Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.
Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0 series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…
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Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorker here and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann, Goebbels, and Heydrich), and lashings of historically authentic sexism.
In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.
For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. In similar vein there are plenty more books to explore (see e.g. here, and here).
Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in the Stasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolf, A darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).
Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.