One grim winter morning, Kurt Wallander—the cop hero of Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers—gets the news that an elderly couple has been murdered outside the Swedish port town of Ystad. You can feel the damp and cold of the city, the area’s melancholy, as Wallander drives across the raw, flat land to their farmstead.
Like all the Wallander novels, this one is based in the province of Skane, in southern Sweden. Ystad is as much a character in the series as Wallander, who knows his way around the cobbled streets lined with turn-of-the-century buildings—some exquisitely restored, others dull and abandoned. He also knows the waterfront, where, in this fictional world, dead bodies turn up in rafts on the Baltic, the mysterious sea that connects Sweden to the East.
Wallander inhabits Ystad so completely that you can feel the pavement underfoot, slick with snow. Like all great fictional detectives, Wallander works his turf close to the ground; he can navigate the back alleys and underpinnings of this town. He rarely eats Swedish food. As often as not, he gets a fix of pizza or burgers. It’s as if the fast food were a metaphor for a peaceful country’s invasion by foreigners, its assault by the modern world.
So closely did I identify Ystad with Wallander that I was convinced Henning Mankell, the author, lived there. I was a tiny bit disappointed to discover that, in fact, he’s from Sveg, in central Sweden, and spends much of his time in Mozambique. (What’s more, he’s not even a cop, but a writer, actor, director, and Ingmar Bergman’s son-in-law.) In Mankell’s re-creation, Ystad is full of mayhem and terror; in reality, it is a charming town where the locals spend the endless summer days playing golf.
I thought about visiting Ystad. Then a couple of friends, also Mankell fans, said brightly, “Oh, yes, let’s all go together.” Suddenly I could picture an outing; suddenly I saw how I would lose my Ystad in hotels and flights and arrangements. I decided in the end that mine was best kept as a Ystad of the mind.
The way a great mystery writer evokes a sense of place can make his or her books better than a travel guide. You might not get a list of restaurants, but you do get a peephole into a culture. There are places I have been because of a thriller I’ve read, places that have never seemed quite the same again. Once, I traveled to Bern because of John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People. An elegant medieval city with an old arcaded shopping center, it was physically like Le Carré’s world; but when you’re eating chocolate there on a sunny day, Bern seems completely unlike that curious Swiss setting for double-dealing and spies. I went to the town’s huge outdoor chessboard, where a critical scene takes place, and watched the players, thinking of how potent a symbol chess is for the games spies play.
I’d been to Venice a half-dozen times before I discovered Donna Leon’s books. For me it had been a city of hotels and restaurants, of boat trips and art and coffee in Piazza San Marco. I went back and saw Leon’s Venice, the Venice of her hero, Commissario Guido Brunetti. This was a place of early-morning markets at the Rialto, where Brunetti’s wife, Paola, shops for tomatoes and onions and zucchini for risotto—a place where everyone knows the numbers of the water-buses and that the clock in the Campo San Bartolomeo is always an hour off.
Did my obsession with crime novels come first, or did it appear after I started writing my own thrillers?I can’t quite remember. I recall reading the early American noirs that colonized whole territories: Raymond Chandler in Los Angeles, of course; Ross MacDonald in Santa Barbara. I’ve always loved what James Lee Burke did for New Iberia—the dripping bayous, the mysterious light, the seedy bars. Agatha Christie reinvented a kind of a generic English village, and Ian Fleming served up sixties glamour in the Bahamas and Monte Carlo, back when they were still exotic.
My idols began as fiction writers; I came to the craft as a journalist. I spent a lot of time reporting on Moscow in the late eighties and early nineties, while the whole world changed. One night someone took me to an illicit rock club in Gorky Park, and all I could think of was Martin Cruz Smith’s novel and the corpses in the snow, faces flayed. It was a time when the old and new were jammed up against each other: the mafia guys in leather jackets hurrying across Red Square past Lenin’s Tomb; the fancy shops selling Versace; the elderly babushkas outside, peddling meat pies. All this became a backdrop for my own hero, Artie Cohen. A New York cop born in Moscow, his identity is invested in the tension he feels between the two cultures. In Red Hot Blues, a crime in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, forces Artie back into the culture he fled, then to Moscow for the first time since the collapse of Communism. Here I had a way to use all the details of the life I’d seen: the school for would-be strippers on the outskirts of Moscow; the Party faithful, abandoned by a new world, still wearing their war medals; a radio DJ who broadcasts Russian rock to China.
Hot Poppies, my second book, emerged from a trip to Hong Kong. I was interviewing some very rich people, who took me gambling in Macao and shopping in the Central District. It was just before the Chinese took back the city; there were demonstrations, people were nervous. It was infectious. What I remember most clearly is getting off the train from still-British Hong Kong into Shenzhen in the People’s Republic. Thousands of workers poured off as well, and I felt myself drowning in a sea of people. All I could see was a man near me, his hands rising out of the mob, holding a toilet aloft. The scene went into the book whole.
As a result of my own pursuit of crime plots I’ve become aware of the possibilities in today’s Europe, where there are barely any borders and you can travel from northern Scotland to Istanbul with ease. It’s a potent notion for me. Once, on the Eurostar from London to Paris, after no one even looked in my bag, I found myself calculating how simple it would have been to pack a pound of Semtex. And yet, border and national identities suddenly seem more important, more restrictive than ever; the world is more menacing, more threatening. Dread has become a controlling factor.
The idea of Europe, its palaces seething with corruption and murder and terror, everything up for grabs, is irresistible. A whole group of crime writers is mining this rich territory, none of them better than Ian Rankin. After reading Rankin’s novels, I no longer saw Edinburgh as a glowing city of castles and 18th-century architecture. He rips away its polite façade, exposing a town of “ill-lit and winding streets.”
In Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Seville Communion, you can feel the hot Andalusian sun on the cobblestones, breathe the scent of oranges in the air. A journalist, Pérez-Reverte lives in Madrid and has written some of the oddest and wittiest of the mysteries based in Europe. His Seville Communion is The Thorn Birds crossed with Gabriel García Márquez. Its hero, priest-detective Father Lorenzo Quart, is a member of the Vatican’s Institute for External Affairs—often called the Dirty Works Department. Someone has broken into the pope’s private computer; Quart is assigned to the case. The book brilliantly describes the Vatican and its vicious politics.
He goes to Seville to investigate the hacker and to find out why an old church is under threat, and falls for the city. The heat warms his bureaucratic bones. So exquisitely evoked are Seville’s ancient churches, Old Town, and riverside quays, you can stand with Father Quart “at the crossroads of three religions: the old Jewish quarter behind him, the white walls of the convent of La Encarnación on one side, the archbishop’s palace on the other, and at the far end, adjoining the wall of the old Arab mosque, the minaret that had become a bell tower for the Catholic cathedral.”
For me, though, it always comes back to Graham Greene, my favorite writer in every genre. His thrillers, the early novels he called “entertainments,” act as guides like no others. The Vienna of The Third Man, Greene’s novella, has become reality for me. So much so that I went there to ride the iconic Ferris wheel in the Prater. Eventually I set one of my own books, Sex Dolls, in the same Vienna—a city where I was more interested in the pimps and hookers outdoors in the dead of winter than I was in opera, Freud, or chocolate balls with Mozart’s face on the gold foil wrapping.
And again because of Greene, my next Artie Cohen adventure will be in Havana. It was inevitable. I had wanted to visit Cuba all my life. When I read Our Man in Havana, I was hooked. You can use it as a guidebook today, for the place is suspended in the 1950’s: “The long city lay spread along the open Atlantic; waves broke over the Avenida de Maceo…the pink, grey, yellow pillars of what had once been the aristocratic quarter were eroded like rocks…”
I went to Cuba and fell in love: the hues of old American cars with tail fins; the beauty of the young girls in their school uniforms; the fact that my taxi driver confided that his real name was Lenin; the intense pickup games of baseball everywhere. Artie will go to Cuba because of a baseball player murdered in New York. As he thinks to himself when he arrives, “No crime is local. Everything’s connected.”