The best crime novels that double as travel books

Who am I?

I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s watching Alfred Hitchcock movies and reading Dashiell Hammett—I’m from San Francisco. Then opera got hold of me. So, I dropped out of my PhD program, left Dante’s Inferno behind, and moved to Paris to live a modern-day La Bohème. Because I’m half-Italian, I decided I had to divide my life between Paris and Italy. Mystery, murder, romance, longing, and betrayal were what fueled my passions and still do. To earn a living, I became a travel, food, and arts reporter. These interests and the locales of my life come together in my own crime and mystery novels.


I wrote...

Red Riviera: A Daria Vinci Investigation

By David Downie,

Book cover of Red Riviera: A Daria Vinci Investigation

What is my book about?

Red Riviera is a gripping detective novel set on the Italian Riviera, featuring female sleuth Daria Vinci. 

Its jaws open wide, a firefighting seaplane skims the Gulf of Portofino on Italy’s jagged Ligurian coast, scooping up lone swimmer Joe Gary. The super-rich Italian-American has mob connections and a dirty political past. Is it an accident or murder? It is a wild ride from the tangled trails of the Cinque Terre to glamorous Portofino and roistering Genoa. It’s a Riviera made red by riotous bougainvillea and spilled blood. Half-American, Daria Vinci is an outsider, the rising star of Genoa’s secretive Special Operations Directorate DIGOS. To solve her case, Daria must face down a Fascist police chief, the CIA’s local mastermind, a former World War Two Spitfire fighter pilot, and a plucky hundred-year-old marquise whose memory is as long as it is vengeful.

The books I picked & why

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Dead Lagoon: An Aurelio Zen Mystery

By Michael Dibdin,

Book cover of Dead Lagoon: An Aurelio Zen Mystery

Why this book?

Tangled canals. Crooked alleyways. Slumping palazzi 500-hundred years old. Venice is Italy’s most atmospheric city, right? Maybe. Genoa runs a close second. Both are misunderstood and misrepresented in literature. Outsiders don’t dip below the theme-park surface. Except for the late, great Michael Dibden. Dead Lagoon features Commissario Aurelio Zen, a flawlessly drawn Italian detective. What makes me so sure? Genetics, experience, passion. My mother’s family is Venetian (via Rome). I’ve spent decades diving deep into the Lagoon City. I even did a year of college there. When I follow Zen into those crumbling palaces to unnail their intrigues, or watch him dart down bleak alleys stinking of fish and corruption, I know the writing rings true. Dibden “gets” Italy, unlike other, better-known novelists using Venice as a soft-boiled backdrop.


To Each His Own

By Leonardo Sciascia, Adrienne Foulke (translator),

Book cover of To Each His Own

Why this book?

A double homicide in Sicily. Innocent, eccentric, small-town characters. The Mafia, the church, and a stifling, frightening nightmare world portrayed with humor, humanity, and a diamond-tipped eye for detail: that’s Leonardo Sciascia’s 1960s detective novel classic, To Each His Own (A ciascuno il suo). The writing is clean, clear, nervy, and seductive—some of the best crime writing, period. It even survives translation. This book is at least as good as The Godfather and better than anything by Andrea Camilleri. As you turn the pages, you’re not only transported to off-the-beaten-track, real-deal Sicily. You feel the grit. You smell it. You enter the heads and hearts of Sicilians. Written over 50 years ago, To Each His Own needs no refreshing. That world never changes.


The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins,

Book cover of The Woman in White

Why this book?

When you read this early English mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens’ best bud, you travel through time and space. You land in a strangely familiar London before venturing into rural England nearly 200 years ago. And you feel disconcertingly at home, ready to be bamboozled, fall in love, and fight for what’s right. Collins is credited with inventing the crime-mystery genre (I’m not convinced that’s true or important). The writing is mesmerizing, gorgeous. The characters are unforgettable: Walter Hartwright, the earnest, dogged hero; the beautiful, tragic Woman in White; the irresistibly monstrous Italian Count Fosco and his pet songbirds; the feckless, hypochondriac Mr. Fairlie. Collins keeps you guessing. If ever proof were needed, The Woman in White confirms crime-mystery as great literature.


Rebecca

By Daphne du Maurier,

Book cover of Rebecca

Why this book?

I’ve never been to Cornwall except I have: by reading this unputdownable classic by the mystery-crime-gothic-romance maven Daphne du Maurier. My intro to Rebecca came via the same-name Alfred Hitchcock movie—one of my faves. But the book turned out to be even better. Starting in Monte Carlo, it manages to make that bloodless place both beautiful and scary. The action moves to Manderley, the archetypal Cornish coast mansion haunted by the presence of the squire’s first wife, mysteriously dead. No spoilers, promised! The colorful, neo-baroque narrative style matches the setting: a luxurious yet sinister mansion on a breathtaking, rough stretch of coast I absolutely must walk one of these days. The twists and turns in the plot mimic the coastline. The ending caught me off guard.


The Girl with the Golden Eyes

By Honoré de Balzac,

Book cover of The Girl with the Golden Eyes

Why this book?

Do you want the gritty, pungent beauty of Paris during the heyday of the Romantics—the 1830s? You want perversion, decadence, a crazy, kinky plot revolving around sex, dominance, Sapphic passion, murder, and intrigue, set in the Trocadero neighborhood? Only Honoré de Balzac could dream up something this wild and get away with it. One of the wonders of this short novel is how, through casual descriptions, Paris comes to life. It’s not a picture-postcard version of the city. Au contraire. It’s a seamy, real place I recognize after 35 years living there. While I was reading The Girl with the Golden Eyes, I actually went out and found the locations. The city has changed less than you’d think in 190 years. Above all, the seamy, perverse side remains.


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