Marigolds & murder: Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Cassandra Darke (UK)

My work recently has involved lots of screen hours and acres of text, so when I saw that Posy Simmonds’ new graphic novel Cassandra Darke was out, and that it had a distinctly criminal slant, I knew instantly what my next read would be. As expected, it’s been a thorough delight.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Opening line: ‘Last December – the 21st to be precise, and not so long before they came to arrest me – I remember buying macaroons in Burlington Arcade’.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s beautiful. Simmonds’ artwork, as ever, is exquisite, and is presented in hardback on high-quality paper, with gorgeous design touches like a yellow ribbon bookmark and yellow flyleaves, which match the yellow title and Cassandra’s Marigolds on the front cover. Just having the book in your hands is an aesthetic pleasure.

Simmonds is known for taking literary classics as a point of departure – for example, 2007’s Tamara Drewe was a contemporary reworking of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The inspiration for Cassandra Darke is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, although elements from the original story (such as the apparitions) are woven in with the lightest of touches.

The most obvious similarity to Dickens’ story is the Scrooge-like characterisation of Cassandra, who’s a well-heeled art dealer living in a £7 million house in Chelsea, London. Completely self-sufficient, she lives life very much on her own terms, which is laudable in some respects, but not in others, as she’s often inconsiderate, abrasive and rude. Like Scrooge, she’s forced to go on a journey of personal discovery, partly because she overreaches herself in the art world, and partly because she gets drawn into a messy and potentially criminal situation by her lodger Nicki, the daughter of Cassandra’s ex-husband. In fact, the whole novel is stuffed with crimes – an unexplained body and art fraud are just the beginning – with Cassandra taking on the mantle of detective at one point.

Cassandra braves the tube.

I loved Cassandra’s distinctive narrative voice, but the cast of characters around her, from lodger Nicki and ex-husband Freddie to Corker the dog, are all beautifully observed. Simmonds’ has a gift for capturing the cadences of dialogue, and of course the way in which she draws her characters and their settings tells us a huge amount about them as well. She also skilfully incorporates some trenchant social commentary on the wealth divide in London, on urban loneliness, and on various aspects of gender, class and violence. It’s only when you come away from the novel and start to mull on its themes that you realise how much the author has packed in.

Having read Cassandra Darke once – primarily to get to the bottom of the crimes – I’m now keen to read it again. The story is told in three sections (the middle one a flashback), and I’d like to explore that narrative structure a bit more. But mainly, I’d like to spend some time just looking at the artwork and admiring how Simmonds melds images and words. This is a book that will keep on giving.

Feast your eyes on a lengthy extract from the opening of Cassandra Darke over at The Guardian.

And you can read an interview with Posy Simmonds here: ‘Women in books aren’t allowed to be total rotters’

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Mystery Road (Australian crime drama, BBC iPlayer)

If you’re based in the UK and fancy watching some top-notch international crime drama over the weekend, then I have a recommendation for you. Mystery Road is a fantastic Australian six-parter that’s currently available on BBC i-Player (though be warned that the first two episodes will only be around until Monday).

Mystery Road is set in a tiny, arid dot of a town called Patterson in north-western Australia. The opening episode shows two workers from the sprawling Ballantyne Station discovering an abandoned truck in the middle of the outback. Its driver, their co-worker Marley Thompson, has disappeared without trace.

Local Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case, but soon wishes she hadn’t, as she finds some of his working methods and lack of communication difficult to deal with. They form an uneasy alliance, and as the investigation unfolds, we see not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the wider community, but how past events and long-held secrets have a bearing on what’s taking place.

An uneasy alliance: Emma James and Jay Swan

I have a real soft spot for Australian crime drama – The Code and Deep Water are particular favourites. But both of those had a quite edgy, urban, high-tech feel, whereas Mystery Road takes us right out of the city and channels the American Western (the classic maverick investigator with his stetson and gun riding out into wild country).

What Mystery Road also gives us is a proper, nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community. There are at least eight prominent characters with Aboriginal backgrounds – including lead investigator Jay Swan, and this gives the series a markedly different viewpoint to other Australian crime dramas I’ve seen. We’re shown how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his brother Cedric and mother Kerry (Deborah Mailman), and on his friend Shivorne Shields (Tasia Zalar), but also how Swan’s status as a policeman makes life both easier and harder for him when trying to glean information from the tight-knit community.

mystery-road-5

Deborah Mailman as Kerry Thompson

The other thing I LOVE about this series is its stunning cinematography, which has a stylish earth-from-the-air feel. The red, brown and ochre tones of the desolate desert landscape, and the sheer scale of the land are beautifully communicated to the viewer. Hats off to director Rachel Perkins, cinematographer Mark Wareham and art director Loretta Cosgrove.

One of the fabulous overhead shots from the series.

I haven’t yet watched the whole of Mystery Road, but am finding its measured pace, nuanced characterisation and depiction of small-town life extremely satisfying. In addition, the great acting by a number of Australian luminaries and wonderful visuals make this the perfect weekend treat.

John le Carré’s Single & Single, and a Penguin Modern Classics giveaway!

On 27 September, John le Carré will become the living author with the greatest number of works to have been published by Penguin Modern Classics: 21 in total, which also happens to be all of his works

This is an astonishing achievement, which underlines the author’s status as one of the most important writers of our time. Since 1961, le Carré has famously portrayed the political and human fallout of the Cold War in his epic Smiley series, but his other novels have been equally ambitious and compelling, from The Constant Gardener to A Most Wanted Man to The Little Drummer Girl.

The Little Drummer Girl, first published in 1983, becomes the latest addition to the le Carré Penguin Modern Classics set on 27 September. Its tale – of how young British actress Charlie is pulled into an Israeli operation to ensnare an elusive Palestinian terrorist – will also shortly reach our screens in a lavish six-part BBC One adaptation starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Shannon and Charles Dance. The director is Park Chan-wook, who my son tells me is a defining auteur of South Korean cinema.

Florence Pugh as Charlie in the new BBC One adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl

To celebrate this multitude of riches, Penguin has asked 21 bloggers to review the 21 le Carré novels in the Modern Classics series, and to help give away lots of books!

The novel I’ve been asked to explore is Single & Single.

Single & Single may not be a le Carré novel you have heard of before. Published nineteen years ago in 1999, it’s been rather overlooked, which is a shame as it’s something of a gem.

As in many le Carré novels, the reader is dropped right into the middle of the story. Three curious events are linked, but how? An corporate lawyer from the House of Single & Single is shot dead in cold blood on a Turkish hillside – by the firm’s top client. Children’s entertainer Oliver Hawthorne is asked to explain why five million and thirty pounds have appeared in his daughter Carmen’s bank account. The splendidly monikered financier Tiger Single vanishes into thin air. How these threads interweave is stylishly revealed over the course of the narrative.

Single & Single contains a number of le Carré’s authorial trademarks. It’s a wide-ranging exploration of how respectable institutions mask and service international crime. It traces the way in which individuals find themselves sucked into complex situations in which they struggle to maintain any semblance of control. It examines the uneasy partnership between the government agencies and the people they often use shamelessly to achieve their (sometimes laudable) aims. And it takes on Big Universal Themes: the nature of loyalty, father-son relationships, integrity, morality and love.

Two things stood out for me as a reader. Firstly, Single & Single feels very timeless – the scenarios it outlines are still highly plausible in the world we inhabit today. And one character – a villain who claws his way up by exploiting the worst facets of capitalism following the fall of Russian communism – now feels particularly relevant. Secondly – what’s this? – a hint that one of the characters may be given something approaching a happy ending? How very un-le Carré! Of course you’ll now have to read the novel to see how it all turns out…

And so to the GIVEAWAY: Mrs Peabody has a copy of The Little Drummer Girl and a copy of Single & Single to give away to two lucky blog readers.

Just write YES! in a comment below the post to be entered into the draw – no matter where you are in the world. Winners will be selected randomly and notified in due course. Good luck!

The giveaway draw will close at 23.59 on Saturday 29 September

Exclusive extract from Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (Italy)

To celebrate the publication of Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (trans. by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press), we have an exclusive extract from the novel on ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ today.

And if that weren’t enough of a treat, UK readers also have the opportunity to see Gianrico Carofiglio live in conversation next week. He’ll be appearing on Wednesday 19th September at Waterstones in Bath, and on Thursday 20th September at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. Do come along if you get the chance!

For those of you who’ve not yet discovered Carofiglio’s work: he is one of Italy’s best known crime writers, whose novels draw on his experiences as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime. As well as examining the role of the Mafia in Italy, and response of the Italian police and judiciary to its diverse threats, Carofiglio’s works explore contemporary issues such as immigration, racism and justice – as seen in his acclaimed novel Involuntary Witness, featuring defence counsel Guido Guerrieri.

The Cold Summer is the first of Carofiglio’s works to feature Pietro Fenoglio, a Carabinieri officer working in Bari, Puglia (in southern Italy, just at the top of its heel). The novel is set in the cold summer of 1992, which was ‘cold’ not just because of its unseasonable temperatures, but because it was the summer in which two prominent Sicilian anti-Mafia prosecutors were killed – a major setback in the fight against organized crime.

The cover of the original Italian novel (2016)

The novel focuses on the local Mafia wars in Puglia in the early 1990s, and is based on true events. Fenoglio, at a melancholy ebb after being left by his wife, is asked to investigate the killing of a Mafia boss’s son. The most likely suspect is a rival member of the Mafia, but something about the case doesn’t feel right to Fenoglio, who probes further, with the help of his colleague Pellecchia.

A hard-hitting and multilayered novelThe Cold Summer gives readers a fascinating, detailed insight into the workings of the Mafia and the judicial system, as well as showing the enormous pressures faced by the police and public prosecutors when battling organized crime. It’s absorbing and gripping in equal measure, and the central investigative character of Fenoglio, as the extract below shows, is a complex and intriguing one.

 

Extract from The Cold Summer

Translated by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press 2018. Reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Act One – Days of Fire

Chapter 1

Fenoglio walked into the Caffè Bohème with the newspaper he’d just bought in his jacket pocket and sat down at the table by the window. He liked the place because the owner was a music lover and every day chose a soundtrack of famous romantic arias and orchestral pieces. That morning, the background was the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and given what was happening in the city, Fenoglio wondered if it was just coincidence.

The barman made him his usual extra-strong cappuccino and brought it to him together with a pastry filled with custard and black cherry jam.

Everything was the same as ever. The music was discreet but quite audible to those who wanted to listen to it. The regular customers came in and out. Fenoglio ate his pastry, sipped at his cappuccino and skimmed through the newspaper. The main focus of the local pages was the Mafia war that had suddenly broken out in the northern districts of the city and the unfortunate fact that nobody – not the police, not the Carabinieri, not the judges – had any idea what was going on.

He started reading an article in which the editor himself, with a profusion of helpful advice, informed the law enforcement agencies how to tackle and solve the phenomenon. Finding the article engrossing and irritating in equal measure, he did not notice the young man with the syringe until the latter was already standing in front of the cashier and yelling, in almost incomprehensible dialect, “Give me all the money, bitch!”

The woman didn’t move, as if paralysed. The young man held out the hand with the syringe until it was close to her face. In an impressively hoarse voice, he told her he had AIDS and yelled at her again to give him everything there was in the till. She moved slowly, her eyes wide with terror. She opened the till and started taking out the money, while the young man kept telling her to be quick about it.

Fenoglio’s hand closed over the robber’s wrist just as the woman was passing over the money. The young man tried to jerk round, but Fenoglio made an almost delicate movement – a half turn – twisting his arm and pinning it behind his back. With the other hand, he grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back.

“Throw away the syringe.”

The young man gave a muffled growl and tried to wriggle free. Fenoglio increased the pressure on his arm and pulled his head back even further. “I’m a carabiniere.” The syringe fell to the floor with a small, sharp sound.

The cashier began crying. The other customers started to move, slowly at first, then at a normal speed, as if waking from a spell.

“Nicola, call 112,” Fenoglio said to the barman, having ruled out the idea that the cashier might be in a fit state to use the telephone.

“Down on your knees,” he said to the robber. From the polite tone he used, he might have been expected to add: “Please.”

As the young man knelt, Fenoglio let go of his hair but kept hold of his arm, although not roughly, almost as if it were a procedural formality.

“Now lie face down and put your hands together behind your head.”

“Don’t beat me up,” the young man said.

“Don’t talk nonsense. Lie down, I don’t want to stay like this until the car arrives.”

The young man heaved a big sigh, a kind of lament for his misfortune, and obeyed. He stretched out, placing one cheek on the floor, and put his hands on the back of his neck with almost comical resignation.

In the meantime, a small crowd had gathered outside. Some of the customers had gone out and told them what had happened. People seemed excited, as if the moment had come to fight back against the current crime wave. Some were yelling. Two young men walked into the café and made to approach the robber.

“Where are you going?” Fenoglio asked.

“Give him to us,” said the more agitated of the two, a skinny, spotty-faced fellow with glasses.

“I’d be glad to,” Fenoglio said. “What do you plan to do with him?”

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again,” the skinny fellow said, taking a step forward.

“Have we ever had you down at the station?” Fenoglio asked them, with a smile that seemed friendly.

Taken aback, the man did not reply immediately. “No, why?”

“Because I’ll make sure you spend all day there, and maybe all night, too, if you don’t get out of here right now.” The two men looked at each other. The spotty-faced young man stammered something, trying not to lose face; the other shrugged and gave a grimace of superiority, also trying not to lose face. Then they left the café together. The little crowd dispersed spontaneously.

A few minutes later, the Carabinieri cars pulled up outside and two uniformed corporals and a sergeant came into the café and saluted Fenoglio with a mixture of deference and unconscious wariness. They handcuffed the robber and pulled him bodily to his feet.

“I’m coming with you,” Fenoglio said, after paying the cashier for the cappuccino and the pastry, heedless of the barman’s attempts to stop him.

Chapter 2

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Fenoglio said, turning to the back seat and addressing the young man he had just arrested.

“I used to stand near the Petruzzelli in the evening when there was a show on. I parked people’s cars. You must have seen me there.”

Of course – that was it. Up until a few months earlier he had been an unlicensed car park attendant near the Teatro Petruzzelli. Then the theatre had been destroyed in a fire and he had lost his job. That was how the young man put it: “I lost my job,” as if he had been working for a company and they’d dismissed him or closed down. So he’d started selling cigarettes and stealing car radios.

“But you make hardly anything at that. I’m not up to doing burglaries, so I thought I could rob places with the syringe.”

“Congratulations, a brilliant idea. And how many robberies have you committed?”

“I haven’t committed any, corporal, would you fucking believe it? This was my first one and I had to run into you, for fuck’s sake.”

“He isn’t a corporal, he’s a marshal,” the carabiniere at the wheel corrected him. “Sorry, marshal. You aren’t in uniform, so I had no idea.

I swear it was my first time.”

“I don’t believe you,” Fenoglio said. But it wasn’t true. He did believe him, he even liked him. He was funny: his timing when he spoke was almost comical. Maybe in another life he might have been an actor or a stand-up, instead of a petty criminal.

“I swear it. And besides, I’m not a junkie and I don’t have AIDS. That was all bullshit. I can’t stand needles. If talking bullshit is a crime, then they should give me a life sentence, because I talk a lot of it. But I’m just an idiot. Put in a good word for me in your report, write that I came quietly.”

“Yes, you did.”

“The syringe was new, you know, I just put a bit of iodine in it to look like blood and to scare people.”

“You do talk a lot, don’t you?”

“Sorry, marshal. I’m shitting my pants here. I’ve never been to prison.”

Fenoglio had a strong desire to let him go. He would have liked to tell the carabiniere at the wheel: stop and give me the keys to the handcuffs. Free the boy – he still didn’t know his name – and throw him out of the car. He had never liked arresting people, and he found the very idea of prison quite disturbing. But that’s not something you broadcast when you’re a marshal in the Carabinieri. Of course, there were exceptions, for certain crimes, certain people. Like the fellow they’d arrested a few months earlier, who’d been raping his nine-year-old granddaughter – his daughter’s daughter – for months.

In that case, it had been hard for him to stop his men from dispensing a bit of advance justice, by way of slaps, punches and kicks. It’s tough sometimes to stick to your principles.

It was obvious he couldn’t free this young man. That would be an offence – several offences in fact. But similarly absurd ideas went through his head increasingly often. He made a decisive gesture with his hand, as if to dismiss these troublesome thoughts, almost as if they were entities hovering in front of him.

“What’s your name?” “Francesco Albanese.”

“And you say you’ve never been inside?” “Never, I swear.”

“You were obviously good at not getting caught.”

The young man smiled. “Not that I ever did anything special. Like I said, a few cigarettes, a few cars, spare parts.”

“And I guess you sell a bit of dope, too, am I right?” “Okay, just a bit, where’s the harm in that? You’re not arresting me for these things as well now, are you?”

Fenoglio turned away to look at the road, without replying. They got to the offices of the patrol car unit and Fenoglio quickly wrote out an arrest report. He told the sergeant who had come on the scene to complete the papers for the Prosecutors’ Department and the prison authorities, and to inform the assistant prosecutor. Then he turned to the robber. “I’m going now. You’ll appear before the judge later this morning. When you talk to your lawyer, tell him you want to plea-bargain. You’ll get a suspended sentence and you won’t have to go to prison.”

The young man looked at him with eyes like those of a dog grateful to its master for removing a thorn from its paw. “Thank you, marshal. If you ever need anything, I hang out between Madonnella and the Petruzzelli – you can find me at the Bar del Marinaio. Anything you want, I’m at your disposal.”

This second reference to the Teatro Petruzzelli put Fenoglio in a bad mood. A few months earlier someone had burned it down, and he still couldn’t get over it. How could anyone even think of such an act? To burn down a theatre. And then there was the absurd, almost unbearable fact – God alone knew if it was a coincidence or if the arsonists had wanted to add a touch of macabre irony – of burning it down after a performance of Norma, an opera that actually ends with a funeral pyre.

The Petruzzelli was one of the reasons he liked – had liked? – living in Bari.

That huge theatre which could hold two thousand people, just ten minutes on foot from the station where he worked. Often, if there was a concert or an opera, Fenoglio would stay in the office until evening and then go straight there and up to the third tier, among the friezes and the stucco. When he was there, he could almost believe in reincarnation. He felt the music so intensely – that of some composers, above all baroque ones, especially Handel – that he imagined that in another life he must have been a kapellmeister in some provincial German town.

And now that the theatre was gone? God alone knew if they would ever rebuild it, and God alone knew if those responsible would ever be tracked down, tried and sentenced. The Prosecutor’s Department had opened a case file to investigate “arson by persons unknown”. A good way of saying that they hadn’t the slightest idea what had happened. Fenoglio would have liked to handle the investigation, but it had been entrusted to others, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“All right, Albanese. Don’t do anything stupid. Not too stupid, anyway.” He gave him a slap on the shoulder and walked off in the direction of his own office.

At the door he found a young carabiniere waiting for him. “The captain wants to speak to you. He’d like you to go to his office.”

**********

Captain Valente was the new commanding officer of the Criminal Investigation Unit. Fenoglio hadn’t yet decided if he liked the man or was made uncomfortable by him. Perhaps both. He was certainly different from the other officers he’d had to deal with during his twenty years in the Carabinieri.

He had arrived only a few days earlier, bang in the middle of this criminal war that didn’t yet make sense to anyone. He came from Headquarters in Rome, and nobody knew why he had been sent to Bari.

“Come in, Marshal Fenoglio,” the captain said as soon as he saw him at the door.

That was one of the things that puzzled him: Captain Valente addressed everyone formally, always using rank and surname. The unnamed rule of behaviour for officers is that you use rank and surname towards your superiors and call your subordinates by their surnames, or even their first names. And of course, among those of the same rank, first-name terms are the rule. Among non-commissioned officers, things are less clear, but in general it’s rare to find the commanding officer of a unit being so formal with all his men.

Why did he behave in that way? Did he prefer to keep a distance between himself and his subordinates? Was he a particularly formal man? Or particularly shy?

“Good morning, sir,” Fenoglio said.

“Please sit down,” Valente said, motioning him to a chair. That combination of formality and cordiality was hard to make sense of. Then there was the decor of the room: no pennants, no crests, no military calendars; nothing to suggest that this was the office of a captain in the Carabinieri. There was a TV set, a good-quality stereo, a sofa and some armchairs; a small refrigerator and some pictures in an expressionistic style, somewhat in the manner of Egon Schiele. There was a slight perfume in the air, coming, in all probability, from an incense burner. Not exactly a martial kind of accessory.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for the past two days.

I’m afraid I’ve come to Bari at a bad time.”

“That’s true, sir. And with the lieutenant’s accident, you don’t even have a second-in-command.”

The lieutenant had broken a leg playing football and would be out of action for three months. So the unit had found itself with a new captain who had no knowledge of the city and its criminal geography and was without a second-in-command, all in the middle of a Mafia war.

“Can you explain what’s going on in this city?” Valente said.

 

Further information about The Cold Summer can be found at Bitter Lemon Press here.

Interview with New Zealand crime writer Nathan Blackwell – 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award finalist

I’m delighted to welcome New Zealand crime writer Nathan Blackwell to the blog today for a Q & A.

Nathan has just pulled off an impressive double by being shortlisted for both the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award *and* Best Novel Award for The Sound of her Voice: One Cop’s Decent into Darkness. He drew extensively on his own experience of policing in Auckland when writing the novel, and uses a pseudonym due to his past as an undercover cop.

Book blurb: For Detective Matt Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He’s probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s fourteen-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in starting to crumble. He’s forced across that grey line that separates right and wrong – into places so dark, even he might not make it back.

Nathan has kindly taken the time to answer some questions about his policing experience, the novel’s key themes, and how he was inspired by the TV series True Detective. 

Mrs P: Nathan, you spent the best part of a decade in the New Zealand Police, working in the Criminal Investigation Branch and undercover. Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of investigations you were involved in?

Nathan: The most common cases were armed robberies (of commercial premises), serious violence (broken bones, stabbings) and the spectrum of sexual offences. Those were daily occurrences, unfortunately, and while you initially work them with your team, invariably somebody ends up the sole investigator moving forwards, and you’re pretty much on your own. And of course there were murders. They’re treated differently – it’s a team effort all the way through, and you usually get assigned to a specific role, whether it’s focusing on the crime scene, the witnesses, or the suspect. Later in my career, I was involved in proactive organised crime investigations – drugs. Not users or street dealers but the higher tiers – meth cooking and large importations. It’s a different type of work – instead of responding to a tragic event, the crime is already happening and you have to sniff it out and gather evidence without the suspects knowing you’re doing it. It’s sneaky, it’s clever, it’s more of an outside-the-box approach as opposed to the more clinical general work.

Photo Nathan Blackwell

Mrs P: What made you decide to write The Sound of Her Voice, and to what extent is it based on your own experiences?

Nathan: Writing a novel was a bucket list wish, but I felt I had a bit of an advantage when it came to police procedure. I was scared it’d be boringly realistic though, so I needed to go darker than the mainstream, really kick things up a notch with that internal voice. It was always present for me, so I knew I had to feature it in the story. And the various crimes in The Sound of Her Voice are all on some level based on things that have happened… some I worked on, others I heard about through colleagues, and some are loosely based on high-profile crimes that may ring bells with many people.

Auckland skyline (Wiki Commons)

Mrs P: The subtitle of the novel is ‘One Cop’s Descent into Darkness’. The cop in question is Detective Matt Buchanan, who undergoes a traumatic experience as a young policeman early on in the novel. Is a key focus of the novel the cumulative damage that certain cases and experiences can inflict on individual investigators?

Nathan: Absolutely. That’s a key theme throughout the novel, and I wanted to realistically portray how a good person can end up in a horrific place. In some ways, it’s a show of empathy with anyone who ends up on the wrong side of the law. How can we judge if we haven’t walked in their shoes? But it’s definitely an examination of the stresses that law enforcement officers find themselves under. If people can read the novel and look at police differently afterward, perhaps with a bit more understanding, then I’ve achieved one of my main aims I think.

Mrs P: Why did you decide to narrate Matt’s story using the first-person voice?

Nathan: Haha – that’s a two-part answer, but an easy one. Firstly, I’m no literary genius (I can barely recite the alphabet), so anything else was going to be quite an effort for me to pull off. But I always wanted that perspective from the main character – that internal voice constantly at odds with their actions. That was crucial to telling the story, and the only way to do that justice was to get inside Matt Buchanan’s head in the first-person.

Mrs P: How important was it to you that the police detail in the novel was authentic?

Nathan: Very. I’d like people working in law enforcement to read it and go “yep, it’s been beefed up but that’s pretty much how it’s done, that’s pretty spot on”. I also wanted the reality of policing out there, so readers can get an inside look at how it’s really done, how cops really think and act, and the toll that takes…rather than a glossy, fun version of policing that overlooks the reality for the sake of an exciting plot.

Mrs P: You were raised in Auckland, where the novel is set. What sort of impression do you think UK readers will get of New Zealand’s biggest city when reading the book?

Nathan: That’s a good question. I hope it comes across as pretty Kiwi in essence, but I’ve definitely painted a much darker Auckland than you’d ever see if you visited. That’s the point I guess – police see that side of the city every day, whereas visitors and even residents don’t. The story mostly takes place on the rural fringes too – so hopefully I’ve showcased some of the scenery that Auckland has to offer. I promise there aren’t that many bodies just lying about in the swamps and on the beaches!

Mrs P: In a Radio New Zealand interview, you likened The Sound of Her Voice to the American TV series True Detective. Could you say a little about the affinities between the two?

Nathan: I’d say I was inspired by True Detective, rather than directly comparing the novel to that show… I was drawn into that series by how dark it was – it was just episode after episode of nothing good ever happening. I wanted to explore that, how people can experience that and yet somehow continue to function… right up until it all comes crashing down, of course. True Detective did a scarily good job of examining the worst humans can do to each other … it definitely steered me down the path of darker thinking.

Mrs P: If you were asked to recommend a couple of New Zealand crime writers to British audiences, who would you pick and why?

Nathan: Paddy Richardson – great NZ settings, and great plots that focus on the people involved, rather than the various crimes that have taken place. Her stories are psychological, smart, and authentically Kiwi. Also Paul Cleave – a unique, twisted perspective on our third largest city of Christchurch. His novels are original, clever – and will make you squirm more than you’d like to.

Many thanks, Nathan!

ABOUT NATHAN BLACKWELL: Nathan was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and had a ten-year career in the New Zealand Police. Seven of those years were spent as a Detective in the Criminal Investigation Branch. Because some of his work was conducted covertly, Nathan chooses to hide his true identity. THE SOUND OF HER VOICE is his first novel. It will be published in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in 2019.

Find Nathan Blackwell on Facebook

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The 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best Novel Award finalists

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer (Spain) #WITMonth

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Bitter Lemon Press 2018 – published 15 August)

First line: A number of us woke up this morning when the storm broke, only to find another corpse in the cave.

Teresa Solana has carved out a distinctive space for herself as a crime writer with her ‘Barcelona’ crime series, featuring private detective twins Borja and Eduard. Irreverent and satirical, her novels deconstruct Catalan society, puncturing the pretensions of rarefied literary circles or the New Age meditation scene. One of the murder weapons in The Sound of One Hand Killing is a Buddha statue, which gives you some idea of the wicked humour that infuses Solana’s writing.

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is something a little different – a collection of crime stories that shows the author at her most freewheeling and inventive. Take for example the eponymous opening story, which is set in prehistoric times, but whose detective caveman, Mycroft, seems to have an in-depth knowledge of psychological profiling and investigative terms – all very tongue-in-cheek. Narrators range from a concerned mother-in-law and spoiled museum director to a vampire and a houseful of ghosts, with each story giving Solana a chance to stretch her imagination to the full – crime, humour and the grotesque are mixed in equal measure into a vivid narrative cocktail.

For me, however, it was the second half of the book that stood out – a set of eight stories under the heading ‘Connections’ – almost all set in Barcelona, and all linked in some way. In a note to readers, Solana describes the stories as a ‘noirish mosaic that shows off different fragments of the city, its inhabitants and history’ and then throws down a gauntlet… ‘Reader, I am issuing you with a challenge: spot the connections, the detail or character that makes each story a piece of this mosaic’.

Well, it took me a while, but I had the greatest of fun figuring out the links between the stories (some really are just a passing detail, and I can only imagine the devious pleasure the author had in planting them). My favourites were ‘The Second Mrs Appleton’, for its deliciously twisted denouement, and ‘Mansion with Sea Views’, whose conclusion was unexpectedly dark and disturbing.

As some of you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation’ month  (#WITMonth), an initiative that seeks to promote the works of international women authors, and to highlight the relative lack of women’s fiction in translation. Big thanks are due to Bitter Lemon Press for championing the work of Solana in the English-speaking world, and to her translator, Peter Bush, who does such a wonderful job of communicating Solana’s very special authorial voice.

And here, in no particular order, are another five crime novels by women in translation that I’ve particularly enjoyed and covered on the blog.

Masako Togawa, The Master Keytranslated from Japanese by Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017) – 1960s character-driven Tokyo crime with a twisty-turny plot. 

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from Greek by Yannis Panas (Black and White Publishing 2013) – a mind-bendingly imaginative apocalyptic hybrid crime novel.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleanertranslated from German by Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017) – a quirky Berlin thriller with an unforgettable protagonist. 

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, translated from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins, 2015) – the first in a distinctive police series, set in the Basque country.

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster 2017) – our 2018 Petrona Award winner; a superb exploration of the fallout from a school shooting.

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (UK)

Nothing beats a leisurely weekend browse in my local bookshop. While I love discovering new reads online, there’s a special pleasure in picking up a physical book you had no intention of buying, and realising that you have to have it, because it’s exactly what you fancy reading right now.

This is how I came by Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders, which first caught my eye due to its quirky title and beautifully designed cover. And once I realised it was a science fiction / crime mash-up, I was completely hooked (next to crime, SF is probably the genre I have the greatest weakness for…)

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz, 2017)

First paragraph: ‘Where we are and where we aren’t. Where we can and cannot go. So, for example: human beings were not allowed onto the factory floor. The construction space was absolutely and no exceptions a robot-only zone. Human entry was forbidden. Nevertheless, and against all the rules, a human being had been there.’

The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. As the opening paragraph indicates, it shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory floor where the car has just been manufactured is completely off-limits to humans. So how on earth did the corpse get into the boot?

This nifty locked-room mystery is immediately given an added twist: the crime is committed in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures many citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. Even those who stay in the Real, like Alma, are almost permanently plugged into their feed, and navigate a world in which AI robots are ubiquitous. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it unleashes, are explored via the high-octane drama Alma finds herself caught up in. And there’s one important additional constraint that ratchets up the narrative tension: Alma must return to her partner every four hours on the dot to administer life-saving drugs (and it absolutely has to be her and no one else for a fascinating reason I won’t reveal here).

Watch out for: a famous director in a cameo role…

Alma is a great character – clever, resourceful and tough. And if I’m not mistaken, almost every other major character in the book – goody and baddie alike – is a woman. How refreshing is that?! The writing is sparky, noirish and packed to the brim with wry humour – such as when Alma gets into a chatty AI-taxi and unceremoniously says ‘small talk deselected’, after which it falls into a sulky silence.

The entire novel is a rollicking, highly inventive and hugely enjoyable ride that raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions about our future relationship with technology. If you fancy something completely different, look no further. The sequel, By the Pricking of her Thumbs, is also on its way.

Cover reveal! Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge (Orenda Books)

It’s a pleasure to reveal the cover for Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge, the Hamburg crime writer’s second novel with Orenda Books – which will be out in February 2019, translated by Rachel Ward.

Love that neon lettering! And the significance of that very arresting image becomes a little clearer when you read this teaser from Orenda:

Simone is a wonderfully engaging crime writer. If you haven’t yet read the first in the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, Blue Night – beautifully translated by Rachel Ward – then head over to Orenda Books for a peek. And you can read a great interview with Simone here. Key takeaway – ‘everyone needs a beer family’.

🙂

Simone pictured in her beloved Hamburg

The East Long Beach Sherlock: Joe Ide’s IQ (USA)

Joe Ide, IQ (Mulholland Books, 2016)

First lineIsaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual.

I’d heard lots of good things about Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, and on finishing it, can say that this novel is easily one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. It’s a remarkably polished debut that introduces us to a wonderfully original detective, tells an absorbing coming-of-age story, and treats us to a cracking crime investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny.

The opening immediately had me hooked. It starts out with one of those depressingly familiar prologues in which a creepy guy in a pick-up truck is stalking a young girl with malevolent intent. As a seasoned crime reader you think, uh oh, I know exactly where this is going. And then it begins to go the way you thought it would…until all of a sudden it very much doesn’t, heading off in such a gloriously unexpected direction that you feel like cheering. And at that moment, you know you’re in for something very special.

Isaiah Quintabe – or IQ – is an unlicensed African-American private investigator who lives in Hurston, a deprived neighbourhood on the edge of East Long Beach in Los Angeles. He solves ‘local cases where the police could not or would not get involved’, and as he often takes payment in kind (sweet potato pie, a new tire or a live chicken), finances are tight. Which is a problem because there are hefty bills to pay. Isaiah’s cash-flow difficulties will force him to work with Juanell Dodson, a hustler and former housemate of IQ’s, with whom he shared a dark chapter of his adolescence. And Dodson will provide the key to learning about IQ’s past and its consequences, while also accompanying him into the world of rap to solve the central investigation.

Things I loved about this novel: it takes features we associate with iconic detectives – especially Sherlock Holmes and Easy Rawlins – and fuses them into a highly original PI whose intelligence sizzles off the page, but who also knows how to handle a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. It effortlessly entwines IQ’s backstory with the present-day narrative and crime investigation. It creates three-dimensional characters who are often extremely flawed, but who also ring true, while leavening their depictions with an affectionate, sardonic humour. It’s gripping, authentic, beautifully written, and a lot of fun.

You can read an extract from the first chapter of IQ on Joe Ide’s author website.

The second in the series, Righteous, is already out, with the third, Wrecked, on its way this October.

The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…