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Holmes away from home: 5 top international crime writers

Photo: author Orhan Pamuk by Ozan Kose, Getty Images

In assembling a roster of 80 authors for Around the World in 80 Books, I regularly found myself drawn to crime fiction. The best crime novels are deeply rooted in a time and place, featuring site-specific clues and dramatizing broad national concerns, but crime fiction is also the most global of genres, written by authors who are reading Nordic Noir in Israel or Conan Doyle in India.

Here are five of my favorite international crime writers who combine diabolical plotting with profound psychological insight, in stories infused with the tradition of detective stories themselves.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu

1. Jamyang Norbu, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes

Exiled in India, the Tibetan activist Norbu decided to tell the tale of Sherlock’s adventures in Tibet, during the two years after he’d supposedly traveled there after fleeing Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

Norbu’s novel is a dazzling mash-up of Conan Doyle and Kipling that joins together politics and parody, East and West, death and reincarnation.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

2. Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Eco’s 1980 novel gives Holmes and Watson a different reincarnation, as the medieval monk William of Baskerville and his faithful (though clueless) sidekick Adso of Melk.

Translating the chaotic politics of modern Italy into a monastery with a vast, Borgesian library, Eco’s novel opens with the discovery of a manuscript illuminator drowned head-first in a vat of pig’s blood. It only gets more gripping from there.

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

3. Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red

A name of a rose by any other name could be My Name Is Red, which begins with a manuscript artist telling the story of his own murder, now in the Topkapı Palace in 16th-century Istanbul.

Playing on everything from the 1001 Nights to Borges and Eco, Pamuk challenges us to detect the murderer’s identity among the many voices who take turns in telling the tale of murderous rivalries between Ottoman traditionalists and artists drawn to Western ideas.

By Its Cover by Donna Leon

4. Donna Leon, By Its Cover

The 23rd instalment in her Inspector Brunetti series, Leon’s novel is another book about books, featuring a murderous thief of rare books from a library in Venice.

At the same time, it’s a hymn to everyday life in Leon’s adopted city, threatened by political corruption, hidebound patriarchal values, and the ever-increasing influx of tourists and foreign visitors – the murderer among them.

The Missing File by D A Mishani

5. D A Mishani, The Missing File

This is the first in the Israeli writer’s series featuring his detective Avi Abraham, who’s always sure that Hercule Poirot and the other detectives he reads about have gotten the case wrong.

Avi himself usually learns the truth too late in his own investigations, but in the process Mishani gives us a moving, in-depth portrait of social and psychological tensions in a working-class suburb of Tel Aviv.

Around the World in 80 Books

David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 Books

David Damrosch

Photo of author David Damrosch
Photo of author David Damrosch
David Damrosch

David Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor and Chair of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and director of Harvard’s Institute for World Literature. He is the author or editor of twenty-five books, including What Is World Literature? (2003), The Buried Book (2007), Comparing the Literatures (2020) and the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature (2008). He has lectured in fifty countries around the world, and his online Harvard course, Masterpieces of World Literature, has been taken by nearly 100,000 people.

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