Lifestyle & Culture

Travel With a Touch of Mystery

May 4, 2022

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By Nancy McKeon

MY VET is flying off to London tomorrow, about six weeks after her holiday in Tulum. My upstairs neighbors hosted family for a week in Costa Rica—then flew off to a wedding in Mexico City. The couple next door to them are in Italy for a month. Other dear neighbors (the ones who let me cat-sit) just got back from a week in Aruba.

Me? Just sittin’ here. But I’m not alone! I have books that take me places, that spoon-feed me scenery and sightseeing, and even time travel, with a foreground of clever police work.

Consider this list a work in progress. I assume you have favorite series that I don’t know about (or have forgotten), perhaps set in other exotic locales (I’m light on South America, Africa other than Egypt, and Asia). There must be hundreds of them: Feel free to pile on! Add your suggestions to the Comments so other readers can reap the benefit.

In the late 1920s there emerged a category of movie theaters, movie palaces, called “atmospheric theaters.” The interior decor had a theme, whether Egyptian or neoclassical or over-the-top baroque, allowing Depression-era patrons to immerse themselves in the richness of another time and culture. (The now-restored 1931 Holland Theatre in Bellefontaine, Ohio, has the architectural components of a 17th-century Dutch town!) The truly atmospheric theaters had ceilings featuring moving clouds and twinkling stars.

That’s what these mysteries call to mind for me. Sure I’ve been to Venice, but it has never felt as real as when I follow Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti around from island to island, coffee bar to coffee bar. I still don’t know the Greek islands—too many of them! But I’m getting more than a glimpse of the sights (and the bureaucracy) thanks to Jeffrey Siger’s top cop, Andreas Kaldis.

Québec? Check! France’s Dordogne? Yup. Ancient Rome? Done, and more than once.

Remember that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up. If you can’t yet persuade your loved ones to get on a plane, consider these books, some of which come in attractive boxed sets. Best of all, because publishers love repeat business, some of the series are 15, 20, even 30+ books long!

Though there are always newcomers to classics, I’ll assume everyone knows about Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot (though I don’t get much more than charmingly fractured English out of the little Belgian) and Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret (but it might be fun to count how many times Maigret stops to light his pipe as he wanders around Paris).

The late Peter Mayle, who made Provence so memorable for us (A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, etc.), did also commit fiction among the olive trees and wild thyme; but the genre for those fun, well-plotted books was the “caper,” not mystery (hence the titles, The Vintage Caper, The Marseille Caper, The Corsican Caper and The Diamond Caper). On the other hand, I thought it might be a giggle to add Lee Child’s 20+ Jack Reacher books to the list, if only because a tour of Reacher’s brain would be fascinating. (I resisted.)

I’ve listed each series by the name of the detective and pointed out the first in each series. I like to start at the beginning, but these authors know how to weave the backstory into each book along the way.

Again, there’s room for plenty more: Please add your faves in a Comment.

MARCUS DIDIUS FALCO
Author Lindsey Davis

Davis places his gumshoe—or the less-appealing-sounding title “informer”—in the days of the Roman emperor Vespasian. It’s intrigues he’s called upon to handle, and like more modern private dicks, he works out of an office in a seedy upper-floor tenement-style building, which about captures the regard in which his role in society is held. There’s atmosphere aplenty here but not jammed down your throat—a scramble up a temple’s steps, the occasional Ionic column seen on the fly, what your toga says about your status, that sort of thing. But the intrigue of ancient Rome was real, as were its informers, or Delators. The writing is amusing and cool, even the list of characters (Domitian, “Vespasian’s younger son; not so brilliant, not so popular.”). My friend Barbara Carrol turned me on to the first two books, The Silver Pigs and Shadows in Bronze, which are a treat. And the series goes on for 20 volumes. (There’s a Kindle gift set of the first three volumes, which also includes Venus in Copper.)

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GORDIANUS THE FINDER
Author Steven Saylor

LittleBird Janet steered me to another series set in ancient Rome, the 16 Roma Sub Rosa mysteries of Steven Saylor. In the first, Roman Blood, we meet Gordianus the Finder, or detective, who is brought in to help a lawyer made a case for a son accused of killing his rich and unloved father. In the third book, Catilina’s Riddle, Gordianus has tried to retire to the countryside with his unusual family, most of them former slaves (he’s a Roman citizen, though not patrician). Given that there are 13 subsequent books, we can imagine how successful his retirement is. Nonetheless, the book, published in 1993, contains sentiments the politics-weary of today will find familiar: “Time and again I see the people, impressed by games and shows, give their votes to a man who then proceeds to legislate against their interest. Sheer stupidity!” And regarding the previous year’s electoral campaign: “Consular campaigns as a rule are crude, vicious affairs, but an uglier campaign I’ve never witnessed.” Messages received: ‘Twas ever thus. There’s a lot of parsing of Imperial Roman politics than many of us (ahem!) glossed over in school. But as with most books of this kind, it’s the author’s self-awareness and humor that make the journey fun.

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MMA PRECIOUS RAMOTSWE

Author Alexander McCall Smith
It’s been around since 1998 and I’m still charmed by the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in the Botswana capital, Gaborone. A woman with “a traditional figure,” Mma Precious Ramotswe founds her agency with the proceeds from selling, with his blessing, her dying father’s cattle. She bows to some gender expectations in her southern African nation (and from what she and colleague Mma Makutsi call “past-tense men”), but time after time, with no small amount of redbush tea served, she unwinds the chicanery around her. The first volume, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, is (obviously) a fine introduction to the series, but this is a case where an audiobook can truly shine. Some things that seemed a bit patronizing on the page came alive when delivered in the rhythms of Botswana English, thanks to the rich delivery of Lisette Lecat. (And you’ll learn how to pronounce the honorifics Mma and Rra.) Once you’ve succumbed, you’ll be pleased to learn that there are boxed sets and more than 20 books to follow. Don’t expect a lot of action: Mma Ramotswe contemplates the complexities of her cases gazing out at the acacia tree on the other side of the road, and going over things in her head, slowly, very slowly.
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THE THURSDAY MURDER CLUB
Author Richard Osman
Elizabeth and her pals are pensioners in a posh-enough retirement village in the Kentish Weald. Of course, Elizabeth is a retired MI6 operative, so it’s not so surprising that they meet on Thursdays in the home’s Jigsaw Room (in a time slot when it’s not being used for Art History or Conversational French classes) for their Thursday Murder Club. The goal: solving cold cases. The group: decidedly mixed (Elizabeth; Ron, the retired union organizer; Ibrahim, a methodical sort better with numbers than with adventure, and new group member Joyce, who just wants something exciting to happen). Richard Osman’s series is a (hilarious) fledgling; the second book is The Man Who Died Twice; a third, The Bullet That Missed, will be out in late September 2022. You can thank me when you discover how marvelous these books are, but I’ll pass the praise on to my former Washington Post colleague Caroline Mayer for the tip (thanks, Caroline!).
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THE MAMUR ZAPT
Author Michael Pearce
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon the Mamur Zapt mysteries, but it was quite the rabbit hole. Start with the term Mamur Zapt, which is not a name but a title for the head of the political police in pre-World War I Egypt when Egypt was ruled by the Khedive but wasn’t really because the Brits were in charge. Got that? It’s only the beginning of an exotic 19-book trip that has little to do with the Nile. And it helps to know that in the first volume, The Mamur Zapt & the Return of the Carpet, the rug in question has nothing to do with home furnishings; it’s a holy object on its way home from Mecca. Okay! Other titles are slightly less domestic-sounding and rather more chilling: The Bride Box (okay, that sounds domestic, but . . . ), The Face in the Cemetery, The Mamur Zapt and the Camel of Destruction (that one begs to be read for the title alone; haven’t yet but will).
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CHIEF INSPECTOR ANDREAS KALDIS
Author Jeffrey Siger
Pick a Greek island: Mykonos, PatmosTinos, Santorini, Ikaria. You name any of the Cycladic isles and there’s bound to be homicide afoot there, at least in this series by Jeffrey Siger, a former New York lawyer who now lives in Greece. Honest cop Andreas Kaldis is often dragged in to set things right—with all praise going to his very political superior, of course. There’s reverence for the beauty and storied history of these islands and their people, and awareness of the international forces at work there, including current immigrants—just about every civilization has trod over Greece over the millennia—and international crime syndicates. The first book, Murder in Mykonos, will put you in the mood for an Aegean cruise, but it will also prepare you for the real world of today’s Greece. All dozen volumes of it. I’m four books in, and it’s another win for my friend Barbara Carroll!
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BROTHER CADFAEL
Author Ellis Peters
Surely mediaeval monasteries in Shropshire (or anywhere, I guess) were never this interesting. I mean, how does a 12th-century Benedictine monk have fun? In the case of Brother Cadfael, it’s by solving things decidedly unholy. The title of the first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, refers to bones of the relic variety, since the adventure revolves around a distant abbot’s quest to retrieve the bones of Saint Winifred in order to enhance the renown of his abbey. After an opponent of the abbot’s mission is killed, the book introduces us Brother Cadfael, who, author Ellis Peters assures us, was a man of the world (a Crusader, a seaman, a ladies’ man) before choosing the cloistered life. As Ellis puts it, “When you have done everything else, perfecting a conventual herb-garden is a fine and satisfying thing to do.” And yet, the adventures continue, for 21 books. Amen to that.
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COMMISSARIO GUIDO BRUNETTI
Author Donna Leon
And then there’s the frequently brooding Venice of Commissario Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon’s paean to her adopted home. I have a bookshelf dedicated to 20-plus Brunetti atmosphere-soaked adventures (thanks, Greg and Geraldine, who left them with me when they moved!), but I strayed for a bit and now see there are more than 31 volumes. Clearly, time to catch up with Guido, wife Paola and the kids (who must be up and out of the house by now), adding the very latest, Give Unto Others, and Transient Desires. But the first book is where to start: Death at La Fenice, the Venetian opera house. For those of us truly addicted, there’s Leon’s My Venice and Other Essays and—wait for it—Brunetti’s Cookbook.
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CHIEF INSPECTOR ARMAND GAMACHE
Author Louise Penny
Is there any woman reader alive who doesn’t have just the slightest crush on the chief inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, who lives in Three Pines, a village outside Montreal so tiny and tucked away that it doesn’t even appear on any maps? The setting leads the Gamache series to be a delicious mélange of police procedural and “cozy” crime book (how else to explain the “stately homo” bistro owners, the large former psychologist bookseller, and the elderly scotch-swigging village poet whose pet duck says little but “Fuck!”).  Our hero, who has had some seriously bad stuff thrown at him over the course of 18 books by beloved author Louise Penny, made a one-volume foray into the Parisian crime scene but returned to Canadian turf. The first book was Still Life. There’s a $50 boxed set of the first five Gamache books, and collections of subsequent ones, too.
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DR. SIRI PAIBOUN
Author Colin Cotterill
Siri starts out the series as the coroner in dusty Vientiane, Laos, trying to fit in with the socialist version of justice. We meet him in The Coroner’s Lunch, working with no lab and a few instruments left by the French decades before. But it’s a tossup as to whether he’s more disturbed by bureaucrats who want all death to be attributed to natural causes or by visitations from the souls he has seen on his cutting table. So there’s murder a plenty here in Laos, plus details of life and politics in Southeast Asia, deftly painted by English-Australian author Colin Cotterill, who has lived in Laos and now lives in Thailand—with his wife, Kyoko, whose family owns a 300-year-old soba noodle restaurant in Shiga, Japan. When you finish the dozen+ books in the Dr. Siri series, you can dip into Cotterill’s other mysteries, a trio of Jimm Juree mysteries, starting with Killed at the Whim of a Hat.

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POLICE CHIEF BRUNO COURRÈGES
Author Martin Walker
One thinks of the Périgord region of southwestern France as truffle and goose-fat territory not a hotbed of crime. But Police Chief Bruno periodically finds  himself faced with unsavory goings-on, when he’s not shopping the 700-year-old market in St. Denis, cooking a truffle omelet with eggs from his own hens or chasing around with Gigi, his dog. The first book, Bruno, Chief of Police: A Mystery of the French Countryside, revolves around the death of an elderly North African who had fought in the French army. The leisurely pace of the investigation matches the rhythm of the countryside around St. Denis. The 15th book in the series, To Kill a Troubadour, will be released in August 2022. A boxed paperback set of the four earliest books—Death in the Dordogne, Dark Vineyard, Black Diamond, and Crowded Grave—came out last year.
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ALEX KOVACS
Author Richard Wake
Richard Wake’s series is more thriller than mystery (à la Alan Furst and Philip Kerr), but there’s atmosphere to spare. We start out in late-1930s Vienna (Vienna at Nightfall), with Alex Kovacs, a magnesite salesmen traveling around Eastern Europe to sell the product from his family’s mine. But given the time frame, and then the clop-clop of Nazi boots on the pavement, business trips become espionage.
And Vienna leads to Zurich (The Spies of Zurich), then Lyon (The Lyon Resistance), Normandy, Berlin, Limoges, the Alps, the whole tour de World War II, eight books in all. As a good start, there’s a boxed set of the first three books available in Kindle format. In addition, Wake has created a thriller series whose hero, Peter Ritter, operates at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall. The two titles so far are A Death in East Berlin and In the Shadow of the Wall.
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AMELIA PEABODY
Author Elizabeth Peters
Not to get any hackles up, but I’m not that fond of another classic creator of the mystery-as-travel (or travel-as-mystery) genre, Elizabeth Peters. Peters’s starchy spinster (she’s 32), Amelia Peabody, swans around Egypt in the 1880s, and there’s a lot of Egyptian scenery and culture (dated, but appropriate to the time and the “white man’s burden” ethos of the lead characters’ racist views of the “natives”).  But the author, real name Barbara Mertz, did in fact have a PhD in Egyptology, and I don’t think a reader would be misled by believing the details she lays out involving the archaeological discoveries. But the text is prone to such faux-Victorian locutions as, “Partake of some nourishment, if you please, before we proceed to further measures to relieve you.” If that puts you off, this may not be quite the series for you. The first volume is Crocodile on the Sandbank.
Writing as Barbara Michaels, Mertz also wrote the gothic Georgetown trilogy,   Ammie, Come Home,  Shattered Silk, and Stitches in Time.
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AURELIO ZEN
Author Michael Dibdin
The late, great Michael Dibdin had his melancholy police inspector posted all over the Italic peninsula, usually regretting that he couldn’t go home. The first book, the terrific Ratking, sends Aurelio Zen to Perugia because of a kidnapping, but a personal favorite of mine is Back to Bologna, in which a Bolognese industrialist is killed with a Parmesan knife (I know, right?). Oh, and there’s Dead Lagoon, wherein our hero gets to go home to Venice, but not in the most reassuring way.
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7 thoughts on “Travel With a Touch of Mystery

  1. Maureen Young says:

    I love to read mysteries and loved this column! I have a few other suggestions — learned all about Africa as a girl reading Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series (also learned about Mars and beneath the earth in his Martian Chronicles and the Pellucidar series). And about England reading Arthur Conan Doyle…and about Belgium (sort of) reading every Hercule Poirot book I could find.

    Some other suggestions from my more recent reading past — Dorothy Dunnett’s series set in 17th century Scotland but travels through Russia, Malta and other locales. And John Banville has some good ones — most recent mystery I’ve read is “April in Spain” Finally what about Henning Mankell — great mystery series set in Sweden. And Jo Nesbo’s series set in Norway. And Asa Larsson series set in Iceland…and Ian Rankin series set in Scotland…all kind of dark but fascinating. Oh I almost forgot — Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series set in Israel and all over Europe.

    I may never actually get to Malta or Iceland or Norway but I feel like by reading novels set there, I’ve at least learned what life can be like in those places….

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Wow! That’s years more reading for all of us! Thanks! (The last Henning Mankell book I read took a sudden swoop down into Mozambique. How random, I thought, then discovered Mankell had started a theater there and aimed a lot of his charity work at children in that former Portuguese colony. He didn’t pick the country just for atmosphere.) Thank you for your terrific contribution!

  2. Carol says:

    Just looking for a new read! Thank you

  3. Nancy G says:

    Wrote all the titles down to find. This is a genre I’ve never explored. Thanks!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Here’s a little “secret” about mysteries: They’re great to read just to keep up your reading proficiency in another language—because the plot keeps pushing you forward in a way other forms of prose might not (and you learn a very specific vocabulary, to be sure! Empreintes digitales is fingerprints in French!). You’re not limited to the author’s language, either: Years ago I read “Il Postino,” by Croatian-Chilean author Antonio Skarmeta in Italian. Enjoy your new genre!

  4. Val Monroe says:

    LOVE this! A post worth saving. Thanks, NM!

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Thank you! You can refer to the list when you’ve finished Proust!

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