Top Ten Mysteries Set in Asia
Two decades ago, I was waylaid by Asia.
My original travel plan called for a lengthy stay in either London or Paris, but I stopped in Tokyo “on the way.” I never imagined that stopover would have me building a career as an editor, getting married, and raising children in the Japanese capital. Funny how things work sometimes.
So it was only fitting when I turned to writing fiction that my Jim Brodie series was set, in part, in the city I love.
I don’t just enjoy writing thrillers and mysteries with an Asian setting; I love reading them, too. I therefore jumped at the chance to list a handful of distinctive “Asian reads.” They all have two things in common—singular Asian settings and authors who, if they are not natives, have a deep understanding of the country they are writing about. No quick whirlwind visit, then home to whip out a story. No textbook- or Internet-inspired guided tour. Rather, these authors know of what they speak. What follows are seven prime selections and three bonus picks from other genres.
Dragon Day by Lisa Brackmann
Ellie McEnroe knows all the quirks of modern China. The feisty, wryly observant ex–Iraq War vet with a bad leg and continuing pain has her arm twisted by slimy Chinese billionaire Sidney Cao to investigate his son’s new American friend. As she checks out the American, McEnroe is drawn into the decadent life of Cao’s three children. Before long, she finds herself neck-deep in murder, threats, harassment from the Domestic Security Police, and more. Spot-on modern China noir and brushstroke-perfect descriptions of the new China make Brackmann’s series a pleasure to read. Her writing is crisp, vivid, and masterful. A Seattle Times Best Mystery of 2015.
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
The first entry in an ongoing series, Bangkok 8 captures the steamy sensuality of Thailand’s capital with empathy and heart. Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a devout Buddhist and son of a local bar girl and a long-gone American soldier, is assigned to protect an African-American marine, who is soon found dead of snake bites inside a locked Mercedes Benz. Sonchai’s investigation takes him careening through all levels of society. The novel is a great dense stew of a story—at various times surreal, tongue-in-cheek, and piercingly honest—a description that could neatly sum up Bangkok itself.
Winner Take All (aka Rain Storm) by Barry Eisler
The third book featuring Eisler’s original and highly introspective Japanese-American assassin John Rain is as propulsive and captivating as the first two. Rain is hiding out in Brazil when the CIA tempts him with an offer he should refuse but doesn’t: eliminate an Arab arms dealer named Belghazi. Things soon grow tangled and dangerous. The story bounces around Asia—Macao, Tokyo, and Hong Kong—and Rain runs up against two formidable and equally memorable (and returning) characters: exotic Israeli agent Delilah and the eternally cheerful hitman Dox. Eisler delivers again.
Out by Natsuo Kirino
Four women leading distinctly desperate lives work the night shift at a boxed-lunch factory. The youngest of the four, with two children at home, strangles her skirt-chasing gambler of a husband in a rage. When she confesses to one of her workmates, they decide to dispose of the body themselves. In the tight quarters of Tokyo urban life, there is only one way to do this: in pieces. Two more coworkers join them, the plan is carried out, then things begin to unravel. Gritty realism and dark urban noir. An Edgar Award Finalist.
—SPECIAL ENTRY: MOVIE—
High & Low, a film based on a book by Ed McBain and directed by Akira Kurosawa
This is a treasure of a movie known by Kurosawa fans but often overshadowed by his better-known films, among them Seven Samurai, Sanjiro, and Red Beard. Based on McBain’s King’s Ransom, Kurosawa’s adaptation is fascinating. He uses the same framework—a wealthy shoe executive and a lowly kidnapper who snatches the chauffeur’s son by mistake—to paint a much deeper canvas of emotions, obligations, decency, privilege versus poverty, and more.
—SPECIAL ENTRY: TRUE CRIME—
People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Perry
This true tale of the tragic disappearance and ultimate murder of a young, innocent British woman in Tokyo reads like fiction. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, and quietly chilling, People Who Eat Darkness chronicles Lucie Blackman’s arrival in the Japanese capital and the man who stalked her. Fresh, vivid, and tragic, Perry’s effort has been justifiably compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. Shortlisted for the Orwell Prize.
The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi
An edgy mystery set in postwar Japan in 1947, two years after the Japanese surrender. Tokyo is in shambles. As a matter of survival, black markets spring up. Murder, Yakuza tattoos, shadows of the A-bomb devastation, and more are dealt out in poignant doses. Vivid and memorable. The original 1948 novel was translated into English in 1998. Wonderful cover art by Soho Press.
—SPECIAL ENTRY: MEMOIR—
Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter by Shoko Tendo
Akin to a real-life backstory of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tendo’s autobiography is uncompromisingly candid, thoughtful, and heartbreaking. Born into a Yakuza family of status, her life crumbles after her father serves a jail term and she falls in with the wrong crowd. She sinks into a downward spiral of drug addiction, sexual and psychological abuse, suicidal urges, and more. Redemption looms from an unexpected direction only after a horrendous struggle.
The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik
A throwback to an older style of mystery, this first book in the Judge Dee series was written in the 1950s. Robert van Gulik based his character on an actual seventh-century judge of some repute but set his stories in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). With wit, wisdom, and ingenious solutions, the judge grapples with tangled problems and threats of the times. Also notable for its detailed rendering of ancient China.
The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror by Don Winslow
Before Don Winslow began writing about cooler-than-cool California surfers, slick Mafioso, and drug cartels, he wrote a strong series featuring streetwise grad student Neal Carey. This second entry finds Carey chasing after an American scientist and a stunningly beautiful Chinese artist who may be a spy. The CIA, Chinese thugs, and even his own employer want him dead. Also noteworthy for its capsule histories of China and Hong Kong and description of Hong Kong’s infamous Walled City slum. Witty, endearing, and colorful.
Barry Lancet is a California expat who has lived in Tokyo for more than 25 years. He is the author of an award-winning international mystery-thriller series featuring art dealer/Japan expert and reluctant PI Jim Brodie. The series was launched with Japantown, which was followed by Tokyo Kill. The third installment, Pacific Burn, is out this month.