Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children (Germany) – author interview and exclusive extract

Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins, the first in the ‘Inspector Frank Stave’ series, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Its sequel, The Wolf Children, is now out with Arcadia Books, and looks to be another exceptional historical crime novel, set in the bleak post-war Germany of 1947.

Cay has kindly answered some questions about the novels below, and there’s also an exclusive extract from The Wolf Children for Mrs. Peabody readers, courtesy of Arcadia Books.

Cay will be on the ‘German Noir’ panel I’m moderating at Newcastle Noir on Saturday 29 April, thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut London. If you’re in the area, do come along! You can see the full Newcastle Noir programme here.

Author interview with Cay Rademacher

MP: Welcome, Cay. The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are both set in Hamburg in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Why did you choose this particular location and year?

CR: I stumbled over it by chance – I did some research, as a journalist, for an article on daily life in post-war Germany. So this was the time: after 1945 and before 1949 (the Occupation years between the fall of National Socialism and the foundation of West and East Germany). And Hamburg was my home-town then, which I knew quite well.

Partly cleared bomb damage in 1947 Hamburg, photographed by Arabella Kurdi

MP: You very effectively depict life in a ruined post-war German city. How do you go about researching the detail of what it was like to experience that place and time?

CR: It’s a multi-layer approach –

  • Talk to historical witnesses and survivors.
  • Study documents from the period: police records, newspapers, letters, official documents, anything written.
  • Visit the Hamburg Museum, the city’s history museum, which has lots of things on display.
  • Historical research: interviews with historians and historical literature on the subject.
  • Films and photographs (the visual aspect is very important).
  • And, last but not least: visit all places personally. Though a lot of them have changed considerably, there are still many places to see. And even when a certain house or street has changed, there is still some kind of atmosphere there.

A Spiegel magazine cover from 1947, the year in which it was established with the support of the Allies. It’s still going strong 50 years later…

MP: Tell us a little about your investigator, Chief Inspector Frank Stave.

CR: There was a real ‘Oberinspektor Frank Stave’ in the Hamburg police, who signed a lot of documents in this period. But he is long gone and his biography is completely fictional. ‘My Stave’ was in the police even before Hitler came to power. He was never in the Nazi-party, but also never wanted to quit the service. So he feels guilty, in a way. His wife died during a night of bombing. His only son was an ardent follower of the regime and joined the Wehrmacht [the army] as a teenager in the last days of the war. He went missing fighting against the Red Army. So, working as a CID-man amidst the ruins of post-war Germany, Stave has to fight crime – and his inner demons too.

MP: Who are the ‘wolf children’, and why did you decide to make them central to the second Stave novel?

CR: Wolfskinder were, mostly, children who lost their entire families during their flight from Eastern territories around the end of the Second World War (roughly from the end of 1944 to the summer of 1946). These refugees were stranded in the cities, mostly in what would become West Germany. They formed gangs to survive. In Hamburg, which had about one million citizens at that time, there were about 10,000 to 12,000 wolf children in 1947. This, in itself, was for me reason enough to make them the tragic heroes of the novel.

The original German cover of The Wolf Children

MP: The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are part of a trilogy – the final part, Der Fälscher [The Forger], was published in Germany in 2013. Why did you decide to write a trilogy rather than a longer series?

CR: It’s a kind of circle. The Murderer in Ruins is set in the winter of 1947, which was, in a lot of ways, really Germany’s darkest hour (even more than 8 May 1945) – concerning poverty, desperation, shame, chaos. The third novel is set in the summer of 1948 – exactly during the weeks when the famous Deutsche Mark (German Mark) was introduced as new currency. This marked the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and the birth of West Germany. All of a sudden, optimism was everywhere (and the will to ‘forget’ the Nazi past). So these three novels were set in the transition period between two very different regimes, in a kind of historical no man’s land.

Extract from the opening of Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children, trans. by Peter Millar and reproduced with the kind permission of Arcadia Books, 2017 (pp.1-12).

Chapter 1. The Boy and the Bomb

Friday, 30th May 1947

The dead boy’s blood coated the five-hundred-pound British bomb like a red veil. Light coming through the shattered roof of the warehouse fell on the corpse and on the unexploded bomb, a thing the size of a man, like some monstrous fish that had buried itself in the concrete flooring. The rest of the warehouse was in darkness. It was as if the sunlight shining in on the boy and the bomb was some giant theatrical floodlight, Chief Inspector Frank Stave of Hamburg CID thought to himself.

Stave was in charge of a small team investigating the murder and had to prepare a report on the condition of the body and the presumed crime scene, take statements from witnesses, look for clues or traces of the killer. There was no question that the boy, aged about twelve, or fourteen at most, had suffered a violent death. But Stave was crouched down with a few other policemen behind the partially concealed steel frame of a broken crane, looking through a hole in the wall into the warehouse. There was just one man in the building, taking careful steps as he walked around the scrawny body of the boy and the fat bomb. He gave the corpse a brief glance before finally kneeling next to the bomb and gingerly setting down the big heavy leather bag he had been carrying in his right hand.

He was a bomb disposal expert, sent to defuse the thing. As long as the detonator was still active, it was far too dangerous for the investigation team to approach the body. I just hope he doesn’t remove any traces the killer might have left, Stave thought to himself.

The chief inspector had been alerted to the incident by a phone call just as he was starting his shift. He had gathered together a few uniformed police and set off from the CID headquarters on Karl Muck Platz. Most of them were young, wet behind the ears, appointed by the British occupation forces. Stave spotted among them Heinrich Ruge, a captain who had helped on previous enquiries.

‘The victim isn’t going to run off on us’, Ruge had called out to him rather too snappily.

Stave had said nothing, just gave a sympathetic look at the lad who had beads of perspiration leaking out from under his helmet and running down his temples. Even at the best of times the uniformed police called their tall, uncomfortable headgear ‘sweat boxes’. Today the temperature was nearly thirty degrees.

Stave thought back with a shiver to the previous winter, a merciless six months when the thermometer regularly showed between minus ten and minus twenty – sometimes even lower. And now this spring was as warm as anyone could remember. It was as if the weather was going as mad as humanity had done all too recently.

The war’s over, the chief inspector reassured himself. Ruge and another five uniforms were bent down next to him, shielded by the damaged crane, the sun right above their heads, no shade anywhere around them. He could smell their sweat evaporating. Was it just the heat? Or maybe it was fear that had them dripping with sweat?

A small, scraggy red-haired man whose freckled face was already glowing red from the sun crouched alongside them. Ansgar Kienle was a police photographer and at the moment, for lack of alternatives, Hamburg CID’s sole crime scene specialist.

Only one person seemed to be suffering worse from the sun than Kienle – Dr Alfred Czrisini, the pathologist, whose bald head was going bright red. Czrisini just happened to have a British colleague visiting when Stave called him, and was able to borrow his Jeep to drive to meet them at the crime scene. Despite his sunburn, Czrisini looked pale as his shaking hands held a Woodbine to his lips.

‘Do you think that’s a good idea when there’s a five-hundred-pound bomb being defused nearby?’ Stave hissed between his teeth, even though he knew that nobody and nothing, not even a bomb, would stand between Czrisini and his cigarettes. The doctor gave him a brief smile and shook his head, a little pale blue wisp of smoke rising from his mouth over the sea of ruins. Stave had brought his men across the Elbe in a launch to Steinwerder. Blohm & Voss shipyard lay at the hammer-shaped end of a peninsular on the southern side of the Elbe. There were two huge docks parallel to the river, and a third jutting diagonally into the shore like a giant sword. Behind the two big docks there was a third basin. All along the riverbank stood long brick warehouses, cranes lined up in rows like soldiers standing to attention, and the tangle of rails for the puffing narrow-gauge railways that brought boilers, gun barrels and steel bulkheads down to the docks. Or rather used to.

It was only a few years ago that the battleship Bismarck had been built here by Blohm & Voss. It was from here that nearly fifty per cent of the German U-boat fleet had first slid down the gangways into the sea. Stave could still see some fifteen almost finished hulls, tubes of grey steel, some sixty or seventy metres long, with the closed torpedo door flaps in their hulls, rudders, gleaming propellor screws, a few of them so new they could almost set off immediately to patrol the seas, others already half-submerged beneath the waters of the basin, like stranded whales. Two or three of the wrecks looked as if they had been beaten to death by some giant right here in the shipyard. The British and Americans had bombed Blohm & Voss again and again.

Stave looked at the mountains of rubble, stretching hundreds of metres in every direction: toppled chimneys lying on the two- to three-hundred metre docks, the walls of which had been blown in, heaps of molten metal produced in a matter of seconds in the ferocious heat. Bracken and sorrel bushes sprouted from the broken cobblestones. The old bulkheads with their shattered concrete now covered in verdigris. Beyond the last of the docks the Elbe flowed on, fast and grey. And beyond that again ruins upon ruins with only the tower of St Michael’s rising in the heat haze like some giant tombstone.

Only a few years ago, even in the CID headquarters, they could hear the sound of the jackhammers echoing across the Elbe like a low humming, as continuous and unremarkable as the gurgling sound of a waterfall: after a while you simply didn’t notice it any more.

Now it was almost totally silent. There were no ships in the docks, no sparks flying from welding machines or ice saws. The only noise came from a crane on rails at the far end of the dock, jerking and creaking as it pulled steel girders out of the ruins of a building and piled them on to a barge floating on the Elbe: material that could be melted down and recycled somewhere.

A fireman colleague of the specialist in the warehouse crawled over to the crouching police.

‘How much longer is he going to take?’ Stave asked him. He noticed that he was speaking softly, as if a word pronounced too loudly might set off the unexploded bomb.

The fireman spoke softly too, though: ‘Hard to say. Depends on what type of detonator it is, and what state it’s in. We’ve seen hundreds of bombs like that. Most of them have an ordinary detonator, one that should set the explosives off the minute it hits. Sometimes they get stuck, either because they hit a roof that was already damaged or because they were screwed in wrongly in the first place. Those we can deal with quickly enough. But some of these beasts have timed fuses set to go off hours or even days later.’

Stave nodded. He remembered how sometimes days after the horrific nights of the bombing raids, suddenly there would be an enormous boom and another building would collapse in ruins. The Americans and British had done it deliberately to make the job of clearing up the rubble more difficult – that was one of the reasons why the local Gauleiter Karl Kaufman had ordered prisoners from the Neugamme concentration camp into the ruins to do the clearing up. On two or three occasions he had been told to watch over them.

‘Those types of detonators,’ the fireman went on, ‘sometimes don’t work. When you look at them they can seem undamaged, but if you make the slightest mistake, even the tiniest vibration, the whole thing can explode in your face.’

‘Would human footsteps be vibration enough?’ the chief inspector asked him.

The fireman smiled. ‘Sometimes, yes. But not in this case. My colleague has clearly already tested that.’

‘Risk of the job, I suppose,’ Stave muttered.

‘We get extra rations cards for doing difficult work.’

‘Sounds fair enough.’ The CID man looked round and saw, about fifty metres away, a group of workers watching them morosely. Then he turned back to the figure crouching next to him.

‘How long is he going to stay there leaning over the bomb?’

The fireman nodded at the part of the roof that had caved in. ‘That’s where the bomb hit,’ he said. ‘We call that a “wall hit”, where the bomb hits the wall first, goes into a spin and eventually hits the ground at such an oblique angle that the detonator doesn’t go off properly. It’s complex. My colleague is going to be in there for an hour at least.’

‘Wait here,’ Stave ordered the uniformed policemen. They nodded, not exactly thrilled with the instruction. ‘Dr Czrisini, come with me. You too, Kienle. Won’t do any harm if we use the time to ask a few questions of the workers over there. They look like they’re bursting to help us.’

‘They look as if they think you’re more likely to explode on them than the bomb,’ replied the pathologist. He pulled himself to his feet – no easy task given his weight – grunting with the effort, and followed the two CID men.

Five men in dark reefer jackets over collarless blue-and-white striped shirts, corduroy trousers, peaked caps and with hands like shovels shot hostile looks at Stave and his companions as they approached. The chief inspector introduced himself, whipped out his police badge and handed round English cigarettes: John Player, a sailor wearing a life belt round his neck on the packet.

The men looked surprised, then hesitated, before finally grabbing them, with sounds that might even be interpreted as thanks. Stave, who was a non-smoker, had been carrying a few spare cigarettes on him for a while now. At one time he had traded them with returning prisoners-of-war down at the station for any possible information on his missing son. But ever since he had found out that Karl was in a Soviet camp in Vorkuta, he no longer needed to do that. Now he used the cigarettes to make interrogations go a bit more smoothly.

Czrisini put a Woodbine between his lips. The men stood there silently for a few minutes, blue wisps of smoke twisting in the air between the cracked brick walls, the smell of sweet oriental tobacco oddly comforting against the background aroma of bricks and lubricating oil. There was a heat haze in the air, and a stench of rubbish and dead fish rose from the Elbe. Stave could have done with a glass of water.

The oldest worker present – Stave put him at sixty or more – cleared his throat and took a step forwards.

‘Your name?’

‘Wilhelm Speck.’

He was as skinny and hard packed as a smoked sausage. Stave didn’t like to think how many times he must have heard jokes about his surname – ‘bacon’.

‘Was it you who called us?’

‘No, that was the site manager.’ He nodded towards a square redbrick building a few hundred metres away, which Stave guessed was the administration building.

‘We found the bomb,’ the man hesitated a moment before continuing, ‘and the dead boy, just after we came on shift. We ran over to the office.’

‘How long have you been working for Blohm & Voss?’

Speck gave him a surprised look. ‘Forever.’ He thought a moment and then added, “Forty-four years. If you can call the past few years “work”.’

His colleagues muttered in agreement. Even that sounded threatening.

‘You don’t exactly look as though it’s been a holiday.’

‘I’m part of the shit squad,’ the old man announced proudly.

Stave stared at him in surprise.

Kettelklopper,’ Speck said, as if in explanation. Then he realised that the chief inspector still didn’t get the message and repeated, in standard German rather than the thick Hamburg dialect: ‘Kettle knocker: we climb inside the kettles – the hulls of ships laid up in the docks for refit – and knock on the walls to dislodge any dirt.’

‘That sounds like hard work, harder than what you’re doing now.’

‘Work?’ Speck said. ‘Work is building ships or refitting them. Hammering, riveting. You start out with an empty dock and at the end a ship slides down the slipway into the Elbe. That’s what work is.’

‘And nowadays?’ The chief inspector knew what Speck was getting at, but he wanted to hear it from the man’s lips. It would make it easier for a man who wasn’t used to speaking much to answer his other questions.

‘Nowadays?’ The man was getting worked up. ‘Nowadays we’re dismantling the yard. The English want us to destroy our own workplace. Or what’s left of it after they bombed most of it to hell.’

It was true enough that the giant shipyard had been bombed to hell. Officially. Any machinery and tools had been sent off to other countries in reparation for the damage the Germans had done to them in the war. In Hamburg it was an open secret that the British wanted to close down once and for all what had been one of the best shipyards in the world. They wanted to eliminate a rival that had not just turned out warships and U-boats, but in peacetime had also built hundreds of ocean liners and freighters, orders that had more often than not been snatched from shipyards in Liverpool or Belfast.

Speck nodded towards a pile of machinery roasting in the sunshine some thirty metres away near one of the workshops: ‘Lathes, welding machines, riveting machines, milling machines,’ he said. ‘Nine months ago they made us dismantle all that stuff and leave it over there. It’s supposed to be delivered to the Soviet Union. They sent in English military police specially to keep an eye on us. And now it’s all lying there rusting away. Comrade Stalin isn’t interested in our machinery. The English just made us move it out there so it would fall apart.’

He had to be a communist, Stave reckoned. Since 1945, when the Brits allowed elections to take place again in Hamburg, one in every five shipyard workers had voted for the Communist Party of Germany. It wasn’t hard to understand, he told himself, but out loud he said, ‘You’ve been working here for two years, dismantling the shipyard, but nobody spotted an unexploded bomb lying around?”

Speck shook his head. ‘Up until 1945, U-boat spare parts were stored in here. Ever since it’s been lying empty. It was only by chance that we looked in this morning.’ He hesitated for a moment, glanced round as if he was worried somebody was eavesdropping, and added in a quieter voice: ‘All that machinery over there, we couldn’t just leave it lying there. We wanted to move it in here to…’ he was looking for the right word, ‘to keep it safe.’ And then added hastily, ‘Until the English come to take it away.’

‘Absolutely,’ Stave said in a sarcastic tone of voice. What the old man meant was they wanted to keep their tools safe until the day when they could get Blohm & Voss back up and running again. But what business was that of his? ‘And that’s when you came across the bomb with the dead body lying on it?’

‘We could hardly miss it,’ Speck said, his chapped hands shaking slightly. ‘We were shocked.’

‘How close did you get? Did you touch anything?’

They all shook their heads. ‘Touch an unexploded bomb? I’m not that tired of living yet,’ Speck said. ‘We’re forever coming across them. The bomb disposal people could set up shop here, the number of times we’ve had to call them in.’

‘So you didn’t go past the entrance?’ the chief inspector asked, glancing at the door lying open at the narrow end of the hangar, further away from the dead body than the hole in the wall they had been taking cover behind.

Speck nodded. ‘Maybe a couple of paces, then we turned tail.’

‘Did you recognise the boy?’

They all shook their heads again.

‘Could he have been an apprentice? An errand boy?’

‘No. We’re not allowed to train any more apprentices. What would we be training them for anyway? And we’ve no need for errand boys.’

Speck dithered for a moment, until Stave gave him an encouraging nod and handed over another cigarette. Then he said, ‘There are always lads running around here. Orphan kids. Refugees. Displaced persons, as they call them. Urchins with no homes and no parents to take them by the scruff of the neck. They steal anything they can get their hands on. You should know that, in the police.’

The chief inspector sighed. There were between ten and twelve thousand children living in the ruins of Hamburg. Kids of ten, twelve or fourteen years of age who had been the only ones in their families to survive the hail of bombs or the long trek west from homes they’d been expelled from. They stole coal from the freighters, pinched ration cards, worked as lookouts for black market traders or hung around the station selling themselves for sex in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a bed for the night. Some of them had even gone so far as to kill.

‘When the bomb disposal man has done his job, this man here,’ Stave indicated Kienle, ‘will take photos of the dead body. Afterwards he will pass them around the shipyard, and you need to ask all your workmates to take a look. It might be that somebody will recognise him, might have caught him up to something, chased him off. I need to know who he is, where he lived – or at least where he hung out if he was homeless. What he was doing here, in an empty shipyard hangar with a five-hundred-pond English bomb lying in it.’

After dismissing the workers with a nod, Stave and his colleagues tiptoed back to their cover next to the crane, where the uniformed police were still sitting motionlessly, dripping with sweat and scarcely daring to breathe.

‘Why would the dead boy be lying on top of the bomb?’ he asked Czrisini.

The pathologist coughed, causing the policemen to start with fright, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ll need to take a closer look at the lad – that is, providing the bomb disposal man does his job well enough.’

‘It looks as if the murderer deliberately deposited the body on a live bomb to make our investigation all the harder,’ Stave muttered.

‘Or wanted to send us a message,’ Kienle replied.

The chief inspector turned to him in surprise, and the photographer gave an embarrassed smile. ‘A dead boy lying on an English bomb – maybe the killer wanted to make a point? Tell us something? Or maybe it’s a signature of some sort?’

‘If that’s his signature, then I’d appreciate it if he used a typewriter next time,’ the chief inspector replied.

The bomb disposal man made a gesture towards his colleague who was taking cover alongside the police, then took from his pocket a longish object that looked like a steam hammer of some kind, reduced to the size of a man’s forearm, and set it on the far end of the bomb, between the stabiliser fins.

‘What’s he doing now?’ Stave asked, whispering unintentionally.

‘It’s got a timer fuse, housed at the end of the bomb,’ the disposal team man replied. ‘Shit things. The English dropped more than 100,000 bombs fitted with them, and one in seven didn’t go off. My grandchildren will still live in fear of the things; that’s if I live long enough to have grandchildren.’

He nodded in the direction of the odd piece of equipment his colleague had produced. ‘That’s what we call a “rocket clamp”, the only thing that enables you to deal with a timer fuse. In a normal fuse there’s a needle that strikes the charge and sets the whole thing off. But with a timer fuse the needle is held back by steel springs, like a bowstring. Between the needle and the charge there’s a little celluloid plate. When the bomb hits, the impact releases acetone from a little glass ampule. The chemical gradually eats away the celluloid and as soon as it does, the needle is released – and BOOM!’

‘The tricky bit about these things is that you can’t see in. It may be that the acetone was never released and the celluloid plate is still intact, or on the other hand it may equally well be that the plate is long gone and the needle could strike at any moment, but has just got stuck somehow. Then one cough might well be enough to set it off. On top of all that the way the detonators are fitted means you can’t just unscrew them. Try that and the answer’s the same: BOOM!”

‘Who on earth would think up something like that?’ Stave mumbled.

‘The same boffins who dreamed up the rocket clamp. It’s a sort of specialist spanner that means you can get at the detonator and unscrew it. A lot faster at any rate than a human being could. But most importantly, faster than the detonator can react. Any minute now my colleague is going to set off a tiny explosive charge within the clamp and that will yank the detonator out in one go. The centrifugal force within the rotating detonator will squeeze all the mechanical components together for a fraction of a second, meaning that the released needle will be delayed that tiny bit so that it can no longer detonate the bomb, because by then the detonator will already be out. Most of the time, anyway.’

The chief inspector was staring at him disbelievingly: ‘Sounds a bit like Russian Roulette to me.’

The bomb disposal man shrugged. ‘There’s always the possibility that the detonator got screwed in at an angle, in which case even a rocket clamp won’t get it out quickly enough. Then there’s always a chance that the explosive charge in the clamp doesn’t go off properly and it’s not fast enough. Nobody can be sure about that. When something like that happens, you can’t exactly ask the disposal man what happened afterwards. This is the one occupation where there’s no opportunity to learn from your colleagues’ mistakes or bad luck.’

The man in the hangar had by now carefully put the rocket clamp over the pointed tail of the bomb. He could be seen taking a deep breath. Then he made a brief movement, so fast the CID man barely noticed it. There was a short, sharp bang, like a gunshot. Involuntarily Stave caught his breath, dropped to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

Nothing happened.

Ever so slowly, he breathed out, noticing that he was shaking and that there was sweat running into his eyes.

‘Good,’ said the bomb disposal man next to him. He was already on his feet, stretching his legs. He waved through the hole in the wall to his colleague inside. ‘The detonator is out. The bomb is now just a big steel tube with a few chemicals inside. No longer a direct threat.’ He glanced at Czrisini. ‘But we’ll have to ask you not to smoke when you’re in there. It would be a pity if a spark were to drop through the detonator hole into the bomb.’

The pathologist looked bleakly into the hangar and seemed paler than ever under his suntan. Nonetheless he took long drags on his Woodbine until it was down to the tiniest of butts, and then carefully extinguished it.

Stave dusted himself down and said, ‘Let’s go and take a look at our corpse.’

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut.

Thomas Enger, Cursed (Norway)

Thomas Enger’s Cursed, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, has just been published by Orenda Books, with a rather beautiful cover that references the opening scene of the novel.

First line: Daniel Schyman knew that people would talk about this day.

Since Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’, featuring investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, various Scandi crime writers have deployed journalist sleuths to good effect. Recent examples include Liza Marklund (Annika Bengtzon), Jørn Lier Horst (Lina Wisting) … and Norwegian author Thomas Enger (Henning Juul and Nora Klemetsen).

Cursed is the fourth in the ‘Henning Juul’ series, and focuses on two complex cases: a traumatic, unresolved arson attack on Juul’s flat, and the disappearance of Nora’s old college friend Hedda Hellberg, who tells her husband that she’s going on a retreat in Italy, and promptly vanishes into thin air. And then there’s the murder of an elderly Swedish man on the first day of the hunting season, which might be related, though no one can quite figure out how.

On a narrative level, Enger manages to have his cake and eat it too. Juul’s investigation into the fire is an action-packed thriller that sees him venturing into Oslo’s murky underworld in search of information, with a particularly memorable fight-club scene. By contrast, Nora’s investigation into Hedda’s disappearance and her secret life provides a more traditional crime narrative, with Nora interviewing various members of the missing woman’s family in the course of her journalistic duties, and edging slowly towards the truth. Enger interweaves these two narrative threads with great flair: the novel is expertly plotted, with the thriller/crime elements providing stylistic variety and depth.

I particularly liked that Henning’s and Nora’s storylines are given equal weight. Both journalists are shown to be resourceful and effective investigators, and their characterisation is nuanced and believable. Once a couple, but driven apart by the fatal consequences of the fire, they are nonetheless still linked by that tragedy, and the evolution of their relationship against the backdrop of their ongoing grief is one of the novel’s key strengths.

Could readers new to the series jump in here? I’d read just one of the earlier novels prior to Cursed and managed perfectly well. But some might prefer to read the novels in order, in which case you could start with Burned (Faber & Faber).

All in all, Cursed is a very enjoyable and satisfying read. And as is so often the case with Orenda, the book is a beautiful object in its own right – gorgeous cover, high-quality paper and lovely design details. If you’re a crime lover who rejoices in the aesthetic delights of *real* books, then Orenda is most definitely for you.

Crime fiction prologues – love them or hate them?

Sometimes when you read lots of crime novels in quick succession, particular trends start to emerge. For me recently, it’s been the increasing use of prologues that are action-dominated and gruesomely violent. Perhaps I’ve had a bad run, but in the space of ten books I’ve encountered the following ‘gritty prologues’ (from male and female authors of different nationalities):

  • A man wakes to find himself bound to a table. He is tortured to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A woman arrives home in the dark, is attacked from behind and almost strangled to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A father drops his son off at a friend’s house, only to discover that the family has been brutally murdered. Told from the father’s point of view.
  • A father tries and fails to stop his daughter seeing a grisly corpse he has just uncovered in a peat bog. Told from the daughter’s point of view.
  • A stray dog scavenging for food finds three fresh corpses that will make a nice supper. Told from the dog’s point of view (!).
  • A woman is suffocated in her bed with a pillow. Told from the murderer’s point of view.

Truly. I kid you not.

A number of questions arise:

  1. What’s the aim of this kind of prologue? To grab the reader’s attention in a competitive market place? To demonstrate the crime writer’s ‘chops’ when describing extreme violence? To sell more books?
  2. Why does the violence have to be dialled up to 11, described in minute detail, and told from the victim/murderer POV? Is there some kind of grim inflation going on, with authors competing to describe ever more violent/sadistic acts? And is this really what authors/editors/publishers think readers want?
  3. Are these kinds of prologues new? A quick scout of my bookshelves tells me they’re not. Henning Mankell uses prologues in Sidetracked (1995), The Fifth Woman (2000) and other Wallander novels. So does Hakan Nesser in Borkmann’s Point (1994), George Pelecanos in The Big Blowdown (1996) and Jan Costin Wagner in Silence (2007).
  4. Do prologues feature regularly in crime before the 1990s? I’m not sure. I couldn’t find any, but haven’t done an exhaustive search by any means. It would be interesting to know when crime fiction prologues became an established feature.
  5. Has the nature of the crime fiction prologue changed? On the basis of an admittedly tiny sample, it seems to me that they have. The older prologues listed under 3. include the story of a family in the Dominican Republic, a woman reading a letter informing her of her mother’s death, and an encounter between two friends in an ambulance en route to hospital. Rather than depicting acts of violence, they give information that helps readers to make sense of acts of violence later in the narrative. The other two do portray graphic violence, but the first is leavened with black humour, and the second is vital to understanding the psychology and roles of two characters in relation to the crime. Neither are told from the POV of the victim or murderer. By contrast, the more recent prologues feel much more gratuitous, and could easily be left out without disturbing the narrative.
  6. Does a terrible prologue = a terrible crime novel? Not necessarily. In fact, there’s sometimes an odd shift in tone between the prologue and the main narrative, which suggests that the prologue could have been tacked on.
  7. Whose idea are these prologues? Do authors come under pressure to add gritty prologues from their editors or publishers or readers? Is the driving force a commercial one, and if so, is there actual proof that such prologues ‘work’ in terms of getting readers to buy books?

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But all is not lost. Just this morning I picked up a new crime novel by a certain Norwegian author. Its prologue shows a policeman receiving a letter that will help him to solve an open case from 33 years ago. Hooray!

What’s your view as a reader? Take part in the mini-polls below if you fancy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If any authors, editors, publishers or translators would like to add to the discussion they’d be most welcome 🙂 ***The polls are now closed*** 

Thanks to everyone who took part in the prologue polls. The results are now visible below.

Some thoughts on the results: In each poll, the highest-scoring response (between 47% and 53% of respondents) was a neutral one. So around half of those who took the polls didn’t have strong views about prologues or their usefulness, and didn’t feel that their buying decisions were influenced by them one way or the other. Notably, however, the second-highest response in each poll was negative. In the first poll, 29% said they disliked prologues, in the second poll, 29% felt that they were largely unnecessary, and in the third, 24.5% said that a prologue had put them off buying a book. So at least a quarter of readers don’t seem to like prologues very much or consider them largely necessary. The third-highest responses in the first two polls were more positive: 10% said they liked prologues in poll one, and 17% felt that prologues often had a useful function in poll two. In the third poll, which looked at buying decisions, almost 18% said that the prologue had influenced them in both directions (to buy and not to buy). Only 5% said that a prologue had led them to buy a book. That last finding might surprise some editors and publishers (though the percentage would go up a bit if one added more points from the ‘both’ response).

Obviously, the sample size here is small, but the results are thought-provoking nonetheless.

Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

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This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

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Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

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Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (USA)

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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Opening paragraph: “When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another man’s death. I wish I could tell you that we mourned the boy who died, but we did not. He was the one with murder in his heart and, sure enough, death found him that night. Funny how that works”.

I couldn’t resist quoting the first few lines of Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, as they constitute one of the best openings I’ve read in a while. How could anyone not want to read on?

Wilde Lake was my first book of 2017, which I found while browsing Crime Time‘s Top 20 of 2016. One of the reasons I was drawn to it – aside from the opening – was my enjoyment of another Lippman novel, After I’m Gone. Wilde Lake is a similarly engrossing, high-quality crime novel, whose key strength is the depth of its characterisation, and its ability to draw a portrait of family and community life in rich, convincing detail.

The novel is set in Columbia, Maryland, and in some respects pays homage to the author’s childhood home – Lippman grew up there and attended Wilde Lake High School. The narrative has two timelines: the present, in which 45-year-old Luisa (Lu) Brant takes on a murder case in her capacity as the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, and the past (1980 onwards), narrated by Lu herself, which may or may not have a link to present-day events. We’re given an intimate portrait of Brant family life, and in particular the dynamic between Lu’s father, a distinguished attorney, her older brother AJ, and Lu as the only girl and the youngest in the family. There are shades of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Go-Between, where we see child narrators trying to interpret complex adult events to the best of their ability.

Wilde Lake was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start this year’s reading. I found myself being pulled equally into past and present events, and particularly liked the depiction of the capable and complex Lu. There was perhaps one reveal too many in the second half, but the ending was perfectly calibrated and provided plenty of food for thought.

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Tomorrow’s going to be a tough day for many Americans. Hands across the pond, and remember to take care of yourselves. I’ll just leave this here: ‘Self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency’. It’s a good one to read if you’re going quietly mad about Brexit in the UK too.

I’m off to Berlin for a week, and am looking forward to enjoying spending time in a country that has competent politicians, a grown-up media, and excellent cake. Bis bald!

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Stop to smell the flowers (here are some from Hadrian’s Wall)

Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

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First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

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This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

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New Year crime fiction treats from Denmark, England, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Happy New Year to you all!

I hope that 2017 has started well and that you have lots of lovely crime fiction lined up as we move into a new reading year.

One of the truly splendid things about a crime blogger’s life is being sent lots of fantastic books. The picture below shows my postbag for the last month, which contains some mouth-watering delights.

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As these crime novels come from a variety of publishers, it’s interesting to see how the contents of individual parcels combine. Quite a number in this consignment are entries for the 2017 Petrona Award, which I help to judge along with Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and Karen Meek. This explains the high ratio of Scandi crime, including novels by Norwegian crime writing stars Anne Holt (special guest at last year’s CrimeFest) and Karin Fossum. The latter’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ novel The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, tr. Kari Dickson) was shortlisted for the 2016 Petrona Award.

Another Petrona entry that’s particularly caught my eye is Finnish author Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club (MacLehose, tr. Neil Smith). This novel originally appeared in Swedish (one of Finland’s official languages), is set in Helsinki in 1938, and explores the legacy of the Finnish Civil War. Two of the other novels are set around that time as well (both from Harvill Secker): Danish author Simon Pasternak’s Death Zones (tr. Martin Aitkin / Belorussia in 1943) and Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District (tr. Victoria Cribb / wartime Reykjavík). The latter is a proof copy and a very exciting bit of post, as it marks the beginning of a new series from this outstanding author (pub. April 2017).

Ragnar Jónasson’s Rupture (Orenda, tr. Quentin Bates), the latest in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series, is also one I’m very much looking forward to reading: it features a cold case from 1955, which sounds right up my street. Other delights include the latest Eva Dolan and Fred Vargas novels (Harvill Secker), Watch Her Disappear and A Climate of Fear (tr. Siân Reynolds). Both Dolan and Vargas are excellent writers, albeit with extremely different styles and authorial concerns.

Lastly, there’s been quite a lot of talk about Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker, tr. Neil Smith). It features a highly unusual female protagonist and is definitely not going to be a boring read…

So, that lot’s going to keep me busy for a while.

Which crime novels are you particularly looking forward to reading in January? 

Treats galore: Crime Time’s Top 100 Books of 2016

Using a fiendish algorithm, the good people at Crime Time have converted nominations from a selection of criminal experts into a wonderfully rich list of the year’s top 100 crime novels.

So if you’re lying beached on the sofa after Christmas dinner, or need a tiny break from your loved ones over the festive season, you could dip in here:

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The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Day 1 – #100 To 51

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Part Deux – #50 To #21

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: It doesn’t get any bigger than this! – #20 To Numero Uno

I haven’t yet checked how the list breaks down by sub-genre/gender/nation, but am looking forward to taking a closer look, as well as adding some more crime to my TBR pile. Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake has already found its way onto my bookshelf.

The panel: Barry Forshaw (Financial Times), Andre Paine (Crime Scene), Marcel Berlins (The Times), Steph Broadribb (Crime Thriller Girl), Jon Coates (Daily Express), Jake Kerridge (The Telegraph), Sarah Ward (Crime Pieces), Karen Robinson (The Sunday Times), Maxim Jakubowski (Lovereading), Kat Hall (Mrs. Peabody Investigates), Russell Mclean (russeldmcleanbooks.com), Doug Johnstone (dougjohnstone.com) and Woody Haut (woodyhaut.blogspot.co.uk)

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Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah / Happy Holidays to you all!

Here comes Santa Claus! Mrs Peabody’s 2016 Christmas recommendations

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Barter Books’ 2016 Christmas tree (photo @Argot101)

It’s snowing again on WordPress, which means it’s time for some eclectic Christmas recommendations. These might be useful when gift shopping for the crime lover in your life…or for yourself if you need a little treat. Many are new to the blog (I’ve linked back to existing reviews), and have been picked on the basis that 1. they would make lovely presents and 2. be a good read during the festive season. Enjoy!

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Lesley Thomson, The Detective’s Daughter (Head of Zeus, 2013)

Stella Darnell runs a London cleaning agency called Clean Slate. When her estranged father Detective Chief Superintendent Terry Darnell dies, she discovers files relating to an unsolved case – the murder of young mother Kate Rokesmith – in the attic of his house. Gradually, against her better judgement, Stella finds herself being drawn into the investigation.

This is an ambitious, gripping and atmospheric novel. Stella’s a great creation – a prickly and emotionally guarded figure, whose professional thoroughness and tenacity make her more like her policeman father than she would care to admit. The stories of Kate’s murder in 1981 and her son Jonathan’s subsequent life – told in flashback – are also very well delineated. I particularly enjoyed the author’s observational gifts and the way she captures the small, sometimes absurd details of everyday life (‘Terry had died fifteen minutes after the parking ticket expired’).

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Hans Olav Lahlum, Chameleon People (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2016 [2013])

It’s 1972. Norway is preparing for a referendum on its membership of the EEC, when Centre Party politician, landlord and businessman Per Johan Fredriksen is murdered in Oslo. A youth is apprehended with a bloody knife, but did he really do it? Inspector Kolbjørn ‘K2’ Kristiansen and Patricia Borchmann are once more on the case in this witty, beautifully written homage to Agatha Christie. There’s a cast of intriguing suspects, including a number of tricky ‘chameleons’, and an earlier, unsolved murder that may or may not be linked… You can read an extract from this hugely entertaining page-turner here.

Chameleon People is the fourth in the series, but works well as a standalone and would make a great-looking present (the hardback is lovely, with a bright orange flyleaf). Earlier installments, which I’d also recommend, include The Human Flies, Satellite People and The Catalyst Killing.

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Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (trans. from Spanish by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 [2011]

A Buenos Aires industrialist is found murdered at his expensive home in the gated community of Maravillosa. Author Nurit Iscar (nickname ‘Betty Boo’) is asked to cover the story by a national newspaper, and moves into the community to write a series of pieces from the scene. Before too long, she’s begun investigating the case, aided by a former colleague, the now rather jaded crime reporter Jaime Brena, and her friends.

Piñeiro is South America’s bestselling crime writer, and this novel is an excellent standalone with wonderfully realised characters. A scathing dissection of the fortress lives the rich build for themselves, Betty Boo is also a warm, humorous tribute to the importance of friendships in middle age.

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Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Doubleday, 2016 [2010])

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery, he’s drawn into investigating a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he’s assembled a team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

On the face of it, this novel doesn’t sound very festive, given the state of our poor lead investigator’s health. But the narrative is strangely uplifting, and the plotting and writing are sublime. It’s one of my favourite novels of the year, and you can read the full review here.

Like Chameleon People, The Dying Detective is part of a larger series, but can definitely be read as a standalone. Earlier novels featuring Johansson include Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End and Another Time, Another Life. These are also marvellous, but have the feel of intricate political thrillers.

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P.D. James, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Faber & Faber, 2016)

P.D. James, queen of crime fiction, sadly died in 2014, but four of her Christmas stories – written between 1969 and 1996 – have now been gathered in this beautiful little hardback volume.

Not all writers are able to pull off the short story form, but P.D James does so with some style. Her deliciously dark morality tales involve a country-house Christmas gone wrong, an illicit affair, and two mysterious murders to test a young Adam Dalgliesh. The volume is a treat for all lovers of crime fiction, and has a forward by Val McDermid.

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Joe Flanagan, Lesser Evils (Europa Editions/World Noir, 2016)

Lesser Evils is one of those exceptional debuts that punches well above its weight. Set in the summer of 1957, in the quiet Cape Cod town of Hyannis, the novel uses its investigation into the murder of a young boy to provide an authentic portrait of a small coastal community. World War Two veteran and police chief Bill Warren is a likable, nuanced character, who does his best to deal with an extraordinary case while parenting a son with learning difficulties. This is noir with a heart; a beautifully written and highly absorbing tale.

Lesser Evils would make another good-looking present. Like all Europa Editions paperbacks, the novel has an attractive, sturdy cover and flyleaf.

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David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre, 2010)

This historical novel opens in 1799 as young Dutchman Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dejima trading post near Nagasaki to make his fortune with the Dutch East India Trading Company. While not explicitly a crime novel, a terrible crime does shape the narrative, and it also features an incredibly ingenious murder.

Mitchell spent four years writing the novel, and does a remarkable job of evoking life in Japan at a time when foreign contact was highly restricted and often deemed criminal. The depiction of the growing, sometimes illicit relationship between Europeans and the Japanese – mainly via translators and interpreters – is fascinating, and shows a gradual transfer of knowledge taking place (for example about midwifery techniques). The figure of Orito, a Japanese midwife constrained by the gender expectations of the time, is particularly well-drawn. A long, satisfying read with plenty of memorable characters, this novel will transport you to another time and place.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Penguin, 2016)

This is the one I wish I’d read, but that got away, so I hope I’ll find under the Christmas tree *hint hint*. Here’s the tantalising blurb:

From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia, to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion, and to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, John le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive – reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire, or visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide, or celebrating New Year’s Eve with Yasser Arafat, or interviewing a German terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev, or watching Alec Guinness preparing for his role as George Smiley, or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humour, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood. Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.

You’ll find an extract and lots of related content here.

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Deutschland 83 (Universal Pictures UK, 2016; German with English subtitles)

This Cold War spy drama was one of my stand-out viewing experiences of 2016, and went down extremely well with UK audiences (better than in Germany, in fact).

Jonas Nay stars as young East German border-guard Martin Rausch, who is blackmailed by the Stasi into spying for West German military secrets. How will he fare, and will he manage to resist the seductions of a capitalist lifestyle? Written by Anna and Jörg Winger, a talented German/American husband-and-wife team, D83 is a genuinely thrilling ride that provides a brilliant portrait of Cold War tensions in 1983. It’s also very funny, with a killer 80s soundtrack.

See my review of the entire series here (warning – spoilers!)

library-suicides

The Library Suicides [Y Llyfrgell] (Soda Pictures, 2016; Welsh with English subtitles; based on the novel by Fflur Dafydd)

The Library Suicides stars Catrin Stewart (Jenny in Doctor Who) as twin sister librarians Nan and Ana. Following the apparent suicide of their mother, famous author Elena Wdig, they become convinced that she was murdered by her biographer Eben. The film plays out over a long and bloody night in the National Library of Wales as they seek their revenge.

This clever, stylish thriller would make perfect Christmas viewing. The film moves seamlessly from high tension, as the twins track Eben through dark corridors, to laugh-out-loud black comedy, and makes ingenious use of the library’s secret spaces as a setting. As well as exploring the effects of grief and loss, the film examines the ways in which we remember, create and tell stories about ourselves, and the effects these stories have on others.

You can read a fuller review of the film and a Q&A with Fflur here.

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If you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following publisher websites. All have lots of excellent international crime fiction on offer.

Bitter Lemon Press

No Exit Press 

Orenda Books

Europa Editions

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

Scandi Xmas

Source: littlescandinavian.com