Here a list of books that are set in various locations in the developing world. It includes both fiction and non-fiction – and novels inspired by factual events. There is a heartbreaking true story from the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia, and another written by British journalist and war correspondent Jon Swain, who was immortalised in the film The Killing Fields. Crime and thrillers feature strongly, as this is the genre I love to read and in which I write. Kick-ass heroine Vanessa Munroe hunts kidnappers in Africa, world-weary cop and ex-convict Max Mingus hunts voodoo sprits in Haiti, and No. 1 lady detective Mma Ramotswe faces down upheaval in Botswana. So many were competing for a place in my Top Ten, I had to bend the rules and pick a First XI.
1. Mr Clarinet by Nick Stone
Mr Clarinet is an unremittingly dark thriller set in Haiti, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger award for best thriller, and the International Thriller Writers Award for best first novel in 2006. Stone’s protagonist, Miami private eye Max Mingus, a world-weary ex-cop and ex-con, is invited to take on the job of finding a missing child. The success fee is $10 million, and even allowing for the fact that the missing child’s father is a billionaire the size of the reward should have alerted Mingus to the hazards ahead. The ‘Mr Clarinet’ of the title is a voodoo spirit, reputedly the disembodiment of a French boy soldier killed during the war of independence, who is considered a Pied Piper involved in the disappearance of children. But is voodoo really responsible for the child’s fate?
2. The Informationist by Taylor Stevens
Vanessa Munroe deals in information – expensive information – working for corporations, heads of state, private clients, and anyone else who can pay for her unique brand of expertise. A Texas oil billionaire hires her to find his daughter who vanished in Africa four years ago. Pulled into the mystery of the missing girl, Munroe finds herself back in the land of her childhood, betrayed, cut off from civilisation and left for dead. If she has any hope of escaping the jungle and the demons that drive her, she must come face-to-face with the past that made her who she is. Taylor Stevens has created a ‘take no prisoners’ heroine and brilliantly evokes untamed Africa.
3. First they killed my Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung
This is a heart-wrenching true story written by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, which chronicles the brutality of the Khmer Rouge occupation, from the author’s forced ‘evacuation’ of Phnom Penh in 1975 to her family’s subsequent movements from town to town, eventual separation and brutal deaths. Loung Ung was the sole member of her family to survive. This is one of the most disturbing true stories that I have ever read.
4. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
A fictional novel inspired by real events, and subsequently an award-winning film, this bestselling novel gripped me from beginning to end. It is the story of a young Scottish doctor drawn into the heart of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s surreal and brutal regime. As Amin’s personal physician he is privy to his thoughts and ambitions and is both fascinated and appalled by what he sees.
5. Zero Hour in Phnom Penh by Christopher Moore
It is rare to find a crime novel set in Cambodia, which is why I was interested to read this engaging novel. Zero Hour sees Moore’s Bangkok-based American Private Investigator Vincent Calvino employed by a shady businessman to find a grifter gone to ground in Phnom Penh. Accompanying the PI is his regular sidekick Prachai ‘Pratt’ Congwatana, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Thai police. It is lauded as the best of the Calvino series and I found it fast-paced and fascinating in its depiction of a Cambodia crawling with UN peacekeepers and every imaginable type of criminal, while in the countryside troops loyal to the country’s various political factions maintain a fragile peace.
6. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
A classic detective novel featuring egg-head Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who is enjoying an Egyptian cruise when a newly-married American heiress is murdered on his boat. As a lover of crime novels, my list would not have been complete without including at least one from the Queen of Crime.
7. The Beach by Alex Garland
Published in 1996, this novel drew a huge amount of interest and acclaim. Richard, a young American seeking adventure and an earthly utopia, lands in Bangkok. A chance meeting with a drug-addicted traveller who spills the secret of ‘the beach’ leads him to a secret island paradise. Paradise quickly turns into a nightmare – but will Richard live to tell the tale? This novel is a fast-paced holiday read whether or not you’ve seen the Danny Boyle film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
8. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith
This is the most recent in the award-winning and enormously popular series of detective novels set in Botswana featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe, sales of which have enabled Alexander McCall Smith to buy his own private island to write on in peace! As Botswana awaits the familiar blessing of the rains and the resumption of the eternal cycle, seismic upheaval is taking place at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
This thirty-five-year-old classic, translated into thirty-seven languages, tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch José Arcadio Buendía founds the town of Macondo, the metaphoric Colombia. A dominant theme is the inevitable and inescapable repetition of history in Macondo. The protagonists are controlled by their pasts and the complexity of time.
10. River of Time by Jon Swain.
British journalist Swain will be familiar to some as one of the Western newsmen who worked tirelessly to save their Cambodian colleague Dith Pran from the Khmer Rouge, immortalised in the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields. Swain spent five years in Cambodia and South Vietnam as a war correspondent and River of Time is a tragic and beautiful memoir of love and loss, coming of age, and witnessing the end of Indochina as the West had known it for more than a century. As a lover of Cambodia, I found it both fascinating and disturbing.
11. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This haunting novel recreates a seminal moment in modern African history: Biafra’s impassioned struggle to establish an independent republic in Nigeria and the chilling violence that followed. The story is told from the perspectives of three different people: thirteen-year-old Ugwu, a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal; Olanna the professor’s beautiful mistress; and Richard, a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance they must run for their lives and their ideas are severely tested, as are their loyalties to each other. Published in 2006, the novel garnered numerous accolades and was awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007.
K.T. Medina joined the Territorial Army while studying for a Psychology degree, and served for five years as an officer trainee and then Troop Commander in the Royal Engineers. After leaving the TA she worked as Managing Editor, Land Based Weapon Systems, at Jane’s Information Group, where she was responsible for providing information on small arms, armour, artillery and land mines to global militaries. Whilst at Jane’s she spent time in the Middle East and in Cambodia, working with mine clearance charities in Battambang to advise on complex mines and IEDs. She has also worked as a strategy consultant with McKinsey, and has lectured in business and consulting at London Business School and the London School of Economics. She recently obtained an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University, lives in London with her husband and three children and now writes full-time. Her debut thriller White Crocodile, set in the minefields of Cambodia, is published Faber & Faber. Read more.