It seems no coincidence that The Thief won awards named after Kenzaburo Oe and David Goodis – Nakamura’s writing seems to draw inspiration from both, or perhaps his writing just dovetails nicely into the bleak, noirest-of-the-noir characters and relationships of Goodis while including the stark minimalism and fate-defying humanity of Oe’s post-war Japan. Both Oe and Goodis were known for their desperate, yet moral, characters living on the edges of society.

Oe and Goodis each made frequent use of characters who, although doomed, continue up until the last second to live within their own code and do what they consider to be the right thing, and this adherence to their own ethics rested entirely outside of society’s ever shifting moral compass. Perhaps, for Goodis and Oe, two writers of the mid-20th century, adherence to ethics with no discernable reward was the only way to preserve humanism beyond World War II. Perhaps, for Nakamura, this notion of decency without benefit is as true today as in the blighted landscape of Japan after WWII, and the United States during the Great Depression. Perhaps, this notion should not cheer me, but it does.


You can find copies of The Thief on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. June is International Crime Fiction Month, and this month we’ll be traveling all over the world in our three mystery book clubs. On Tuesday, June 16th, at 2 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor, the Murder In The Afternoon Book Club will be discussing Jean-Claude Izzo’s underworld classic, Total Chaos, the first volume in his Marseilles Noir trilogy, and the Hard Word Book Club tackles Jacob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk!  on Wedesday, June 27th, at 7 PM in BookPeople’s cafe. 

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: LAST WINTER, WE PARTED by Fuminori Nakamura

Last Winter, We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura
~post by Molly

Fuminori Nakamura is part of a new generation of Japanese detective novelists known for their spare prose and dark explorations of alienation in modern society. His novel, The Thief, was his first to be translated into English and won prizes all over the world for its terrifying beauty and relentless pace. His latest novel, Last Winter, We Parted, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for November, and for me, this is a perfect novel for a Texas November. I recommend reading it at a coffee shop at twilight when the chill finally begins to settle in – at such impersonal thresholds much of the book takes place.

Last Winter, We Parted is structured as interviews, archives, and letters – the notes for a book that a young journalist has been assigned to write about a notorious serial killer on death row. The murderer, Yudai Kiharazaka, was renowned as a photographer before becoming fixated on life-like dolls and later, burning models alive to get the perfect photograph. The journalist soon finds an intense connection with Kiharazaha’s sister, Akari, and begins to discover that in Kiharazaka’s case, things are not what they seem.

Nakamura has crafted a noir Heart of Darkness; Kiharazaka warns the writer early on that by listening to him, he may take on some of the killer’s morbid fixations. As the journalist learns more about the killer and his sister, Akari – about, as Nakamura phrases it, their “true selves” – his own self become subsumed and taken over.  The young journalist’s arc is shaped as a warning. By spending time too close to a psychopath, the writer takes on some of their thoughts and compulsions, most dramatically expressed in the journalist’s growing interest in Kiharazaka’s sister, Akari, also an object of unhealthy attachment to the killer himself.

As the writer becomes entangled in the distorted lives of brother and sister, abandoning his professionalism to get closer to the object of his unwholesome infatuation, the serial killer and his sister, in turn, delight in bringing out the darkness hidden within the minds of those fixated upon them. Like Hannibal Lector, Yudai and Akari believe in quid pro quo.

This is a novel concerned not only with solving a crime, but in understanding our darkest impulses. In that sense, Last Winter, We Parted evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the genre of true crime in general. Nakamura references In Cold Blood throughout the novel, and the book is in some ways a tribute to Capote while also a warning against mirroring Capote’s actions. The novel both warns against the psychological effects of spending time trying to get into the head of a murderer, and condemns the hypocrisy of judging the actions of another while also using their crimes as a mass object of fascination. Nakamura delves deep into the unsettling motivations behind societal obsession with the mind of a serial killer. In the novel, as in real life, there is no easy separation between those who commit crimes and those who spend their time learning about the crimes of others.

Kiharazaka’s crimes also serve as a metaphor for alienation in modern society. Kiharazaka’s fixations represent an attempt at basic human connection, warped by the photographers lens, the purchase of lifelike simulacra in the form of dolls, and other ways of simulating and disrupting connection with the real through the use of the artificial.

Fuminori Nakamura brings to mind the haunting elegance and sordid conspiracies of David Peace, and like the best exploitation movies, blurs the line between poetry and violence. The characters Nakamura portrays are trapped – caught by their obsessions, their fantasies, and their addictions in an endless web of repeating behavior and insincere apologies. They can’t even quit smoking, much less control their other, more violent unhealthy impulses. Nakamura’s writing is as psychologically astute as it can be while also representing a vision of the world twisted and screwed, without joy or happiness. In other words, Last Winter, We Parted is the epitome of literary noir.


Last Winter, We Parted is now available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com

Book Review: THE THIEF by Fuminori Nakamura

It’s no surprise Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief won The OE Prize, one of Japan’s biggest literary awards. Both a crime thriller and character study, it is a unique and engrossing read, keeping a distant yet thoughtful eye on the people it follows.

The story itself is relatively simple, in fact the main character is only known as The Thief. He’s been living a low-risk criminal life as a pickpocket who hits Tokyo’s more high toned areas, making himself as unnoticeable as he can. It’s a practice that has lead him to be detached from life and people. That is until he spots a boy trying to pickpocket with less finesse. At the same time, an old accomplice pulls him into his plan for a home invasion. When the robbery goes wrong and it looks to be part of a political assassination, The Thief begins to see himself as a protector of the boy and his sex worker mother, developing emotions at a time when he needs them the least.

Nakamura’s use of detail in his protagonist’s world is a fascinating and integral part of of the novel. Its look at Tokyo’s criminal class makes it at times read like a Japanese The Friends Of Eddie Coyle. Watching The Thief hone in on a mark and apply his trade really pulls you into the story. Something that’s unique from many western crime novels is that because of the country’s strict gun control laws, the outlaws use knives and short swords. If you think this would make the book less violent, think again.

It is that sense of detail that brings the characters out, no matter how hard they are. It reflects their lives in a society that has pushed them from humanity. When they take a few stumbling steps toward it, Nakamura never forgets how jaded the people he’s writing about really are. He may be looking at his story with a cold eye, but the warmth he sees is real and all the more poignant because of its faintness. It’s a haunting undercurrent, making The Thief a book that’s hard to shake once you’ve read it.