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 | 12 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.

Creative Commons License

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Posted in 4 stars, Arctic, Book reviews, By country, Norway | Tagged , , | 29 Comments

The Pistorius trial, Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (2014) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

The international media is full of the news that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp.

Without for an instant forgetting that real people rather than fictional characters are involved in this case, it’s been fascinating watching the trial unfold, and seeing how judge Thokozile Masipa has evaluated the arguments presented by the prosecution and defence, and key points of South African law – such as the distinctions between murder (planned/intending to kill), common-law murder (intending to kill, or knowing that your actions might kill, but without malice aforethought) and culpable homicide (not intending to kill, but guilty of negligent action; akin to the British concept of manslaughter). There’s now of course lots of debate about whether those distinctions have been applied correctly.

Interesting too, is that South African crime writers have been asked for their views on the case in press coverage from South Africa to the UK, Germany and the US, thereby taking up the role of social commentators. Two interesting pieces are Margie Orford’s on ‘the imaginary black stranger at the heart of the defence’ and Deon Meyer’s on how our fascination with the case is linked to our fear of death and a need to see justice done. Both are well worth a read. (I’ve just seen another excellent piece by Orford here: a reaction to the verdict in the larger contexts of male violence and South Africa’s macho culture.)

As is often the way, the extensive discussion of the Pistorius trial has intersected with two other crime narratives currently on my radar, both of which draw on real cases and feature trials. I’ve just finished reading Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (No Exit Press, 2014), an excellent courtroom drama that explores a murder trial in the era of capital punishment (which was abolished in Britain in 1965, a year after the narrative takes place).

Based loosely on the James Hanratty case, the novel is illuminating in three key respects: it shows the tremendous pressure defence barristers were under when their client faced the death penalty; it shows how evidence has to be marshalled into a convincing narrative for the jury, who deliver the final verdict in court (a contrast here to the Pistorius case, which in accordance with South African practice had no jury); and it shows the sometimes contradictory and inadequate nature of the law (for example, murder ‘in furtherance of theft’ is deemed a capital offence, whereas murder and rape is not). Like all the best crime novels, A Matter for the Jury raises difficult legal and moral questions that are not easily resolved: it’s a rich and absorbing read.

A classic crime film, freshly re-released, has also been in the papers: Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist masterpiece Meine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Searches for a Murderer), whose child killer, played by Peter Lorre, is modelled on the real figure of Peter Kürten.

I’m delighted to see this film back in the spotlight. Brilliantly made, it contains a fascinating depiction of a trial set up by Berlin’s network of criminals, who capture ‘M’ ahead of the police. This kangaroo court features criminal boss Schränker in the role of ‘judge’, who promptly prejudices proceedings by declaring that child murderers should forfeit any legal rights due to the nature of their crimes. The argument of the lone ‘defence lawyer’ – that M cannot control his actions due to a psychiatric disorder and needs treatment by doctors – is rejected by the criminals, who are only prevented from lynching the accused by the arrival of the police.

Critic Horst Lange* convincingly argues that this scene functions as a warning allegory about the rise of National Socialism: Schränker is shown wearing a Gestapo-like leather coat, using Nazi terminology, and sweeping aside legal conventions in order to secure the result that he wants. At the same time, the film leaves the question of appropriate justice open at the end of the film, closing with a shot of the grieving mothers whose loss can never be made good. If you’ve not yet had the chance, I highly recommend a viewing: it’s an extraordinary film that’s visually stunning and remains extremely thought-provoking. It’s rightly been given a 5 star rating by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

* Horst Lange, ‘Nazis vs. the Rule of Law: Allegory and Narrative Structure in Fritz Lang’s M’, Monatshefte 101/2 (2009), 170–85.

Posted in 4 stars, Book reviews, By country, Film, Germany, Historical, South Africa | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

It’s Scandi time! Mankell’s An Event in Autumn, Indridason’s Reykjavic Nights and BBC4’s Crimes of Passion

This week, I’ve shared my evenings with two of my favourite Scandi authors, Henning Mankell (Sweden) and Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland).

A *beautiful* cover, don’t you think?

Henning Mankell’s An Event in Autumn (trans. by Laurie Thompson/Harvill Secker, 2014) was originally written for a Dutch crime event and adapted for an episode of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander in 2012. This beautifully packaged work is now published for the first time in English, and in terms of its chronology, is set just before the last novel in the series, The Troubled Man.

The book is described as a novella by the publisher and in accordance with that genre, is a little shorter than a novel. I can’t help wondering if Mankell’s title pays homage to Goethe’s view of the novella as focusing on ‘eine sich ereignete unerhörte Begebenheit’ (literally ‘an unheard of event that has taken place’ or more idiomatically ‘an unprecedented event’). Murder does fit that definition very nicely indeed.

The narrative opens in October 2002. Wallander is about to make an offer on a house when he discovers something dodgy in the garden: a long-ago crime has literally been unearthed and the policeman, with the help of daughter Linda, feels compelled to investigate, in a typically nuanced and engrossing tale. My favourite line: ‘It struck Wallander that nothing could make him as depressed as the sight of old spectacles no one wanted any more’ (p. 51).

Any hopes that more Wallander novels might be forthcoming are dashed in a little afterward by Mankell, so fans of the series had better savour this last work. However, there is an added bonus in the form of an essay by the author entitled ‘How it started, how it finished, and what happened in between’. Lots of lovely insights for the melancholy Ystad detective’s fans.

An Event in Autumn is published by Harvill Secker on 4. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.

As if that wasn’t enough, I then received a copy of Arnaldur Indridason’s Reykjavik Nights in the post (trans. by Victoria Cribb/Harvill Secker, 2014). I’d been hugely looking forward to this prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series and was barely able to put it down: it’s a wonderfully absorbing read that traces Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a young woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are given new insights into Erlendur’s character and how a traumatic childhood event will shape both his personal life and investigative career.

As was the case with Mankell’s The PyramidReykjavic Nights is a great introduction for new readers to the series. Alternatively, for those of us who have already had the pleasure, it provides a valuable context in which to place the ‘later’ works. Mr. Indridason, if you’re reading this, please do feel free to add some more… Takk fyrir!

Reykjavic Nights is published by Harvill Secker on 18. September 2014. With thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy. If you’re interested in Icelandic crime, then Iceland Noir, which takes place in Reykjavik from 20-23 November 2014, is also worth checking out.

And finally, some important BBC4 Saturday evening crime news. Today, 30th August 2014, sees the start of a new six-part Swedish series based on the 1950s novels of Maria Lang (the pseudonym of Dagmar Lange, a well known and prodigious crime author). The first episode of Crimes of Passion, entitled ‘Death of a Loved One’ airs at 9.00pm. The BBC4 summary is as follows:

>> Puck Ekstedt is invited by her university tutor to celebrate midsummer at his summer house on a secluded island, together with a group of friends including Einar Bure. Puck and Einar (Eje for short) are secretly courting and he is the reason she accepts the invitation. The summer nights are seductively beautiful until Puck finds one of the female guests murdered. Einar contacts his best friend Christer Wijk, a police inspector, to investigate. In the meantime, they are trapped on the island – and someone among them is a killer. <<

The series has been described as Mad Men meets The Killing. This sounds a bit too good to be true, but I will reserve judgement until this evening. You can see a short clip from the first episode on the BBC4 website.

Posted in 5 stars, Book reviews, By country, Iceland, Sweden, TV | Tagged , , , | 30 Comments

Dutch Delights

We recently spent ten days in The Netherlands and thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, two very different cities united by their easy-going feel and superb transport systems. Pedestrians, bikes and trams are given just as high a status as cars, and the result is a thoroughly civilized and less polluted urban experience. That and regular portions of apple pie with whipped cream made for a very pleasant trip.

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Classic ‘sit up and beg’ bikes in Amsterdam, which work best on the flat!

While there, I read Herman Koch‘s bestseller The Dinner (Het Diner), which was published in 2009 and has been translated into over twenty languages. It was an interesting reading experience, as the image it presented of Dutch society felt totally at odds with the tolerant and relaxed society I was seeing around me.

The Dinner (trans. by Sam Garrett, Atlantic Books, 2012) depicts the events of one evening, interspersed with flashbacks, during which brothers Paul and Serge Lohman and their wives Claire and Babette meet for a posh dinner in Amsterdam. While seemingly two affluent and civilized couples enjoying gourmet food, the truth is somewhat different: the purpose of their meeting is to discuss how to deal with their teenage sons, who recently committed a shocking crime. No one yet knows the identity of the culprits, and so the question is how to proceed. Needless to say, there is some disagreement among the four, which ends up casting the Dutch middle classes in a rather unfavourable light.

Like the novellas of French author Pascal GarnierThe Dinner reveals the savagery lurking beneath the civilized exterior of polite society, its capacity for violence when threatened, and its willingness to sacrifice others in order to protect its own.  While a targeted critique of Dutch society, the novel also raises plenty of questions about class, parenting, family relations, moral choices, the individual’s capacity for violence, the nature vs nurture debate, and the fragility of liberal values. It’s a compelling and unsettling read.

A Dutch film adaptation of The Dinner appeared in 2013, and Cate Blanchett is set to make her directorial debut with an English-language adaptation soon.

Reading Koch’s work has whetted my appetite for more Dutch crime fiction. In particular, I’ve got my eyes on Harry Mulisch’s The Assault (1985), a hybrid crime novel that explores the repercussions of a resistance assassination in occupied Holland in 1945. (Mulisch is one of The Netherland’s best-known writers and died aged 83 in 2010 – see his obituary here). An excellent CrimeTime overview of Dutch crime fiction has also given me some useful pointers – ‘Crime Scene: The Netherlands’.

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The aforementioned Dutch apple pie, with plenty of cinnamon.

Posted in Book reviews, By country, Europe, Netherlands, Sweden | 12 Comments

Norwegian, Scottish and English crime … with a hint of Hitchcock

My crime reading has been quite varied recently. I’m picking books more or less at random, depending on my mood and what crosses my path courtesy of publishers or charity shop finds. My last three have been about as different from one another it’s possible to be, but all have been excellent (if sometimes unsettling) reads. I’ll start with the most recent one and then move back in time.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (trans. from Norwegian 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. I hugely enjoyed this ‘contemporary classic’ and look forward to reading the other novels in the K2 series soon. (Something a little different for us to consider for the 2015 Petrona Award as well…)

Thanks to the good people at Canongate, I’ve now been properly introduced to the work of Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, who’s highly regarded by luminaries such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina. The first in the ‘Laidlaw Trilogy’, named for its engaging lead investigator, maverick policeman Jack Laidlaw, was originally published in 1977, and paints a detailed picture of Glaswegian society through its exploration of a young woman’s murder. The novel’s characterisation is complex and sensitive, and shows tremendous sympathy for those marginalised by their social status or sexuality in a less enlightened era. I imagine it would have broken new ground in the 1970s, and it’s stood the test of time extremely well. McIlvanney, who’s a versatile writer and poet, is appearing at this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.

Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox), was a Golden Age crime writer whose novel Before the Fact appeared in 1932 (republished by Arcturus in 2011). There’s no genial private investigator in sight, however. Instead, we’re plunged into an unsettling psychological thriller, narrated by Lina McLaidlaw, a plain but wealthy woman married to the charming but worryingly amoral Johnny Aysgarth. As time goes by, Lina’s suspicions that Johnny is capable of murder grow, and she fears she’ll be next on his list. But is she just being paranoid? While dated in some respects, the novel holds good as an astute dissection of power relations and abusive relationships, and has one of the most unsettling endings I have ever read. Alfred Hitchcock used it as the basis for his 1941 film Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, but softened the ending, presumably for commercial reasons. If you’re interested in classics of the genre, this is a must read.

Posted in 5 stars, Book reviews, By country, Film, Historical, Norway, Scotland | 16 Comments

Crime in the summertime

I’m still busy writing, editing and researching, but am allowing myself the odd foray into international crime fiction as the summer sun works its magic. Here are some gems:

Happiness Is Easy

Happiness is Easy (published 17 July 2014 by Doubleday) is the second novel by Brazilian author Edney Silvestre. Its story is deceptively simple – the kidnapping of the wrong child from a rich man’s chauffeur-driven car – but is told with elegant brilliance, moving from past to present in such a way that we gain in-depth portraits of the characters involved while following the fall-out from the crime. Silvestre, who’s also a journalist, uses the genre to critique the corruption of Brazilian politics, the gulf between rich and poor, and the booming kidnap ‘industry’. It’s a bleak read in places, although not without hope. Nick Caistor does a great job translating from Brazilian Portuguese, and I’m now keen to read more from the country hosting the Football World Cup.

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs (trans. by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press, 2014) comes to us already garlanded with prizes – it won the 2012 Riverton/Golden Revolver Prize and the 2013 Scandinavian Glass Key. I’m not remotely surprised, as this eighth novel in the William Wisting series (the third to be published in English) is one of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read. Much has been made of Horst’s extensive policing experience, but for me, it’s the fantastic writing, plotting and characterisation that stand out in this novel, which sees Wisting suspended due to irregularities in a past case. Forced to re-investigate the murder of Cecilia Linde from the outside, he is helped by journalist daughter Line to uncover the truth. A top-notch summer read.

American author Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, but it’s one that I go back to every now and then, because it’s such an original crime novel. Set in the summer of 1973, it’s narrated by Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a neighbour at the age of fourteen and witnesses the aftermath of the crime from her ‘heaven’. You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds horribly mawkish, but the concept is brilliantly pulled off for the most part, and offers a sensitive portrayal of the effects of a murder on the family and friends of the victim. Be warned: when I first read the novel one summer holiday I found it *highly* addictive. It was subsequently made into a film by Peter Jackson (2009), which received mixed reviews.

Meanwhile, on the research front…

I’m about to start a 1968 crime novel by French-Jewish writer Romain Gary, entitled The Dance of Genghis Cohn. I came across it by chance when reading a piece on German film* and was immediately intrigued. It tells the story of a post-war murder investigation led by a Bavarian police chief (so far, so conventional), who is haunted by a Jewish comedian he murdered while an SS officer under National Socialism. Quite a starting point, isn’t it? Blackly humorous, it’s also an uncompromising critique of post-war West Germany’s reluctance to engage with the Nazi past. Intriguingly, it was adapted for television by the BBC in 1994 (starring Anthony Sher and Robert Lindsay) – something to follow up after reading the book.

*Frank Stern, ‘Film in the 1950s: Passing Images of Guilt and Responsibility’, in Hanna Schissler (ed.), The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany 1949-1968, (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 266-80.

Posted in America, Book reviews, Brazil, By country, Europe, France, Norway | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Happy Valley (UK 2014) and Top of the Lake (New Zealand 2013)

Given the international focus of this blog, it’s not often that I watch home-grown British crime drama. But having caught the first episode of BBC One’s Happy Valley, I’ve been completely gripped, and tonight’s hotly anticipated finale did not disappoint. This hard-hitting six-part series, which traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, is superbly written (by Sally Wainwright) and directed (by Wainwright, Euros Lyn and Tim Fywell). Lead actress Sarah Lancashire gives an *absolutely outstanding* performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, with an excellent supporting cast.

West Yorkshire policewoman Catherine Cawood strides forth. Image: BBC

I’m prepared to say that this is the best crime drama I’ve seen all year, with perhaps one exception … the New Zealand crime drama Top of the Lake, which I watched on DVD in March (aired on BBC Two in 2013). It’s equally well written (by Jane Campion of The Piano and Gerald Lee) and directed (by Campion and Garth Davies), with Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men in the lead role of Detective Robin Griffin. This time, the investigative focus is on the disappearance of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Tui Mitcham.

Tui at the lake. Image: BBC

Aside from their quality, the dramas have a striking number of things in common:

  • Both feature wonderfully strong female investigators, who have each experienced the impact of crime in their own lives. These past traumas – and their identities as women and mothers – shape their responses to the crimes that they witness in the present.
  • There is a focus on gender and power, with both dramas showing women having to negotiate and survive extreme male violence. (There’s been media debate about whether Happy Valley is too violent, but in my view, it effectively illustrates the reality of certain types of crimes and isn’t gratuitous). In each case, older women step in to protect younger women when they can.
  • Both dramas are set in socially deprived areas, where criminality has become a way of life for many. But they also point a finger at the supposedly respectable middle classes, who are not as morally upstanding as they pretend to be (there’s a nice touch of Fargo in Happy Valley).
  • Each makes excellent use of landscape – the importance of which is indicated by the series’ titles. Top of the Lake uses haunting images of New Zealand’s South Island to suggest the isolation of its central characters. Happy Valley’s ironic title and the rolling Yorkshire countryside are used to highlight the disparity between the physical beauty of the setting and the violence within it. (Thanks are due to Elena, whose cracking post on True Detective and its use of landscapes got me thinking about this aspect of the dramas).
  • And I know I’m repeating myself, but …. fantastic actresses in complex, nuanced, gritty, challenging, leading, female investigator roles. More, more, more of these women please!

Elisabeth Moss as Det. Robin Griffin.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to see these dramas, then you have a treat of the highest order before you. Enjoy!

Good news: it looks like there could be a second series of Happy Valley according to this Radio Times interview with Sally Wainwright. Warning: Lots of spoilers!

And here’s a review of the finale by Mark Lawson for The Guardian.

Posted in By country, England, New Zealand, TV | 28 Comments

CrimeFest 2014 / International Dagger / Petrona Award

I’m just back from CrimeFest in Bristol and am floating on a fluffy cloud of contentment after three days of great panels, excellent company and awards bling. Here are some highlights (more will follow).

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Euro Noir panel (left to right): Barry Forshaw, Lars Kepler (Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril), Jørn Lier Horst, Paul Johnston, Dominique Manotti and Ros Schwarz

The Euro Noir panel on Saturday was probably my favourite of the weekend. In a wide-ranging discussion, the authors explored the nineteenth-century origins of European crime fiction during the rise of capitalism (Dominique Manotti), the role of the translator as the voice of the foreign author (Ros Schwarz), the use of Euro Noir to probe the uses and misuses of power (Paul Johnston, Manotti, Jørn Lier Horst), crime writing and journalism (Manotti), the influence of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (the Lars Keplers), the low status of crime writing in France (Manotti), the influence of crime dramas such as The Wire on crime fiction (Johnston), and, prompted by an audience question, the relative lack of black European crime writers and protagonists.

What I liked in particular was Manotti’s unapologetic view that crime writing should be used to ‘tell the truth’ about political and social issues – ‘otherwise what’s the point?’. This contrasted with lots of British authors during the weekend, who, when asked about the place of ‘issues’ in their work, took the more or less default position that entertainment came first and the serious stuff second (because the latter ‘puts readers off’). Johnston wondered whether the UK is more conservative when it comes to writing socio-political crime than other European nations, and that’s got me wondering too (although obvious exceptions spring to mind like David Peace’s excellent Red Riding/ Yorkshire Noir quartet. I’m sure there are also others).

Manotti is a crime-writing star in her native France, and if you haven’t yet read her work I would thoroughly recommend it. You can read my review of Affairs of State here.

The panel coincided with the launch of Barry Forshaw’s new book Euro Noir, which provides an excellent road-map to European crime fiction and lots of great reading suggestions, even for those who have already read quite a bit. With my Germanic hat on, I can say that the section on ‘murder in the German-speaking territories’ is impressive – the man really has done his homework.

German crime fiction was predicted to be one of the next big things by the Euro Noir panel. And lo, the shortlist for the CWA International Dagger, announced at CrimeFest on Friday, features a German novel, Simon Urban’s Plan D. Here’s the full list, with further details on the CWA website.

Arnaldur IndridasonStrange Shores, tr. Victoria Cribb (Iceland)
Pierre LemaitreIrene, tr. Frank Wynne (France)
Arturo Perez-ReverteThe Siege, tr. Frank Wynne (Spain)
Olivier TrucForty Days without Shadow, tr. Louise Rogers LaLaurie (French author, but set in Lapland)
Simon UrbanPlan D, tr. Katy Derbyshire (Germany)
Fred VargasDog Will Have His Day, tr. Siân Reynolds (France)

Last, but most definitely not least, the 2014 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel  of the Year was awarded on Saturday to Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, as in the Linda Murder, translated by Neil Smith. 

In his acceptance speech, read out by Barry Forshaw on his behalf, Leif said:

My character Superintendent Evert Bäckström is actually not a nice person. He embodies pretty much every human prejudice – and then some – and he does so proudly and wholeheartedly. He feels that he is not only God’s gift to humanity but also the object of every woman’s secret fantasies. I myself, am a fully normal person – but there is a joy that he brings me when I tell the story of his life and times.

Now he and I have received an award. A very fine English award, which makes me especially happy as a large part of my family lives in England. There is one person with whom I most profoundly want to share this honour and that is my excellent translator Neil Smith who has succeeded in making this Swede, with his spiritual and physical roots in the Stone Age, at least intelligible for an educated Anglo-Saxon public. Thank you!

Shortlisted authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Jørn Lier Horst attended the CrimeFest Gala dinner and were highly commended for their crime novels. It was a brilliant field and we judges had a very tough choice to make!

One of my favourite photos from the weekend: Sarah Ward (Petrona judge) with shortlisted author Jørn Lier Horst – in traditional Norwegian dress.

 

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