This isn’t about fashion history. It’s about some books that opened new parts of the world to me. They are “light” reading — mystery novels set in parts of the world I will probably never visit. Usually, I don’t even try to “solve” the mystery (and I’m annoyed if I do guess who-dunnit without even trying.)
On my first trip to England, I was thrilled to find place names I knew from reading mysteries. (Norwood! “The Norwood Builder!”) I realized that, much as I love Sherlock Holmes for the characters, it was England — how it was different from California, what it was like in a different century, how people behaved in a different time and place — that I loved learning about.
In other words, I read mysteries for the local color and insights, rather than the plots.
I enjoy reading books about Australia. But I hate being plagued by insects (lethal or not,) I lived for years in a place with very high summer temperatures and am glad I left it, and I can’t go anywhere outdoors without sunscreen, hat, and gloves, so “Armchair Australia” suits me fine!
Upfield was a Brit whose family was probably glad to see him off to Australia. Born in 1890, he served in WW I and then spent years odd-jobbing around Australia. When he describes miners or camels or back country sheep stations or swagmen or bush pilots or small town policemen, you know he is writing from experience (although I suspect he is also repeating stories he heard in drinking establishments….) His prose style is basic, but it gets the job done. In Death of a Lake he describes the last months of a lake which evaporates every twenty years or so; the effect on the people and wildlife, the twilights when the workmen wade into the water and struggle through a concentration of fish which are daily confined to ever smaller waters; the piling up of thousands of drought-starved rabbits against a rabbit-proof fence; the isolated shepherds, the hardship and opportunity of the outback, the toughness of the men and women who survive there. The mystery and cardboard characters hardly matter to me!
Upfield has great respect for the aboriginal peoples he met, and, although he does sometimes seem patronizing (he is a well-intentioned white man from a typical 19th century English background, writing in the 1930s and later,) he intends to present native Australians as worthy of respect. His detective is a half-aboriginal foundling who was given the unfortunate name of Napoleon Bonaparte (“Boney” to those he meets.) Boney has superior tracking skills and can easily pose as an itinerant swagman or horse–breaker, but he is highly educated and sometime poses as a businessman or successful rancher. However, it’s not Boney the detective that keeps me reading. It’s the details of life in the back country almost 100 years ago that fascinates me. (In one novel, Boney is riding to escape a wildfire; drops of flaming alcohol drip off the tips of gum tree leaves….) There are vast salt-pans, flocks of parrots, rivers that dry up and then flood…. and the ability of tribal elders to communicate over vast distances, apparently by telepathy, which Upfield reports as fact. I believed him.
Armchair Travel to China and Tibet
I read a lot of non-fiction about China. Peter Hessler’s River Town is a good starting place. Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuschia Dunlop may change the way you think about food (Is texture as important as taste?) Dunlop is a chef who spent years in China learning to cook and to eat….) Foreign Babes in Beijing by Rachael DeWoskin is fun and offers cultural insights. For proof that an entire nation can slip into mass insanity, see Red Scarf Girl, a memoir about Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (None of these books is new.)
My Favorite Armchair Detection in China/Tibet: The Skull Mantra, by Elliot Pattison. The Skull Mantra (1999) is the first in a series, and it would be difficult to start with a later book, because there are many continuing characters. This series takes on the cultural conflicts between the ruling Communist Party and the Buddhist Tibetans, (and in other novels, with the Uighur Muslim people of the Urumchi/ Taklamakan desert regions.) These mysteries are well written, long and very dense, and will transport you to another world. Pattison respects the religious beliefs of his characters. His detective is ethnically Chinese, a policeman of integrity who was sentenced to a remote labor camp when he got too close to exposing a corrupt party official in Beijing. In Tibet, he is immersed in Buddhist culture — and required to solve a murder mystery without making his own situation worse by exposing unpleasant truths. Detection, compassion, and courage — extraordinary characters in an extraordinary Himalayan setting. Pattison is not kind to Chinese government policies towards ethnic minorities, but non-fiction histories (and current news reports) suggest he is not writing pure fiction. As in the Upfield books, there is an acceptance of spiritual events not usually found in conventional mysteries.
Armchair Detection in the America Southwest: Mysteries by James D. Doss, beginning with The Shaman Sings. The Shaman is Southern Ute tribal member Daisy Perika, and in the early novels the central detective is non-native police chief Scott Parris. However, Daisy’s nephew, (and Scott’s friend) Charlie Moon, former tribal policeman and eventual rancher, gradually came to dominate the books, which are often referred to as “the Charlie Moon series.” Doss presents Daisy Perika’s supernatural abilities in a matter-of-fact way. She’s a complicated character — a devout Catholic, a shrewd survivor, a Ute shaman, and a crochety old lady who sometimes gets annoyed with the dead people who visit her asking for favors. These books often make me smile or laugh out loud. The humor is character-driven. (Charlie Moon may be a great detective, but he doesn’t understand women, so his love life provides a few laughs.) The mysteries are satisfying, and if you enjoy Tony Hillerman’s Southwestern characters and settings, Doss’ books may be a very pleasant discovery for you — because Doss can be funny. And Daisy is a great character.
I didn’t read this series in order at first. I first got hooked by a novel in which a small-time crook is running from the teenage native girl he has seduced and from his no-longer loving ex-wife; forgetting how much money he has borrowed from his mother’s social security, he takes refuge at her house — where the three women tie him up and play poker to decide who will have the privilege of shooting him…. (My kind of humor.) Doss’ style is quirky: Sometimes, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on is part of a Doss mystery. Quirky, but addictive.
Armchair Mysteries set in Apartheid-Era South Africa: Author: James H. McClure. Long before Trevor Noah wrote Born a Crime (highly recommended) these mysteries set in late 20th century South Africa presented the absurdist situation of two police detectives, partners who trust and respect each other, who have to conceal the equality they feel because their team might be broken up if their superiors discover it. The detective of Boer ancestry is paid a living wage and lives in a nice house in a white neighborhood; his partner’s family lives in a township with no running water, little electricity, sharing a tiny house with a dirt floor. He is insulted, callously disrespected, and has to be careful not to arrest a white woman…. but he carries a gun and is expected to put his life on the line like any other cop. I barely remember the mysteries — it was the mind-boggling circumstances of these men’s lives (and the bizarre South African culture revealed during their investigations) that I remember. Of course, much has changed since then….
Final mention: Botswana. The No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith keeps on coming, thank heavens! I read these books for the pleasure of spending time with people I have come to care about. The cast of characters continues to grow, and most of them are memorable. If you can get this series in audiobook format, they are read by an actress who knows the correct sounds and rhythms of Botswanan speech, which makes them a pleasure to listen to. One thing that used to get me out of my armchair for a walk (or on to a treadmill) is looking forward to the next chapter in a good book. So, although not “armchair travel,” a walk with Precious Ramotswe as she seeks to restore balance to to her clients’ lives (while solving their mysteries) is always refreshing.
If there’s a mystery lover on your shopping list, they might enjoy some armchair travel mysteries. If you just need to get away from 2020 for a few hours, try them yourself.