The best crime novels that double as travel books

The Books I Picked & Why

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.

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To Each His Own

By Leonardo Sciascia, Adrienne Foulke

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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