Cover of "When Red Is Black," an example of the best mystery series set in Asia

Over the past fourteen years, since I began posting book reviews, I’ve read and reviewed more than 450 mysteries and thrillers. A fair number are set in Asia, principally (but not exclusively) in India or China. Some, of course, are standalone efforts. But most are entries in series. And when I particularly enjoy one such novel, I make an effort to read all the books in that series. Naturally, I’ve had my favorites. And that’s what I’m sharing here now. 

Technically, Palestine and (most of) Russia are in Asia, too. I’ve read two Palestinian mystery novels in a promising series and quite a few in several such series in Russia as well as in its earlier incarnation, the Soviet Union. But neither place is generally regarded as Asian, so I’m omitting them here. 

Eight series of mystery novels

Below you’ll find eight series of mystery novels. The best of the lot are listed in order from the top. But, to be clear, I’m only comfortable with my ranking of the top four. I’ve assigned the later numbers somewhat arbitrarily. 

Following the top eight, you’ll see two other series in which I’ve read only one book as well as two others I’ve read more extensively but ultimately found unsatisfying. 

The top eight mystery series set in Asia

#1. Inspector Chen Cao: 1990s Shanghai

With thirteen books in print as of 2024, Qiu Xiaolong‘s series of novels about Inspector Chen Cao and his Special Investigations Squad in the Shanghai Police Bureau paints a vivid picture of a city, and a country, in transition in the 1990s. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms had begun more than a decade earlier. The changes were not yet visible on the surface. But in social relations and the people’s expectations the new reality continued to shock. Inspector Chen must weave a path ever so carefully between the demands of the Party and his own quest for justice. For a good example, see When Red Is Black – Inspector Chen #3 (This gripping crime novel shows China in transition).

Cover of "A Necessary Evil," a novel in one of the best mystery series set in Asia

#2. Wyndham and Banerjee: 1920s Calcutta

Scottish-Indian author Abir Mukherjee brings Calcutta in the 1920s back to life with his series of mysteries featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and Surendranath (“Surrender-Not”) Banerjee. The series is based on solid historical research into the complexity of Indian society in the wake of World War I. The second entry in the series, A Necessary Evil, illustrates this beautifully. My review is at A royal murder in colonial India with hundreds of suspects.

Cover of "The Umbrella Man"

#3. Inspector Samuel Tay: today’s Singapore

Jake Needham‘s series of detective novels featuring Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore’s CID are wildly popular in Asia but only recently have become available in the United States. Sam Tay is a grumpy, often disagreeable investigator who often finds himself at odds with his superiors. But he’s the best at what he does. Needham lives in Southeast Asia and is intimately familiar with the city, and Singapore itself emerges as a character in the novels. For a dramatic introduction to the series, see The Umbrella Man – Inspector Samuel Tay #2 (Investigating a terrorist bombing in Singapore).

Cover of "The Satapur Moonstone," one of the books in the best mystery series set in Asia

#4. Perveen Mistry: 1920s Bombay

The Perveen Mistry series of mystery novels by Sujata Massey features a woman lawyer who practices in Bombay in the fraught years following World War I. The books highlight life under the British Raj in all its conflicts and contradictions. (Massey also writes a modern mystery series set in Japan, which I haven’t yet read.) Born in England to parents from India and Germany, Massey was raised primarily in St. Paul, Minnesota, although her home for almost thirty years has been Baltimore, Maryland. In The Satapur Moonstone (A murder mystery set in colonial India highlights the princely states), the second novel in the series, Mistry travels to one of the more than 500 princely states scattered about the subcontinent.

Cover of "The Case of the Missing Servant"

#5. Vish Puri: today’s Delhi

As I followed private investigator Vish Puri and his team through the streets of Jaipur in Tarquin Hall‘s The Case of the Missing Servant (reviewed at Indian private eye Vish Puri is the best, he thinks), it suddenly occurred to me that a fair amount of what I’ve learned about life and culture in other countries has come from my reading of detective fiction. And, given the depth of research conducted by so many of my favorite crime writers, I suspect this isn’t such a bad way to learn about the world around me.

Cover of "Death of a Lesser God," a book in one of the best mystery series set in Asia

#6. Persis Wadia: 1950s Bombay

British novelist Vaseem Khan has staked out a place among the greatest of the century’s new crop of Indian writers. He gained a reputation for his Baby Ganesh series of detective novels. More recently, he has been writing the superb Malabar House novels featuring India’s first female police inspector, Persis Wadia, set in 1950s Bombay. All four books to date are terrific. Check out the fourth, Death of a Lesser God (Murder in the shadow of Partition).

Cover image of "The Godfather of Kathmandu"

#7. Royal Thai Detectives: contemporary Bangkok

Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the creation of John Burdett, guides us through the rotten underbelly of Bangkok, with its ever-present sex for sale and police officers moonlighting as drug kingpins. I’ve read most of the six novels published to date in the series, which began with Bangkok 8 long before I began reviewing books here. You’ll find my review of #4, The Godfather of Kathmandu, here: A Buddhist homicide detective in an over-the-top murder mystery.

Cover of "The Bangalore Detectives Club," one book in one of the best mystery series set in Asia

#8. Bangalore Detectives Club: 1920s Bangalore

Kaveri Murthy is a young, high-caste woman married to a prominent surgeon in the South Indian city of Bangalore. In a series of novels set shortly after World War I by the Indian writer Harini Nagendra, Kaveri proves to be an adept amateur detective, probing the murder mysteries that somehow seem to crop up around her. Her husband, Ramu, plays a supporting role. For an introduction to the series, see The Bangalore Detectives Club (Bangalore Detectives Club #1) by Harini Nagendra (A murder case crosses class and caste lines in 1921 Bangalore).

A peek at four other mystery series set in Asia

Li Du: the Tibetan-Chinese border in the early 1700s 

It’s 1708, and the still-young Qing Dynasty is consolidating its power. The Kangxi Emperor, second in the dynastic line, plans a year-long journey to loosely-held Yunnan Province to secure the allegiance of the local people. He will arrive in 1708 in time for a mammoth festival, where he will predict the precise time of a solar eclipse. And this is the setting for Jade Dragon Mountain, a murder mystery set in 18th century China. It’s the first entry in Elsa Hart‘s series of historical novels featuring the scholar Li Du. For the review, see An intriguing murder mystery set in 18th century China.

Inspector Danilov: 1920s Shanghai

Detective Inspector Pyotr Danilov of Central Police Station in the International Settlement had arrived in Shanghai in 1925 as a refugee from the Russian Revolution. For many years, he had served as a detective in the Imperial Police in Minsk. Danilov’s investigation of a series of murders unfolds over five days late in February 1928. As we learn early in the tale, a serial killer is on the prowl. He’s convinced “he needed to cleanse the city of its degenerates, to remove the bloated maggots that fed on its flesh. He had made a start in other places, of course, but somehow, it never felt right.” Death in Shanghai is the first book in M. J. (Martin) Lee’s series featuring Inspector Danilov. I’ve reviewed it at In a grim historical thriller, a serial killer strikes in 1920s Shanghai.

Inspector O: contemporary Pyongyang

James Church is the pen name of the American author of the six books in this series about a police investigator in North Korea called Inspector O. (“O” is a proper surname in Korea, not an anonymizing entry.) Church is “a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia,” according to a blurb on the cover of one of the books. Asia specialists seem to like the novels more than I did. One of the better ones is Hidden Moon – Inspector O #2 (A novel about fear and loathing in North Korea).

Dr. Siri Paiboon: 1970s Vientiane

This series of fifteen mystery novels to date is set in the 1970s in Laos, when the nation’s Communist government was dominated by North Korea. The author, Colin Cotterill, trained and worked as a teacher, including many years in Asia, several of them in Laos. His protagonist is the coroner Dr. Siri Paiboon, who investigates mysteries that often expose the complications of living in a Communist society. The first of the books is one of the best I read: The Coroner’s Lunch – Dr. Siri Paiboun #1 (A murder mystery set in Communist Laos in the 1970s).

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