Welcome to the Armchair
This is The Armchair, a newsletter about my favourite crime novels, for armchair travellers & armchair detectives.
Armchair detection is the delightful process of trying to solve a mystery from the comfort of your living room. Using only the clues that have been offered by an author, can you get one step ahead of the story’s hero and work out the correct solution? This pastime dates at least to the 1920s and 1930s, the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, when authors such as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers promised to ‘play fair’, presenting enough information to the reader that you could (in theory) deduce alongside such legendary fictional detectives as Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey. No tricks, no acts of God or unguessable potions: just a logical story revealed with tantalizing artistry. My first taste of it was in the Encyclopedia Brown series – I still remember the solutions to some of those wholesome juvenile puzzles, especially the ones I worked out on my own.
Armchair travel, on the other hand, met an especially intense need during the months of lockdown and confinement most of us experienced during the first years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Unable to travel at all, I craved stories from distant places and unfamiliar cultures. Reading is always a portal to another world, a way of getting away from the limits of what we know and dwelling somewhere else for a while.
I have a special love for books that bring the two things together. The basic genre of detective fiction provides a familiar structure, adopted and remade by authors around the globe. There’s a crime or mysterious event, there are clues, there’s a process of puzzling things out. There are often flawed hero-detectives, quirky sidekicks, and surprising plot twists.
But there’s also a lot more: these tropes and features turn out to be a pleasant passport to unfamiliar worlds. A protagonist haunted by the ghost of her grandmother in Penang, a commentary on the evolution of the Hong Kong police force, an unflinching exposé of racist policing in the Harlem Renaissance, the intricacies of Sicilian cuisine… I love books that remake the genre of crime fiction in ways that surprise and disorient me.
This newsletter is a series of occasional reviews of the books like this – books that I liked reading and that I want to recommend to fellow armchair travellers and fellow armchair detectives. My inclination is toward books in translation and books written by people closely connected to the places they’re writing about. I like novels that take women and queer folks seriously. But the only strict rule is that I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible. I hope you find something wonderful and unexpected to read here.