Kabul – of late a poor benighted city of three and half million people destroyed by politics, extremism, endemic poverty, and foreign intervention – British, Soviet, American. But once Kabul was different – an oasis high up in a narrow valley of the Hindu Kush and the thrilling end of the old “Hippie Trail”. It was a place of colour, experimentation, modernism – once dubbed the “Paris of Central Asia”. The Soviet invasion of 1979 started a series of continuous civil wars – Russian vs Mujahideen; Taliban against the American-led invasion, a brief respite before Kabul fell to the Taliban once again in 2021. A geopolitical hot spot, a country of incomparable beauty and harshness combined, a culture at once intriguing and hard to know. No wonder Kabul has long attracted crime, espionage and thriller writers.
And, at last, an excuse to add a James A Michener book to a CrimeReads Crime and the City. One of the great blockbuster authors of the post-war period—there was a time it was impossible to get on a plane and observe what your fellow passengers were reading or turn on a TV movie channel without Michener being somewhere close by. And so we start with Caravans (1963), Michener’s great post-World War Two saga of Afghanistan. Mark Miller, stationed in Kabul at the American embassy, is tasked with finding a young American woman, Ellen Jasper, who has disappeared after her marriage to an Afghan national. Hollywood made a film of it in 1978 with Anthony Quinn.
And excuse too to work in a little Flashman, courtesy of George Macdonald Fraser’s legendary character, an antihero Victorian soldier who undergoes numerous unabashedly imperial adventures, who should need no introduction. In the very first Flashman book, simply titled Flashman (1969) everyone’s favourite coward, scoundrel, lover and cheat, is a reluctant secret agent in Afghanistan alongside Lord Cardigan’s Hussars the disastrous Retreat from Kabul in 1842.
Nigel Tranter is a Scottish writer, from Glasgow, who was once a regular fixture on the bestseller lists too. He specialised in deeply researched historical novels of Scottish history. But Tranter also wrote several books o international geopolitical espionage and competition. Among them, Cable from Kabul (1968). The London office of Cranstoun and Macready, Importers and Exporters receives an urgent cable— MACREADY BELIEVED DEAD STOP PROJECT IN BALANCE STOP PLEASE COME STOP. And so the search for MacReady is on in Kabul amid the geopolitical intrigues between China, Russia and Pakistan.
Kabul’s ”Hippie Trail” days of the late 1960s and 1970s are the subject of ME Rostron’s The Kabul Conscript (2020). It’s 1973 and a young Peace Corps Volunteer becomes involved in a dangerous adventure with other young Americans and Afghans in the days leading up to the coup d’état by General Daoud Khan. Backpackers, spies, communists and fundamentalists abound.
And then to 2014, the American withdrawal and a resurgent Taliban. Veteran French thriller writer Gérard de Villiers. In Chaos in Kabul (2014) he features one of his regular characters, the Austrian prince and CIA agent Malko Linge. In Kabul, Malko reconnects with an old flame and hires a South African mercenary to assist with his mission. But his every move is monitored by President Karzai’s entourage, Taliban leaders, while there is a dangerous renegade within the CIA itself.
Two centuries of Kabul turbulence above, from Flashman in the 1840s to Malko Linge in the 2000s, but now some more recent novels…
Brother and sister writing team Alison Belsham and Nick Higgins’s MacKenzie and Khan series starts with Death in Kabul (2022). It’s 2003 and the body of a British serviceman is discovered in the city’s infamous tank graveyard. Alasdair ‘Mac’ MacKenzie, formerly of London’s Metropolitan Police, is assigned the case and meets Baz Khan, an Afghan-American investigative journalist in Kabul. Antiquities are being raided and the Kabul underworld are involved. The second MacKenzie and Khan book, Death in Helmland (2022), is set in 2004 in Afghanistan’s most lawless province, where nearly 90 per cent of the world’s opium is grown. When the leader of an Anglo-Dutch NGO is kidnapped MacKenzie and Khan must negotiate with Afghan drug dealers and warlords. There’s a strong flavour of authenticity in these books – Belsham is an experienced crime writers and Higgins worked in Afghanistan as a security contractor from late 2003 until 2007 on a variety of projects for the UN and NGOs.
And a few more Kabul-set crime novels:
- Dutch author Walter Lucius’s A Sea of Flames (2021) is the third book in his trilogy featuring journalist Farah Hafez. Here we move from 1965 Saigon to 1990s Moscow and then to Farah herself, in the garden of the presidential palace in Kabul, forced to relive a traumatic event from her childhood.
- Peter Hanington’s A Dying Breed (2016 – and one of several books in the William Carver series) starts with a car bomb killing an official in Kabul and then a BBC journalist (Hannington himself is a veteran BBC Correspondent) chasing the killers through the back streets of the Afghan capital and the seemingly equally treacherous corridors of Whitehall.
- DS Macdonald’s Elvis in Kabul (2021) is set in Kabul in 2005 when the body of a local UN agency driver, is found in a vehicle riddled with bullet holes. Gil Moncrief, an agency advisor, searches for Waheed’s killer in the growing chaos of Kabul’s streets. Macdonald claims the novel is influenced by his own experiences while travelling and working in Afghanistan.
- Darren Rodell’s Kabul Gold (2020) is a book in his SAS officer Dan Temple Adventures series. Temple thinks he can retire to the English countryside but events in the high Hindu Kush have other ideas.
And finally, we started with a giant – James A Michener – so let’s finish with another we don’t often get to mention in Crime and the City – Ken Follett. British author Follett is of course a bestselling legend – reportedly having sold more than 160 million copies of his work. Lie Down With Lions (2018) is another of his trademark sweeping sagas ranging from a spy love triangle in Paris to Afghanistan where Mujahideen are fighting to free their country from Soviet invasion. In the Valley of the Five Lions former spies help the cause as doctors. But danger follows and so does the bitter rivalries of the old Parisian love triangle.
It’s no wonder Kabul and Afghanistan has attracted so many best-selling authors, journalists, and thriller writers. It’s a place of intense beauty beset with equally intense chaos. It’s dangerous yet has a certain romance. Kabul really was once an oasis city that deserved the title of the Paris of Central Asia, where backpackers sipped mint tea and maybe smoked something a little more pungent, local girls wore mini-skirts, universities thrived, and peace reigned. Maybe, one day, Kabul can be that place again.