Shining a light on Atlanta’s history: Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (USA)

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (Abacus, 2016)

First line: It was nearing midnight when one of the new lampposts on Auburn Avenue achieved the unfortunate fate of being the first to be hit by a car.

I had seen Thomas Mullen’s Darktown recommended by a number of bloggers on their ‘Best of 2016’ lists, and snapped up a copy in Foyles a few months ago. It proved to be an excellent, hugely satisfying read.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history: the induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department for the very first time. These pioneers were Claude Dixon, Henry Hooks, Johnnie Jones, Ernest Lyons, Robert McKibbens, John Sanders, Willard Strickland and Willie Elkins (pictured below).

Atlanta’s first African American police officers, April 1948

The new black police officers faced the most difficult of uphill struggles: they were stationed at a YMCA rather than at police headquarters, and were thus effectively segregated from the rest of the force; they were assigned lowly beat duties in ‘Darktown’, as Atlanta’s black neighbourhoods were dismissively termed; they patrolled on foot without access to patrol cars; they were forbidden to arrest white suspects, and had no prospect of promotion. On top of all that, as the novel shows, they had to deal with scepticism from the African American community, whose past experience told it not to trust the police, and racial prejudice from their white police colleagues, who sought to openly disparage and undermine their efforts.

Mullen takes this scenario and breathes life into it quite brilliantly. We are shown how two sets of policemen become caught up in the investigation of a young black woman’s murder – black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw (Rake). Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and they are often used to unsettle stereotypes and easy assumptions: Lucius is the son of the highly respected and relatively affluent Reverend Boggs, and is thus part of an emerging college-educated black middle class. Smith comes from a less affluent background and served in the Second World War, like Rake, whose German mother has also given him some insights into the experience of being an ‘outsider’ in the US. These different personal perspectives create a rich and multifaceted narrative.

Map of central Atlanta, produced for the Armed Forces in 1940. The novel opens on Auburn Avenue (centre right)

The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opened this (privileged white) reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. The power of the narrative lies in its cumulative detail about segregation laws and unwritten rules, such as avoiding eye contact if you happen to be a black person talking to someone who is white. This is a shifting, uncertain world where even acts carried out with good intentions can very quickly backfire. The threat of violence is grimly real, both in particular parts of the city and in the countryside, where racism often takes cruder forms.

Darktown is beautifully written, and still feels acutely relevant today. A TV series with Jamie Foxx as executive producer is in the pipeline, and a second novel, Lightning Men, is out this September.

You can read an extract from Darktown here.

Murder in the Outback: Jane Harper’s The Dry (Australia)

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus, 2017; Hachette audiobook)

First line: Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats.  

If you haven’t read The Dry yet, then drop everything. I’d heard on the grapevine that this Australian debut was fantastic, and following a reminder from my mum (who likes to read The Times crime recommendations down the phone to me), finally managed to get hold of it.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. However, the community is still stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife Karen and six-year-old son Billy, before turning the shotgun on himself. The lone survivor of the murder-suicide is baby Charlotte, who is found unharmed in her cot at the family farm.

Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, the first time he has set foot in the town since leaving as a teenager in difficult circumstances. His intention is to leave again as soon as possible, but he’s persuaded to stay on by Luke’s mother Barb, who is convinced of her son’s innocence. After a visit to the Hadler farm and crime scene, Falk starts an informal investigation into the killings with Kiewarra’s recently appointed community police sergeant, Greg Raco, who feels that something about the case is off.

Where to start when singing this novel’s praises? The writing and characterisation are excellent. The reader is immediately drawn into the life of Kiewarra’s remote community, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. The plotting is meticulous, with Falk and Raco’s investigation providing tantalising clues as various lines of inquiry unfold. The police procedural detail is gripping, and the resolution to the case is both unexpected and completely plausible. There is also a second, parallel narrative strand – the story of why Falk and his father were forced to leave Kiewarra twenty years earlier – which is expertly woven into the main investigation. It provides a fascinating insight into teenage life in an isolated community, and, like the main narrative, shows how such communities can turn on those they deem to have transgressed social codes. Secrets and lies abound. Tension is also generated by sections in which the past and present alternate, adding layers of richness to the story.

It’s hard to believe that The Dry is Harper’s debut novel. It’s an extraordinary achievement: accomplished, hard-hitting and completely gripping. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

You can read the first chapter of The Dry here. One extra note: I listened to the audiobook version, and hearing the story told by an Australian voice was a definite plus. Stephen Shanahan’s narration was excellent (though the Scottish accent of one of the characters needed a little work!).

Australian drought

Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker, 2017)

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

Koutsakis’ Athenian Blues (Greece), Stanley’s A Death in the Family (Botswana), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (USA)

This week’s crime reading took in Greece, Botswana and America.

Pol Koutsakis, Athenian Blues, translated from Greek by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

Opening line: A few of them were kicking and screaming, but most of the immigrants followed orders, as the police shoved them out of the building.

Athenian Blues is Koutsakis’s debut crime novel and the first in his ‘Stratos Gazis’ series. Its main protagonist is a contract killer with a conscience, who is aided in his investigations by childhood friends Drag, a homicide cop, and Teri, a transgender sex worker. When Stratos is asked to carry out a hit by a beautiful Greek actress who promptly disappears, he and his friends are pulled into an increasingly baffling case.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the first-person, private-eye narrative, which makes effective use of hard-boiled PI conventions, and the quirky depictions of Stratos and his friends. The novel also makes the most of its contemporary Athens setting, providing interesting insights into recent Greek political and economic crises. However, I found being asked to identify positively with a hitman a bit of a stretch. Stratos is given a moral legitimacy reminiscent of popular TV killer Dexter (he only bumps off those who truly deserve it), and his friends seem to have no problem accepting his profession, due to their past experiences and the social upheavals of the present. And everyone seems to end up in bed with everyone else *yawn* (I am clearly getting old). An entertaining summer read, as long as you don’t take it too seriously…

Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family (Orenda Books, 2016).

Opening line: Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream.

A Death in the Family is the fifth in the ‘Detective Kubu’ series, co-written by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Originally from South Africa, they decided to start writing after a trip to neighbouring Botswana, where Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series is of course also set. While the ‘Kubu’ series portrays Botswana in a warm light, it also paints a more nuanced (and decidedly less twee) picture of modern Botswana life than McCall Smith. In this novel, Kubu has to deal with his most distressing case yet – the murder of his own father Wilmon – and two other cases that highlight the potentially mixed effects of foreign mining investments. The plot is highly satisfying, the characters engagingly drawn, and readers come away with a rich understanding of Botswana’s history and culture – from traditional funeral rites to the role of the tribal kgotla. There’s a handy glossary of Setswana phrases included at the back of the novel as well.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (originally published 1953; Audible book narrated by Tim Robbins)

Opening line: It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m always looking out for audiobooks to accompany my knitting, and jumped at the chance to listen to Fahrenheit 451, an American classic I’d never read. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel: it depicts an American future in which books are viewed as subversive, and reading or owning them has become a criminal offence (everyone is plugged into mind-numbing, round-the-clock entertainment provided by state radio and TV instead). The task of firemen in this society is not to put out fires, but to burn books – which catch alight at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The novel traces the evolution of Guy Montag, a fireman who is an unquestioning part of the system, following a chance encounter with Clarice McClellan, an intelligent, free-spirited teenager. Written in 1953, the novel is remarkably prescient, exploring the negative effects of advanced technology on social interaction, and asserts the fundamental right to question, challenge and advance ideas in literature and debate. There’s a highly charged murder in the novel as well, which has emboldened me to include it on the blog.

I can fully see why Fahrenheit 451 is regarded as a classic. The story is simply and sparely told, but communicates incredibly powerful ideas. If I’m not mistaken, Bradbury draws on one particular biblical story at the end (I won’t say which, as it would give too much away), and provides a chillingly realistic depiction of what it might be like to resist a repressive regime. There was only one moment where I felt the novel truly showed its age (again, slight spoiler; ask me to say more in the comments if you’re curious).

So how’s my TBR cull going? The scores on the doors are as follows:

Subtracted – 5

Added – 3

Progress of sorts…?

Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.

CrimeFest 2017: Krimi panel, Petrona Award, American Noir, and Icelandic Queens of Crime

As ever, CrimeFest in Bristol was a four day extravaganza of goodness. Here are a few highlights.

First ever Krimi panel at CrimeFest

The four German authors on the Krimi panel – Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe – had never met before, but you’d never have known given the lovely dynamic between them. Each brought a very different kind of crime novel to the event, which made for fascinating and varied discussion.

Clockwise from top left: Mrs P, Melanie, Volker; Jens Boyer (Goethe-Institut London), Mrs P, Mario, Merle, Melanie, Volker; Jess (Mantle), Volker, Melanie, Mario, Merle, Mrs P; Merle and Mario.

Mario is the author of a comic crime novel with a serious edge – Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions – which shows a recently widowed Aunt Poldi arriving in Sicily with the intention of drinking herself to death. Instead, she promptly becomes involved in a murder case and meets a handsome Sicilian police detective… Merle’s novel Collision is perhaps best described as a maritime thriller, and shows four vessels – a cruise liner, a refugee dingy, an Irish freighter and a Spanish rescue ship – crossing paths in the middle of the Mediterranean. Inspired by a short film shot by a cruise ship passenger, it has serious points to make about the refugee crisis and the negative effects of capitalism.

Volker writes historical crime novels – six in the ‘Gereon Rath’ or ‘Babylon Berlin’ series to date – which are set in Weimar Berlin and investigate (in part) the ways the Nazis came to power. The first novel is currently being adapted as a sixteen-part TV series by ARD/Sky, directed by Tom Tykwer, and will air this autumn. And Melanie presented her clever psychological thriller The Trap, which has done incredibly well for a debut, and is in the process of being made into a film by TriStar pictures. It features an intriguing protagonist – traumatised writer Linda Conrads – and explores the themes of grief, loss, isolation, madness and justice.

Erich the Bavarian duck was in attendance

Audience questions led to discussion of how the German authors work with their translators – Imogen Taylor, Niall Sellar, John Brownjohn, and Rachel Hildebrandt/Alexandra Roesch – and there was lavish praise for the very skilled work that they do. The authors also recommended some of their favourite Krimi writers, including Doris Gercke (‘Bella Block’ series, set in Hamburg), Jan Costin Wagner (‘Kimmo Joentaa’ series, set in Finland), Bernhard Aichner (Woman of the Dead, set in Austria) and Simone Buchholz (Blue Night, currently being translated by Rachel Ward for Orenda Books, set in Hamburg).

Thanks once again to our sponsors for making this very special event happen!

2017 Petrona Award

Saturday night at CrimeFest is always a special occasion for the Petrona team, as it’s when we announce the winner of the Petrona Award. This year the award went to Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen for his crime novel Where Roses Never Die, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Orenda Books.

Here’s what we said about Where Roses Never Die when we announced the shortlist: ‘Grieving private detective Varg Veum is pushed to his limits when he takes on a cold case involving the disappearance of a small girl in 1977. As the legal expiry date for the crime draws near, Veum’s investigation uncovers intriguing suburban secrets. In what may well be the most accomplished novel in a remarkable series, the author continues to work in a traditional US-style genre, but with abrasive Scandi-crime social commentary very much in evidence.’

Both Gunnar and Don Bartlett were at CrimeFest to accept and enjoy the award, and Gunnar paid touching tribute to his ‘perfect translator’ in his acceptance speech. Congratulations must also go to the other shortlisted authors for their wonderful crime novels – gems one and all. Sincere thanks as well to our Petrona Award sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support.

From left: Gunnar accepting the Petrona Award, flanked by Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw, Jorn Lier Horst (last year’s winner) and Adrian Muller; Barry, Gunnar, Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, Don Bartlett, Sarah Ward, Mrs P; Gunnar with Ewa Sherman

Other highlights for me included the American Noir panel, with C.J. Box (‘Joe Pickett’ series) and Bill Beverly (whose exceptional debut Dodgers has raked in prize after prize), and the Icelandic Queens of Crime panel, featuring Jónína Leósdóttir, Solveig Pálsdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. All four talked very eloquently about their work and Iceland, and also made me want to invite them to a riotous and extremely fun dinner party.

A big thank you to the CrimeFest organisers for another cracker of a year.

Clockwise from top left: Mario Giordano; Barry Forshaw with the American Noir panellists; tea with Ewa and Jacky; Barry moderating the Icelandic Queens of Crime; last but not least – Ragnar Jonasson, Melanie Raabe and Hugh Fraser after their ‘Misfits and Miscreants’ panel.

*First ever* CrimeFest panel on German crime fiction, Friday 19 May 2017

CrimeFest is nearly upon us, which means that lots of excited crime readers, bloggers, authors and publishers are getting ready for their annual pilgrimage to sunny Bristol. 

This year’s CrimeFest will be very special, because there’s a panel on German crime fiction for the very first time, with four top German crime writers being flown in by the Goethe-Institut London to discuss their works and the delights of the Krimi. I’m delighted to be moderating the panel, not least because I’ve had the pleasure of reading a host of excellent crime novels and thrillers as part of my prep. And yes, Erich the Bavarian Duck will definitely be there!

Friday 19 May, 2.50pm-3.40pm 

‘Wunderbar! The Hidden Wonders of the German Krimi’

The panel features German crime authors Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe in conversation with Mrs P. Topics under discussion will include the diverse crime models the authors use to tell their stories  – from historical crime fiction and political thrillers to psychological thrillers and comic crime – and the way in which their settings, ranging from 1930s Berlin and contemporary Sicily to the more claustrophobic confines of a cruise ship, boat or house, have shaped their work. The panel offers an excellent opportunity to see four of the brightest talents of German crime fiction in person. If you’re at CrimeFest, please do come along!

Mario Giordano

Mario Giordano has written numerous novels and YA books, as well as screenplays for the iconic German TV crime series Tatort. In 2001, he adapted his novel Black Box for film, resulting in the award-winning The Experiment (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel). Mario’s debut crime novel, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (John Murray), is his first novel to be translated into English and the first of a comic crime series set in Sicily.

Merle Kröger

Merle Kröger produces films and documentaries for international arthouse cinema, and is a scriptwriter for independent cinema in India. Since 2003, Kröger has published four novels, which combine documentary research, personal history and political analysis with elements of crime fiction. She received the prestigious German Crime Fiction Prize for Grenzfall (2013) and Havarie (2016). The latter will be published in the US in 2017, entitled Collision.

Volker Kutscher

Volker Kutscher worked as a journalist before turning to crime. His award-winning ‘Gereon Rath‘ series currently consists of six novels, which are set in a politically turbulent 1920s and 1930s Berlin. The series has been translated into ten languages, and the first two novels – Babylon Berlin and The Silent Death – are available in English with Sandstone Press. The series is also currently being adapted for TV by ARD/Sky, with Tom Tykwer directing.

Melanie Raabe

Melanie Raabe grew up in eastern Germany, and attended the Ruhr University Bochum, specialising in media studies and literature. After graduating, she moved to Cologne to work as a journalist by day and secretly write books by night. Her psychological thriller The Trap (Mantle) won the Stuttgart Crime Fiction Prize for best crime debut of the year, has been sold to more than 20 countries, and has been optioned for a film by TriStar Pictures.
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Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for making this event happen, and to RIAH at Swansea University for its support!
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International delights at Newcastle Noir (plus my top three picks)

Crime fiction with plenty of laughter and cake: my first visit to Newcastle Noir at the beautiful Lit & Phil was a hugely enjoyable experience. This Geordie crime festival has been running just three years, but featured an impressive programme of 14 panels over two days (and that’s not counting the fringe events). All credit to organisers Dr. Jacky Collins (Northumbria University) and Kay Easson (The Lit & Phil) for creating such a vibrant and wonderfully friendly event.

Given the relatively modest size of the festival, I was struck by the high proportion of international writers who were there – thanks in no small part to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, who had ten authors with her, one of whom had flown in all the way from Australia. In order of appearance:

  • Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland)
  • David Swatling (US/Netherlands)
  • Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway)
  • Thomas Enger (Norway)
  • Nina von Staffeldt (Denmark)
  • Antti Tuomainen (Finland)
  • Cay Rademacher (Germany/France)
  • Wulf Dorn (Germany)
  • Erik Axl Sund (aka Jerker Eriksson/Hakan Axlander Sundquist, Sweden)
  • Johana Gustawsson (France)
  • Camilla Grebe (Sweden)
  • Paul Hardisty (Canada/Australia)

And then there were a number of British crime authors who set their works in foreign climes: Steph Broadribb (‘Lori Anderson’ series, Florida), David Young (‘Karin Müller’ series, East Germany), William Ryan (‘Korolev’ series, 1930s Russia; The Constant Soldier, 1944 Germany), Luke McCallin (‘Reinhardt’ series, WWII Sarajevo and post-war Berlin), and Quentin Bates (‘Gunna’ series, Iceland).

The Newcastle Noir bookshop had a distinctly international flavour

A major highlight for me was chairing two ‘German’ panels: ‘German Historical Crime’ with Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, and ‘German Noir’ with Wulf Dorn and Cay Rademacher. All the authors gave fascinating, thoughtful and eloquent answers to questions about writing historical crime fiction/psychological thrillers, their settings (1930s Russia; World War II Sarajevo and Germany; post-war Hamburg and Berlin; 1970s East Germany; present-day Germany), and the research they undertook while writing their works. Lizzy Siddal has posted a marvellous write up of the two panels over at Lizzy’s Literary Life – do take a look! And for further details of the authors and their works, see my post from last week.

From top left by row: the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel; Cay Rademacher answers a question; GHF panel group photo; Cay, Mrs P and Wulf Dorn thank the Goethe-Institut London for its support; William Ryan reads from The Constant Soldier while Luke McCallin listens; the ‘German Noir’ panel; David Young and Wulf fostering Anglo-German relations; David reads from Stasi Wolf.

Here are my top three international crime fiction picks from Newcastle Noir – all by authors who are new to me:

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner (translated by Bradley Schmidt; Manilla 2017). Elisabeth was the one who got away: she was due to appear on the ‘German Noir’ panel (replacing Sascha Arango), but was unable to make it due to problems with her flight. My consolation was reading The Cleaner, an extremely accomplished novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith works for a company that specialises in cleaning crime scenes, and comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood when she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read.

Luke McCallin’s The Man from Berlin (No Exit Press, 2014). I hadn’t read any of Luke’s work before being asked to chair the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel, and was extremely impressed by The Man in Berlin, the first in the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ series. Aside from the vast amount of historical research that’s gone into the novel, I particularly liked the unusual setting for a WWII series – Sarajevo of 1943. The city is beautifully evoked, and the complex politics of the time are deftly incorporated into the narrative (which is no mean feat). The novel sees conflicted military intelligence officer Reinhardt investigating the politically charged murder of a Yugoslav film star and a German military colleague.

Paul E. Hardisty, Reconciliation for the Dead (Orenda Books, 2017). Paul was on the ‘Action Thriller’ panel and is the author of the ‘Claymore Straker’ novels. While this is the third in the series, it can be read first, because it tells Straker’s origin story, focusing on his formative years as a soldier in the South African Army in the early 1980s. That narrative is framed by Straker’s return to Africa in 1996 to testify at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I hadn’t intended to buy this book, but after hearing Paul speak it became a must-read. I was particularly struck by the author’s willingness to present the novel as a serious attempt to get to the terrible truths of South African apartheid, and to depict them in as realistic and hard-hitting a way as possible. I’m two thirds of the way through the novel now, and can tell that it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

To finish off, here are some photos of beautiful Newcastle, the Lit & Phil, and some criminally minded friends. Looking forward to Newcastle Noir 2018 already…

With thanks to Susan at The Book Trail, Vic Watson at ElementaryVWatson, Ewa Sherman and other attendees for the use of some of these photos. 

‘German Historical Fiction’ and ‘German Noir’ panels at Newcastle Noir, Sat 29 April

A week today, I’ll be chairing two wonderful German-themed panels at Newcastle Noir. If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please do come along. The events are truly excellent value (£5!) and offer a brilliant opportunity to see six outstanding British, Irish and German crime writers in action.

 

Panel 4 on ‘German Historical Fiction’, Sat 29 April, 3 – 4pm at the Lit and Phil.

*Book your tickets here*

The ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel features Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, three English-language authors who write historical crime novels and thrillers featuring German protagonists and/or German settings. We’ll be exploring each of these authors’ works and the challenges of writing on morally complex historical subjects.

Luke McCallin’s work with the UN inspired him to write the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ historical crime series, which follows a German intelligence officer in Sarajevo during the Second World War (No Exit Press). His latest novel, The Ashes of Berlin, sees Reinhardt return to Berlin, now under Allied occupation, in 1947.

William Ryan’s ‘Captain Korolev’ series, set in 1930s Stalinist Russia, has established him as a top historical crime writer. His latest novel, The Constant Soldier (Mantle), is a historical thriller set in German-occupied Silesia in 1944, and was inspired by genuine photos showing SS personnel on leave at a ‘rest-hut’ near Auschwitz.

David Young was a journalist before becoming a full-time author. His debut novel Stasi Child, set in 1970s East Germany, won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. The second in the ‘Karin Müller’ series, Stasi Wolf, was published earlier this year (Bonnier Zaffre).

 

Panel 6 on ‘German Noir’, Sat 29 April, 6.30-7.30pm at the Lit and Phil.

The ‘German Noir’ panel features three of German crime fiction’s brightest talents – Sascha Arango, Cay Rademacher and Wulf Dorn. They’ll be talking about their works, ranging from historical crime to psychological thrillers, and the vibrant German Krimi scene.

*Book your tickets here!*

Sascha Arango is one of Germany’s most prominent screenplay writers and a two-time winner of the Grimme Prize for his work on the iconic TV-crime series Tatort. His 2015 novel The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor; Simon & Schuster), features an outrageous Ripley-esque protagonist and was a Radio 2 Bookclub choice.

Cay Rademacher is the author of the ‘Stave’ trilogy (trans. Peter Millar; Arcadia), which shows Chief Inspector Frank Stave fighting crime in the ruins of 1947 British-occupied Hamburg. Cay is also the author of a series set in the Provence – the first, Murderous Mistral, will be available in English in September 2017 (St Martin’s Press).

Wulf Dorn’s first novel Trigger was an international bestseller. Since then he has published six more psychological thrillers, which have been translated into ten languages. He has won numerous awards, including the French Prix Polar for Best International Author.

The Night Belongs to Wolves

‘German Noir’ is supported by Goethe-Institut London and Swansea University.

And for a free chapter from Crime Fiction in German, just click here > https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

AND if you’re around on Thursday 27th AprilDavid Young, author of Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf, offers an illustrated talk about the real-life stories behind his novels at the Newcastle Noir fringe. This includes world exclusive photos of a mid-1970s escape with a twist which inspired a key plot point in Stasi Child. Dare you take part in a Communist v Capitalist tasting test of hazelnut chocolate spread? I’ll be helping out… Yum!

*Book your tickets here*

 

 

Heretics: Exclusive interview with top Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s foremost authors, was in London last week for the launch of his new novel, Heretics, with Bitter Lemon Press at Daunt Books. And while he was here, he kindly gave ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ an exclusive interview.

If you haven’t heard of Padura or read any of his crime novels, now is the time… Padura is a master of the genre, “whose prize-winning series of novels about Cuban detective Inspector Mario Conde has changed the face of Latin American crime writing, taking a conventional formula into the category of dark and serious literary fiction” (Jane Jakeman, The Independent).

The first four Mario Conde novels, known as The Havana Quartet, were published in Cuba in the 1990s, and a few years later in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, which has consistently championed Padura’s work. The quartet comprises Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red and Havana Black all translated by Peter Bush – and track four of Conde’s investigations in winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Padura has recently been involved in the quartet’s TV adaptation for American Netflix – entitled Four Seasons in Havana – which I very much hope we will see in the UK soon. Here’s the trailer, which gives a really good flavour of the crime novels and the starring role Havana plays in them (some explicit content):

The highly acclaimed fifth novel, Havana Fever (trans. Peter Bush), rejoins Conde in 2003. Now working as an antiquarian bookseller, he is pulled into investigating the disappearance of 1950s bolero singer Violeta del Rio.

And so we come to Heretics, the latest Conde novel, translated by Anna Kushner. It has to be regarded as something of a departure for Padura, as it’s nearly twice as long as any other novel in the series and moves far beyond the author’s usual Havana setting. I’ve read about a quarter of it so far, and am dazzled by its ambition and heart. In my view, it could be read either as a new instalment in the series or as a standalone in its own right.

Here’s the book jacket description –

“In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his parents, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure they hope will save them: a Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbour with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of the lost masterpiece. He hires Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times.

A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its centre.”

The original cover of the novel, showing the painting at the heart of the narrative.

Now it’s time for that interview!

Leonardo gave his interview answers in Spanish, and I’m very grateful to Peter Bush for providing us with this excellent translation.

Mrs. Peabody: Leonardo, a very warm welcome to the blog. Heretics, your latest Mario Conde novel, is over 500 pages long and thus significantly longer than the others in the series. Can you tell us why the story Heretics tells needed more space than those featured in the other novels?

Leonardo Padura: Novels are realms of freedom, and what that allows is the potential to exceed yourself as much as you need, to say whatever you need, always with one aim in mind: to communicate whatever you need. Moreover, this isn’t simply another novel in the Mario Conde series, but an experiment in the fusing of the historical novel and police procedural, in having more than one hero and more than one story, in mixing everything up and breaking all limits…even the number of pages.

Mrs PeabodyHeretics has incredible historical breadth. Portions of the novel are set in Poland in the 1600s, Havana and Europe in the 1930s, Havana in the 1950s, America in the 1980s, as well as more modern-day Havana. How did you go about researching the historical events you portray? And was it difficult to integrate so much history into one literary narrative? Was there a danger that the history would overwhelm the novel?

Leonardo PaduraThe research behind this novel was complex because, as you say, it involves different eras and locations. I had to study in depth Jewish culture and religion, the art of Rembrandt, Cuba in the 1940s and 50s… in order to focus on the issue of our right as individuals to exercise our freedom. I wanted it to be a reflection that went beyond a perspective locked into a single context and became as universal as the issues of freedom, free will and heresy are… And if you are a novelist you must recognise your limits and aims and try to write a novel rather than a historical essay. There is a frontier between history and fiction and you must never let it out of your sight.

Map of Cuba

Mrs PeabodyWas there a particular historical incident that inspired the novel, such as the shameful story of the Saint Louis in 1939?

Leonardo PaduraThe story of the Saint Louis is the origin of everything, but that’s all: I used it as a highly dramatic and horrific historical pretext to go in search of other stories relating to individuals who suffer the weight of history, who are condemned though they have never committed a crime, who only suffer because they are what they are or want to be. That’s why the novel is what it is.

Mrs PeabodyWhat is the significance of the novel’s title, Heretics?

Leonardo PaduraThere are various heretics in my novel, in different historical periods and places. They are individuals who decide to exercise their free will and then pay the price. Society doesn’t ordinarily accept people who refuse to toe the line, non-conformists, rebels, people who are different, and generally considered to be “heretics”… However, the world would never have progressed or changed without “heretics”. In a way, even if they don’t take up arms, they are the revolutionaries…

Mrs PeabodyHow would you categorise Heretics – as a crime novel, historical crime novel or historical epic?

Leonardo PaduraI don’t know. It is a “heretical” novel in the sense that it can be read as combining all those perspectives, and even a philosophical one. And that was what I intended. A novel that was simultaneously many different novels, in its plot, possible interpretations and structure and language.

Leonardo Padura

Mrs PeabodyWas Heretics designed to be read as a warning from history?

Leonardo PaduraTo a degree, it was. History is something that you live and when you look back, it becomes History with a capital H. While you are living it, you are often unaware that such an act, whether individual or social, may be crucial, but History relentlessly pursues us, stays with us, influences our lives and… requires careful handling!

Mrs PeabodyYou describe your detective, Mario Conde, as a ‘paradigmatic member … of the most disappointed and f*cked up generation within the new country that was taking shape’ (Heretics, 10). Can you explain to readers unfamiliar with recent Cuban history why Mario’s generation feels this way?

Leonardo PaduraMario Conde’s, my generation, grew up with and participated in the [Cuban] Revolution, with greater or lesser faith, but nevertheless participated. And we thought we would have a future that we had earned through our own efforts as students, professionals or workers… That future had a different face, it wasn’t lavish, but it existed and… then suddenly everything fell apart, because it was a dream based on another dream that turned into a nightmare. The disappearance of the USSR and, with it, the aid that sustained Cuba economically, reduced us to a state of poverty and meant we really had to struggle to survive, now without the possibility of imagining a future. We could only struggle … in Cuba or in the diaspora. Over the last few years some things have changed in Cuba and with these changes my generation has been displaced. Too young to die, too old to recycle itself and… and many people have simply felt a huge sense of failure and loss… Beginning with the dreams we once had.

Mrs PeabodyThe city of Havana plays a major role in the Conde series. Did you always intend to use the series as a way of chronicling the changes taking place there, or did that happen naturally as the series unfolded?

Leonardo Padura: I write intending to write the best novel possible, and reflect the trials and tribulations of the human condition and, at the same time, to leave a chronicle that closely follows the nature of life in Cuba over recent decades. That’s why time and space are so important. My time, my country and, of course, my city, because I am, above all a writer who is from Havana – un habanero -, who writes in the language of Havana and sets his stories in Havana… and when I wander far off in time or history, I always return to Cuba, to Havana. A Cuba and a Havana that, for sure, sometimes seem both enigmatic and alien to a character like Mario Conde.

Mrs. Peabody: Many thanks for visiting the blog, Leonardo, and for taking the time to answer those questions. It’s much appreciated!