OK, we’re talking books set outside the US, preferably ones that provide a lot of atmosphere and capture the feel of the locations. Certainly some are better at that than others, and places and times change things. But Europe has always been a local used in mysteries for authors from all countries. Even Edgar Alan Poe used Paris for her Murders in the Rue Morgue. It’s also a favorite spot from paranormal and horror, especially with the resurgence in vampire books. The United Kingdom accounts for a HUGE number of mysteries, paranormals, and Steampunk. This will be a challenge, but again, I’ll try and stick to authors I know and like.
France – If you’re a devout foodie, read some of the fine books by noted French chefs or Americans who studied in France, including Julia Child. For me it’s mysteries and thrillers. Naturally The DaVinci Code takes center stage since it starts and ends in Paris, though in all honestly, I find Dan Brown a boring writer. My current favorite series in France is Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police books. He does a great job of folding together a ‘slice of life’ in the French countryside, with their love of food and wine, and twining in history and grudges and how the past impacts the present. There is always an historical element in his plots, but it’s his gift for capturing French country life, something rapidly disappearing, and creating characters that seem real that make the books a cut above. But France has been home to many famous detectives from George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret to Daniel O’Brian’s Inspector Jacquot to Cara Black’s Amie Leduc. Frederick Forsyth’s brilliant thriller based on a real assassin, The Day of the Jackal, is set in France, as well as David Dodge’s To Catch a Thief. Both books were made into movies, but the remake of Jackal was a butcher job while Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief was a gem. Jean Auel’s series, Earth’s Children, covers pre-historic man, based all over Europe including France. It’s a speculative kind of ‘historical fiction’ in that she there is nothing to support or deny her assumptions about the evolution of pre-historic society. You name it in historical fiction and France and Great Britain will be there. From The Templars to the Terror, to WWI and WWII, you have thousands to pick from.
England,Great Britain – Now we have a problem, because there just so MANY to choose from! Start with Agatha Christie and go to Martha Grimes, adding Ngaio Marsh, John Dickson Carr, Josephine Tey for classic mysteries. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have come to loathe Sherlock Holmes, he he lives on even with other authors. Historical mysteries – well, Will Thomas with his Barker and Llewellyn series, Susanna Gregory has two early historical series going, Rosemary Rowe covers Roman Britain, Rhys Bowen has the 1930’s with Her Royal Spyness books, Charles Finch, C. S. Harris, and the immortal Ellis Peters with her Brother Cadfael books. Rhys Bowen’s Evan Evans series is set in Wales, while M.C. Beaton sets her Hamish Macbeth books in Scotland. It’s also home to the most famous spy series ever written, Ian Flemming’s James Bond. No where near as famous but a brilliant book and equally brilliant movie is The Ipcress Files by Len Deighton, a fine author. Graham Green and John LeCarre are certainly worthy reads as well. Might I suggest Our Man in Havana (book and movie), a classic not to be missed.
As for historical fiction, heavens, the list is as long a Broadway. The Black Rose by Costain, Within the Hollow Crown by Barnes, just about everything by Phillipa Gregory, and wonderful Katherine by Ana Seaton. That’s the book that tells the story of how the War of the Roses came to be and is possibly one of the great love stories ever in the Royal family. The fact it’s still in print 60 years after it was first published says a lot.
Dorothy Dunnett does the Lymond Chronicles and Nigel Tranter has done numerous historical fiction books set in Scotland, including a personal; favorite that I bought while there, Black Douglas.
England also plays home to almost too many paranormal/fantasy/ UF/Steampunk series to name. A few notable ones – The Parasol Protectorate by Gail Carriger, Bec McMasters’ London Steampunk romance adventure series, Alex Verus UF series by Benedict Jacka, The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich, Mindspace Investigation series by Alex Hughes, and pretty much everything written by Simon R. Green. Riffs on classic and real historical characters are also fodder for mystery and horror writers, like Pride, Prejudice and Zombies by Steve Hockensmith to Queen Victoria, Demon Hunter. Personally, I stick with UF and Steampunk mystery books. Of all of them, Benedict Jacka, Simon R. Green, and Gail Carriger are the best for me.
Over the years, I’ve likely read a thousand books set in whole or part in the UK, so go nuts and just read what you like.
Ireland – Well there is one really well done 6 book series (now complete) by Karen Marie Moning, the Fever series. Although a spin-odd featuring a character from the series, Dani O’Malley, is underway, the initial series with MacKayla Lane is done – after a fashion, meaning the author will write short shories and novellas for epubs and anthology, but they will be ancillary to the series. This series is one of the best out there for fantasy/UF readers.
Ireland is also home of some great mystery writers, though they tend to be grim and dark. Ken Bruen is a favorite of mine with his anti-hero Jack Taylor. Benjamin Black has the Quirk series set in the 1950’s, but he’s now writing Phillip Marlowe stories set in California. (His latest is The Black-Eyed Blond) Though Jack Higgins used two Irish lead characters, Liam Devlin and Sean Dillion, Dillion spends his time in the UK and only goes in and out of Ireland. Liam’s stories were all much earlier – the most famous being The Eagle Has Landed. All fast easy reads and good for spy novels. Adrian McGinty does the Sean Duffy series set in 1950 Northern Ireland. Peter Tremayne writes the long running, popular, historical mysteries featuring Sister Fidelma, a Celtic sister in 7th century Ireland.
Italy – I covered Rome separately for a reason, it’s like you have two countries in one. Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri are the two most prolific and best known for the modern Italian mysteries, police procedural types. And author’s from Daniel Silva to Dan Brown have used Italy’s art and antiquities abundance as main drivers in their plots in spy, assassin, and suspense novels. There is a lot to work with. Even Maddy Hunter’s Passport to Peril series stopped in Italy with Pasta Imperfect and she would later marry the handsome police inspector she met there.
With families like the Borgia’s, there’s lots of fodder for historical fiction as well, and much of it is centered around Venice. Kate Quinn does a Borgia based series. Even C.W. Gortner wrote The Confessions of Catherine de Medici – another favorite historical family. You even find some paranormal historical novels set back then – Jon Courtney Gimwood’s Assassini – Vampire Assassin series. (I didn’t like it)
Spain and Portugal – The first name that springs to mind is Arturo Perez-Reverte with his Captain Diego Alariste historical swashbuckling mysteries. His more modern The Club Dumas features hunts for rare books. Spain may not be a hot bed for mysteries popular in the US, but is certainly plays host to plenty of historical fiction, much of it based on Isabella and Ferdinand and Columbus. And the ever popular subject of the lovely Inquisition, just the happy time we all want to read about on vacation. For genuine buckle and swash, go back to the original, Rafael Sabatini, an Italian who wrote everything from Captain Blood to Scaramouche to The Sea Hawk – and yeah Errol Flynn got the lead in 2 of those 3 made into films, but Stewart Granger was a memorable Scaramouche. All worthy beach reads, but none set in Spain proper, though 2 of the 3 are about battles between Spain and England – and The Sea Hawk throws in Barbary coast pirates for luck. His prolific output is scattered all over Europe and through many time periods. From The Mapmaker’s Daughter to The Inquisitor’s Wife, historicals take us to many place and many perspectives on the complicated history that is Spain. Portugal remains more of cipher, not often used for even in spy novels except in passing, and it’s empire building taking place mostly in the New World and Africa.
Aztec is one of the best historical fiction novels written in the last 30 years. Though set in Mexico, is as much about the Spanish and what they did in the name God, King, and Country as it is about the Aztecs themselves. Highly recommended.
Everywhere Else – Well, naturally we have the Dragon Tattoo series by Stieg Larson – which you’ll love or hate. I kind of had enough after book 1. Too much social commentary for me. Jo Nesbø has the very popular Harry Hole mysteries set in Norway. Kjell Eriksson does the Ann Lindell and Ola Haver series in Sweden. Russia gets tapped by Stuart Kaminsky and Martin Cruz Smith of Gorky Park fame for their mysteries. And every spy from 007 to Gabriel Allon have tramped through Red Square.
All of these places have plenty of historical fiction, especially Russia, but you pick up The Brothers Karamazov for a beach read and don’t blame if you get whacked by an irate student forced to read the damn thing. You might get away with reading Dr Zhivago. Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great – all prime historical fiction characters.
Pick you poison – or gun – or knife, or romance if you prefer, or a little buckle and swash, and settle in under that beach umbrella or on a lounge on you lanai looking out at the water, and have some long and cold ones while reading for the sheer pleasure of the story.