A city suffocated by heat, humidity – and racism

data=YyyY5q2mhehogtWUC-gEVP0sKo4rsavrbR8717sWw7KLWjiInRfyhAmVRK0CgnWkklIVKAtJ4O90kTl15-EZZlv6323lAC-SNOQ1SETlKHyy7NUYRg8kE8-fzWqGtIMTOy6ZtLbeCtPzpl7brd9fF2G1X1evh7rNjpioQw0E4zD5w9EGXCF_VWorld Crime Atlas: Georgia, USA.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World, concentrating on the sense of place created by the author.

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen.

Publisher’s Blurb: On one side of the tracks are rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of just eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities – most of all, they can’t arrest white suspects.

When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Under pressure from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death.

When and Where: Atlanta, 1948.

The cops: Atlanta Police Department Officers Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith.

Sense Of Place: Mullen sets the scene early, with this description of the city in the first chapter: “Two parts Confederate racist to two parts Negro to one part something-that-doesn’t-quite-have-a-name-for-it-yet. Neither city nor country but some odd combination, a once sleepy railroad crossing that had exploded due to wartime need for matériel and the necessities of shipping it. Even after the war, all those factories and textile mills and rail yards were still churning, because normalcy had returned and Americans were desperate for new clothes and washing machines and automobiles, and the South was very good at providing cheap, nonunionized labor. So Atlanta continued to grow, the trains continued to disgorge new residents and the tenements grew more crowded and the moonshine continued to be driven down from the mountains and the streets spilled over with even more passion and schemes and brawls, because there on the Georgia piedmont something had been set loose that might never again be contained.”

This is the setting for a story that is saturated in racism; for a negro, even making eye contact with a white woman was a criminal offence. They called it “reckless eyeballing.” Atlanta is a city where streets change name for no better reason than because they move from a black to a white neighbourhood, and white residents do not want to share an address with their black fellow citizens.

Contrast Mullen’s picture of the city with his description, much later in the book, of the South’s natural abundance: “The thick overwhelming ripeness of the South, the sheer three-dimensionality, the way it grew everywhere and anywhere, vibrant and unstoppable. The beauty of the tulips in March and azaleas in April and the many-hued leaves of November. Even the suffocating humidity of a summer day like this.”

An uncontainable city, set in an unstoppable natural environment. Alongside the racism (even a ‘sympathetic’ white police officer considers the policy of exclusively black cops patrolling exclusively black neighbourhoods as “a better kind of segregation”) the heat and humidity are also an ever-present fact of life. There is a constant sense of storm, literal and metaphorically.

Verdict: this is a gripping, shocking tale that vividly portrays a place where all lives – white too, but especially black – are stifled and suffocated by the oppressive natural and social atmosphere. It is also a first-rate police procedural crime novel, with Officer Boggs in particular a fascinating character who is based on historical reality.

World Crime Atlas: Cape Verde



‘Cape Verde is a group of semi-arid volcanic islands lying off the coast of west Africa. The economy is based on fishing and subsistence farming but relies on emigrant workers’ remittances and foreign aid’ (The Times Atlas of the World).


Other American Dreams, by Sergio F Monteiro

Unknown-2Publisher’s Blurb: “On a quiet island nation in the Atlantic Ocean, where the easy pace of life draws thousands of tourists a year to its serene beaches, a boat full of dead migrants has washed up on its shores unannounced. Shocking the residents of this sleepy tourist destination as well as local policeman, Sergeant Abel ‘Aranha’ Teixeira. But there is a secret world hidden from the view of tourists, and Aranha is no stranger to the corruption that plagues his otherwise picture perfect island home. He is a man with his own dark allegiances that he thought were in his past, but as he probes the mysterious circumstances that brought the doomed migrants to his country’s shores, he finds that the case is layered in something far worse than organised corruption, and far more deadly. To solve the case and bring a measure closure (sic) to the human tragedy it created, Aranha knows that he has to expose the secret world of the powerful, and bring to justice those responsible, even if it means exposing his own dark past.”


Where and When: The contemporary story is set on the island of Santiago. One of the other islands, Sal, is the setting for the dark events in Aranha’s past.

Sense of Place: In his Prologue, Monteiro says: “I wanted to paint as complete and vivid a picture as possible about this country and the plight of all migratory folk that has become a controversial topic in today’s increasingly violent world.

Cape Verde was once a part of the Portuguese empire, and its after effects are still felt in the way Cabo-Verdean society is fiercely divided along shades of skin tone. The lighter your skin, the higher a place in the social scale you inhabit. This racial tension is exacerbated by the swelling numbers of migrants from continental Africa, and by the  growing class of citizen known as repatriados Americanos; these are Cabo-Verdeanos who have migrated to the United States, been imprisoned for crimes, and have been deported back to Cape Verde after serving their jail terms.

These returnees are a violent addition to the drug gangs that have grown increasingly powerful since the 1980s, with the connivance of corrupt police officers like Captain Danilo ‘Kutcho’ Da Silva, “short, pudgy and liked to wear an effeminate diamond earring that matched the thin, modern cut of his beard.”

At one point, Monteiro looks back to how the islands appeared to the Portuguese imperialists in the mid 15th Century: “lush and green beyond the imagination. Greens layered in an inviting fauna of tall Acacia trees and moist from the condensing heat of the hot earth. . .Nature’s hues so vibrant that it was as if God had painted them with the vibrant colours of a child’s imagination.”

This paradise lost is in stark contrast with the poverty and desperation of Cape Verde today: “The busy road was flanked on either side by the Tira Chapeau barrio, a district still waiting to be paved and lacking ample street lights. This was the edge of Praia, where abject poverty was all the residents of the slum had ever known. Where shoes were a luxury, school optional and dreams were of migrating to America or Europe, though few were lucky enough to make it.”

The theme of migration runs right through the novel, including a chapter near the end of the story that digresses into a long discussion between Aranha and an American Embassy spy about the roots of racism in the United States.

But people continue to make the best of things: “the viral melody of this living city. . .a familiar tapestry of night sounds. Pots clinking together blending with the sound of fireworks announcing a ship returning from the sea. Voices; loud music, slow, undulating and soft; laughter, male and female; and agitation, real and false.”

Retired Bloke Verdict: Monteiro largely succeeds in the ambition outlined in his Prologue. He places the problems of a small island nation within the context of global issues, and leads us through Cape Verde’s more recent history of revolution and war of independence, to help us understand how it reached this point. Unfortunately, there were a number of glaring errors of grammar, spelling and syntax in my Kindle edition.

World Crime Atlas: Hong Kong

EAST MEETS WEST: "Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same."
EAST MEETS WEST: “Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same.”

The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

Plot: Hong Kong’s greatest detective is dying. His partner comes to his deathbed to seek help from his mentor with one final case. Then we move backwards through six different but interlocking cases.

When: 1967 to 2013.

The detectives: Inspector Kwan Chun-dok and Detective Sonny Lok.

Sense of Place: The novel (really a series of linked but separate novellas) covers 50 years of great social change. The question was whether we would get a sense of place for all five decades.

The answer is mixed. As the author explains in his Afterword, he set out to write a classic crime story, relying on mysteries and plots, but changed direction towards a novel about the state of society, focussing on character and situation.

That’s a difficult mix to get right, and a lot of intricate (and for this reader, sometimes literally incredible) plotting remains. At times, his inspired deduction makes Inspector Kwan resemble an Asian Sherlock Holmes on steroids, or a Chinese Hercule Poirot, pulling together overlooked evidence to solve baffling crimes like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat.

Each novella is based in a critical year or decade in Hong Kong’s recent history. Each story has a wealth of detail about where exactly the action occurs. Slowly a web of interconnected locations emerges, though not always with much physical description of what it actually looks like.

DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime
DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime

One exception is the Mong Kok market, in the second story which is set in 2003: “Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians – as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption.” It’s a superficially attractive scene, but “Mong Kok was like an engine that could not stop running, fuelled by cash day and night, and when the legal sources of this fuel ran dry, dirty money came in to fill the tank.” This is a place of Triad organised crime gangs, and lots of drugs.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.

The stories spool back in time, through 1997 -the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China – to the 1980s and 70s, decades of change and growing prosperity as Hong Kong  reinvented itself as the financial powerhouse of Asia.

WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant
WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant

The author has an acute eye for the way political and cultural change fashioned the lives of the British and Chinese residents; “the colonials slowly turning local, while the colonised picked up the lifestyles and cultures of the incomers.”

TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots
TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots

The final novella – Borrowed Time – takes us all the way back to the Leftist Riots of 1967. A time of political turmoil as agitators, bankrolled by the communist Chinese state on the other side of the border, sought to ferment revolution and force the British out.

Retired Bloke Verdict: While this isn’t the perfect choice of book for this project, it still offers an overview of a part of the world that underwent enormous political and cultural change in the second half of the 20th Century.

World Crime Atlas: Chile

PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrate in support of President Allende
PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrating in support of President Allende in the days leading up to the military coup of 1973 in Chile

The Shadow Of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda, translated by Howard Curtis. (Europa Editions, 2011)

Plot: Three ageing revolutionaries wait in a city warehouse for a meeting with an anarchist who will lead them on one, final act of defiance. But a twist of fate means the day will turn out very differently from what they had expected.

Where and when: One rainy day in Santiago.

The detectives: Inspector Manuel Crespo, a man who “liked to take things calmly. That was his only method, the only way not to be overwhelmed by imponderables” and his female assistant, Detective Adela Bobadilla, “proud to be part of the first generation of police officers with clean hands, those who were not even born yet in 1973, or were too young to be torturers or the allies of drug traffickers.”

Sense of Place: The above description of Detective Bobadilla sets the scene. Nobody is murdered in this crime novel, and yet this is a book filled with deaths. Santiago is a city of ghosts – the thousands of militant supporters of President Salvador Allende who ‘disappeared’ after the military coup of September 11, 1973, led by General (and soon-to-be self-elected President) Augusto Pinochet: “Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during interrogations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years in prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries.”  Sepulveda, who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for political activism, is not blind to the doctrinaire absurdities of the Leftist factions – Marxist, Maoist, Hoxhan, Anarchist, Socialist, Workers Revolutionary – that competed and plotted to impose their particular narrow ideology in Allende’s Chile. But, after the coup, the same fate awaits them all: “the military prison at Calle do Londres, the concentration camp at Puchuncavi.” Even three decades on, Santiago remains “a hostile city filled with the scars of what had once been,” peopled by men and women who are nothing more than a shadow of what they were, flitting between the bright lights of “the prosperous country of the victors.” 

Retired Bloke Verdict: This is a very unusual crime novel; there is very little action, and a lot of conversation about the past. I found it both absorbing and discomforting.

Where Next? Hong Kong: The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

World Crime Atlas: Canada

The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny

Plot: A brutal death throws the door of a monastery, hidden deep in a forested wilderness, open to the world. Who among the two dozen monks has become an angel of death?

Where: Quebec.

The Detectives: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec – “a substantial man, though not heavy;” assisted by Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Sense of Place: Almost all of the story is set within the walls of the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert Among the Wolves), a place “as far from civilisation as (the monks) could get.”

Our first glimpse inside the monastery is of a corridor filled with rainbows and prisms of light, “the colour of joy.”

But we soon discover that there is something very wrong at its heart: “A place of distortion and even deprivation. Of great silence and greater darkness,” where “the natural world was locked out.”

The dual nature of the monastery is captured in a later passage: “Was this place . . .a golden moment? Between two worlds. . . Between the mortal world, and Heaven. Or Hell. There was here.”

The book steadily builds an impression of seclusion and privacy. This is a place, and a way of life, enfolded in “cloaks of silence and piety and routine.” The monks exist in an “interior world of subtle glances and vague alliances. Of notes and veiled expressions.”

It is also about the places we go to when we get lost in listening to music. The beautiful mystery of the title refers to the ancient chants performed by monks in the early days of the Catholic church; chants later forgotten, but which lie at the heart of the story.

Worth reading? Definitely yes. This is the eighth novel in a series about Chief Inspector Gamache, and I would be very happy to go back and read the entire series from the beginning.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

World Crime Atlas: Cambodia

Death in the Rainy Season, by Anna Jaquiery.

Plot: A Frenchman, Hugo Quercy, is found brutally murdered in a hotel room. He was the head of a humanitarian organisation helping to look after street children. Why had he booked into the hotel under an assumed name? What is the significance of his recent investigations of compulsory land grabs? And who broke into his house on the night of the murder?

Where: The story is very largely set in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

The detectives: This is the second book to feature Commander Serge Morel, a Paris-based detective with an unusual enthusiasm for origami. He is assisted this time by a one-legged Cambodian policeman, Chey Sarit.

Sense of Place: The story is set in the monsoon season, the intense rainfall blurring the world, the shifting light and perpetual mugginess making it difficult to keep track of time.

The French-Malaysian author (who left Cambodia as a child not long before the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into barbarism in 1975) describes Phnom Penh as “a vibrant city, full of charm and grace.” But much of this seems to be at risk in the fast-growing modern capital.

“All you have to do is look at this city to see how much has changed,” says one character. “Do you know what I remember of the old Phnom Penh? It was the most beautiful place you could imagine. There was hardly any poverty and we were content. Family was what mattered. From the family, everything flowed. . .Phnom Penh was truly a Cambodian city, a city with its own special Khmer flavour.”

But we are still given a snapshot of unchanging Phnom Penh street life: “Vendors cooking and selling their wares, mechanics and electricians tinkering on engines and television sets outside their repair shops, the parts scattered on the footpath. A young woman emptied a bucket of dirty water on the street, scaring a scabby, pregnant mutt. Another crossed the street, holding aloft a tray of fried spiders.”

The Khmer Rouge revolution, and the horrors of the Killing Fields, are always in the background; every Cambodian in the story is living with the consequences.

Worth reading? Yes. As well as the interesting setting, the story is well-plotted with clearly-visualised characters. I look forward to reading more Morel mysteries.

Our next destination will be Canada. Our book will be The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.