As a tidal wave of new crime novels threatens to engulf the book-buyer, authors and publishers are scrabbling desperately to find the elusive ingredient that marks out their offerings from the rest. There is a dawning realisation that readers demand one key element that may be quite as important as the protagonist: an atmospherically realised, detailed locale. Yes, we still want to be taken places, however dangerous. Two new novels forcefully demonstrate that the art of scene-setting is not lost.
Reg Gadney's The Scholar Of Extortion has a Hong Kong setting so pungent and distinctive the reader will be checking pockets for passports, while Julian Rathbone's As Bad As It Gets locates its mayhem in a clammy and threatening Nairobi. Rathbone and Gadney have long been the least parochial of English writers, sharing a gift for vivid foreign backdrops with a taste for alarming shifts of genre from book to book.
Gadney's hero here is Winston Lim, a stalwart of the Hong Kong police whose palm has resisted greasing. He spends his time struggling against the bureaucracy and chaos of his city. When Lim gets wind of a bloody act of terrorism planned for the Hong Kong seas, he plunges into fetid back-streets to nail the instigator. This turns out to be Klaas-Pieter Terajima, the titular "scholar", a sadistic assassin hired by the ruthless Zhentung clan to facilitate its activities in southern China.
While the trappings are ostensibly hi-tech, this is basically an old-fashioned, rip-roaring tale of piracy in the Far East, with Lim as a doughty and winning protagonist. The corruption angle that surfaces seems a tad warmed-over, but there's little authors can do when this particular cliché beckons (Rathbone stubs his toe on it, too). Does it matter? Gadney's narrative has an irresistible momentum, and this Hong Kong has more authenticity and sweep than the reader might find in many a literary novel set in the city.
Similarly, Julian Rathbone reminds us how cosmopolitan an author he is. The first thing Rathbone regulars will ask is: in which of his myriad genres does this belong? This is one of his foreign-set detective thrillers, with the kind of nonpareil scene-setting that he dispenses so casually. If Chris Shovelin (his Bournemouth investigator with a busted marriage) is cut from a familiar cloth, that's certainly not the case with the visceral detail of the Nairobi milieu.
Leaving Mombasa (where he has been investigating a death), Shovelin soon find himself up to his elbows in the skulduggery of a food conglomerate and its paid-for police force. All lively enough, but it's the incidentals that leap off the page: palm-sweating safaris with predatory big cats, encounters with Masai warriors and urban muggers in Nairobi, even a Third Man-style trip through the sewers beneath Jomo Kenyatta Airport. If your nightmares are filled with terrorist bombs ticking in the luggage compartment of your plane, a £30 expenditure on this duo will give you a couple of holidays you won't forget. All from the safety of your armchair.Reuse content