It seems counterintuitive, but the most popular international mystery series are set in locations with the lowest crime rates.
In Oslo, Norway, the setting for Jo Nesbo’s terrific Harry Hole police mystery series, there were 52 homicides in Norway in 2012, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics of Norway, against a population of 5,051,275. The rate isn’t even worth calculating.
Henning Mankell’s Wallander series is set in Ystad, a provincial town so small I couldn’t even find murder statistics for it. The closest is 2010 European Commission homicide rates for Sweden. Overall, the country enjoyed a homicide rate of 1 in 100,000, also known as nil.
Bottom line? Both Norway and Sweden have such low murder rates that on occasion both authors have imported murderers, such as in Nesbo’s The Redeemer and Mankell’s Faceless Killers. Hole and Wallander shy away from guns, for the most part, too, while keeping readers guessing with intricate plots and moody atmospherics and self-destructive main characters.
Edinburgh, Scotland, home to Ian Rankin’s fantastic DI Rebus mystery series, has a darker side but only barely. European Commission statistics record 2 homicides per 100,000 people in 2010 for all of Scotland, while Edinburgh only had 14 murders in 2011, against a population of 482,640, according to the Scotsman newspaper. The Rebus series, while containing its fair share of murders, has a focus on Edinburgh’s organized crime scene that keeps from being gory. Once again, the protagonist is a heavy drinker whose own demons are as much of the series as the plots.
So are there mystery series set in a high crime location?
The late Leighton Gage’s Inspector Silva series centered in São Paolo doesn’t flinch from Brazil’s murder rate, which skyrocketed in 2012. According to local newspaper El Universal, there were 1497 homicides there in 2012, up from 1069 in 2011. In a population of over 194 million that might not seem like much, but consider the fact that over 10% of the city’s homicides are cops targeted by gangs. Gage’s Inspector Silva is well acquainted with Brazil’s violence, including murder, assaults on police, express kidnappings, etc, making the series prime reading for those who like their mysteries with a lot of action.
My own Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco, Mexico, has the distinction of drawing inspiration from the second-most violent city in the world, according to NBC and other news sources. In 2012, Acapulco had 1170 homicides in a population of 880,000, making the rate 148 per every 100,000 inhabitants. Emilia Cruz is the first and only female detective on the Acapulco Municipal Police force, confronting Mexico’s drug war as well as the country’s culture of machismo. Two versions of Acapulco, the one tourists know versus the one being fought over by drug cartels--claw at each other and force Emilia to survive between them.
What can we conclude from all these statistics? Maybe the lesson is that a good mystery writer doesn’t need a grim location to involve the reader in the story. And where the crime rates are highest, the main character can’t afford to drink so much.
Carmen Amato is the author of political thriller The Hidden Light of Mexico City and the Emilia Cruz mystery series set in Acapulco. She currently divides her time between the United States and Central America. Visit her website at carmenamato.net and follow her @CarmenConnects. All her books can be found at http://amazon.com/author/carmenamato.