Five great crime novels set in Asia

3 Mins read

Okay, I’ve sat patiently through the hype about Scandinavian crime fiction, which shows no sign of abating, only to read recently that the next big thing in the genre is coming from Central Europe.

I keep thinking people will eventually discover Asia as a fascinating place to set crime fiction, but it looks like I’ll have to keep on waiting on that score. Not that there aren’t some great crime reads set in the region. Here are some of my favourites – I’d live to hear from readers about their suggestions too as I’m sure there are heaps more. Please post your suggestions below our article.

Jade Lady Burning – Martin Limon
So far low profile crime writer Martin Limon has written six books featuring Sueno and Bascom, officers in the Criminal Intelligence Division of the US military based in South Kore, and a seventh is on the way.

Jade Lady Burning was the first of the series, written in 1992, and for my money it’s still one of the best. Sueno and Bascom are assigned to investigate the brutal murder of a local prostitute which turns into something much more sinister. South Korea in the 70s is bleak, authoritarian and paranoid – the perfect backdrop for a couple of hardboiled investigators to ply their trade. A lot of the action is set amongst the bars and brothels that have sprung up to cater to the US military presence. Limon’s not the first Western writer to cover this ground. But as an army veteran who spent time in Korea, his treatment of the subject is vastly superior to most of what’s out there, focusing as it does on the culture clash that occurs when so many young American men are thrown into the middle of an ancient and very hierarchical society.
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Zero Hour in Phnom Penh – Christopher Moore
The doyen of the large expatriate crime writing scene in Bangkok is Christopher G Moore, a Canadian who since the early 90s has been writing books featuring the Bangkok-based American PI, Vincent Calvino. Moore has written 12 Calvino books, all good, solid hardboiled reads. Most are set in Thailand, although Moore has also taken his character to Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Cambodia book, Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, is my favourite. Taking place in 1992, it’s one of the few crime novels set in Cambodia. Calvino has been employed by a shady businessman to find a grifter gone to ground in Phnom Penh. Accompanying the PI is his regular off-sider Prachai Congwatana, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Thai police. The Cambodian capital is crawling with United Nations peacekeepers and every imaginable type of criminal, while in the countryside troops loyal to the country’s various political factions maintain a fragile peace.
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The Half-Child – Angela Savage
Angela Savage is a Melbourne writer (full disclosure: she’s also my partner but she’s on this list purely on merit) and The Half-Child is her second book to feature the character of Jayne Keeney, a Bangkok-based PI.

The Half-Child takes Jayne to the sleazy southern Thai town of Pattaya to investigate the alleged suicide of an Australian volunteer working in a Christian run orphanage. The Half-Child is not as hard-edged as my first two recommendations, but it’s a satisfying read and Savage’s observations of Thai society are entertaining, sharply drawn and spot on.
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The Eye of Jade – Diane Wei Liang
Crime fiction was banned in China – it’s ‘bourgeois’ apparently – after the Communist revolution in 1949. Deng Xiaoping briefly relaxed these restrictions before they were reimposed in 2007, when the ruling party adopted the encouragement of social harmony as a key platform.

While there are Chinese writers doing crime fiction set in China, they don’t live there. The best known of these is Qiu Xiaolong and his poetry-spouting Shanghai cop, Chen Cao. Another is Diane Wei Liang who has written two books featuring the character of Mei Wang, a former member of the Department of Public Security who now makes a living as a PI in Beijing. The first of these, The Eye of Jade, involves her search for a piece of Han Dynasty jade of great value, pillaged by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and soon spins off into the events surrounding China labour camps. The author knows what she’s talking about, having spent her childhood in a labour camp in a remote region of China.
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Satori – Don Winslow
Satori’s main character, the assassin Nicholai Hel, appeared previously in the bestselling 1979 novel Shibumi (the Zen Buddhist concept of a sudden awakening, a realisation of life as it really is) by Trevanian, the pseudonym of American academic Rodney William Whitaker.

Winslow’s book is an homage and prequel to the Trevanian’s work. It is set in 1951, just after Hel’s release from three years in solitary confinement for killing his Japanese mentor. The American CIA wants Hel to kill the corrupt Soviet commissioner to China, a delightfully debauched and evil character called Vorosheenin. The action moves from the People’s Republic of China to the jungles of Vietnam. It’s a wonderfully written historical action tale with a great pulp fiction overtone.
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