musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘mystery novels’

The Lasting Appeal of Nero Wolfe


There are few series in the mystery genre as beloved as the Nero Wolfe novels written by Rex Stout. Part of the appeal is the eccentric Nero Wolfe character; an overweight, beer-drinking, orchid-raising, self-proclaimed “genius” who is able to solve most crime cases without leaving the comfort of his New York City apartment. In fact, other than attending to his orchids each afternoon, Wolfe is usually found sitting in his padded red chair or at the dining room table, enjoying meals prepared by his personal chef. Mobile, Nero Wolfe is not. The other factor in the series’ appeal is Wolfe’s assistant/secretary, the irrepressible, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing Archie Goodwin. Goodwin narrates these books, and his witty and irreverent commentary is a continual source of delight.


I’ve read dozens of the books in this series and have enjoyed them all, but just last week I finally read the very first of the Nero Wolfe novels, Fer-De Lance, written way back in 1934! More than good, I would rank this novel as one of the very best in the series. It pulses with the usual snappy dialogue and charming Nero Wolfe quirks, but there are also aspects of the plot that stray from the expected path. In this case the reader has a pretty good idea of whodunit, but not how and why, or exactly how Nero Wolfe is going to tie it all together. If you’ve never read this series, this novel is as a good a place to start as any; it’s a total delight. What I find remarkable about this book and others in the series is, despite having been written many decades ago, there is no rust or dust or stodginess. Despite some dated slang (which is also part of the fun!) that pops up periodically, the novel reads as if it was written by a contemporary writer. The dialogue is sharp and funny, especially the combative but good-natured banter between Goodwin and Wolfe, and Stout’s plotting is precise and paced perfectly.


Between novels and short story collections, there are about 50 different Rex Stout books in circulation. After Stout died in 1975 the series was continued briefly, for seven more novels, by Robert Goldsborough. I have yet to read any of those post-Stout books, but I’m still enjoying discovering the other old jewels in the Nero Wolfe canon.


My copy of Fer-De Lance is part of the “Rex Stout Library” editions that were published in the early 1990s. These editions feature short introductions to each novel written by “today’s best writers.” In this case of Fer-De Lance the intro was written by Loren B. Estleman, another author that I like very much. Estleman’s series of Amos Walker mysteries, set in Detroit, are excellent. Estleman also wrote a separate “Detroit Series” of novels that focused on “the dark side of the Motor City.” That series started as a trilogy but eventually expanded to seven novels, each one highlighting a decade in the city’s turbulent and fascinating history during the twentieth century. The ones that I’ve read are masterful works of crime fiction. If that wasn’t enough for this prolific author, he has also written a series of westerns. I think Rex Stout would be proud!


Crime Wave Press

Southeast Asia would seem to be fertile ground for writers specializing in crime fiction, and indeed in recent years there has been a bounty of new books published that use a particular country in Southeast Asia — most commonly Thailand — as the setting for various crime escapades or tales of espionage. John Burdett has a thriving series that uses a Thai police officer as the protagonist, Christopher G. Moore has his Vincent Calvino Bangkok P.I. books, and Timothy Hallinan has also written a well-received series based in Thailand. Thailand-based writer Colin Cotterill has his excellent Dr. Seri novels, all based in 1970s Laos, but has recently started a new series with a female Thai protagonist. And that’s only the cream of the crop. There are dozens of other writers who have found Thailand to be a source of inspiration for their novels, yet too many of these tales revolve around a clichéd mix of bar girls and Thai gangsters.


Wanting to break away from the typical “Bangkok Fiction” syndrome, a new imprint, Crime Wave Press, was founded earlier this year by Hans Kemp, the publisher of Visionary World, and seasoned writer Tom Vater. According to their website, they plan to publish “a wide range of crime fiction, aiming to promote strong voices, exceptional talent, and unique points of view in the crime fiction genre.” Crime Wave Press has just published Vater’s new novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Dead Sea by Sam Lopez, and a new edition of Nick Wilgus’ popular Mindfulness and Murder, a novel that was turned into a Thai language film a few years ago. Crime Wave Press is also looking for more authors of English language crime novels that are either based in Asia or contain “a strong Asian connection and focus point.” I talked to Tom Vater recently about his latest novel and his plans for Crime Wave Press.


If I’m not mistaken, you basically formed Crime Wave Press out of necessity. That is, you were looking for a publisher for the new novel you had finished writing, but found that to be a frustrating process, so you decided to start your own imprint. How has the experience of being a publisher been thus far?

It’s been great, much, much better than we could ever have expected. Crime Wave Press was thought up one afternoon by Hans Kemp (a Hong Kong-based publisher) and me. We had just collaborated on a successful title, Sacred Skin, which was published by Visionary World, Hans’ acclaimed publishing house for illustrated books. I was frustrated with not being able to find a publisher for The Cambodian Book of the Dead, and Hans said, “Why don’t we start an imprint that puts out crime fiction based in Asia?” I was instantly sold on the idea. Hans has connections and business savvy and I have yet more connections, two titles under my belt and have read crime fiction vociferously for many years. We felt we could really launch an imprint that would reach beyond much of the tepid crime fiction output in the region.

I got the rights back for my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, and this was our first publication in June. The Cambodian Book of the Dead followed in July and Dead Sea by Sam Lopez came out in September. The reaction has been phenomenal. We sold the Spanish language rights for The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu which is coming out as both print and eBook in January 2013. We also sold The Cambodian Book of the Dead to Exhibit A, a British/US publisher, so that title will be re-launched worldwide in the middle of 2013, though we have retained the rights for Thailand and Cambodia. And I have been signed to write a sequel. So, all in all, modest expectations have been blown out of the water and Crime Wave Press seems to be really flying for now.

You are also looking for more writers to publish. What sort of books do you want to put out, and what are you looking for in a manuscript?

We plan to publish a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring Asia’s dark underbelly. We are looking for complete manuscripts by professional writers.  But we are of course also looking for stuff that we personally like. Much of crime fiction is political – from Chester Himes to James Ellroy – and we decided right from the outset that we would not publish books that do not fit into our own social, cultural and political framework. That’s to say we will not publish novels with an overtly conservative agenda.

What are your goals for the first year? Do you have a specific number of books you want to publish, for example?

We would like to publish ten novels by autumn 2013. We are hoping to get our titles into regional book chains, once our back catalogue is a little more extensive. And we continue working on selling foreign rights of our titles. But all this depends on the type of submissions we receive. So far it’s been a decidedly mixed bag – from hugely competent thrillers to complete nonsense: someone recently sent us a 120,000-word treatise on conspiracy theories. Most of the manuscripts we have received have originated in Southeast Asia and we are hoping to get some material from China, India and Japan as well.

Do you have confidence that there is still a good sales market for paperback books, or in a few more years will you be concentrating only on selling e-books?

I think that mass paperbacks will continue to sell. E-books are clawing a larger and larger market share from month to month, but as I said, one of our aims is to get a whole range of our titles into bookshops in Asia and I certainly think there is a market for it here. Also, the fact that our first two titles have been licensed/sold to other publishers as print editions and e-books suggests that the paperback is anything but dead in the US and Europe. For now we are looking at three different formats: print, print on demand, and e-books.

As far as writing style, who are your influences? Or, who would you be flattered to be compared to?

I don’t want to be compared to my literary heroes. They seem to be out there in a kind of sacrosanct atmosphere of unattainable stylishness and substance. I just try to write the best I can. The crime writers I love are authors like Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford. And Chandler and Hammett. All these writers are dead of course. Amongst currently active authors I am particularly fond of Massimo Carlotto (his Death’s Dark Abyss is probably my favorite crime novel of recent memory), Philipp Kerr, and Charlie Williams. I also read a lot of fiction that is not directly crime related, anything from Joseph Conrad to the beat writers. I just started Andrew Morton’s Silver.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead is not your first novel. You also wrote another mystery, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, a few years ago. Besides locale, what is the biggest difference between these two novels?

Both books are very similar in that they feed directly on my 20 years of travel and non-fiction writing in Asia. All the settings in these two titles are extremely familiar to me and many of the characters are amalgamations of people I met on the road. The biggest difference is that almost ten years lie between the two books and in the interim I wrote and published hundreds of articles, several screenplays and numerous non-fiction books, so by the time I started The Cambodian Book of the Dead my writing was quite assured and I knew much better what I was doing. Also, The Devil’s Road is primarily an adventurous romp while the Cambodian Book of the Dead is a sometimes painful, often brutal examination of history, while still being entertainment of course. 

You’ve done a lot of travel writing in the past couple of decades, specifically research and writing for guidebooks, both in German and in English. Will you keep doing that, or shift most of your time and energy to Crime Wave Press?

I have found that in order to make a living from writing, I need to work in different genres. I am currently the author of several guidebooks covering Cambodia and Thailand. I was asked recently whether I might be interested in adding Burma to those titles and I declined. I am certainly not looking at expanding my guidebook catalogue. I used to write a lot more for print media but I see this type of work constantly declining. It’s increasingly badly paid and assignments are rarer than they used to be.

I really enjoy writing non-fiction books. I am currently in the process of editing my text for Kraig Lieb’s forthcoming Cambodia, a new illustrated book on the country by this well known Lonely Planet photographer and I have just been to Burma (Myanmar) to research Burmese Light, an illustrated book by Hans Kemp, due out in the spring of next year. Also, Sacred Skin, the book on Thailand’s sacred tattoos I published last year with my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, was received really well – and we are developing several other ideas for illustrated books. I am very lucky that I work with good friends and that I am offered more work than I can handle. The time I no longer spend on print journalism and my decreasing involvement with guidebooks now belongs to Crime Wave Press and that is likely to increase in the coming year.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Cambodia over the years. Obviously, you go there for work purposes, but you also seem to like the country and the people. If you were going there just for personal enjoyment, what are some of your favorite places to go or things to do?

I love Cambodia, always have since first going there in 1995. Funky people, beautiful scenery, a venal government, and history to give any noir novel a run for its money. I do still go there for personal reasons. I have family in Phnom Penh. If I were to visit for a holiday, I would head for Kampot and Kep. The coastline towards the Vietnam border is sublime, infrastructure is improving but not exploding and it’s laid back. I also like Battambang. I was there recently on an assignment and the town has come a long way in recent years. The countryside in that part of Cambodia is gorgeous.

Besides writing, you are an avid reader and book collector. Where are your favorite places in Asia for book hunting?

Ah, now you are looking for arcane, secret information. Yes, I read all the time. Crime fiction, fiction, non-fiction with a bias towards Asia and Noir. I do also collect books and find it impossible to walk past a secondhand bookshop without looking inside. In Thailand the best two bookshops are Dasa Books in Bangkok and Backstreet Books in Chiang Mai. I was recently in Avignon, France and found first editions by William Irish and E.W. Hornung and an amazing shop called Lignes Noires, which specialized in crime fiction. Kathmandu used to be great place to pick up old books, but the street vendors have recently been closed down by the police. Kolkata (Calcutta) is another good city to find old titles, especially on India of course, and last time I was there I picked up three first editions by P.G. Wodehouse. Cairo has a fascinating secondhand book market. And someone told me recently Damascus is a great place to pick up old books, but perhaps now is not the time.

Detective Agency Charms

I can’t remember when I read my first book by Alexander McCall Smith. It was at least five years ago, but certainly less than a decade. And I didn’t do the “logical” thing and read the first entry in his “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series of novels, but instead started with another one, The Kalahari Typing School for Men. What can I say; it was there, so I read it … and liked it. Since that initial foray into the world of Precious Ramotswe and her crime solving pursuits in Botswana, I’ve read each installment in the series and have enjoyed them all immensely.


People often use the word “charming” to describe this series and that’s certainly apt. In the world of contemporary crime fiction, these books may not be hip or cutting edge, but they certainly are entertaining. The tales are fun and readers find themselves drawn to the cast of quirky and likeable characters, ones that we’ve grown to cherish and laugh with over the years. Except, of course, for that wicked and disagreeable wench Violet Sephotho!


Smith’s novels aren’t overflowing with gobs of gore or the usual suspenseful, page-turning action that you’ll find nowadays in most “thrillers” or crime fiction, but the gentle, neighborly nature is a big part of their appeal. The reader basically knows what they are getting: a light-hearted mystery with virtually no traces of blood or mayhem, but plenty of feel-good human drama. These are tales about people who make mistakes and do good deeds, people who cheat and deceive, but also love and forgive. Smith, in the form of Mme Ramotswe, dispenses lots of common sense and helpful advice; things that we intrinsically know and understand, but always bears being reminded. Smith’s solid and sparse prose can lull the reader into thinking that these are “light” reads, but he always sneaks in a few passages that are both eloquent and brilliant. These seemingly simple tales can pack plenty of depth and wisdom.


Although I’ve read every book in the series so far, I don’t rush out and buy the latest one when it comes out, as I do with the new novels of a writer like Lee Child, John Sandford, or Michael Connelly. But I do make a mental note to get the book eventually and if I’m lucky a secondhand copy ends up in my bookshop before that wait is too long. And that happened recently when I snagged his newest novel (well, it’s the newest paperback on the racks, at any rate; there is also a new hardcover that was published this year) in the series, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, perhaps even more than other recent titles in the series. This novel combines the usual multiple plot threads, as Smith weaves his subtle magic. Mma Ramotswe is the core of the story once again, and does her usual amazing job of balancing investigation, marriage, and diplomacy, all while dispensing helpful advice and solving those pesky crimes. In this latest episode, a couple of cows mysteriously die, Charlie the apprentice mechanic is suspected of fathering children, Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni buys a surprise gift for his wife, and Grace Makutsi, finally gets married … after ruining a pair of new shoes, of course! No DNA tests or ballistics results, but lots of smiles. If you’ve loved the other books in this series, you’ll enjoy this one too.


Smith has been putting out a ton of books in recent years. In addition to the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series, he is writing novels for three additional series; The Sunday Philosophy Club, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions. I haven’t tried any of the books in those other series yet, but at some point I’ll probably succumb and start one. If nothing else, you have to admire the output of Alexander McCall Smith. This man is a veritable writing machine.


John Straley’s Alaska

One of the more unusual yet compelling crime fiction series that I’ve read is John Straley’s Alaskan mysteries, featuring private investigator Cecil Younger. I just finished reading The Curious Eat Themselves, a novel that Straley wrote in 1993. Straley’s strong, descriptive prose reminds me at times of James Lee Burke, although his storytelling is not quite as sharp and agile as Burke’s. But like Burke, Straley has an atmospheric, almost poetic writing style. Straley writes such vivid descriptions that the reader can virtually see and smell the rustic towns and Alaskan wilderness where the stories are taking place. This is definitely not your usual gumshoe whodunit fare. Here is one paragraph from The Curious Eat Themselves that will give you an example:


If I had ever seen a fiery angel in my dreams it would have looked like this because the whale burned my eyes like flame but I was not asleep and this wasn’t a dream. Where there had been coarse sand and white crushed shell was not a twenty-ton male orca. His black-and-white hide sparkled with water sheeting down his sides. The six-foot dorsal fin draped loosely to one side and flopped slightly as the whale struggled in the sand, beating his small pectoral fins against the beach. Puffs of breath burst from his blow-hole and he flailed the sand with his flukes. Then as the next swell came, his truck-sized body lunged twice, took the injured sea lion in his jaws, and disappeared into the surf.


The Cecil Younger character is one of the more complex and fascinating ones that I’ve come across in crime fiction. He’s a hapless, bumbling investigator with all sorts of character flaws, yet fiercely intelligent and persistent. Cecil also seems to be a chick magnet of sorts. In addition to his romantic dalliances, he has an autistic roommate named Todd, one of many colorful characters that pop up in this book. In one of the later chapters in The Curious Eat Themselves, Cecil does a bit of self reflection:


I have waited for ecstasy all of my life, the pure joy of being, and I have never felt it. For each and every moment of my happiness has been tinged with sorrow. Like the swallow of water from the mountain stream that has two tastes — one living, and one dead — my life has been a sorry confluence of wonder and pity.


As you can tell from that description, Cecil is not your typical all-confident private eye. The titles of Straley’s books are also unusual and intriguing: The Woman Who Married a Bear … The Angels Will Not Care … Death and the Language of Happiness ... The Music of What Happens. The only negative aspect that I found with The Curious Eat Themselves was that the plot jumped around in a confusing manner, so much so that there times when I wondered if I had missed something. Maybe I shouldn’t mix drinking and reading. Whatever the case, this is definitely not conventional storytelling, but that’s also the beauty of these books. Straley is well worth checking out.


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