We’ve been fascinated with Scandinavian crime novels, particularly Henning Mankel’s Inspector Wallander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. But mayhem and murder occurs everywhere, even in the utopia of a Peoples’ Republic. So if you’ve done the Scandinavians and you’re looking for a new police procedural series set in a completely different cultural and political environment, try these authors.
Colin Cotterill – Dr Siri Paiboun
“The Coroner’s Lunch” is the first in a series set in the newly communist Laos. It is 1976, and with Pathet Lao government in control of things in Laos, life ought to be getting much better for everyone. Except that most of the people you need have fled across the Mekong to Thailand, including the country’s only coroner. When the wife of a high-ranking official suddenly dies, the authorities have only one person they can turn to: Dr Siri Paiboun, a recently retired 72-year-old surgeon and Pathet Lao veteran.
Thus begins Dr Siri’s late career as the coroner of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Armed only with an old French-language textbook on pathology, and assisted by the efficient and able Nurse Dtui, and Gueng, a willing but mildly Down’s syndrome assistant, Dr Siri begins his first autopsy. Of course, Dr Siri’s boss, Judge Huang, with his band-new Soviet diploma, is not really interested in the inconvenient truths Dr Siri and his team uncover – and things get even trickier as new bodies turn up. Still, Dr Siri doesn’t give up, and with his new colleague in the local police, the loyal and incorruptable Lieutenant Phosy, and the occasional help of his best friend Civilai, a member of the ruling Politburo, he carries on
Dr Siri is an adorable character– cynical, wise, humorous and humane and we all cheer for him and his eclectic team as they battle against limited resources, party bureaucracy, and Siri’s disturbing spiritual encounters to solve their cases. As you read your way through the series, there will be plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but as the novels progress, we increasingly see this socialist paradise for what it really is – ruthless, corrupt, and inept. In the latest title, “”Love songs from a shallow grave”, Dr Siri is imprisoned during an official visit to Kampuchea (Cambodia) by the murderous Kmer Rouge regime. I could hardly bear to read it to the end. But have no fear! – Dr Siri apparently survives this experience, as Colin Cotterill’s next installment in the Dr Siri series is on its way to publication.
James Church – Inspector O
“A corpse in the Koryo” introduces Inspector O, a police officer in based in Pyongyang, the capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. His sparse little modern flat is an oasis of calm, even if he knows that it is regularly searched. But the workplace he describes is an altogether more dangerous place, with constant feuding between the various groupings of security agencies, the shifting centres of power and the frequent betrayals by colleagues, with dreadful consequences for the betrayed.
He copes in this volatile environment by keeping a low profile and doing his work as efficiency and with as much humanity as he can. He has a very small measure of protection through his grandfather having been a revolutionary hero. But even for the watchful O there is no avoiding of trouble when he obeys a simple order and heads out at dawn with instructions to photograph a specific car passing at a particular point on the empty highway leading into Pyongyang. It seemed a straightforward task, but like so much in North Korea, nothing is what it seems, and he finds himself dangerously caught up in a tussle between two state intelligence units, who will go to any lengths to conceal past crimes of state-sponsored kidnapping and murder.
Inspector O is an enigmatic fellow and we only get to know him better by reading subsequent titles in the series. What makes him an attractive protagonist is that in the midst of this brutal environment, he retains his humanity and a measure of assertiveness, along with a wry appreciation of absurdities of what passes for normality in North Korea. But this is grimmer stuff than the Dr Siri series – there is little to laugh about in North Korea, and the sense of ever-present threat of imminent arrest, labour camps and death affects everyone, even in their most ordinary day-to-day living. There are 4 books in the series so far, and the latest, ““The man with the Baltic stare”, published last year, anticipates the possibility of fundamental change in the Korean Peninsula.
Qui Xiaolong – Detective Inspector Chen
In “The death of a Red Heroine” we meet Detective Inspector Chen Cao, newly promoted to head the Special Case Squad of Shanghai Police Bureau. He’s a faithful Party cadre and a conscientious police officer as well and a poet and a lover of fine food. But while he is a loyal Party man, he is troubled by the rapid changes in societal values and the relentless, heartless commercialism taking hold in the People’s Republic of China.
This first title in what has become a very strong series is set in the Shanghai of 1990, not long after Tiananmen Square. The body of a young woman is found in a city canal. She’s not just any young woman, though. She is National Model Worker Guan Hongying, and she’s been murdered. Inspector Chen and his faithful comrade, Detective Yu, begin their investigation, overseen by Commissar Zhang, an old-guard Party bureaucrat. There’s more to this case than meets the eye, of course, and Chen and yYu soon begin to feel pressure from Commissar Zhang not be too thorough in solving the case.
I’ve only just started on Inspector Chen myself, and I’m hooked already. He’s an intelligent, honest, hard-working policemen, who in the end realises that in order to reach the truth he must put aside his concerns for his career and standing in the Party. Despite these amirable qualities, I’m not warming to him in the way I did with Dr Siri and Inspector O. Still, it’s early days, and there’s so much more to this series than just solving crime. We have here a wonderful portrait of China: its landscape, its history, its politics, its literature, its beliefs and cultural practices, and the changes which will make China the powerhouse it has, in the 20 years since, become. The latest title in the series, “The Mao Case”, explores the Cultural Revolution and the legacies of that terrible time which still resonate in modern Shanghai. I’m looking forward to reading this.
Just as a footnote: Chinese surnames always precede firstnames, so you should find the Inspector Chen books under “Q” in the library. Just check, however, that there aren’t some under ”X”, just in case they’ve been shelved in the wrong place.