I’m not sure that travel fiction is even a recognized literary genre, and I doubt anyone would confuse it with great literature. But it is great fun – especially for those of us who dream of faraway places whenever we close our eyes at night. My travel fiction favorites have two prerequisites: foreign settings and protagonists I come to think of as friends.
I go in search of these perfect fictional companions either prior to a trip to set the stage or afterwards to savor the memories. I look for books with a strong sense of place and intelligent writing providing insight and an insider’s perspective. Most of all, I look for a fast-paced read – usually a mystery or thriller – the kind of book that makes an overseas flight, well, fly by. I also prefer books that are part of a series because when I finally find what I like, why settle for just one?
Here are the stars in my Travel Fiction firmament:
Paris’s Aimée Leduc
Created by Cara Black, private investigator Aimée Leduc careens around the arrondissements of Paris on her pink Vespa, chasing down secrets from the past and bringing brigands to justice. Look for titles like Murder in the Marais, Murder in the Bastille – you get the idea. The world of Aimée Leduc is inhabited by her partner René Friant, who is a dwarf, her gruff godfather Commissaire Morbier, and a Bichon Frise named Miles Davis. However, the real star of the series is the city of light. Francophile that I am, I often read these books twice: once for the plot and a second time for the Parisian ambience.
Aimee is gutsy, impulsive, and slightly slutty in her vintage couture, Louboutin heels, and signature Chanel Red lipstick. In short, she is my adult version of Nancy Drew.
Venice’s Commissario Guido Brunetti
Donna Leon’s Brunetti is an anomaly — a crime fighter who is also a family man with two children and a rather annoyingly outspoken wife Paola. The action follows Brunetti into marvelously musty palaces and down shadowy alleyways of a Venice unknown to the average tourist. However, some of my favorite scenes take place in the Brunetti home, especially when the whole family meets at lunchtime to devour a multi-course Italian feast (after which Brunetti often enjoys a siesta).
At work, Brunetti is surrounded by memorable characters like his clueless boss Vice-Questore Patta and Patta’s inimitable secretary Signorina Elettra who never met a computer system she couldn’t hack into. It’s hard to beat a series set in one of the world’s loveliest locales. And who can resist a hero who rides the vaporetto to work?
Edinburgh’s Detective Inspector John Rebus
This series by Ian Rankin offers plots as dark as a rainy night in Edinburgh, proving there is another, grittier, side to this famed Scottish city best known for its famous Military Tattoo (a bagpiper music festival Rebus detests). John Rebus is the quintessential crime-solving loner haunted by past victims and unresolved cases. The series is exceptionally well-written interweaving current events (like the G8 conference), Scottish history, and plenty of Edinburgh pubs, particularly Rebus’s favorite watering hole, “The Ox.” Organized crime also plays a major role, epitomized by Rebus’s complicated involvement with the gangster Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty.
Rebus’s one lasting relationship is with his young female partner: the faithful, though often frustrated, Siobhan Clarke. She is one of my favorite sidekicks, and one of the joys of reading these books is watching this unlikely friendship develop.
Sicily’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano
Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series is often laugh-out-loud funny. Located on the southwest coast of Sicily, these mysteries serve up lots of mayhem, with a touch of the mafia and a huge helping of magnificent Sicilian cuisine. The intuitive Montalbano never misses even the tiniest clue. He’s an obsessive crime solver who lets nothing get in the way of his investigation – that is except for a good meal which he relishes with regularity.
A complex guy, Salvo never hesitates to bend the rules, suffers from erratic mood swings, and loves to bust the chops of his subordinates. Speaking of subordinates, I can’t get enough of Catarella, the goofy police station desk clerk who is a master at mangling telephone messages.
One caveat: avoid this series if you are trying to diet – the food descriptions will make you go mad.
Check out our adventure trips in Italy and read Eat Your Way Through Italy: 4 Stops on an Italian Foodie Tour
Bangkok’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep
John Burdett’s protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep wins top honors for detective with the most unpronounceable name, but also prevails in the category of most enlightened gumshoe. Sonchai, who may be the only honest cop in Bangkok, is a devout Buddhist trying desperately to follow his path. Sonchai is the son of a Thai prostitute and an unknown American serviceman, and the plots frequently highlight the contrasts between these two very different cultures.
The city of Bangkok dominates both the storylines and many of the titles (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts). This is a series of exotic tales providing a unique, almost surreal vision of one of Asia’s most intriguing cities. Note that these books are not for the fainthearted: the plots are heavily involved with the seamy sex trade, and the violence is graphic and grisly.
Rome’s Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano
Sadly, Iain Pears wrote only seven of these novels before he moved on to more serious fiction, but it’s interesting to see how his writing talent evolved. Set primarily in Rome, the series is easy to identify with titles like The Raphael Affair and The Bernini Bust. Jonathan, a rather flaky British art historian/dealer, chases down art thieves with the unflappable Flavia, an officer in Rome’s Art Theft Squad. The art thievery is particularly ingenious, and Jonathan and Flavia make a wonderfully appealing couple. In fact, half the fun is watching their romance flower.
These books are light-hearted mysteries serving up a tantalizing concoction of art and corruption – sounds like the essence of Italy to me.
Oslo’s Harry Hole
Scandinavian fiction tends to be dominated by that girl with the body art, but make room for Harry Hole (pronounced Ha-leh) of the Oslo Crime Squad. Author Jo Nesbo has created a brilliant but fabulously flawed detective who occasionally loses his struggle with alcoholism and constantly battles for a life outside of his all-consuming job.
Harry has a complex, on again/off again relationship with the lovely Rakel and a strong fatherly attachment to her son, Oleg. However, Harry has the dubious distinction of being the only Norwegian to ever catch (and kill) a serial killer, and bad guys find him irresistible.
These books are complex thrillers with intricate plots – expect lots of twists and turns. You may feel like you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters, but hang in there, Harry is worth the effort. Note that some books in this series are not currently available in the U.S., but I am betting that will change soon.
What are some of your favorite books that also involve travel or a far-away setting? Comment below to share your favorites with others!