The 10 most unexpected crime fiction settings

Today sees the release of Craig Robertson’s latest novel, The Last Refuge. Rather than sticking to his native Scotland, the author chose to set his book in the Faroe Islands – a remote archipelago in the North Sea somewhere that we don’t really know much about. It really piqued our interest, and set us thinking of other crime novels set in unusual locations. Somehow, crime fiction set in an unexpected place can be so much more intriguing than another novel set in London, New York or LA. Here we bring you 10 books set in some very different locations. Do let us know your favourite far flung crime setting too in the comments below…

whiteheat100The Arctic Circle in White Heat by MJ McGrath
One of our favourite reads of 2012, this book transports us to the very tip of Nunavut, the Inuit territory in Northern Canada. In the tradition of her people, Edie Kiglatuk is an expert guide, but she becomes suspicious of recent tourist expeditions to the area after one of them ends in an unexplained shooting. When her beloved stepson Joe becomes involved in these tragic events, Edie displays almost super-human cunning and endurance skills to track down the killers and find out the truth. The author conjures up a completely believable picture of icy lands and frozen seas as well as lifestyle of the Inuit community, although you are unlikely to be left with a craving for seal blood soup.
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icestationzebra200On the pack ice in Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean
A meteorological station on an ice floe in the Arctic – surely locations don’t get much more remote and deadly than that? A catastrophic fire erupts and a US submarine is sent on a rescue mission. The operation suffers setback after setback – could somebody be sabotaging their efforts? Against a background of the Cold War and the Space Race, this is a story of betrayal, crossing and double-crossing, silent menace and lots of action. Taking advantage of the 1960s fascination for the deadly stealth of nuclear submarines, the book has also been adapted into  a film starring Rock Hudson, but there is some talk of Warner Bros attempting a remake soon.
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BrokenAprilAlbania in Broken April by Ismail Kadare
This is not strictly speaking a crime novel, although it contains bloodshed aplenty. Highly respected Albanian author Ismail Kadare (often regarded as a possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature) brings us this tale of long-running and seemingly senseless blood feuds in a part of the world where time seems to have stood still for centuries. In a region where occupiers, governments and dictators have historically succeeded each other at a rapid pace, sometimes within days or hours, it is not surprising that villagers prefer to operate according to traditional rather than state laws. Much against his natural inclinations, Gjorg Berisha has killed a man from a rival clan in a vendetta. He is now a marked man and after a 30-day truce runs out he will be hunted mercilessly. This is a gripping insight into a frightening way of life from a country that remains enigmatic even to its European neighbours.
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skullmantraTibet in The Skull Mantra by Eliot Pattison
Inspector Shan Tao Yun is a Chinese national, formerly stationed in Beijing, now working in a gulag in the Tibetan mountains because he insulted a high-powered government official. Together with the other prisoners, mostly Tibetan monks, he witnesses the discovery of a headless corpse. It soon emerges the corpse is that of a Westerner, so discretion and rapid detection is essential. Shan is granted temporary release to deal with the matter. This is the first volume in a crime series set on the Tibetan plateau and offers great insight into Tibetan spirituality and struggle for freedom. What is most interesting, however, is that it resists the temptation to paint it all in black and white, in terms of oppressor and oppressed.
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boyfromreactor4100Chernobyl in The Boy from Reactor 4 by Orest Stelmach
The Boy from Reactor 4 starts off innocently enough in New York, with an ice-hockey game in which an adopted Ukrainian boy seems to be moving with almost superhuman speed. It then rapidly moves to far-flung territories such as Kiev, Chernobyl, Siberia and the Aleutian Islands as reluctant investigator Nadia Tesla, who is the boy’s cousin, follows the trail laid by a dying man’s last words. The Russian vor – guild of thieves – and its codes play an important role in the plot as well. What the book may lack in character depth, it certainly makes up for with relentless pace, a strong sense of place, and a justified anger at the cruel twists of fate in Ukrainian history. See our full review here.
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bethlehemA Palestinian refugee camp in The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Rees
Omar Yussef is a shy schoolteacher in a Palestinian refugee camp who becomes unlikely detective. Israeli gunfire is a regular feature of the area, but the author turns his attention to the other conflicts simmering under the surface here including Muslims distrusting the minority Christian population, and the Martyrs Brigade terrorists who instil panic in everybody else. Yussef once taught in a Christian school and has formed strong bonds with some of his students, among them George Saba. When Israeli snipers kill a member of the Palestinian resistance, the local authorities accuse Saba of collaborating and throw him in jail for the crime. Yussef finds evidence that the leader of the Martyrs Brigade orchestrated the situation, but even the police chief, an old friend, seems unwilling to help. He must conduct his own investigation to try and save his friend.
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shadowwalkerMongolia in The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters
Inspector Nergui is a Mongolian rarity: a senior official at the Ministry of Security who is neither corrupt nor wedded to Soviet ideals. He stumbles upon what seems to be the country’s first serial killer, who delays identification of his victims by removing the heads and hands from the bodies. When an Englishman is killed in his hotel room in what could be a related murder Inspector Drew McLeish is sent from Manchester to advise in the investigation. It is through his eyes that we learn more about this little-known country, where nomadic traditions and Soviet ideology intermingle. While the story itself may not be the most original, there are wonderful atmospheric touches – the surreal holiday camp in the Gobi desert, the tent suburb of Ulan Baator and the descriptions of Western greed in the hunt for lucrative mining deals.
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pagopagoAmerican Samoa in Pago Pago Tango by John Enright
These islands may seem like paradise, but there is an underlying friction that could explode at any moment. Apelu Soifua is a native cop who has spent a good part of his adult life in San Francisco. He returned to Samoa to help his father after a stroke. Deeply in love with his homeland, Soifua takes every opportunity to go barefoot among the banana plantations and mango trees. When he’s called in to investigate a small-scale burglary in the white enclave, he is at first bemused by the fact that only the VCR and some videos are missing. However, the owner is a big shot at the local tuna factory, the major employer of the island, and he and his wife seem to be contradicting each other about the burglary. Apelu soon uncovers a trail of drug-smuggling and conspiracy with consequences more far-reaching than he could have foreseen. Once again, Western powers threaten the local culture and environment and when the tuna runs out, it’s likely the island will be sucked dry and tossed aside. Yet the author does not idealise native Samoan culture either, as he unflinchingly describes its appetite for lies, corruption and drugs.
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hollowmountainThe Rock of Gibraltar in Hollow Mountain by Thomas Mogford
Gibraltar may seem like a desirable tourist destination, but it Spain and Britain still contest the territory leaving its inhabitants with a siege mentality. We have reviewed the first book in the Spike Sanguinetti series here. The second book took Spike back to his native Malta, but this third one brings him back to the Rock. When a group of Barbary apes find a severed human arm their gruesome discovery sends shock waves around the small community of Gibraltar. Down in the Old Town Peter Galliano, friend and business partner to lawyer Spike Sanguinetti, is seriously hurt in a hit and run incident. These two seemingly disparate events will change Spike’s plans dramatically.  Forced to abandon his search for his former client and lover Zahra in Italy, he returns to Gibraltar to pick up his partner’s outstanding cases and soon gets involved in some very violent dealings.
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solomonscarpetThe London Underground in King Solomon’s Carpet by Barbara Vine
Proof that sometimes the familiar is the most terrifying and unusual location of all, this book about a terrorist conspiracy to blow up the London Underground was published long before the 7July bombings. A strange assortment of characters live an almost squatter-like existence in a crumbling old former school with direct access to the Tube tunnels. The lives of these dropouts seems to revolve around the Underground. Jarvis Stringer is a historian of underground systems worldwide, and there are two promising musicians who end up busking illegally, a vigilante whose only object of affection is his hawk, and a young boy who surfs on top of trains. Into their world comes sinister sociopath Axel Jonas, who single-handedly destroys the odd but relatively peaceful community of misfits. While this thriller may be slow-moving by today’s standards, it masterfully conveys a terrible sense of foreboding and build-up of tension.
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What’s the most unusual crime fiction setting you’ve come across? Let us know below.

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  1. Moira Redmond Reply

    Glad to see both Ice Station Zebra and Ismail Kadare there – I love a reading life that encompasses both, and I love both books. My nomination would be Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay, set in Papua New Guinea post-WW2. Published 1952, having a well-deserved revival now. I thought it was terrific – authentic, creepy, haunting.

  2. John Higgins Reply

    There is another Tibet setting in Lionel Davidson’s Rose of Tibet. And I would like to add Victor Canning who goes in for remote mountain settings, namely The Chasm (1947) in the Apennines and Panthers’ Moon (1948) in Brieg in the Swiss Alps.

    1. Marina Sofia Reply

      I do love remote mountain settings, but – ahem – since I live in the Alps between Switzerland and France, I felt that wasn’t quite exotic enough! I am fascinated by Tibet, though, and will look up the book you suggest – thank you and keep the suggestions coming in!

  3. J F Norris Reply

    Most unsual settings I’ve encountered in contemporary crime fiction: 1. The Solomon Islands in the underappreciated series of books by Graeme Kent published by Soho Press. 2. Laos as written up in the series of books by Colin Cotterill and featuring his coroner character Dr. Siri Paiboun.

    1. crimefictionlover Reply

      The Solomon Islands – will have to look out for that one.
      Another good one is the Cape Flats in Roger Smith’s books, such as Capture. The huge slums outside Cape Town – not many people know about them.

  4. MarinaSofia Reply

    Graeme Kent is a great tip – and the Kindle editions are quite cheap on Amazon at the moment, so I’ve just downloaded a couple. I love the Siri Paiboun series, but I wanted to introduce some lesser-known series, books or authors. That’s why I avoided Botswana, for instance…

  5. M.H. Vesseur Reply

    Great list! Such a good idea to take locations as a starting point for choosing a read. I always make sure my next read takes me to another place. Great to see Ice Station Zebra on your list. One that I could think of is POLAR START by Martin Cruz Smith, which is located almost entirely on a gigantic Soviet fishing trailer/factory floating in the Bering Sea.

  6. Tatiana Reply

    I love this article. I was just saying last week that I was disappointed when I searched online for a list (any list) of what I have always called ‘destination film noir’. Finding this is a comforting runner up!

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