5 Great Detective Stories Set In Foreign, Uber-Corrupt Cities
In The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler famously distilled the hard-boiled mystery story to its most essential ingredient: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”
The Chandleresque detective is a heroic figure in a deeply corrupt world. He fights against not just murderers and kidnappers but against larger forces of corruption: crooked judges and mayors and senators and police chiefs, all of them on the take, their principles for sale to the highest bidder. It’s not enough to chase down a lone killer; the detective is submerged in a world where evil reigns everywhere, where moral compasses are constantly askew.
Over the last few years, I’ve become a fan of novels that take Chandler’s maxim and kick it up a notch by placing their stories not only in corrupt American cities but in totalitarian nations such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, North Korea. When the detective works in cities run by Absolute Leaders who crush all dissent and send political opponents to their deaths, every wrong move is magnified. How can the hero even make the right decisions when he’s operating in a land where right and wrong have been hopelessly distorted?
As I researched the setting for my novel Darktown (1948 Atlanta, when the city hired its first eight black police officers) I realized that, to my black protagonists, the Jim Crow South was every bit the totalitarian nation that, say, the USSR was. So I took a closer look at some of my favorite books that work in this genre-within-a-genre, totalitarian noir.
Gorky Park and the ensuing Arkady Renko series, by Martin Cruz Smith
Martin Cruz Smith’s protagonist, Arkady Renko, tries to be an honest cop in the Soviet Union (and, in the series’ later books, in Putin’s Russia). Gorky Park was published in 1981; the Berlin Wall would fall in only eight years, but we didn’t know that, and neither did Cruz or his protagonist. The book felt novel in so many ways, the first crime story I know of to frame a Chandleresque tale in a totalitarian setting. Renko has to work in a context where any witness is afraid to talk for fear of saying the wrong thing and being sent away to a labor camp, where orders from his bosses come with sinister, but unknowable, ulterior motives. The newer novels, set in Putin’s era, are no less terrifying.
Bridge of Sighs and the ensuing, five-part Yalta Boulevard Sequence, by Olen Steinhauer
Unlike the other works here, Steinhauer doesn’t stick with one detective in his series; each book follows different cops, secret police officers, and intelligence agents who loosely work with each other. Set in an unnamed Soviet bloc country (Steinhauer lived briefly in Romania), the series not only depicts a hostile and threatening world of totalitarian doublespeak, propaganda, and concentration camps, it also gives us a panoramic view of the Cold War as viewed from the other side: the first book is set immediately after World War II, and each book takes place in a different decade, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Berlin Noir and the following Bernie Gunther novels, by Philip Kerr
Philip Kerr has now published eleven books featuring Bernie Gunther, a former Berlin cop who tries to survive as a private detective during the rise and fall of the Nazis. I’ve read only a fraction of them so far, but the combination of his romantic wise-guy hero and the sheer insanity of Nazi Germany—where the entire country is run by homicidal maniacs—makes for fascinating reading. My bookshelf is piled up with more of the Gunther tales, and I can’t wait to travel back to his sinister world again.
Ferraris has written three crime novels focusing in particular on the plight of female protagonists who face harsh gender restrictions in Saudi Arabia (where Ferraris once lived with her now ex-husband). City of Veils, her second, was the first I read; it focuses on a female lab tech who must deal with the morality police as well as a family who disapproves of what she does, all the while trying to solve the mystery of a murdered woman who isn’t who she appears to be. The book reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its visceral depiction of life in a male-dominated society, except it’s even scarier because it’s real.
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
I don’t want to get in trouble here, so I should note immediately that India is not a totalitarian nation. In that sense, Chandra’s epic tale shouldn’t be on this list. But the book was such a joy to read, so immersive and exciting, that I’ll bend some definitions to place it here. Chandra’s hero cop, Sartaj Singh, may not have secret police to deal with, but the dense corruption in Mumbai is a constant irritant, and tensions with India’s nuclear rival, Pakistan (which becomes a plot point in this sprawling novel), add another layer of geopolitical complexity to the book. Read it now before it becomes the Netflix series.
There are countless other examples I’ve been meaning to read, set everywhere from Havana to Pyongyang, from Franco’s Spain to Dirty War Argentina. And even though my novel, Darktown, is set here in the US of A, its world of Jim Crow politics feels as foreign as any of these settings, and I hope it finds its way on the same bookshelves for fellow fans of a good, and uniquely located, crime story.