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Books Offer Clues to Solving the Mystery of a City

October 05, 1986|DEREK SHEARER | Derek Shearer is director of urban studies at Occidental College, and a member of the Santa Monica Planning Commission. and

The best way to learn about a new city is to walk the streets, ride the bus or subway, shop in the markets and observe people as they go about daily life--but before you go, pick up a good mystery set in that city.

Some well-written detective novels with a strong sense of geographic setting are almost as useful in understanding a new city as the best guidebooks or the most detailed urban studies.

By its very nature, a mystery requires inquiry, and this can mean investigation of place, as well as of person and motive. Aficionados of detective fiction savor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's descriptions of Victorian London and Raymond Chandler's depiction of 1930s Los Angeles; there are even special walking tours of Holmes' London and a tourist map of Chandler's Los Angeles.

My taste in contemporary mystery writers runs to those who offer both a sense of place and lessons in urban sociology, but who also entertain me.

Dutch City Planning

In preparation for a trip this summer to learn about Dutch city planning, I am reading a series of mysteries by Janwillen van de Wetering, a former Amsterdam policeman. Van de Wetering has a feel for the city, particularly its neighborhoods and active street life. Urban planning conflicts even arise in his books. On one occasion, his two fictional cops, Detective Grijpstra and Sergeant de Gier, find themselves in the midst of angry citizens who are protesting city-sponsored urban renewal of one of Amsterdam's older neighborhoods.

Van de Wetering also populates his novels with characters drawn from immigrant groups who have come from Holland's former colonies, thus giving readers a lesson in Dutch urban sociology.

Last December, before going to Spain for a conference, I read detective novels by a longtime resident of Spain, Englishman David Serafin. His books' main character is Superintendent Luis Bernal, a middle-aged, honest and dedicated policeman whose wife henpecks him. One novel, "Madrid Underground," about a series of bizarre murders on the metro, is an informative and gripping introduction to the Madrid subway. "Christmas Rising" and "Saturday of Glory" both involve right-wing plots against Spain's fledgling democracy, and are excellent primers on Spanish politics.

To avoid his wife's cooking, Bernal routinely takes strong coffee and a freshly baked croissant for breakfast at local bar. In Madrid, my wife noticed similar middle-aged men taking a pre-work snack at street-side bars.

Journey to Florence

After an international conference in Venice the year before, my wife and I journeyed to Florence. Our appetite for the city--its cafes, shops and markets--had been whetted by the novels of Magdalen Nabb, another English expatriate writer. In "Death of an Englishman" and other books, she chronicles the investigations of Marshal Guarnaccia, a low-key, unassuming Italian policeman who has to put up with complaining tourists as well as murders. We found that her books accurately capture the rhythms of daily life in Florence.

The detective novels that best depict life in a modern urban society are the Martin Beck series by the Swedish husband-and-wife team, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. In 10 books, they critically examine post-World War II Sweden via the genre of the mystery. During a 1985 visit to study Swedish city planning, I read the entire series, as did my wife, Ruth, a former mayor of Santa Monica, who shares my interest in cities and my addiction to mysteries. We adjusted our itinerary to accommodate our infatuation with Martin Beck and his police colleagues.

In Malmo, we stayed at the aging Savoy Hotel, where a wealthy industrialist is killed in "Murder at the Savoy." We asked our city-planner host to show us the regional airport that is frequently fogged in, causing Martin Beck delays in his work.

In Stockholm, we chose a hotel in the old town--Gamla Stan--where Martin Beck kept a small apartment, and we sought out the street where he lived and his favorite eating spots. We recommend starting with the first book in the series "Roseanna" and reading through to the last, "The Terrorists," carefully following the changes in Martin Beck's personal values and the development of Sweden's welfare state.

For other cities in Europe, my favorite urban mysteries include Bartholomew Gill's Irish series about Dublin police inspector Peter McGarr; William McIlvanney's depiction of Glasgow and his Scottish detective Jack Laidlaw, and Lisa Cody's female private investigator, Anna Lee, who roams around London and its suburban environs.

An Afrikaner Detective

Hong Kong is the locale for the "Yellow Street Station" series by William Marshall, who captures the dynamism of the city's street life. I have not visited South Africa, but when I do, after apartheid ends, I will reread James McClure's finely crafted stories about an Afrikaner detective Tromp Kramer and his black Bantu assistant Sergeant Zondi.

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