Catherine Sampson’s latest novel, The Pool of Unease, is set in Beijing, where the author has lived for many years. Her earlier books, Falling Off Air, and Out of Mind, both featured journalist and single mother Robin Ballantyne. In The Pool of Unease, Robin Ballantyne investigates the murder of a British businessman in Beijing. The book also introduces private detective Song Ren, who is miserably staking out a brothel when he hears a blood-curdling scream, and goes to investigate…an inquiry which rapidly becomes entangled with Robin’s.
“If you only looked at size of population, you’d expect China and India to dominate any list like this, but in fact it is Japan which has taken crime fiction to its bosom. In China, politics adds a thick layer of complication. To write about crime in China – however fictional – is to advertise the fact that Chinese society is not an entirely harmonious and benign thing. Of course, China’s leaders are a lot more tolerant than they once were when it comes to literature, but it’s still sensitive, and crime fiction is a small but growing genre. The Beijing that I see around me, with its speed-of-light economic growth, its social dislocation, its constantly migrating population and its quagmire of corruption, is a verdant pasture for crime fiction. And its political claustrophobia is the perfect environment for a private eye who is an honourable man struggling against a system that threatens to overwhelm him.”
1. Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
Qiu is a Chinese writer now living in America. His Detective Chen is an inspector in the Shanghai police force. When a female model worker is found dead, Detective Chen investigates, and the trail leads him onto dangerous political ground. The book has a gentle feel to it which makes the violence of murder even more shocking. It is a vivid description of present day Shanghai, and the satisfying ending is utterly believable.
2. Playing For Thrills by Wang Shuo
Wang Shuo was one of the inventors of so-called hooligan literature. It tore into Chinese conventions by romanticising the lives of young people who had no interest in politics. Wang Shuo writes Chinese literature’s version of punk, often described as gritty and sarcastic, and his work is frequently banned. Playing for Thrills has narrator Fang Yan trying to clear himself of a murder he may – or may not, he’s not quite sure – have committed a decade earlier.
3. Crime De Sang by He Jiahong
This should be available soon in English as Blood Crime. He Jiahong is a lawyer who teaches at one of China’s most respected universities, and he has also spent time in the United States. His protagonist, Hong Jun, is a lawyer, too, and He’s books are most notable for their beautifully observed descriptions of daily life.
4. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
The Bombay underworld is brought to grimy life in this bestselling novel in which police detective Sartaj Singh investigates the suicide of crime boss Gaitonde. When it first appeared, Indian readers were excited that it had broken many taboos. The murky complexities of politics, religion and caste soak the bloody plot, and the Bombay described here rivals any Mafia-ridden Italian city.
5. Jack the Ladykiller by HRF Keating
Keating is a British writer who has adopted India as his territory and is best-known for his Inspector Ghote mysteries. This unusual novel is written entirely in verse and is set in the British community in the Punjab in 1935. When a woman is murdered, Jack Steele, a young colonial police officer fresh out of school, must investigate and confront his own preconceptions. The novel, like most of the books on this list, uses the form of the criminal investigation to dissect social relations, in this case the nature of the colonial population and its relationship with the local population. I love novels in verse, and having tried my hand at writing verse, I find it always takes me in interesting directions.
6. Out by Natsuo Kirino
As in Britain and the USA, the Japanese crime genre has female stars. Natsuo Kirino’s dark and bloody Out is not a pleasant read, but it is a powerful one. A young mother who works a night shift making boxed lunches in the suburbs of Tokyo brutally strangles her deadbeat husband and then seeks the help of her co-workers to dispose of the body and cover up her crime.
7. All She Was Worth by Miyake Miyabe
Another prizewinning Japanese woman writer paints another searing picture of Japanese society at its darkest. When a young woman applies for a credit card and it is denied because of a bankruptcy many years before, she and her fiance are shocked. Soon the woman has vanished, leaving her fiance to investigate a mystery which involves stolen identity and consumerism run wild.
8. Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seicho Matsumoto
Perhaps this is a little out of date – it is a police procedural that was published in the 60s – but it is a classic. It is a very different Japanese crime novel from the previous two, but more familiar, perhaps, to the reader of traditional British crime novel. Inspector Imanishi is a more conventional figure, middle-aged and middle class, who calmly attempts to bring order to a muddled world. His traditional domestic life forms much of the landscape of the book. When I read this book many years ago, I was delighted by the way in which it made the complexity of Japanese society accessible to a reader who had never set foot in Japan. It is the book that first made me think that the crime novel can travel, as a genre, so that a British reader can settle happily into an entirely foreign environment.
9. Murder At Mount Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki
Japan’s bestselling mystery writer, and another woman. This is a thoughtful and intelligent mystery, set in snow-covered Mount Fuji at new year. A visiting American student and a Japanese police detective attempt to unravel an intricate web of intrigue to uncover the truth concerning a family murder.
10. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
When I visited Saigon several years ago, this book was photocopied and sold on stalls throughout the city. A mystery and so much more – this is a classic tale of a romantic triangle, violent politics and murder. Many of the books on this list have been written by Asians who have left Asia, at least for a while. Several of the books by non-Asian’s, like this one and HRF Keating’s take an expatriate community as their focus. As a writer who is not Asian but dares to write about Asia, I think it can be done. But there are few non-Asian writers who manage to make Asia, and one searing point in history, so utterly alive as Graham Greene.