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."
Reggie Nadelson is a columnist for How to Spend It, the Financial Times magazine.
MURDER, THEY WROTE: READING LIST
One of the best mystery-book shops anywhere is Murder Ink (2486 Broadway, New York City; 212/362-8905, www.murderink.com); its comprehensive Web site sells some of our favorite armchair reads:
SWEDEN Henning Mankell, Kurt Wallander novels
NORWAY Karin Fossum, Don't Look Back
SWITZERLAND John Le Carré, Smiley's People; The Spy Who Came In from the Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
DENMARK AND GREENLAND Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow
SCOTLAND Ian Rankin, John Rebus novels
FRENCH ALPS Jean-Christophe Grange, Blood Red Rivers
ITALY Donna Leon, Commissario Guido Brunetti novels; Michael Dibdin, Aurelio Zen novels
SPAIN Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Seville Communion; The Flanders Panel; The Fencing Master; The Club Dumas
RUSSIA Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park; Reggie Nadelson, Artie Cohen novels
CALIFORNIA Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep; Ross MacDonald, The Drowning Pool; Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
MIAMI Carl Hiassen, Striptease
LOUISIANA, MONTANA James Lee Burke
EVERYWHERE Ian Fleming, James Bond novels, for a sixties view of the world