Japan, Italy, Spain: Where My Crime Fiction Takes Me

I do love crime fiction set in different countries. I believe that crime novels are great at conveying the small details, the atmosphere, the cultural differences which make up a country. I tend to pack them in my luggage when I venture to a new country, right alongside the travel guides. The last three have taken me to Japan, Italy/France and Spain.

Japan: “All She Was Worth” by Miyuki Miyabe (No information about translator!?!), Oriel


Inspector Honma is a gentle soul, on semi-retirement from the police force since his wife’s death, with the usual single father doubts about his parenting abilities towards his ten-year-old son Makoto. A distant cousin descends on him one snowy evening and asks for his help to trace his missing fiancé. As Honma uncovers more and more unsettling facts about this woman and her past, he reluctantly has to bear witness to the dark side of Japan’s economic boom: the belief in a good life today rather than tomorrow, falling into debt and being pursued by loan sharks, succumbing to the temptation of hostess bars and … possibly… murder. The story is told at a much more leisurely pace than one might be accustomed to from a contemporary Western novel: there is almost something of the Golden Age detective novel feel about it, as one puzzle piece after another is found and carefully slotted into place. We may solve the mystery long before the main protagonist does, but along the way we experience a great fresco of Japan in the early 1990s, when the golden dream was becoming tarnished. All the while, I couldn’t help thinking of the much more excessive recent consumer excesses of the UK and Greece, for example. However, for Japanese standards (a nation of savers rather than credit cards), this must have been pretty explosive stuff at the time. The novel was written in 1992 and does show its age a little.

Italy/France: “Escape” by Dominique Manotti (Transl. Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz), Arcadia

ManottiTwo mismatched Italian prisoners break out of prison: Carlo is a former leader in the Red Brigades, Filippo a petty criminal from the slums of Rome. Yet it’s the latter who survives and who tries to make his fortune in Paris. While working as a night guard, this barely literate young man starts writing down the stories that Carlo told him in prison. The book is published and becomes a bestseller… with very dangerous consequences for Filippo, even though he tries to convince the reading public (and the police) that most of the novel is fiction.

This book has one of the most immediately gripping opening sequences I’ve read in recent memory… and we’re off on this rollercoaster of a ride through Italian politics of the 1970s/80s, the pretentiousness of the French literary establishment and the world of exiled Italians in Paris. Manotti’s work is at once dramatic and thoughtful, cinematic and intimate, politically engaged and also tongue-in-cheek. The characters often take themselves far too seriously, but the author never does: by offering us multiple points of view, she does a great job of pricking their balloon of self-satisfaction and self-deceit. She also does a great job of asking questions about the nature of memory, about the proportion of fiction in our truths, and just what is permissible in the name of success or political survival. A political thriller with a very personal story, this is a book quite unlike most crime fiction you find on the bookshop shelves today. An author who deserves to be far more widely known in the English-speaking world.

Spain: ‘Depths of the Forest’ by Eugenio Fuentes (Transl. Paul Antill), Arcadia

el-interior-del-bosqueAn attractive young woman is killed in a remote nature reserve in the north-east of Spain. Her boyfriend hires private investigator Ricardo Cupido to find the killer, as he fears the police are dragging their feet. Ricardo knows the local area, the secretive, closed nature of its people, but he has to start by uncovering more about the enigmatic and charismatic victim, Gloria, an artist who was equally loved and envied by those closest to her. Ricardo finds himself drawn towards her even after death, but a further death makes him wonder if the murder was at all personal.

Atmosphere galore in this novel: the claustrophobia of small-town rural Spain and the ominous wilderness of a great forest are both equally well described. The style is ornate, lyrical, with detailed descriptions, very different to the more spare Anglo-Saxon style, but beautifully written. A book to savour slowly, to let melt on your tongue. Once again, we are transported into other points of view and get to see both Gloria and the forest through multiple sets of eyes – a technique that is seldom used in UK/US crime fiction.

fuentesBut what I love about this author is the layers of meaning he instills in his books: superficially, they are simply a murder mystery, but underneath that they are character studies, and if you dig a little deeper still, you find the exploration of old mores and traditions, of cultural values, of natural forces fighting against humans.  Cupido himself is an attractive character, thoughtful but not unduly melancholic, although a bit of a loner. Here he is described by another character: “He was about thirty-five, very tall, with clean-cut features and profile, although he gave the impression of not knowing how to make the most of his good looks. He never allowed himself a broad smile… He appeared calm by nature, but by no means impassive; he was sceptical, but not pessimistic…’ I certainly want to read more about him in other books.


Where have you recently ‘travelled’ via your books?  Please share with me your favourite discoveries, as there is nothing I enjoy better than to explore new locations through an author’s eyes.



19 thoughts on “Japan, Italy, Spain: Where My Crime Fiction Takes Me”

  1. Marina Sofia – Like you, I get a great deal of pleasure in my reading from virtual visits to other places. Sometimes I choose a book about a place I’m going to visit in real life, to get a sense of it. Other times I choose a book about a place that I’ve never visited, to get some idea of what it’s like there. Either way, those virtual visits are such wonderful benefits of reading. And you’ve got some great suggestions here. Thanks.

    1. Reading about places you never can or want to visit is also great. For instance, I would never dream of going to Edie Kiglatuk’s domain in the far northern territories of Canada, and I will probably never make it to American Samoa or the Solomon Islands, but I can enjoy books by Jon Enright and G. W. Kent (respectively) instead.

      1. would never dream of going to Edie Kiglatuk’s domain in the far northern territories of Canada, and I will probably never make it to American Samoa or the Solomon Islands

        Conversely, I’ve just been reading Peter May’s The Blackhouse and it’s made me quite desperate to visit Lewis — shamefully for a Scot, I’ve never been there.

  2. The Manotti and Fuentes sound great, especially the Manotti. (I read a Miyuki Miyabe a few years and was a bit ho-hum about it.) But getting hold of fiction in translation is much more of an uphill struggle here in the US, I think, than it is in Europe. The catalogue of my local library service (covering maybe 15 libraries) has never heard of either author.

    1. Oh, boo! Yes, translations in libraries seem to be almost non-existent. I had great difficulty finding the Japanese book and eventually ordered a 2nd hand copy from somewhere in the States.

    2. Just had a brainwave: I could post my copies to you. I can’t keep on adding to my bookshelves. I’ll look into postage costs and let you know.

      1. An astonishingly kind thought, for which I’m extremely grateful. Unfortunately I have the same bookshelves problem, which is why I’m trying to restrict myself to library borrowings wherever possible.

        Besides, transatlantic postage costs an absolute fortune these days (says one who has a grandson in London; sometimes we think we’d be cheaper just taking him his latest stash of loot).

        I’ve filed my copy of your post so that I can try the library service again in a year’s time, or whenever.

        I get the feeling the county’s library network is beginning to wake up a bit so far as translated fiction is concerned. Maybe lots of people are asking for it, who knows.

  3. I’m pleased to hear you liked Escape; I have a copy of it, and the focus on Italian politics certainly appeals. I like the sound of the Fuentes, too.
    A few years ago, I went on holiday to Sicily along with a bundle of Camilleri’s Montalbano books. More recently, I travelled back in time to Barcelona in the aftermath of the Civil War by way of Nada by Carmen Laforet – such an evocative book that seems to capture a certain mood.

    1. Exactly – you describe the way I do things. I’ve downloaded a couple of Anne Zouroudi books, for instance, to take with me on our holiday in Greece. Mind you, we hardly ever go anywhere else but Greece in summer, so I may run the risk of running out of reading matter at some point.

      1. Yes, I love to read books set in a place I’m visiting, just to get a feel for the setting. The Anne Zouroudi books sound great – I hope you enjoy your holidays!

  4. Depths in the Forest got a low rating on Amazon, although from only one person. It kind of cooled my interest in reading the book. Do you agree or disagree?

    1. I really liked it – but you have to be prepared that it’s in a different style to much of Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian crime fiction. The author is far more verbose, the sentences tend to be quite ornate, the pace is a little slower. (One graphic violence warning: there is one upsetting scene describing the hunt and killing of a stag.) But I found it well written and well worth reading.

  5. My most recent travels outside of the US via reading were to Scotland (The Sea Detective) and to Germany (The Collini Case).

    All of your reviews make me want to read the books. My husband has All She Was Worth and keeps encouraging me to read it (for the Japanese Lit Challenge). Escape sounds good (and short). Not sure about the book set in Spain, but if I run into a copy…

    1. Scotland and Germany are great places to visit in books (and in real life).
      All She Was Worth is surprisingly ‘non-Japanese’ in a sense, in that it follows the traditional elements of Western detective fiction much more than the quirkier offerings I’ve read from other Japanese writers. It’s also much less dark or unsettling than Natsuo Kirino or Fuminori Nakamura, for instance.

  6. All She Was Worth was translated by Alfred Birnbaum – strange that the book doesn’t mention it – I was sure the copy I read did… He also translated a lot of Haruki Murakami’s earlier works – and he might even be my favourite of the three main Murakami translators (maybe I just liked early Murakami better…)

    1. Thank you for putting that right – I think the Oriel edition was a reissue of a Kodansha International book and they never mentioned the translator, I searched everywhere! Yes, Alfred Birnbaum is a great translator – I wonder why he didn’t continue with the Murakami?

  7. that first one sounds intriguing…and the nostalgia of one with that pace is intriguing…i have read like 8000 pages so far this summer…ha…i am taking 6 books with me on vacation this week…lol…its a sickness…smiles.

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