5 under-appreciated crime novels you should read
It’s hard for writers to break into the crime fiction market. It’s especially hard for authors who write in languages other than English or write on the anglophone periphery. Unless they are the big names of Nordic noir, translated crime novels are rarely advertised or placed in prominent positions in bookshops.
This is a shame because there is a lot of great crime writing going on around the world. Below we offer a list of five novels by writers from Italy, Japan, Israel, New Zealand and Finland. They might have passed you by, but are well worth reading.
1. Out of Season by Antonio Manzini
Out of Season (Harper, 2018), translated by Anthony Shugaar, is an an engaging novel from bestselling Italian author Antonio Manzini. This is part of a crime series centred on police chief Rocco Schiavone, who has been exiled to the town of Aosta in the Alps after a dust up with his superiors in Rome.
A city lover who likes the sun and light clothing, Schiavone finds it very hard to get used to a mountainous, gossipy town and its constant cold weather. Grumpy and endowed with a “Roman” (that is, very cynical) sense of humour, Schiavone is an “outsider” police detective. He is surrounded by a group of loyal subordinates, including the young and efficient Italo Pierron and Caterina Rispoli, but also the hopeless D’Intino who provides light moments in a series featuring gritty and violent crimes.
In this novel, spring has finally arrived and Schiavone investigates a kidnapping and brutal murder that intersect with a mysterious car accident. The chapters move between the point of view of Chiara, a young woman from a rich and influential family who has been kidnapped, and Schiavone’s efforts to find her before it’s too late.
Like much Italian crime fiction, this novel delves into the topical issues of gender violence, criminal organisations and extortionate money-lending in an Italy experiencing a crippling economic crisis.
Despite the serious issues tackled, Out of Season makes for engaging and easy reading due to the character of Schiavone, his biting sarcasm and his confronting (and irrestistible) way of dealing with others.
2. The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda
Crime fiction has a long history in Japan, something anglophone publishers are just starting to discover.
Pushkin Vertigo have published the classic detective novels of Seishi Yokomizo and Yukito Ayatsuji to great acclaim. Penguin has also gotten in on the act, releasing Seicho Matsumoto’s Tokyo Express in its Modern Classics series.
The focus on classic detective novels hasn’t distracted publishers from translating more contemporary works. Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders, published by Bitter Lemon in 2022 and translated by Alison Watts, is one remarkable example. Onda is the pen name of Nanae Kumagai, one of Japan’s leading contemporary crime writers.
The Aosawa Murders is one of the most interesting, innovative crime novels of recent years. The murder at the heart of the novel is the mass poisoning of 17 people who attend a party hosted by the Aosawa family. Only two people survive: the housekeeper and Hisako, the attractive, blind daughter.
The novel doesn’t follow the usual pattern of much crime fiction. It doesn’t directly offer an investigation into the murders. Rather, an unnamed narrator investigates an early true crime account of the murders by Makiko Seiga, a neighbour.
The novel consists of a series of interviews with Seiga, her brother, witnesses, police officers and, finally, the surviving family member and prime suspect, Hisako.
What stands out is the one-sided nature of these interviews. One of the significant features of crime fiction is the strong voice of the detective. Think Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Yet, in The Aosawa Murders, readers almost always receive the interviewees’ responses. Rarely do we hear the questions or comments made by the interviewer.
Readers, thus, have to piece together the mystery behind the writing of the true crime story before making sense of the crime itself. This allows the story to focus on the broader impact of the crime. The Aosawa Murders is literary crime fiction at its best.
3. Murder in Jerusalem by Batya Gur
The last instalment of Batya Gur’s Michael Ohayon crime series, Murder in Jerusalem, delves into Israeli society’s internal divisions and the troubled history of the state of Israel.
Ohayon is quiet and introspective and looks more like an intellectual than a policeman. His bookcase is filled with works by Chekhov, Gogol, Flaubert, Balzac and Faulkner. He has a masters degree in Medieval history and started a PhD but abandoned a university career to marry his pregnant girlfriend. He is always in charge of complicated mysteries in which he makes use of his education to clear the smokescreen created by the villain.
In Murder in Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 2006), translated by Evan Fallenberg, the investigation starts with the death of Tirzah Rubin, a set designer for Israel’s state television station, who is found dead on the set of a film adaptation of a classic of Jewish literature, SY Agnon’s story Iddo and Eynam.
The tragedy is initially treated as an accident, but when the head of production, Matty Cohen, also dies, it becomes apparent the deaths are not accidental.
Ohayon is called to investigate what eventually becomes a multiple murder investigation with its roots in the Six-Day War. Ohayon’s investigation reveals the crimes are the consequences of past violence and injustice never acknowledged or addressed. This thought-provoking novel offers insight into the world of TV journalism while condemning state propaganda and extreme nationalism.
Murder in Jerusalem is also a powerful endorsement for a peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state. Sadly, it provides very topical reading in these troubled times.
Readers may also be interested in Palestinian writer Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette and published by Text (2020). Minor Detail recounts a historical crime during the war of 1948 and its present-day investigation by a Palestinian woman.
4. The Pain Tourist by Paul Cleave
A cold case involving a home invasion in which two people died nine years earlier in Christchurch, New Zealand, is at the centre of the intricate plot of The Pain Tourist (Orenda Books, 2022).
The victims’ son, James, has revived from a coma with memories that might provide clues to the crime, and police detective Rebecca Kent is assigned the case. Things get complicated for Kent, as she is also investigating the rape and murder of a woman by a notorious New Zealand serial killer, The Cleaner. Or is it a copycat murder?
The novel alternates between different perspectives. These include Kent’s investigations, the villain’s thoughts and the memories James lived with during his years in a coma.
Readers of The Pain Tourist also become acquainted (or reacquainted) with Theodore Tate, the detective protagonist of four novels by Paul Cleave who ran the original investigation into the murder of James’ parents. Tate is now working as a consultant for true crime television shows. Thus, the novel explores the fascination of audiences with the dark side of the human mind and media exploitation of crime, (hence the title).
Moving between past and present, The Pain Tourist is a beautifully written page turner with a final twist.
5. The Healer by Antti Tuomainen
Crime fiction has always responded to the burning issues of its time and place. Currently, these are the crisis of democracy, social and economic inequality, gender and sexuality, legacies of colonialism and environmental degradation.
Finnish novelist Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (Harvill Secker, 2012), translated by Lola Rogers, is one of the first crime novels to have tackled climate change.
The Healer is set in the near future in Helsinki. Yet, the Finnish capital is unrecognisable. Unrestricted economic development has accelerated global warming. Floods, rising sea levels, plagues, pandemics and war have led to the mass displacement of over 650 million refugees. Waterfront suburbs are under water.
This provides the setting for the search for a missing journalist, Johanna, who was investigating a number of brutal murders by a self-styled Healer. His motivation is to punish individuals who have contributed to the ensuing disaster.
Unsurprisingly, given the social breakdown, the police are uninterested in spending time looking for a missing woman. Instead, it falls to her husband, Tapani, a poet, to find his wife. He is assisted in this by a North-African climate refugee called Hamid.
The Healer is an example of “crimate” fiction. That is, novels that attempt to narrate the climate crisis through a criminal framework. The climate catastrophe is not mere backdrop. It is a fundamental part of the story.
By setting the story in the near future, Tuomainen makes visible the slow violence caused by everyday practices. In doing so, he wants readers to reflect on how current acceptable behaviours may – in the fullness of time – be viewed as criminal.
Stewart King, Associate Professor, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, Monash University and Barbara Pezzotti, Senior Lecturer, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, Monash University