Two compelling female detectives: Rachel (The Girl on the Train) and Maud (Elizabeth is Missing)

I’m writing this post from under a pile of essays – or at least it feels that way. In any case, time for a quick breather from marking to flag up two interesting reads, both from the UK.

While on a train journey recently, I couldn’t resist starting Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (Riverhead 2015), a psychological thriller that’s been a huge word-of-mouth hit. Its ‘accidental detective’ is Rachel Watson, a rail-commuter who in true Rear Window fashion, sees something disturbing out of the window that will change her life. The novel is a very enjoyable ride (albeit with a few too many coincidences towards the end), but what I particularly liked about it was its characterisation. Rachel, whose life has disintegrated since the end of her marriage, is a complex creation who gives a vivid insight into the destructive effects of alcoholism. She makes for a very intriguing investigator, especially as her drinking means she sometimes can’t trust her own memory.

The author is originally from Zimbabwe, although she’s lived in the UK for many years. There’s an interesting Guardian article on her and the novel here.

Rachel reminded me of another excellent female investigator I encountered recently – 82-year-old Maud Horsham in Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing (Viking 2014). Maud is also investigating a mystery – the disappearance of her best friend Elizabeth – and does so in the most difficult of circumstances: she has dementia and her memory, or rather lack of memory, is constantly tripping her up. A gripping psychological crime novel, Elizabeth also offers the reader a sobering and moving exploration of what it’s like to live with dementia – both for Maud as an individual and for her family. Like Rachel, Maud is portrayed as a determined, characterful, complex woman. I enjoyed meeting both of them very much.

Come to think of it, we could add Christine Lucas from S. J. Watson’s Before I go to Sleep to these two. Do we have a little subgenre emerging?

Posted in 4 stars, Book reviews, By country, England | Tagged , | 10 Comments

London calling: Forensics, European crime fiction…and cake

I’m just back from a couple of crime-filled days in London. The main reason for my visit was to speak at a symposium on European crime fiction and data visualisation (of which more later), but I travelled up a day early in order to see the Forensics exhibition at The Wellcome Trust.

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The Wellcome Trust is by Euston Square station. Get there early, as it’s a popular exhibition

I’ve already written about the Forensics exhibition in a previous post, so here’s a summary of the parts I particularly liked.

  • Its focus, as one would expect, is scientific, but it also incorporates photography and artwork reflecting on violence, murder and its aftermath, which provide some genuinely thought-provoking perspectives.
  • Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Nutshell Study of Unexplained Death’ – a crime scene recreated in a dollhouse for police training purposes in the 1940s – was fascinating for its miniature juxtaposition of detailed handcrafts and gruesome homicide.
  • Room 4, which explores how forensic archaeologists have gathered evidence of political and war crimes in Chile, Rwanda and Yugoslavia, was highly moving in its emphasis on bearing witness and justice.
  • The vast array of exhibits yielded wildly diverse treasures such as exquisite drawings of deadly plants, a porcelain Royal Doulton morgue table and Sir Bernhard Spilsbury’s hand-written autopsy cards (although I did wonder how the poor victims would have felt about having their personal details on public display…).
  • I took some great new definitions and phrases away with me: the word ‘autopsy’ means ‘to see with one’s own eyes’ and constitutes ‘the last chance to question the dead'; Eduard Locard, head of the first police crime lab in Lyon, introduced ‘the exchange principle’, based on the theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (perpetrator on victim and victim on perpetrator), and Erle Stanley Gardener asserted that medical experts giving evidence at trials ‘must serve but one client, and that client should be truth’.

A note of warning: the exhibition is not for faint-hearted, as some of the images and commentary it contains are extremely graphic. I was grateful for a strong and steadying cup of coffee in the Wellcome Cafe afterwards. But I would highly recommend a visit – see the exhibition website for more details here.

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Drawing breath in the Wellcome cafe…

Friday was spent at the British Library, taking part in the symposium ‘Towards a Digital Atlas of European Crime Fiction?’ – part of an AHRC project run by Dominique Jeannerod and Federico Pagello of Queen’s University Belfast. The project is evidence of how rapidly the ‘digital humanities’ – which explore the contribution of ‘big data’, technology and data visualisation to humanities research – are expanding, and was of course particularly interesting as it considered these areas in relation to European crime.

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Eduardo Paolozzi’s statue of Isaac Newton at the British Library

The morning was spent hearing the project contributors’ findings. What I liked about this section was the chance to see some data visualisations, to discuss the metho-dological and technical challenges involved in their creation (e.g. getting from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean data’), and to get an idea of the kinds of case studies involved (French, Hungarian and European crime). I had expected the speakers to be evangelical about digital research, but they discussed its advantages and disadvantages in very even-handed and thoughtful ways – such as the capacity of ‘distant reading’ to make trends visible against the time that inputting and cleaning data can take. The project is designed to have an exploratory function and as someone considering increased use of digital methods in my research, I found these reflections very useful indeed.

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Federico Pagello (Queens), discussing ‘dirty’ vs ‘clean data’

The afternoon saw presentations from researchers on diverse digital tools and analysis in research on Czech, French, New Zealand and German crime (the latter from yours truly, on my Nazi-themed crime fiction database and this blog), as well as a talk from Samuel Schwiegelhofer of the Paris Bibliothèque des littératures policières (BiLiPo – a library dedicated to crime fiction!). That was followed by a marvellous keynote from Ian Sansom (crime author and academic), which ranged from the work of theorist Franco Moretti to the horse’s head in The Godfather and Ian’s garden shed.

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Professor Ian Sansom with his shed. Photo by Federico Pagello

All in all, the symposium was a rich and valuable experience, not least because it provided the chance to meet like-minded researchers from around the world, and has made me think deeply about my own research and its digital possibilities. Many thanks to the organisers for making it such a successful event.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project, then take a look at the International Crime Fiction Research Group blog or follow the group on Twitter – @crimefictionrg. A website with lots of useful resources is on its way.

Last but not least, the trip provided a great opportunity to meet friends and co-conspirators from the crime blogosphere, including Jacky Collins, Andy Lawrence, Ewa Sherman and Sarah Ward. There were pilgrimages to The Scandinavian Kitchen and Maison Bertaux (the latter, London’s oldest patisserie, was a great find courtesy of Andy).

Large amounts of cake may have been consumed.

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Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

Big news this week: the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed ‘Millennium Trilogy’ is well on its way. The cover and English title – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – were revealed by MacLehose Press on Monday, although its contents will remain firmly under wraps until publication on 27 August. Here’s what we know: the sequel is ‘based on Larsson’s universe and characters’, is written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz; will be published in Sweden by Norstedts; is titled Det som inte dödar oss  (That Which Doesn’t Kill Us) and is currently being translated into 38 languages. Below, from left to right, are the American, British and Swedish covers, which are interestingly varied:

The Girl in the Spider's Web.jpg 

Like many, I have rather mixed feelings about the publication of the new novel. On the one hand, I thought the trilogy had a pretty perfect resolution and am not sure it could be bettered. On the other, I loved Lisbeth Salander and am keen to see how her story develops. I don’t envy Lagercranz the task of taking on such a weighty literary legacy – it must be hugely difficult to find a voice and narrative that are faithful to the original, but more than pure mimicry. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s found a way through. For more information, see this Guardian article by Alison Flood.

There was another interesting article in The Guardian yesterday by Val McDermid, entitled ‘Why crime fiction is left-wing and thrillers are right-wing’ (thanks to Vicky Newham for flagging this up on Facebook).

In it McDermid argues (with help from Ian Rankin) that ‘the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the Krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote. The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”’

 

That got me thinking hard about whether these political distinctions hold up more widely. While I can think of plenty of examples to support McDermid’s argument – especially in the context of European crime – I can also think of a number of exceptions. Golden Age crime fiction is often thought of as being ‘conservative in style, setting, characterisation, subject matter and socio-political views’, with a dubious social order in relation to class, gender and race being restored at the end of the narrative (quote from Lee Horsley’s excellent chapter on ‘Classic Detective Fiction’ in Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, OUP, pp. 12-65, p. 39). Hard-boiled crime fiction features private investigators not known for their tolerance or diplomatic skills. They may well be critical of the status quo, but are often shown delivering violent, eye-for-an-eye justice rather than handing criminals over to the law so they can be properly put on trial. There’s an interesting discussion on these points in an article by Arlene Teraoka, which explores the lack of a private eye tradition in German crime fiction – arguably due to the P.I.’s fascistic tendencies – and the post-war preference for paternalistic police inspectors who guarantee a democratic social order (who also have their conservative sides…).

Equally, two exceptions in relation to thrillers spring to mind. John le Carré’s works are highly critical of the power wielded by governments and shady secret services, and repeatedly highlight the price vulnerable individuals pay in these larger political games (e.g. The Spy who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Most Wanted Man). I also read a very good Swedish thriller in the course of my Petrona judging duties that raises big moral questions about the conduct of national intelligence agencies in wartime – Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer.

In sum, different crime genres/subgenres are flexible enough to be employed for liberal or conservative political ends, and elements of both can even co-exist alongside one another in individual texts. But I’ll be bearing McDermid’s assertions in mind as I read on, to see if her distinctions hold up as current trends.

Update: Over on findingtimetowrite, Marina Sofia also muses on Val McDermid’s article and gives a wonderful overview of the Quais du Polar, at which Val’s comments were originally made. The post gives a summary of various crime writers’ views about writing on politics from the event; these provide a very nice counterpoint to this post – showing how crime fiction is used by many writers as a progressive means of critiquing and exploring the power structures of their societies.

Wishing you all a very happy Easter break filled with fluffy bunnies, chocolate and lots of crime fiction!

Posted in By country, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Wild card! | Tagged | 24 Comments

The 2015 Petrona Award shortlist is revealed!

Six high-quality crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist of the 2015 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today.

  • THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston                         (Arcadia Books; Finland)
  • THE HUNTING DOGS by Jørn Lier Horst tr. Anne Bruce                              (Sandstone Press; Norway)
  • REYKJAVIK NIGHTS by Arnaldur Indriðason tr. Victoria Cribb                        (Harvill Secker; Iceland)
  • THE HUMAN FLIES by Hans Olav Lahlum tr. Kari Dickson                               (Mantle; Norway)
  • FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM by Leif G W Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)
  • THE SILENCE OF THE SEA by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb             (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winning title will be announced at CrimeFest, held in Bristol 14-17 May 2015. The award will be presented by – and we are so very excited about this! – the Godmother of modern Scandinavian crime fiction, Maj Sjöwall, co-author with Per Wahlöö of the influential ‘Martin Beck’ series.

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The wonderful Maj Sjöwall. Photo by Dr. Jost Hindersmann via Wikimedia Commons

Here are the judges’ comments on the shortlist:

THE HUMMINGBIRD: Kati Hiekkapelto’s accomplished debut introduces young police investigator Anna Fekete, whose family fled to Finland during the Yugoslavian wars. Paired with an intolerant colleague, she must solve a complex set of murders and the suspicious disappearance of a young Kurdish girl. Engrossing and confidently written, THE HUMMINGBIRD is a police procedural that explores contemporary themes in a nuanced and thought-provoking way.

THE HUNTING DOGS: The third of the William Wisting series to appear in English sees Chief Inspector Wisting suspended from duty when evidence from an old murder case is found to have been falsified. Hounded by the media, Wisting must now work under cover to solve the case and clear his name, with the help of journalist daughter Line. Expertly constructed and beautifully written, this police procedural showcases the talents of one of the most accomplished authors of contemporary Nordic Noir.

The Hunting Dogs by Jorn Lier Horst

REYKJAVIK NIGHTS: A prequel to the series featuring detective Erlendur Sveinsson, REYKJAVIK NIGHTS gives a snapshot of 1970s Iceland, with traditional culture making way for American influences. Young police officer Erlendur takes on the ‘cold’ case of a dead vagrant, identifying with a man’s traumatic past. Indriðason’s legions of fans will be delighted to see the gestation of the mature Erlendur; the novel is also the perfect starting point for new readers of the series.

THE HUMAN FLIES: Hans Olav Lahlum successfully uses elements from Golden Age detective stories to provide a 1960s locked-room mystery that avoids feeling like a pastiche of the genre. The writing is crisp and the story intricately plotted. With a small cast of suspects, the reader delights in following the investigations of Lahlum’s ambitious detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen, who relies on the intellectual rigour of infirm teenager Patricia Borchmann.

The Human Flies

FALLING FREELY, AS IF IN A DREAM: It’s 2007 and the chair of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Lars Martin Johansson, has reopened the investigation into the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme. But can he and his dedicated team really solve this baffling case? The final part of  Persson’s ‘The Story of a Crime’ trilogy presents the broadest national perspective using a variety of different techniques – from detailed, gritty police narrative to cool documentary perspective – to create a novel that is both idiosyncratic and highly compelling.

Falling Freely, As If In A Dream: (The Story of a Crime 3), Leif G W Persson

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir has said ‘I really love making people’s flesh creep!’, and she is the supreme practitioner when it comes to drawing on the heritage of Icelandic literature, and channelling ancient folk tales and ghost stories into a vision of modern Icelandic society. In SILENCE OF THE SEA, an empty yacht crashes into Reykjavik’s harbour wall: its Icelandic crew and passengers have vanished. Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates this puzzling and deeply unsettling case, in a narrative that skilfully orchestrates fear and tension in the reader.

As was the case last year, the standard of submissions was extremely high, with plenty of top-quality crime novels jostling for the shortlist. That the quality of the novels shone through in English is of course due in large measure to the skills of the six translators. They are often the forgotten heroes of international crime, without whom we would not have access to these marvellous texts.

Thanks to fellow judges Barry Forshaw and Sarah Ward for a thoroughly enjoyable shortlisting, and of course to Karen Meek – none of it would have happened without her hard work behind the scenes.

So did we get it right? Are there others that you’d like to have seen on the shortlist? And who do you think the winner will be? 

2015 Petrona Award judges

A happy Petrona team after the shortlisting. Clockwise from back row left: Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw, Karen Meek and Mrs Peabody/Kat Hall

Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website

An album of Petrona pictures is also available at the Swansea University Flickr page.

Posted in 5 stars, By country, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Petrona Award, Sweden | Tagged , | 14 Comments

New Wellcome Collection exhibition – Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

An exciting and FREE new exhibition has opened in London that will be of interest to many crime fans.

>> Following a £17.5 million development, Wellcome Collection has opened a major exhibition exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine. ‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

‘Forensics’ contains original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering both unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by fictions inspired by the sensational reporting of Victorian murder cases and popular crime dramas, the exhibition highlights the complex entwining of law and medicine, and the scientific methods it calls upon and creates. It surveys real cases involving forensic advances, including the Dr Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders, pioneers of forensic investigation from Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila and Edmond Locard to Alec Jeffreys, and the voices of experts working in the field today. << Wellcome Collection Press Release.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust

The exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, has five sections:

‘The Crime Scene’ investigates the different techniques used to record the location of a crime and its power both as a repository of evidence and as a haunting site of memory. It includes one of Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – one of twenty miniature dollhouse crime scenes created by the American heiress and criminologist in the 1940s and 50s. They are still used to train police investigators in observing and collecting evidence today. You can listen to a BBC Radio 4 programme about them here (thanks to Sarah Hilary for the link).

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection

‘The Morgue’ traces a history of pathology, from Song Ci’s 13th century Chinese text ‘The Washing Away of Wrongs’, often seen as the first guide to forensics, to the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877–1947), whose autopsy note cards are displayed for the first time.

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Laboratory’: Edmond Locard founded the first police crime laboratory in early 20th century Lyon and his simple theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (now known as the exchange principle) guides the array of disciplines, including serology, toxicology, microscopy, criminal profiling and DNA analysis.

Police crime laboratory, Lyon

‘Every contact leaves a trace.’ Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Search’ considers the reconstructions of movement and identity required in looking for missing people – both individual cases and mass disappearances. It includes a newly commissioned artwork by Šejla Kameric that seeks to recover the human stories behind the critical mass of statistics and data generated by the on-going identification of massacre victims in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

‘The Courtroom’ section explores the final test of forensic medicine’s success, as evidence is gathered and presented in the courtroom in pursuit of justice.

William Hartley – Courtroom sketches of the Crippen trial at the Old Bailey, 1910. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

Doesn’t that look amazing? I’m already plotting my trip to London to see the exhibition, which I suspect will be fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. I have enormous respect for the expert and dogged work that forensic scientists do, so I’m looking forward to learning lots about the history of forensics and the amazing techniques it employs. At the same time, as the press release makes clear, the exhibition seeks to challenge the way in which forensic work is depicted in crime novels and crime dramas – and by extension, may jolt regular crime readers and viewers out of their sometimes overly comfortable fictional world into one that is altogether grimmer. I suspect that being confronted with real cases, techniques and investigations will a sobering experience. I’m also very interested in seeing how the artwork used in the exhibition provides a way of moving behind the science to the human stories and emotions that lie beneath, and how it explores our cultural fascination with crime. It really does look like a very thoughtfully designed exhibition that will engage visitors on a number of different levels.

The book accompanying the exhibition is by crime author Val McDermid – I’m keen to get my hands on this also (memo to self – no reading before, during or just after mealtimes).

The ‘Forensics’ exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, is FREE and runs from 26 February to 21 June 2015 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. For travel info, see here.

Further information about ‘Forensics’ is available via the exhibition website and the Wellcome Collection press release.

Posted in By country, England, Exhibition, Historical, Wild card! | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

Interview with Jørn Lier Horst to mark the publication of The Caveman

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Caveman is published today by Sandstone Press. The ninth in the Norwegian William Wisting police series, the novel begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse in an armchair just down the road from Wisting’s home. While both the policeman and his journalist daughter Line are troubled by their neighbour’s lonely death, they have no idea where this harmless-looking case will lead…

If you’ve not yet read any of the prize-winning Wisting series, now’s a good time to start. These novels are top-notch Norwegian/Scandi crime, which, thanks to their author’s background in policing, provide genuine insights into investigative procedure and are utterly gripping throughout. Four in the series have been translated so far: Dregs, Closed for Winter, The Hunting Dogs, and now The Caveman. I reckon you can pretty much dive in anywhere, as they all read well as standalones – and in fact the first to be published in English (Dregs) is the sixth in the original series.

To mark The Caveman‘s publication, Jørn Lier Horst kindly agreed to an interview with Mrs. Peabody. Read on for some great insights into the Wisting series, how Jørn writes his books, and the crime writers who inspire him.

Jørn Lier Horst

1. Jørn, you were a policeman for around twenty years until 2013. How have your policing experiences informed your crime writing?

JLH: I have extensive experience in various types of police work. For ten years, I was a Senior Investigating Officer, the leading investigator in serious and complex cases. That professional background is my great strength as a crime writer. Police service is an excellent vantage point for observing society, as well as an excellent starting point for writing realistic crime fiction. Sooner or later, the ineffective aspects of our society end up on the police’s plate.

As a detective, I have spent many hours close to multiple murderers, rapists and robbers, and been completely inside their heads. These experiences, the insights into why criminals do what they do, are deeply valuable to me as a writer, but have also taught me a lot about being a human. It can be difficult to understand, but in almost all people, even criminals who have committed atrocities and created despair and destruction, there is something good. I use the word ‘good’ for lack of a better one, but something human one might say. As investigator and author my interest has always been in the duality.

2. You’re good at showing the uncertainty police investigators face when solving crimes. In The Hunting Dogs, you have Chief Inspector Wisting compare his case to ‘an unfinished work of art: a landscape already in its frame, the main features in place, but the details missing. For the moment, the outline was so indistinct he could not imagine how it would look when it was complete’. How important is it to you to reflect the difficulties and complexities of policing in your work?

JLH: The classic fictional police detective is a man with major issues: he drinks too much, feels misunderstood, has strained relationships with women, but resolves the cases completely on his own, often risking his life and breaking the law. This is far from reality. What I try to show in my books is how detective work is a collective task. Several investigators contribute with their different qualifications, knowledge and abilities, but they have a continual, nagging doubt. Uncertainty that they have done the right thing, or overlooked something. I know that troubling feeling well.

3. The other investigative figure in the Wisting series is William’s daughter Line, who works as a journalist. Could you tell us a little about their investigative partnership and Line’s contribution to the crime narrative?

JLH: Those who follow the William Wisting books also become acquainted with his daughter Line, who at first worked as an apprentice in a local newspaper and now works as a crime reporter in Norway’s largest newspaper, VG (Verdens Gang). Their professional paths occasionally cross when both are dealing with the same case, but duty of confidentiality (for Wisting) and protection of sources (for Line) means they cannot talk. This creates an exciting father-daughter relationship and not only gives greater depth to Wisting’s character but also a more complete look at the crime. Line has developed into a good sparring partner for Wisting and, by now, a traditional sidekick.

The police environment has been easy for me to describe, but as Line demands more space in the books, the press environment has become more important. In my job I met many crime reporters, but I have been concerned that the presentation of their role should be as accurate as that of the police. While researching The Hunting Dogs I interviewed the VG editorial staff and so got close to some of the country’s leading crime journalists, just to get the authenticity right.

The first Wisting novel, Key Witness

4. When did you start writing and why?

JLH: I never had a youthful dream of becoming either a cop or a writer, but ended up being both. The fact is, I always loved to write, and remember as a little boy, when a radio play left a cliffhanger ending, sitting down and writing the sequel myself instead of waiting for the next episode.

I also remember starting what eventually became my debut. It was late autumn of 2001 and I was home in bed, finishing a Norwegian crime novel. I threw it against the wall and told my wife that I could do better myself. She told me I should go ahead in that case. Half an hour later I got up and made a start.

5. How much crime fiction do you read?

JLH: Probably around 25 books in a year, mostly Scandinavian writers but also police procedurals from all over the world.

6. Are there crime authors (or simply authors) who inspire you?

JLH: No favorite, but I would probably not have been the writer I am without Henning Mankell, and probably not the same cop. My first encounter was the first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, published in Norwegian in 1993. I read it at the Police Academy thinking that here was the kind of policeman I wanted be: an upright and good detective and a leader. Mankell / Wallander inspired both my careers.

7. The Caveman opens with the discovery of a corpse that has ‘been sitting dead in front of his television set for four months’, highlighting the isolated position of some individuals in society. Is it important to you that your crime novels have a social dimension?

JLH: I like to think about my novels as more than crime fiction. They reflect the reality we live in: a society that is becoming colder, tougher and more violent. William Wisting reflects on how that affects us all.

In my books the offenders are always caught, the crime is solved, but the social structures and problems that created the criminal remain. I try to draw attention to a social system that makes promises about protection and inclusion, but still fails many of its citizens. At the same time, of course, I try to tell an exciting and compelling story.

8. Your novels are set in the town of Larvik and Vestfold county on the south-west coast of Norway. What makes this area a good setting for a crime series in your view (aside from the fact that you live there…)?

JLH: The numerous Nordic small towns presented as scenes of literary murders do not provide obvious settings for crime stories. The beautiful scenery inspires picturesque, enticing descriptions of nature, but the attraction of the story lies in the contrast with the brutal violent action.

How does he do it? Not like this…

9. The plotting of your novels is expert and intricate. Do you have all aspects of the narrative worked out in advance of writing? I’m imagining some fabulous wall-charts above your desk as you work.

JLH: I have to disappoint you when it comes to the wall-chart. I travel a lot and have an electronic version on my computer. This probably sounds strange, but I actually write my books in Excel before I write in Word. I use the spreadsheet to plot and sketch the stories. Each column is a chapter, and in the cells I write keywords for the action. I have rows which track time and place and help all the little cogs in a crime novel fit into place. This analytical approach is another trait I have brought with me from investigations, but things happen during the writing process. The story goes in directions other than I had planned, and up pop new people. In this way the stories become alive.

10. A fun one to finish with! If you could have dinner with any character from literature, TV or film, who would it be and why?

JLH: Oh, let us keep a large company! If I have to choose one, it must be Inspector Maigret, since both he and Georges Simenon’s writing have had such a great influence on all subsequent crime literature. I stand tall on his and Mankell’s shoulders and owe them a big thank you – and a finer dinner.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Caveman, trans. by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press, 2015) 

Skål!

Posted in By country, Interviews, Norway | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Berlinale 2015 showcases international crime dramas and thrillers from Germany, Israel, Denmark, Sweden and Italy

The 2015 Berlinale – one of the world’s top international film festivals – closes today in Berlin. As ever, a host of wonderful films have been shown during the packed ten-day programme, with the Iranian film Taxi, directed by dissident filmmaker Jafar Panahi, awarded the coveted Golden Bear.

While reading coverage of the festival, I was interested to see that some international TV dramas were premiered as part of the programme, and that a number of these had a pronounced crime/thriller/spying dimension. Alessandra Stanley’s excellent article in the New York Times provides a good overview, and also discusses how such series are beginning to be picked up in the States (and not always to be remade in English either), which is a very good sign.

Here are a few of the series in question:

Deutschland 83. There’s quite a lot of buzz about this spying drama in Germany and beyond, and it has now also been picked up by an American network (in the original German!). The central protagonist is East German border guard Martin Rauch, who is sent across the border as an undercover agent by the Stasi (the East German secret police); his task is to pose as an aid to a West German general working with NATO. Stanley describes the series as ‘an ingenious, counter-intuitive look at the Cold War’ and a recent Guardian article sees it as indicative of rising interest in the divided Germany of 1949 to 1990.

Deutschland 83

Shkufim (False Flag). According to Stanley, this Israeli political drama was inspired by the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai in 2010. That scenario has been reworked for the series, which shows five Israeli citizens waking up one day to find they are prime suspects in the kidnapping of a Iranian official in Moscow. The drama is produced by Tender Productions, which also has links with Homeland (which was itself based on the Israeli series Hatufim).

The five suspects in False Flag

Follow the Money is a Danish crime thriller series by DR Drama (the makers of The Killing and Borgen) due to air later this year. It focuses on corruption in big business, with a lovely twist: the business in question is a wind-power company called Energreen, with supposedly impeccable ecological and moral credentials. Insider dealings and dodgy deaths indicate that all is not as it should be.

Follow the Money. Photo credit Christian Geisnæs

1992 is an Italian drama that was picked up in Berlin by the UK, according to Stanley (though no specific channel is named). This time, the corruption of political life by big business is the focus: the drama explores the Italian bribery scandals of the 1990s, and the attempts of Milan magistrate Antonio Di Pietro to clean up politics through Operation Clean Hands (Mani Pulite).

Italian crime series 1992

Last but not least, Blå ögon (Blue Eyes) is a Swedish-German crime series that explores racism, discrimination and immigration issues. Stanley describes it as having an anti-racist message, but also wanting to ‘upend expectations’ by giving characters on all sides of the debate a voice. One of the murder victims is a female, right-wing politician, who is assassinated while out in public.

STV’s Blue Eyes

Stanley ends her piece by noting that none of these series feature the disappearance or death of a child, as seen in earlier crime series such as The Killing and Broadchurch. Or to put this another way: these dramas are moving from highly personal cases whose investigations focus on the family and small communities, to cases that address larger historical, political and social issues. Interesting times. As ever, I’m hoping that a good number will make it on to our UK and US screens.

Posted in By country, Denmark, East Germany, Germany, Israel, Italy, Sweden, TV | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Bernhard Jaumann’s Afrika-Krimis and European crime drama The Team

It’s been a little while since I last posted, because I’m on a final push with the Crime Fiction in German volume. I’m nearly there – the entire draft’s been printed out and just needs some final checks before it goes off to the University of Wales Press. I’m obviously biased, but think it looks rather splendid.

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One bonus in the final phase of editing has been finding out more about the Afrika-Krimi – German-language crime fiction set in Africa – courtesy of a chapter by Julia Augart, who’s based at the University of Namibia. Namibia was a German colony between 1884 and 1915, and one novel she discusses is Bernhard Jaumann’s Steinland (Stoneland, 2012), which explores that post-colonial legacy in the context of current land reform policies. I hoovered up the novel while I was editing the chapter, and it was a fascinating read. While that one’s not translated yet, Jaumann’s 2010 novel The Hour of the Jackal is out in English (John Beaufoy Publishing): like Steinland, it features the excellent detective inspector Clemencia Garises.

Although things have been a bit hectic, I’ve managed to keep up with Broadchurch on ITV. The general reaction to this second series has been disappointment, as it’s definitely not lived up to the quality of the first. But I’m still watching, as (eye-raising legal daftness aside) I love the Hardy and Miller dynamic, and Olivia Coleman’s acting in particular. By contrast, Spiral series 5 (the one I’m not watching…) has been getting strong reviews.

Some very interesting news in – thanks to Jacky Collins – about a European crime drama called The Team, which is currently in production. Based on the work of Interpol, the drama will follow a European team as it investigates three murders, in Antwerp, Berlin and Copenhagen, and will switch between Dutch, German and Danish as the location of the action changes. It’s a product of the EBU (European Broadcasting Organisation), and is funded via the EU and eight of its member states.

The Team: Jasmine Gerat (Germany) Lars Mikkelsen (Denmark) and Veerie Baetens (Belgium)

The Team: Jasmine Gerat (Germany) Lars Mikkelsen (Denmark) and Veerie Baetens (Belgium). Photo: The Telegraph/EBU

And look who’s in it! I think the whole thing is a stroke of genius on the part of the EBU: the concept of a European Union is undergoing something of a battering at the moment, not least in the UK. What better way to persuade audiences of the positive benefits of European cooperation than a top-notch crime drama? Other ‘Eurocrime’ novels and series have existed before (such as Arne Dahl’s ‘Intercrime’ series), but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time that one has been instigated and funded via the EU itself. I love the deliberately multicultural and multilingual approach the makers are taking, and hope it does really well.

You can find out more about The Team here. It’s being shown in Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden and Belgium later this month. Let’s hope it makes its way here very soon.

Posted in Africa, Book reviews, By country, Europe, Namibia, TV | Tagged , | 14 Comments

January 2015: some crime drama treats

Here we all are in a shiny new year. Wishing you and yours a very happy 2015!

There are a number of wonderful crime dramas heading our way in January. Here’s a quick round up of four goodies…

Y Gwyll / Hinterland, S4C, 9pm on Thursday 1 January 

Today sees a special, one-off episode for fans of this bilingual, Welsh-English crime drama. Here’s the S4C description >> Troubled hero DCI Mathias returns to the front-line in this brand new episode. Faced with a suspected arson attack, Mathias is drawn into a community riven by old feuds and bitter jealousies. A story of heartbreak and loss, but for Tom Mathias, will it offer a new beginning? <<

Head over to the S4C website for further information (in English), a trailer and details of how to activate subtitles. If you don’t have access to S4C, don’t worry – you’ll be able to access it later via S4C Clic online (the Welsh equivalent of iPlayer). The episode will no doubt also appear on BBC1 in due course. An earlier Mrs. Peabody post on Y Gwyll is available here, and a new series follows later in 2015.

Fortitude, Sky Atlantic, 9pm on Thursday 29 January

There’s an increasing amount of buzz about this series in the press. Drawing on Scandi Noir traditions, it features a stellar international cast (Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Christopher Eccleston), is set in a mining community in the Arctic Circle and was filmed in Iceland. From where I’m standing, that’s an impossible combination to resist.

Sky’s description is as follows: >> Fortitude is a place like nowhere else. Although surrounded by the savage beauty of the Arctic landscape, it is one of the safest towns on earth. There has never been a violent crime here. Until now. In such a close-knit community a murder touches everyone and the unsettling, mysterious horror of this crime threatens the future of the town itself.

The local Chief of Police, Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Dormer), has to investigate alongside DCI Morton (Tucci), the detective who has flown into Fortitude so fast that questions are being asked about how much he knew, and when. As these two cops try to make sense of the killing, each finds compelling reasons to mistrust and suspect the other. <<

Further details are available here and there’s a preview clip too…

Broadchurch, ITV, Monday 5 January

Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) return for the second series of this crime drama set on the Dorset coast. I absolutely loved the first series and am intrigued to see where the storyline goes after the explosive revelations of the final episode.

Spiral, BBC4, 9pm on Saturday 10 January (12 episodes)

The fifth season of this gritty French crime drama will be a welcome addition to BBC4’s international crime slot on Saturday evenings. I’ll resist providing a description of the first episode in case there are some who’ve not yet seen the end of season 4 (that includes me), but if you’re interested in knowing more, you can head over to the BBC4 website.

Crime Time Preview has a useful round up of further crime dramas (British and international) that are scheduled for 2015. It looks to be a promising year.

Wishing you all a fabulous start to 2015. My January’s going to be a bonkers one, trying to juggle a number of different publishing and academic commitments, so I may be posting a little less than usual this month. It’s all good though – and I look forward to reporting on a completed project soon :-)

Posted in Arctic, By country, England, France, Iceland, TV, Wales | Tagged , , , , | 40 Comments

Merry Christmas! Mrs Peabody’s festive round-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you all in 2015!

German Zimtsternchen (little cinnamon star).    Quite addictive.

Posted in America, Argentina, Australia, Book reviews, By country, England, France, Iceland, Italy, Lapland, Norway, Poland | 37 Comments