Merry Christmas! Mrs Peabody’s festive round-up

I’m behind on my Christmas preparations this year, which means that this festive round-up is a little later than usual. On the plus side, it may help a few of you out of a last-minute present conundrum, or lead you to a nice, independent bookshop because it’s too late for online orders. You might also be moved to buy yourself a little gift. Go on, you deserve it.

The following are just some of my favourite crime novels of the year. All, in my view, would make a delightful escape from the mayhem of Christmas or family, especially when curled up on the sofa with a nice glass of wine.

Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Anderson, The Lion’s Mouth (NORWAY: trans. by Anne Bruce, Corvus, 2014). Anne Holt is often described as the queen of Norwegian crime, and has drawn expertly on her own career in the police, law and government in the creation of the ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ police series (she was even Norwegian Minister of Justice for a while). This fourth installment in the series, originally published in 1997, explores the suspicious death of the Norwegian Prime Minister, who is found dead in her office just six months following election. A fusion of locked-room mystery, Borgen and police procedural, it’s a quietly satisfying read that’s held up well.

Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights (ICELAND: trans. by Victoria Cribb, Harvill Secker, 2014). This prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series is a wonderfully absorbing read, which traces the start of Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are also shown how a traumatic childhood event begins to shape Erlendur’s personal life and investigative career. The novel is a great read for those who are new to the series and for long-established Erlendur fans alike.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (AUSTRALIA/ICELAND: Picador, 2013). This impressive debut novel by a young Australian author is not for those looking for ‘cosy’ Christmas crime. Kent spent some time in Iceland as an exchange student and describes the book as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country: set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last Icelandic woman to be executed for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas stayed with me long after reading it.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (NORWAY: trans. by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2014, [2010]) sounds like a horror film that’s best avoided after a large meal. However, it turns out to be something quite different: a well-constructed and witty homage to the classic crime fiction of Agatha Christie, set in 1968 Oslo, which has some interesting historical depth. Featuring ambitious young police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen on his first big case – the murder of a former resistance fighter – readers are treated to an apartment building of intriguing suspects and a page-turning investigation, as well as the considerable intellect of Kristiansen’s wheelchair-bound partner Patricia.

Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone (USA: Faber and Faber, 2014). Ignore the rather daft cover. After I’m Gone is a literary crime novel that dissects a murder case by means of a rich narrative with some wonderful characterisation (the latter is one of Lippman’s great strengths). Told on a number of different time levels, it traces the stories of five women left behind when white-collar criminal Felix Brewer disappears in July 1976 – his wife Bambi Gottschalk, his three daughters, and his mistress Julie – as well as the investigation into Julie’s murder by detective Sandy Sanchez in the present. An engrossing, quality read.

Anya Lipska, Death Can’t take a Joke (UK/POLAND: The Friday Project, 2014). This is the second in the ‘Kiszka and Kershaw’ series, featuring Polish ‘fixer’ Janusz Kiszka and London police detective Natalie Kershaw. While I enjoyed Lipska’s first novel, Where the Devil Can’t Go, the second is where the series really gets into its stride: the duo’s investigation into two deaths, including one of Kiszka’s closest friends, is a tightly constructed page-turner with an engaging, blackly comic tone. The novel also features one of the best first chapters I’ve read this year… For a more in-depth exploration, head over to Margot Kinberg’s marvellous Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

Marco Malvaldi, Game for Five and Three Card Monte. 1 and 2 of the ‘Bar Lume Trilogy’ (ITALY: Europa Editions/World Noir 2013/14). These light-hearted crime novels feature amateur detective Massimo Viviani, the maverick owner of Bar Lume, investigating mysterious deaths in Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo is ably assisted in his work by four cantankerous, octogenarian barflies, including his own extremely opinionated grandfather. Witty, entertaining and stylishly packaged.

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (ARGENTINA: trans. by John Cullen, Other Press, 2011 [2005]). I was given this novel last Christmas and it became one of my first and favourite reads of the year. Benjamin Miguel Chaparro, a newly retired Deputy Clerk in Buenos Aires, begins to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself. The 2010 film adaptation was also a cracker. A full review is available here.

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow (FRANCE/LAPLAND: trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie, Trapdoor, 2014). This novel uses its criminal investigation as a means of exploring the history, culture and climate of Lapland. It also features the reindeer police! The novel opens with Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and partner Nina Nansen investigating the theft of a priceless Sámi drum from a museum. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9′ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked. A gripping novel that shines a spotlight on a fascinating part of the world. A full review is available here.

If the crime lover in your life is into TV drama, then my two top picks are as follows:

The Australian series The Code, which aired on BBC4 a few weeks ago and I reviewed enthusiastically here. This six-part political thriller opens with the mysterious death of Aboriginal teenager Sheyna Smith in Lindara, a remote New South Wales township. The circumstances of her death are hushed up, so when Ned Banks (a journalist for an internet newspaper) and his brother Jesse (an internet hacker on the autistic spectrum) start to investigate, you just know there’s going to be trouble. An utterly gripping, intelligent drama.

British police drama Happy Valley, a hard-hitting, six-part series that traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, while exploring its protagonists’ complex personal lives. Sarah Lancashire gives an absolutely outstanding performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, together with an excellent supporting cast. Be warned that there is some very graphic (though in my view not gratuitous) violence. I think that 18 would be a more accurate rating than the 15 on the box. An addictive and top quality crime series.

And my own indulgence this Christmas? That would be the American drama True Detective, which I’m very much looking forward to watching. Have you indulged yourself as well? Do share if so!

Wishing all the readers of this blog a very happy and relaxing Christmas.

See you all in 2015!

German Zimtsternchen (little cinnamon star).    Quite addictive.

Posted in By country, Italy, America, Iceland, France, Argentina, Australia, Norway, Book reviews, England, Poland, Lapland | 18 Comments

Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

Last Friday, to pass some time while ill in bed, I started listening to the podcast SERIAL, which explores a real and very complex murder case from 1999. I don’t consider myself to be a fan of true crime, which is all too often voyeuristic and salacious, and so wasn’t expecting to get drawn in. But I found myself hooked from the opening of the very first episode, and by the end of the day had listened eight (EIGHT!) episodes.

SERIAL is a podcast phenomenon. Since it started in October it has become the fastest podcast on iTunes to be downloaded or streamed 5 million times, and is one of reddit’s most discussed topics. The series first crossed my radar when writer Linda Grant wrote about her fascination with it and I’m glad to have finally caught up, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

SERIAL is an offshoot of This American Life (a weekly radio show by Chicago Public Media), and is presented by journalist Sarah Koenig. This is how SERIAL’s website describes what the podcast is about:

>> On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A few weeks later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers. <<

So the podcast is a 360 degree examination of a murder case, one that Sarah carries out with great intelligence, care and respect for all the individuals involved. Although the hope is to get to the bottom of the case’s contradictions by looking at the evidence with fresh eyes, Koenig pledges to ‘follow the story where it takes us’, even if that means failing to achieve closure. It’s this willingness to accept all outcomes that is one of the series’ chief strengths; in many respects it is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of finding the truth.

Eleven episodes of SERIAL are currently available. The 12th and final episode airs this coming Thursday. If you haven’t yet listened, you might want to leave this post and head over to episode 1. If you’ve already caught up, you might be interested in reading on below…

What I’m not going to discuss is the (admittedly fascinating) question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, because it’s being dissected exhaustively elsewhere, and to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. Arguably, one of the few pitfalls of the podcast is that it’s been treated by some as a fictional crime whodunit, losing sight of the fact that the story is about real people. I’m more interested in the insights Sarah Koenig (SK) has offered listeners into the impact of murder, the minutiae of police investigations and the complexities of the trial process. These are meta-observations that have made me think really, really hard about the justice system in a way that I haven’t done before.

Memory. The first episode of SERIAL opens with an observation about how hard it can be to remember past events. Can you remember exactly what you were doing the whole of last Wednesday? Now, how about a Wednesday six weeks ago, which turns out to have been the day of a murder, in which you are a suspect? What happens if you genuinely can’t remember? Or if you think you can, but then realise you’ve got it wrong? Or if you can, but no one can corroborate what you say? Any of these could be the beginning of a road to wrongful conviction. Unless of course you’re lying, which is when things get even trickier.

A piece of evidence can appear utterly damning when viewed in one context, and completely innocent in another. It all depends on how you build it into a larger narrative or how you spin it. SK demonstrates this by discussing specific bits of evidence with those who think Adnan is guilty and those who don’t. The same applies in the courtroom: building a convincing narrative is key for the prosecution and defence. They are telling competing stories to the jury and are fighting for their own to be believed.

The power of narrative is also illustrated by the podcast itself (something that SK does not explicitly acknowledge). Episodes are constructed in such a way as to consider one side of the argument, then the other, and inevitably sway the listener back and forth as well (ooh, he’s guilty/nooo, he can’t be). There’s a cliff-hanger element built into the episodes, with previews of ‘next time’ promising new evidence that will keep us hooked. Very successfully.

On a moral level, we listeners are gripped by questions of guilt or innocence. But in a legal context, guilt or innocence may never be definitively proved. The more important question then becomes ‘is there reasonable doubt’?

Murder investigations are HUGELY complex. We all know this, but listening to over ten hours of detail about one case makes you appreciate that fact all the more. It instills a respect for police investigators, who have to process mountains of potential evidence and decide what it relevant and what is not. It also makes you realise how easily the truth can be lost if the wrong leads are followed, or if prejudices start to cloud investigators’ judgments.

The police are not necessarily looking for the truth. Rather, they are trying to build a case against someone. This means that there may be ‘verification bias’ present in the investigation – the disregarding of so-called ‘bad evidence’ that does not fit the detectives’ theories of what happened. Scary stuff, and this is why it’s so important for justice systems to have a robust element of defence and cross-examination, so that lots of difficult questions can be asked.

SK’s own investigations show us a range of different perspectives and voices: we hear sound clips of police interviews and court proceedings, readings from Hae’s teenage diary, SK’s interviews with family, friends and witnesses (all of whom were deeply affected by the murder), and her phone conversations with Adnan in prison. These are augmented by her own commentary on the difficulties she is encountering as she tries to figure out this ‘Rubik’s cube of a case’.

‘Cops assume that everyone is lying all the time’. A pragmatic, logical approach or a breach of the presumption of innocence? They will ‘offer the suspect a theme’ – meaning that they will discuss the subject of the crime in a way that suggests understanding to encourage a confession (e.g. ‘I can understand why you hit that man. After all he provoked you’).

‘How easy it is to stir stereotypes in with facts, all of which then gets baked into a story’. SK does a great job of exploring the possible bias of the judicial system (for example, the use of certain types of vocabulary in reports or in court). This quote is also a wonderful example of how SK sums up ideas in an accessible and interesting way.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis examine some evidence. Photo by Elise Bergerson.

I never quite realised how many factors can feed into the outcome of a trial: the quality of the prosecution or defence lawyers, cultural biases, the composition of the jury, alibis or the lack of alibis, the presence or absence of forensic evidence, the efficiency or inefficiency of the investigators (did they ask for that crucial item to be checked for DNA?), the willingness or refusal of witnesses to testify, the credibility of witnesses, etc. etc. etc.

If you are innocent, and continue to maintain your innocence following conviction, then your chances of parole are low, because the parole board is looking for evidence of remorse. So you can lie and get out, or be honest and stay in. Hmmmm.

SK and her listeners may be playing the role of the detective, but that does not remotely guarantee the discovery of a ‘solution’, because this is real life. Will the final episode offer listeners the closure they crave? At the simplest level, Adnan’s guilt/innocence may only be known to three people: murder victim Hae Lee, Adnan himself and his friend Jay. Of these last two, one has to be lying. I’m doubtful that SERIAL can reveal who’s telling the truth, but it certainly succeeds in showing us plenty of others.

Posted in 5 stars | 21 Comments

Iceland Noir 2014: volcanoes, glaciers and crime

Having been extremely jealous of everyone at Iceland Noir last year, it was brilliant to make it this November, not least because Reykjavik has been on my wishlist of places to visit for a long, long time. The event was held at Nordic House, and was expertly organised by author Quentin Bates and the rest of the Icelandic Noir team, who put together a great programme over two days. Quite a few bloggers have already posted reports (see list below), so I’m going to focus on the panels/discussions that particularly interested me and say a little about my first impressions of Iceland … with plenty of photos!

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Nordic Perspectives panel – and yes, it was early in the morning…

Nordic Perspectives. This panel featured David Hewson (UK), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway), Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland) and Michael Ridpath (UK), with Jake Kerridge moderating. It was interesting to see how these authors positioned themselves or their countries’ crime output in relation to ‘nordic crime’. Sigurðardóttir felt that Icelandic crime had affinities to Scandinavian crime through its focus on the complexity of the criminal (citing the work of Norwegian author Karin Fossum as an example). However Lahlum saw himself as a historical crime writer rather than a Nordic crime writer, while Ridpath’s Icelandic-American investigator is an insider-outsider figure who negotiates different cultural traditions.

This panel also included discussion of historical crime fiction and adaptation. Lahlum told us that Norwegian crime fiction often engages with historical events, especially the Second World War (as evidenced in his novel The Human Flies). Hewson discussed his adaptation of the Danish TV crime drama The Killing, which involved adding contextualising historical detail. For example, the beginning and end of The Killing II are set in Ryvangen Memorial Park, which was the site of partisan executions by the Nazis and points to the core theme of the series – the long-term impact of war on society. Hewson provided extra information about the memorial, as British readers would not be aware of its significance (interesting; now on my TBR pile).

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‘Translating crime across cultures’ panel

The ‘translating crime fiction across cultures’ panel featured Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (Iceland), Mari Hannah (UK), Bogdan Hrib (Romania) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), with academic Jacky Collins moderating. I left this panel wanting to read Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy: the first installment, The Land of Dreams, won the prestigious Riverton Prize in 2008, and its exploration of Norwegian-American history and culture sounds right up my street. It was also interesting to hear Hrib discussing Romanian crime novels and his ongoing mission to see them more widely translated into English: there are currently just three, published by Profusion Press, which I’m now curious to read. Mari Hannah tantalised us by revealing that she’s written a novel partly set in Norway (a break from the Kate Daniels series, which we were reassured is also continuing). Icelandic author Ingólfsson currently has one novel translated into English – The Flatley Enigmawith others translated into German, which appears to be quite a common route for Icelandic writers (those Germans do love their nordic Krimis!).

A companion panel on the Saturday celebrated the inaugural Icepick Award for best crime novel translated into Icelandic, with Antii Tuomainen (Finnish author of The Healer) and Icelandic translators Ævar Örn Jósepsson, Bjarni Gunnarsson, Bjarni Jónsson and Sigadur Karlsson (Magnea Matthiasdóttir moderating).

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Icepick Award panel – a sea of translators!

The panel gave a fascinating insight into the dialogue between writers and translators about linguistic and cultural issues during the process of translation, although Gunnarsson also illustrated the important role of technology today: when translating Nesbo, he used Google Earth to take a closer look at Oslo, a city he’s never visited but now feels he knows well. Tuomainnen made lifelong friends in the translation community with his heartfelt appreciation for the work of the translator; he also specifically thanked Sigurdur Karlsson for translating his work and for bringing it to the attention of Icelandic publishers in the first place, thereby highlighting the influential role translators play in identifying promising new work. The Icepick was awarded on the Saturday evening at the Iceland Noir dinner (for further details, see my previous post).

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The ‘settings’ panel

Tuomainnen popped up again on the settings panel with Ragnar Jónasson (Iceland), Johan Theorin (Sweden) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), moderated by Jacky Collins. The settings discussed included urban Finland, a village in northern Iceland, an isolated Swedish island and the American Midwest. In each case, the novel’s location plays a crucial role – sometimes even becoming a character in its own right – and is used to create unease or suspense (Theorin’s Öland novels), a sense of remoteness and isolation (Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series), or to explore themes such as migration (Sundstol’s Minnesota Trilogy) and climate change (Tuomainen’s The Healer).

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The ‘supernatural in crime fiction’ panel – a suitably shaky shot from the back…

One of my favourite panels was on supernatural crime, featuring James Oswald (Scotland), Johan Theorin (Sweden), Alexandra Sokoloff (US) and Michael Sears (South Africa) in discussion with Jake Kerridge. It was fascinating to hear the varying reasons why crime authors use supernatural elements in their work: as a means of exploring the clash between the rational and irrational (Oswald), illustrating evil (Sokoloff), exploring cultural beliefs (Sears) or taking genre in new direction (Theorin). Hearing the panelists talk about the extra dimensions the supernatural can add to a crime narrative reminded me why I like hybrid crime fiction so much: there’s a creativity at work here that pushes the boundaries of the genre and – when it works – can produce fantastic results. Sokoloff rather intriguingly described a magpie approach when writing – she has blended Jewish lore and witch-y elements into her novels to create particular effects. And it struck me that at least two other writers at the conference – Tuomainen and Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – also write hybrid crime fiction (drawing on traditions of apocalyptic literature and horror). The days when crime publishers were reluctant to publish this type of fusion fiction thankfully appear to be over.

Other blog posts, articles and tweetery on Iceland Noir 2014:

  • Crime Fiction Lover – lots of coverage including the debut authors’ panel, featuring blogger and Petrona judge Sarah Ward, whose novel In Bitter Chill (Faber and Faber 2015) I’m greatly looking forward to reading
  • Crimepieces – Sarah Ward with three posts
  • The Reykjavik Grapevine on the author reading held at Solon on Thursday evening
  • Miriam Owen live-tweeted Iceland Noir via @NordicNoirBuzz

Do also check out the site for next year’s rather wonderful-looking Shetland Noir (Iceland Noir will be back in 2016).

I’m going to finish up with a few Reykjavik/Iceland photos to show those of you who haven’t yet visited what a great place this is!

1. An Eymundsson bookshop in Reyjkavik. This capital, which is around the size of my hometown Swansea, with a population of around 200,000, has at least five massive bookshops. Iceland is a nation of book lovers with a deep appreciation of culture (probably instilled by long winter nights and the reading aloud of Icelandic sagas). Fittingly, Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature.

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Booktastic Reykjavik

2. The bubbling, steaming landscape of Haukadalur. Wandering around on a crust of earth just above plentiful geothermal activity, with geysers going off at regular intervals, instils an added appreciation of our volatile, ever-changing planet. In a land not heavy on natural resources, Icelanders have made the most of their free geothermal energy to heat their homes, create outdoor thermal pools, grow tomatoes, process aluminium, keep their streets de-iced, and so on… Ingenious and admirable.

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The land of fire and ice – a geothermal landscape here, but glaciers are not far away

3. Reykjavik is charming. Here are a few random photos.

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Hallgrímskirkja, which looks a lot like a space rocket, guarded by the statue of Leifur Eiriksson

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View over Reykjavik from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja – on the day the sun came out

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Reykjavik Harbour, looking out to Faxafloi Bay and the mountains beyond

4. There’s a lot of Icelandic wool. Which gets turned into gorgeous mittens to feed my newly discovered mitten addiction.

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Takk fyrir Icelandic sheep!

5. Friendly Vikings. I think this is my favourite Iceland Noir photo.

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Miriam and Ewa – awesomely stylish Vikings

Huge thanks to the Iceland Noir organisers for making the event such a wonderful success!

Posted in America, By country, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Wild card! | Tagged | 21 Comments

Iceland Noir: Winner of first Icepick Award announced!

Hot off the presses from Iceland Noir! The winner of the inaugural Icepick Award, given to the best crime novel translated into Icelandic in 2014, is…

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… Swiss author Joël Dicker’s La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair], translated from the French by Friðrik Rafnsson.

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This novel is a publishing phenomenon – here’s the blurb from Penguin, which has certainly made me want to read the book:

>> The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a fast-paced, tightly plotted, cinematic literary thriller, and an ingenious book within a book, by a dazzling young writer.

August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods, never to be heard from again; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence. Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of the country’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—with whom he admits he had an affair. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his own writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a book to save someone’s life?<<

The Icepick Award is judged both on the quality of the original work and its translation, acknowledging the vital role of the translator in allowing crime fiction to travel beyond national and linguistic boundaries to the ever grateful reader. The process of translating (which of course involves not just linguistic but detailed cultural knowledge) is often invisible, so it’s very welcome to see it being celebrated by the award.

The shortlist for the 2014 Icepick Award, with novels from America, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, was as follows:

Joël Dicker, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair] – Icelandic translation from French: Friðrik Rafnsson

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl – Icelandic translation from English: Bjarni Jónsson

Jo Nesbø, Panserhjerte [The Leopard] – Icelandic translation from Norwegian: Bjarni Gunnarsson

Håkan NesserMänniska utan hund [Man Without Dog] – Icelandic translation from Swedish: Ævar Örn Jósepsson Antti Tuomainen, Veljeni vartija [My Brother’s Keeper] – Icelandic translation from Finnish: Sigurður Karlsson The award is founded by the Reykjavik Crime Festival Iceland Noir, The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters and The Icelandic Crime Writing Association. 

Posted in America, By country, Finland, France, Norway | 28 Comments

Iceland Noir 2014 and BBC1’s The Fall

I’ll be heading to Reykjavik next week for Iceland Noir 2014. To say I’m a little excited is something of an understatement.

As this poster shows, Iceland Noir 2014 features the crème de la crème of Icelandic and international crime writers. There’s an exciting programme running over two days, with lovely extras such as Reykjavik crime walks, jazz-infused crime readings and the announcement of the Icepick Award (shortlist available here). With luck we’ll also have some northern lights swirling above. I’m very much looking forward to meeting old friends and new, and to uncovering lots of fabulous new crime fiction. There may be some tweeting too…

My reading on the plane out will be Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snjóblinda (Snowblind, 2010), the first in his ‘Dark Iceland’ series.

Here’s a brief description: >> Winter in a small, isolated fishing town in the northernmost part of Iceland, only accessible via a small mountain tunnel. A young woman is found lying in the snow, bleeding and unconscious. An old writer falls to his death in the local theatre. A young police officer, new in town, must distinguish between truth and lies, while uncovering hidden crimes of the past, in a community where he can trust no-one, before the constant snowstorms and the twenty four hour darkness push him over the edge. << I’ll be tucking into the German translation, but am pleased to hear that the novel will be published in English translation by Orenda Press in 2015.

Online chatter has alerted me to the start of the second series of BBC1’s The Fall, which features Gillian Anderson as police superintendent Stella Gibson on the trail of Belfast serial killer Paul Spector. I’ve not seen any of this crime drama as yet. The Northern Ireland setting and the female lead have definitely piqued my interest, but the focus on the serial killer, and his depiction as mild-mannered family man by day and murderer of women by night, has rather put me off, as has the view of critics such as Rachel Cooke. My neighbour Ernie (who’s not at all keen on the serial-killer angle either) considers it a well-made drama with depth, so now I’m in two minds again. Have any of you watched it? Would you recommend viewing it or not?

Posted in By country, Iceland, Northern Ireland, TV | Tagged , | 43 Comments

25 years on: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘deutsch-deutscher Krimi’

On a wall in my study hangs a Falk map of Berlin, on which the Berlin Wall is marked with a subtle rosy line. It’s the map I used on my year abroad in Germany, in the tumultuous year of 1989. In the space of six months I visited West and East Berlin (via Checkpoint Charlie), stayed with an East German family in Karl Marx Stadt (relatives of my German boyfriend), and then, rather disbelievingly, watched the Wall fall on TV with my great-aunt (who had seen it go up in 1961) before heading back to Berlin, this time to climb through a freshly created hole in the Wall and ponder the craziness of history while standing in the former no-man’s land.

This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir and corresponds with my memories of it in 1989

9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the remarkable day that East Germany collapsed without a single shot being fired. It’s being commemorated with a programme of events in Berlin, culminating in a Lichtgrenze (Border of Light), which sees 12 kilometers of the Wall’s former route lit with 8000 helium lights as an act of remembrance and as ‘a symbol of hope for a world without walls’. This is what it’ll look like at night:

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Lichtgrenze installation, 7-9 November (http://www.bauderfilm.de/lichtgrenze/)

Of course, one of the myriad ways in which the legacy of the East German past is still being explored is via crime fiction. Here are some examples of recent Krimis that engage with the so-called ‘deutsch-deutscher’ (German-German) question. (Unfortunately only the first one is in English translation at the moment, but hopefully the summaries below will give non-German speakers a flavour of what’s out there. And who knows, perhaps some publishers might be tempted?)

Simon Urban, Plan D (Schoeffling, 2011; Harvill Secker translation, 2013). This gutsy alternative history imagines a 2011 world in which the Berlin Wall did not fall. A blackly humorous satire, it follows the misadventures of Volkspolizei (People’s Police) investigator Martin Wegener, while giving readers an insight into life in East Germany and its historical contexts. I reviewed it favourably in 2013, and posted an East German glossary that explains some of the key events and terms in the novel.

Christa Bernuth’s Innere Sicherheit (Inner Security; Piper, 2006) is set in the East Germany of the early 1980s, before reunification seemed likely. GDR police investigator Martin Beck (a nod to Sjöwall/Wahlöö?) looks into a fatal case of Republikflucht (‘flight from the republic’) that’s not all it seems. Why has the victim been shot with a bullet used by the West? And what are her links to the West German terrorism of the 1970s? There’s an extract available (in German) on the author’s website.

Uwe Klausner, Stasi-Konzern (Stasi Business; Gmeiner, 2014). Retired police chief Tom Sydow is strolling through a West Berlin park on 9. October 1964 when shots ring out. A man has been murdered, but perpetrator and corpse quickly disappear. Sydow discovers the victim was meeting a Stasi officer and is pulled into a case that leads to the top of the East German secret police. This is the sixth installment in the historical ‘Sydow’ series. The fifth, Kennedy-Syndrom, is set in August 1961, just as the Berlin Wall goes up.

Oliver G. Wachlin, Wunderland (Wonderland; Emons, 2008). This humorous ‘Berlin-Krimi’ takes place as the Wall is falling in 1989. West German police investigator Hans Dieter Knoop views a corpse by a lake who’s wearing ice-skates … even though the water’s not yet frozen. He sets about solving this puzzle in the midst of the historical jubilation around him, and receives some unexpected visitors from the East. The second in the series, Tortenschlacht (Death by Cake), plays in 1990, shortly before German reunification.

Jay Monika Walther, Goldbroiler oder die Beschreibung einer Schlacht (Roast Chicken or the Chronicle of a Slaughter; Orange Cursor, 2009). Set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Warnemünde, this novel shows former East German citizens floundering economically in the new order. The villains are former Nazis from the west, who co-opt eastern neo-Nazis, former Stasi members and disgruntled former GDR citizens into activities such as extortion, smuggling and importing women as sex workers from eastern Europe. A bleak view of the reunited Germany.

As this small selection shows, there’s a huge amount of diversity in crime novels that engage with the East German past – in terms of the historical moment they examine (from 1961 to 1990), the perspectives they adopt (investigators from East and West), the themes they pick up (political repression, corruption, the impact on ordinary people of major social and political changes), and the style in which they are written (satirical, thriller, comic). They link to other legacies of the German past (National Socialism, left-wing terrorism) and sometimes form part of larger historical series attempting to process twentieth-century German history (Klausner’s ‘Sydow’ novels). All of them form part of a wider boom in German-language historical crime fiction, which was triggered by 1989 and the renewed interest in Germany’s ‘double past’ of fascism and communism – Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’ writ large. I’ve just finished a chapter on this subject for the University of Wales Crime Fiction in German volume, which has been very illuminating to write. A final point: only one of the authors above actually had lived experience of East Germany – Oliver Wachlin, who was born in the GDR in 1966. The latter is obviously not a prerequisite for writing crime about the GDR, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

The famous image of the East German Trabi busting through the Berlin Wall

Here are a few extra links to articles and websites about the former East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coverage has been excellent:

A brilliant collection of video clips from rbb (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) that chronicle the history of the Berlin Wall and its fall. They can be viewed in German or in English.

Before and after shots of the Berlin Wall and the city from The Guardian. Click on the old image and the modern one appears – quite uncanny!

Great piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall by Timothy Garton Ash, a historian who was also an eye witness – some great images too.

An interesting piece by Philip Oltermann, on how some positive aspects of GDR society (from football to gender equality to education) are only now being properly acknowledged.

Over at Kafka’s Mouse, PD Smith has a great post on the changes to urban Berlin in the wake of reunification, with before and after images.

The British Museum currently has a major exhibition on exploring German history through a variety of objects. It’s called Germany – Memories of a Nation, and runs until January 2015. There’s a companion Radio 4 series: you can listen to an episode on the two Germanies here – the object in question is a wet-suit that was used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987.

Posted in By country, East Germany, Germany, Historical | Tagged | 39 Comments

Dylan Thomas at 100 / Getting hooked on crime fiction

Today, 27. October 2014, is the 100th birthday of poet Dylan Marlais Thomas. As I live in Swansea, just around the corner from where he was born, I thought I’d mark his centenary on the blog.

Today I was lucky enough to have a tour of 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the lovingly restored Thomas family home, which I would heartily recommend. Here are some photos to give you an idea:

The bedroom where Dylan Thomas was born…100 years ago today

Dylan’s TINY bedroom and a reconstruction of his writing desk

They made him an awesome birthday cake! With smarties!

And for the last few days, the city has been buzzing with all manner of Dylan events, from the Do Not Go Gentle festival (featuring Danish band Eggs Laid by Tigers, who set Dylan’s poetry to music) to the Dylathon at the Swansea Grand Theatre, a non-stop, 36-hour reading of Dylan’s writings and works. I’m very excited to be heading to the final session tonight, which features Ian McKellen, Sian Phillips, Katherine Jenkins and The Morriston Orpheus Choir, amongst others.

AND … last night Port Talbot boy Michael Sheen’s production of Under Milk Wood was broadcast live from the 92nd Street Y in New York, the same venue where the only recording of the piece with Dylan Thomas was made in 1953. It’s a vivid, humorous and moving evocation of a day in the life of a Welsh town called Llareggub (spell it backwards…!) and is well worth a listen. My favourite character is Mr. Pugh, who yearns to murder his cold, nagging wife: ‘Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr. Pugh … mixes especially for Mrs. Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel’. And there we have our link to crime! It’s always there if you look closely enough…

Marina Sofia interview photo (1)

In other news, the lovely Marina Sofia invited me to take part in her ‘what got you hooked on crime’ interview series. It was great to be asked and I had a lot of fun answering her questions. If you’d like to see my responses, they are over at her findingtimetowrite blog, and take in most of the books featured on the pile above. Perhaps you have some views on my choices?

Posted in By country, Interviews, Wales | Tagged | 15 Comments

Catching up with Australian political thriller The Code

The last couple of weeks have been busy, so it was only last night I realised that a bit of a gem is currently being shown in the BBC4 Saturday night crime slot.

The Code is a six-part Australian political thriller, which begins with the mysterious death of Aboriginal teenager Sheyna Smith in Lindara, a remote New South Wales township. For reasons that are unclear, the circumstances of her death have to be hushed up, so when Ned Banks (a journalist for an internet newspaper) and his brother Jesse (an internet hacker on the autistic spectrum) start to investigate, trouble comes a-calling. Back in Lindara, Sheyna’s schoolteacher Alex Wisham gets pulled into the case in unexpected ways.

Jesse does stuff that he most probably shouldn’t do

I caught up with the first episode this evening, and very much liked what I saw. The plot is gripping, the characterisation is excellent, and the production is sleek and stylish, with wonderful shots of the Australian outback calling to mind New Zealand’s Top of the Lake. By coincidence, the character of Ian Bradley is played by David Wenham, who also appeared in Top of the Lake, and there’s another well-known face in Lucy Lawless (Xena; Spartacus; Battlestar Galactica) as Alex Wisham. Dan Spielman and Ashley Zukerman create a very nice dynamic as brothers Ned and Jesse.

Shades of Top of the Lake (wide open spaces hiding secrets and lies), The Bridge (young Jesse) and Sherlock (the neat use of graphics) – what’s not to like?

Feast your eyes on that landscape

There’s an article exploring the drama with its creator Shelley Birse over in The Guardian (some spoilers). Note also the irony of an Australian political thriller being partially funded by the Australian government!

Episodes 3 and 4 aired last night, but all episodes are available to view on BBC iPlayer (1 and 2 online; 3 and 4 can still be accessed via TV and online; 5 and 6 to come).

There’s a BBC guide to the characters and cast here.

Posted in Australia, By country, TV | 22 Comments

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature goes to Patrick Modiano (who’s a bit of a crime writer)

The winner of the 2014 Novel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday. He is French writer Patrick Modiano, who appears to be extremely well known at home, but less so internationally, although some of his works have been translated into English down the years, and have won acclaim in Germany for their engagement with the wartime past.

Patrick Modiano

I’ve not read any of Modiano’s works, but am keen to do so for two reasons. Firstly, he’s of Jewish-Italian, Belgian and French extraction, and much of his writing focuses on the German Occupation of France (1940-44) and the themes of history, memory, identity and guilt.

Secondly, he’s the author of an intriguing, off-beat crime novel, entitled Rue des Boutiques Obscures (the street of shadowy shops), which was published in 1978 and received the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary prize, the same year.

The novel was translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, published by Jonathan Cape in 1980, and republished by Verba Mundi in 2004. Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the latter:

>> In this strange, elegant novel, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years, Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a one-time client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film-noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. <<

An amnesiac detective investigating his own identity and past in a post-war Parisian setting. Mmmmm, yes please!

See also: ‘Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano hailed as modern Marcel Proust’The Guardian, Thursday 9 October.

Posted in By country, Europe, France, Historical | Tagged , , | 29 Comments

#46 / Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow, trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie (London, Trapdoor, 2014)  4.5 stars

Opening line: It was the most extraordinary day of the year, pregnant with the hopes of humanity. Tomorrow, the sun would be reborn.

The prize-winning novel Forty Days without Shadow came my way as a submission for the Petrona Award. Although by a French author, it’s eligible due to its Scandinavian setting and its publication in English translation (our slightly quirky rules allow some unusual works to be considered for the prize, which is highly welcome in my view).

The author – journalist and TV producer Olivier Truc – made a documentary in 2008 on the fascinating subject of the Norwegian Reindeer Police (Reinpolitiet), which deals largely with herder disputes, and covers 56,000 square miles of Lapland with just fifteen personnel. Truc paints a wonderful portrait of this highly specialised police force in his absorbing debut novel, and in the process places the Arctic and its indigenous cultures centre stage. In these respects he has a lot in common with British author M.J. McGrath, who successfully deployed the research she carried out for her non-fiction book The Long Exile when creating her ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series, set in the Canadian High Arctic.

The Reindeer Police at work on the vidda

At the start of Forty Days, we see Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and his young partner Nina Nansen being pulled into the investigation of a theft. A priceless Sámi drum has disappeared from the local museum, and needs to be recovered before a UN conference on indigenous peoples takes place in the region. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9′ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked, and whose roots lie in both the recent and more distant past.

The novel uses its criminal investigations as a means of exploring different aspects of Lapland and its history. One fascinating point is that present-day Lapland lies across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia (see map below), which on the one hand leads to tensions, but on the other encourages international cooperation. However, those borders are relatively recent – only a few hundred years old – and are insignificant as far as the reindeer are concerned, which follow their usual migratory patterns, blissfully unaware of national jurisdictions. The borders are thus exposed as artificial constructs, imposed by colonising governments out of tune with the natural world, and prone to exploiting the land and its indigenous populations rather than safeguarding them.

The novel brilliantly evokes the winter setting of Lapland – the end of the long darkness of forty days of winter night, and the slow, welcome return of the sun, which shows itself for a scant twenty-seven minutes on its first day back. Through the interactions of various characters – some nuanced and some symbolic – we’re also shown the tensions between Norwegians and Sámi, and the impact of religion, politics and modernisation on the traditional Sámi way of life. Simultaneously entertaining and insightful, with an engrossing plot, this is a cracking debut that illuminates a world most of us know little about. The final section of the novel has shades of Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow about it too, which is never a bad thing.

As the novel celebrates Sámi culture and present-day efforts to reclaim a Sámi cultural identity, I thought I’d finish by linking to the Sámi allaskuvla or Sámi Educational College, which works with ‘the Sámi community, particularly with young people, to preserve and promote the Sámi language, traditions, occupations, skills and knowledge’, and ‘supports Sámi society’s progress towards equality with the majority society’. It celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

There’s also a nice interview with Truc, who’s based in Stockholm, on how he came to write the novel over at The Crime Vault.

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Posted in 4 stars, Arctic, Book reviews, By country, Norway | Tagged , , | 30 Comments