Roberto Costantini’s Italian/Libyan Balistreri Trilogy

I picked up the first novel in Roberto Costantini’s Balistreri TrilogyThe Deliverance of Evil (trans. N. S. Thompson, Quercus, 2014 [2011]), at this year’s CrimeFest after seeing the author on a couple of panels. Costantini was extremely articulate about how his personal links to Tripoli and Rome shaped the trilogy and how his writing style is influenced by his work as an engineer. My interest was also piqued by the description of his main protagonist, Commissario Michele Balistreri, as a morally flawed individual with a complex political past.

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Coming in at just over 600 pages, The Deliverance of Evil is a novel for readers who enjoy complex, multi-layered crime narratives. Framed by Italy’s two Football World Cup victories in 1982 and 2006, it spans twenty-five years of Italian history, but also explores the legacy of Mussolini’s right-wing dictatorship and of the so-called ‘strategy of tension’ – a series of right-wing terrorist attacks in the 1960s and 1970s (possibly encouraged by the military and intelligence services), which were blamed on communists to provoke a political shift to the right. Balistreri, the narrative’s main investigator, acts as a kind of repository for this complex history: as a young man, he was drawn to the ultra right-wing Ordine Nuovo, but when it became involved in terrorist acts, worked undercover for the state in an attempt to stop them. When the narrative opens in 1982, he has supposedly left that past behind him, after being transferred to a quiet police post in Rome.

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The original Italian cover

The crime at the heart of the narrative is the murder of Elisa Sordi, a young woman who works for a religious housing organisation. The detective, keen to enjoy the 1982 World Cup final, is distracted during the initial investigation. This and a number of other factors result in the case remaining unsolved until 2006, when another woman is murdered in apparently similar circumstances. Wracked with remorse and guilt for his earlier failures, Balistreri vows to solve both cases and uncover the truth.

The Deliverance of Evil is a hugely absorbing, accomplished piece of work. While the denouement, which resembles an intricate origami creation, had me raising an eyebrow a little at times, the figure of Balistreri, together with the clever construction of the narrative and its dissection of Italian privilege, politics and racism made for a highly gripping read. I’ll definitely be seeking out the second in the trilogy, which moves back in time to the 1960s to explore Balistreri’s troubled past in Libya.

I have a bit of a thing about crime trilogies or quartets. They’re often quite special, which I think is due to two factors. Firstly, they give authors the chance to explore multiple facets of an overarching story in a group of novels, allowing them to create extended and complex literary worlds. Conversely, the limit of having a set number of novels (as opposed to an on-going series), encourages authors to take more risks, especially in terms of the characterisation of their protagonists and the overall denouement. Standalones and trilogies/quartets are thus usually more hard-hitting than a series, not least because they don’t need to safeguard the investigator or main protagonist indefinitely. They also often undertake a wide-ranging social and/or political critique, which I like.

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Here are few of my favourite crime trilogies and quartets:

David Peace’s Yorkshire Noir/Red Riding Quartet (1974197719801984), which is set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper case and provides a brilliant depiction of corrupt policing cultures.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth/Requiem for an Angel Trilogy (The Four Last ThingsThe Judgement of Strangers, The Office of the Dead) which skillfully excavates the history of a female serial killer, beginning in the present day and moving back to the 1970s and the 1950s.

Ben Winter’s Last Policeman Trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble), set in a superbly realised world on the brink of destruction (I still need to read the final novel, and am looking forward to it very much).

Winter last policeman

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), featuring the remarkable, indefatigable Lisbeth Salander.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Story of a Crime Trilogy (Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, Another Time, Another Life and Free Falling, As in a Dream), which probes the unsolved assassination of Olof Palme in an absorbing and darkly sardonic manner.

Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem), which explores Nazi Germany in 1936 and 1938 and Allied Occupation in 1947 through the eyes of former Berlin policeman Bernie Gunther. The author later extended the trilogy into a series, but the original three novels remain the best in my view.

Perhaps you have others we could add to this list? 

Update: Well, what a brilliant response. Thanks to MarinaSofia, Margot, Rebecca, Bernadette, David, Tracey and Angela for their suggestions (see also their comments and those of others below), and to Barbara, Jose Ignacio and Craig Sisterson via Twitter for trilogies/quartets by women authors. All listed below…

Further great crime fiction trilogies and quartets: 

Lisa Brackman’s China Trilogy (Rock, Paper, Tiger; Dragon Day; Hour of the Rat)

James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)

Lyndsay Faye’s New York Trilogy (The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, The Fatal Flame)

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow Quartet (The Hanging Shed, Bitter Water, Pilgrim Soul, Gallowglass)

Alan Glynn’s Land Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, Graveland – set in Ireland)

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea)

Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen)

William McIllvaney’s Laidlaw Trilogy (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, Walking Wounded – set in Glasgow)

Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Quartet (The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl – set in Ireland)

Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan Trilogy (The Field of Blood, The Dead Hour, The Final Breath – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet (Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red, Havana Black)

George Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet (The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil)

Dolores Redondo’s Baztan Trilogy. The first, The Invisible Guardian is available in translation and is set in Spain’s Basque country. The other two are entitled Legado en los huesos (Legacy in the Bones) and Ofrenda a la tormenta (Offering to the Storm).

John Williams Cardiff Trilogy (Five Pubs, Two Bars And A Nightclub; Cardiff Dead; The Prince of Wales)

Robert Wilson’s Falcon Quartet (The Blind Man of Seville; The Silent and the Damned; The Hidden Assassins; The Ignorance of Blood – set in Spain)

Posted in 4 stars, Africa, America, Book reviews, By country, England, Italy, Sweden | Tagged , , | 33 Comments

American, Icelandic and Swedish gems: Paretsky, Indriđason and Nesser

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is in full swing up in Harrogate. Top news so far: Sarah Hilary has won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin, a tremendous achievement for a debut writer, and Sara Paretsky (below), creator of the ground-breaking ‘VI Warshawski’ series, was presented with the Theakstons Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

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In her acceptance speech, Sara said: ‘When I created VI Warshawski, she created a few seismic shock-waves for being a female detective with gumption. I’m proud of that, and today it’s amazing to be recognised for that legacy and to see so many female characters in the genre who are more than a vamp or victim’. Hear hear! There are sixteen Warshawski novels to date, starting with 1982’s Indemnity Only. If you haven’t met VI yet, now’s a great time to start. She’s one of the many great female investigators on this blog’s ‘strong women in crime’ list.

The Theakstons programme also features Swedish author Håkan Nesser (on the ‘Strange Lands’ panel) and Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriđason in conversation with Barry Forshaw on Sunday. Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that I’m a fan of both these writers – in fact my first ever review was of Indriđason’s The Draining Lake, which won the CWA Gold Dagger and is partially set in East Germany. I also reviewed Nesser’s The Weeping Girl, part of the ‘Van Veeteren’ series, but featuring Ewa Moreno as investigator, back in 2013. It’s interesting to see the comparisons I made between Nesser and Indriđason’s work in that post – there do appear to be very real affinities between these authors’ approaches to writing crime fiction.

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If like me you can’t make Harrogate, but are within reach of London, then there’s a rare chance to see Nesser and Indriđason together this coming Monday, 20th July, at Foyles Bookshop with Barry Forshaw. Here’s the Foyles description of the event:

>> Bestselling authors Arnaldur Indriđason and Hakan Nesser have enthralled millions of readers with their award-winning detective series. On Monday we welcome these two titans of Nordic Noir for an evening discussing their latest work, and a life in crime.

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Messrs Nesser and Indriđason

Recipient of the Nordic Glass Key, the CWA Gold Dagger and the RBA International Prize for Crime Writing, Icelandic heavyweight Indriđason has delighted fans with his long-running ‘Detective Erlendur’ series. Having recently concluded the narrative in Strange Shores, the author has since taken us right back to the beginning with Rekjavik Nights and the brand-new Oblivion, unpacking the early cases of then newly-promoted detective Erlendur.

Splitting his time between his native Sweden and London, Håkan Nesser has been leading readers in ever-decreasing circles for over twenty-five years. Famed for his Inspectors Van Veeteren and Barbarotti series, Nesser has been awarded both Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel and Best Crime Novel Awards, as well as being the only person to have won the Danish Rosenkrantzprisen twice. Now, in his latest novel The Living and the Dead in Winsford, Nesser takes us to the desolate Exmoor landscape as a couple, beleaguered by past secrets, find their rural getaway is not quite the sanctuary they had anticipated. <<

I’ll be making the pilgrimage from Swansea to London on Monday. Perhaps see you there? Full details of the event are available here.

Update: well it was a great evening all round. Here are a couple of pictures:

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For an excellent write-up of the discussion, see Euro Crime’s blog post ‘Nordic Night at Foyles‘.

There’s also a marvellous interview with Arnaldur over at Crime Fiction Lover.

Posted in America, By country, Iceland, Sweden | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Sarah Ward’s Derbyshire debut – In Bitter Chill

I’ve known Sarah Ward for a few years as a blogger at Crimepieces and as a fellow judge on the Petrona Award, and have watched her journey from aspiring to published crime writer with fascination. I’d been looking forward to reading In Bitter Chill (Faber, 2015) for a number of months and it arrived at a perfect moment: a brief lull in work that coincided with some proper summer weather. So I made a bit of an occasion of starting the book, complete with Welsh deckchair and tapas. A very lovely afternoon.

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In Bitter Chill is set in Bampton, Derbyshire, and focuses on an unsolved case from January 1978 – the disappearance of two young girls on their way to school. One, Rachel Jones, was found shortly afterwards, but can only remember flashes of what took place. The other, Sophie Jenkins, remained missing and is presumed dead. Thirty years on, Sophie’s mother commits suicide, triggering a review of the case by the local police team. Rachel, who still lives in Bampton and now works as a family history researcher, finds herself being drawn unwillingly back into the past and its attendant traumas.

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In Bitter Chill is a gripping and polished debut. A standout factor is the narrative’s deft construction, which shifts between the present and the events of 1978, but whose forward momentum keeps us wanting to read on (I finished the book in two sessions over two days). Another is the characterisation of the main protagonists – I particularly liked Rachel, an endearing but complex figure, and the police team, Detective Inspector Francis Sadler, DS Damian Parker and DC Connie Childs, whose individual temperaments and abilities are extremely well drawn. The way in which the novel switches between the viewpoints of the investigators and of Rachel as a survivor dealing with the fall-out of past events gives the narrative impressive depth. I also enjoyed the strong sense of place – of a Derbyshire not far from cities such as Manchester and Sheffield, but with a fundamentally rural character in close proximity to the Peak District.

In sum, this is a extremely well-written, accomplished debut, which, in spite of its chilly title, is a perfect summer read. Get that deckchair out now and enjoy!

An interview with Sarah is available over at Crime Fiction Lover.

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The author and her book

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Posted in 4 stars, Book reviews, By country, England | Tagged | 13 Comments

Holiday reading and the 2015 Betty Trask Award: The Spring of Kasper Meier

The Crime Fiction in German volume has had its final polish and been delivered into the tender care of the University of Wales Press. Time for a little break, then – a tour of west Wales in our trusty VW camper, with plenty of downtime for reading in various seaside cafes.

I’ve been eyeing up my real and virtual bookshelves to see what I fancy taking along. So far I have the following modest pile, which will no doubt expand a bit by tomorrow morning.

 Behind God's Back

Finnish author Harri Nykänen’s Behind God’s Back (trans. Kristian London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2015) is the second in the Ariel Kafka series – I enjoyed the first, Nights of Awe, very much. Here’s the publisher description:

>> There are two Jewish cops in all of Helsinki. One of them, Ariel Kafka, a lieutenant in the Violent Crime Unit, identifies himself as a policeman first, then a Finn, and lastly a Jew. Kafka is a religiously non-observant 40-something bachelor who is such a stubborn, dedicated policeman that he’s willing to risk his career to get an answer. Murky circumstances surround his investigation of a Jewish businessman’s murder. Neo-Nazi violence, intergenerational intrigue, shady loans – predictable lines of investigation lead to unpredictable culprits. But a second killing strikes closer to home, and the Finnish Security Police come knocking. The tentacles of Israeli politics and Mossad reach surprisingly far, once again wrapping Kafka in their sticky embrace. << 

Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet (Picador 2015). I’ve heard lots of good things about this Canadian/British Columbia writer, who often uses crime conventions in her literary works (have heard comparisons to David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame):

Emily’s website describes Lola as ‘literary noir’, with the following overview >> Gavin Sasaki is a promising young journalist in New York City, until he’s fired in disgrace following a series of unforgivable lapses in his work. The last thing Gavin wants is to return to his hometown of Sebastian, Florida, but he’s drifting toward bankruptcy and is in no position to refuse when he’s offered a job by his sister, Eilo, a real estate broker who deals in foreclosed homes.

Eilo recently paid a visit to a home that had a ten-year-old child in it, a girl who bears a strong resemblence to Gavin and who has the same last name as Gavin’s high school girlfriend Anna, whom Gavin last saw a decade ago. Gavin — a former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed homes, obsessed with film noir and private detectives — begins his own private investigation in an effort to track down Anna and their apparent daughter.<<

And then today saw the announcement of the 2015 Betty Trask Award, a £10,000 prize for debut writers under 35. The winner is Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little, Brown, 2014), which is set in the ruins of Berlin after 1945 and looks mighty like a crime novel to me. So that’s coming along too.

Here’s the blurb from Ben’s website >> Set in Berlin in 1946, The Spring of Kasper Meier follows the friendship that develops between Kasper Meier, a black-market trader, and Eva Hirsch, the young woman who is blackmailing him. As soldiers in Berlin begin to be killed in mysterious circumstances, both Kasper and Eva’s troubled pasts threaten to reveal themselves, and their fragile lives begin to spiral out of control. <<

The novel has also featured on the Radio 2 bookclub (you can access a free extract via its website here).

What holiday reading do you have lined up? All recommendations gratefully received!

Posted in By country, Canada, England, Finland, Wild card! | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Deutschi Crime Night and the ‘Crime Fiction in German’ volume

The wonderful Deutschi Crime Night took place yesterday at Waterstones Piccadilly. The panelists were Austrian author Bernhard Aichner, German author Sascha Arango, the acclaimed translator Anthea Bell, New Books in German editor Charlotte Ryland and me, with Euro Noir expert Barry Forshaw in the chair – who did us proud.

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Photo by Charlotte Ryland

The discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating, and included the following: Sascha on his decision to set The Truth and Other Lies in a unidentifiable, universal space (like Nesser’s ‘van Veeteren’ series), in contrast to the regionally rooted writing he does for the Kiel episodes of the German TV crime drama Tatort (Crime Scene), and about the influence of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series on his writing; Bernhard on his creation of the ‘lovable serial killer’ Blum and the research he carried out for Woman of the Dead in a funeral home and at autopsies; Anthea on the process of translating the novel, which she really enjoyed, and on translating more generally, which she described as ‘finding the author’s voice’.

In addition, we took a canter through the crime fiction of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, discussing early German-language crime, crime greats from the Weimar period such as Fritz Lang’s M, Nazi crime fiction, Austrian crime fiction’s use of satire, Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s complex detective figures, and the boom in historical crime fiction since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (I drew on the forthcoming Crime Fiction in German volume when making my contribution to this portion of the discussion, of which more below). Charlotte filled us in on the work of New Books in German and some crime fiction coming our way soon, including the beguilingly entitled Der nasse Fisch (The Wet Fish) by Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe’s Die Falle (The Trap). She also helped us ponder the question of why German-language crime hasn’t quite had the breakthrough it deserves in the UK, with a publisher in the audience adding that she was confident it has the capacity to do so. A good boost would be provided by some German-language crime in the BBC4 Saturday crime slot…

Anti-clockwise from front: Charlotte Ryland, Anthea Bell, Bernhard Aichner, Sascha Arango, Barry Forshaw, Mrs Pea (photo by Jennifer Kerslake)

Barry also kindly gave me the opportunity to talk about the Crime Fiction in German volume, which is out in March 2016 and will provide the first comprehensive overview in English of German-language crime from its origins in the 1800s to the present day. I’ve set up a tab about the volume here, and you can see further details on the University of Wales Press website. The volume is part of the UWP ‘European Crime Fictions‘ series, which already contains volumes on French, Italian, Iberian and Scandi crime.

The cover for the Crime Fiction in German volume has just been finalised and looks gorgeous. I love the psychedelic green (Schwarzwald on speed?) and the lashings of blood. And just look at those clever little bullet holes.

German CF cover final

Finally, as a few people from our lovely audience were asking for reading recommendations after the event, here are some past ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ posts about German-language crime:

Alles Gute und viel Spaß!

Posted in Austria, By country, Germany, Historical, Switzerland | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

Krimi-tastic! Aichner’s Woman of the Dead and Arango’s The Truth & Other Lies

Not just one, but two seriously page-turning Krimis from the German-speaking world have crossed my path recently.

AichnerWoman of the Dead (Totenfrau, trans. Anthea Bell/Orion 2015), by Austrian writer Bernhard Aichner, features an unforgettable heroine/anti-heroine, the motorbike-riding undertaker Brünhilde Blum. She is a woman with a secret, who, when her beloved husband is killed, starts dealing with the case in a highly individual way. This fast-moving thriller is an extremely readable mash-up of Austrian and American crime. Its setting is recognizably Austrian (Innsbruck and the Tyrolean countryside), and its bleak assessment of Austrian society echoes other crime narratives such as Elfriede Jelinek’s Greed (Gier, 2000). At the same time, the book draws on Lindsay’s Dexter, Tarantino’s Kill Bill (‘the bride’) and Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Lisbeth Salander) – influences that might allow it to be viewed as ‘feminist noir’, the subject of this recent The Mary Sue post. I was gripped from start to finish, although I did find the novel’s moral framework and its call to empathize with a killer rather unsettling at times. I’ll be very interested to see where the next book in the ‘Blum trilogy’, House of the Dead, takes our highly unusual investigator. You can read an extract from Woman of the Dead here

The Truth and other lies

Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies (Die Wahrheit und andere Lügen, trans. Imogen Taylor/Simon and Schuster 2015) is equally compelling and features another off-the-wall protagonist, Henry Hayden – a famous novelist whose comfortable life begins to unravel after he makes a fatal error. Hayden is a darkly comic creation whose story involves a wife, a mistress and a floundering police team, and keeps the reader effortlessly engaged throughout. Intriguingly, even though Arango is a screenwriter for the German TV crime series Tatort, which has a strongly regional flavour, his novel has an international rather than a specifically German feel. The characters’ names sound English, American, German, Dutch, Swedish or eastern European and there are barely any discernible geographical markers. In literary terms, the obvious influence is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but I was also reminded of Ingrid Noll’s blackly humorous novel The Pharmacist (Die Apothekerin, 1994), whose protagonist carries out a series of crimes to smooth her way to a prosperous middle-class life. Like the latter, Arango’s Truth is a stylish, witty and entertaining read. You can listen to an audio extract here. Both Bernhard Aichner and Sascha Arango will be appearing at the Deutschi Crime Night at Waterstones Piccadilly next Thursday, 11th June at 7.00pm, with Barry Forshaw (moderating), Anthea Bell the translator, Charlotte Ryland from ‘New Books in German’ and yours truly. The event is FREE and all you need to do if you’d like to come along is RSVP piccadilly@waterstones.com. You can find out more info here. Should be lots of fun!

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

CrimeFest 2015: The Petrona, CWA International Dagger and EuroNoir

I can’t believe it’s already a week since the end of CrimeFest 2015. Time for my second post on this marvellous event, and some key highlights:

The Petrona Award: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, translated by Victoria Cribb, won the 2015 Petrona Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel of the year in translation. The award was presented by CrimeFest’s guest of honour Maj Sjöwall, which was very special for all concerned.

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The Petrona judging team with Yrsa and Maj (centre). Photo: Andy Lawrence

The Petrona shortlist this year was wonderfully strong, with novels by Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Jørn Lier Horst (Norway), Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway) and Leif G W Persson (Sweden). Fuller information about the shortlisted novels is available here and further details can also be found at the Petrona Award website.

The CWA’s 2015 International Dagger shortlist was announced at CrimeFest on the Friday night. The six shortlisted novels are:

  • Lief G.W. Persson, Falling Freely, as in a Dream (trans. Paul Norlen/Transworld/ SWEDEN)
  • Pierre LeMaitre, Camille (trans. Frank Wynne/Maclehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Deon Meyer, Cobra (trans. K.L.Seegers/Hodder and Stoughton/SOUTH AFRICA)
  • Karim Miské, Arab Jazz (trans. Sam Gordon/MacLehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Garden (trans. Isabelle Kaufeler/HarperCollins/ SPAIN)
  • Andreas Norman, Into a Raging Blaze (trans. Ian Giles/Quercus/SWEDEN)

Further details can be found on the CWA website, with the award being presented at the end of June. I’ve read a grand total of two, so need to do some catching up.

Euro Noir

Euro Noir panel with Barry Forshaw, Roberto Costantini, Gunnar Staalesen, Michael Ridpath and Jørn Lier Horst

Two CrimeFest panels I particularly enjoyed were the Nordic Noir and Euro Noir panels, moderated by Quentin Bates and Barry Forshaw respectively, and featuring Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Gunnar Staalesen (Norway), Clare Carson (UK/Orkney), Craig Robertson (UK/Faroes), Roberto Costantini (Italy), Michael Ridpath (UK/Iceland) and Jørn Lier Horst (Norway). Interesting observations abounded:

HummingbirdHiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird is set in fictional, northern Finnish town. It shows a darker side of Finland: alcoholism, loneliness and some poverty. She tries to write about Finland with the eyes of an outsider, like her investigator Anna Fekete, and sees Finland as being not very welcoming of immigrants. She’s rare in choosing to write about migration issues.

Staalesen describes the Norwegian town of Bergen as very film noir – it rains 250 days a year and so is an excellent setting for crime (the latest in his famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series, We Shall Inherit the Wind, is about to be published by Orenda Press). For him, crime fiction is a way of telling stories about society and how we live our lives today. In contrast to many other countries, the status of crime fiction in Norway is high: it’s viewed as respectable literature due to its quality and its use as a form of social critique (e.g. Karin Fossum).

In her novel Orkney Twilight, Carson writes about Orkney from memories of childhood, which is apt because novel is about memory. Carson’s father was an undercover cop, and she’s drawn on the experience of being a young woman figuring out her father’s secret life. Orkney is a mysterious place with continuous light in summer; Carsen weaves Norse mythology throughout the narrative, which fits with the idea of undercover police/spies as master storytellers. She feels folklore is a way of talking about things that can’t be solved in life and that crime fiction is a modern version of that form, in that it gets to grips with unresolvable issues like death.

Ironically, given amount of murders committed in Nordic novels, Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands are probably safest places in world. There were no murders in Faroes for 26 years … until Robertson started writing his novel The Last Refuge. He feels a bit guilty about that.

Horst

Lier Horst used to get up at 5am every day to write while still working as a policeman. You have to set goal and put in the work – ‘it’s a hard job’. His first novel was based on a real murder. He saw the crime scene on the first day of his job and it stayed with him (the murderer was never caught). Writing about murders has ‘taught me a little about death, but a lot about life’, especially people’s emotions.

Barry Forshaw has coined the term ‘Scandi Brit’ for Brits like Michael Ridpath and Quentin Bates who set their novels in northern climes. Ridpath says it’s a challenge to write about other countries, but invigorating one. He regularly consults Icelanders on points of accuracy, which is a big help.

Cost

Costantini uses his engineering background to construct his plots. His acclaimed ‘Commissario Balistreri’ trilogy explores thirty years of Italian history from the 1960s to the 1990s, as well as developments in the Middle East. (I have bought the first and am looking forward to reading it.) He created a policeman with a compromised right-wing past as a deliberate challenge to readers.

There was praise for translators and their huge contribution to international crime fiction. Staalesen and Lier Horst are grateful to have the services of top translators Don Bartlett and Anne Bruce. Both are excellent, managing the most difficult of tasks like translating humour effectively.

Other highlights during CrimeFest included seeing Ragnar Jónasson hit the top of the Kindle bestseller list with his debut novel Snowblind late on Saturday night, chatting to authors like William Ryan and remembering how much good crime fiction I still need to read (e.g. the rest of his Captain Korolev series), and meeting friends old and new, like the lovely Elena Avanzas (@ms_adler, who blogs at Murder, she read), Maura and Karen from the Swansea Sleuths bookgroup, and Anya Lipska, who’s part of the newly formed and utterly marvellous Killer Women organisation. So much murderous creativity in one place and time! Roll on next year.

Posted in Africa, By country, Europe, France, Iceland, Petrona Award, Spain, Sweden | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

I’m just back from this year’s CrimeFest, which was particularly special for a number of reasons. This is the first of two posts on the event, and focuses on Lee Child’s interview with the legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall.

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Maj Sjöwall and Lee Child at CrimeFest, Saturday 16 May (with thanks to the unknown photographer!)

Sjöwall, co-author of the highly influential ‘Martin Beck’ series with her husband Per Wahlöö, was the festival’s guest of honour. The almost mythical position she holds as the ‘godmother of Scandinavian crime’ was illustrated by the standing ovation she received on entering the room with Lee Child. What we heard from her in the course of the conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating:

  • The ‘Martin Beck’ series (1965-75) grew out of national and international events: 1960s Sweden was turning from a social democratic country to a more right-wing country, and it was the era of the Vietnam War and student demos. The series was designed to show what was happening to Swedish society and how the police was becoming more militarised, but in bumbling way, like a small-town police force.
  • They choose the crime genre as a vehicle because it was entertaining and would reach a wide audience. She and Per sat face to face over a table and worked together, talking extensively about the stories and the language they would use. The aim was to make the novels as accessible as possible.
  • In the case of Roseanne, the first novel, they’d been on a boat trip and seen a beautiful American woman travelling on her own. As Per was looking at her just a bit too closely, Maj decided, ‘we’ll kill her!’ (just one example of her splendidly wry humour).
  • Crime fiction wasn’t a big thing in Sweden at that time (just a few ‘bourgeois amateur sleuths’). There were no police procedurals. They wanted the novels to be realistic, so they kept the pace of the narrative slow and a created a police team rather than focusing on just one hero.

The first novel in the series (1965)

  • Their influences were Chandler, Hammett and Simenon. The American 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain were NOT a direct influence as is often thought. They only read these after they started writing the series. (Given the similarities between the two, one can only say that this was a remarkable case of synchronicity!)
  • The series took off around book three or four. But it tended to be read by young left-wingers who were already converted to the [Marxist] ideals and values it promoted. So as authors, they were not necessarily reaching the audience they wanted to influence.
  • Of police investigator Martin Beck: he is a ‘quite boring’, classic civil servant, ‘but has a very important quality – empathy’. He reflects the masculine police world of the time and is depicted realistically: he’s married to the job and has a complex relation-ship with his wife and children. The authors were criticised for this: it was felt that police in crime novels should not have a private life. Now it’s a big part of modern crime (Child added that it’s ‘almost a requirement’).
  • They decided on ten novels from the start, and thought of the series as one long novel that was split into ten (influenced by Balzac).

The ten novels in the series also match the number of letters in Martin Beck’s name.

  • Was the series successful in critiquing/changing Sweden? Maj responds by saying that she doesn’t think books can change the world, but that they can influence and help to change the ways that people think.
  • The novels were first translated into French and German, then later into English. Maj thinks they paved the way for other crime writers in those countries. [She’s certainly right in relation to West Germany, where the Beck series had a significant influence on the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Intriguingly, the series was also published in East Germany, which approved of the series’ political viewpoint].
  • Child sees the influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other crime writing far beyond Scandi borders. In a brief Twitter conversation, Rankin told me: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d written a few Rebus novels before reading the Becks. On the other hand… it is feasible I’d been reading *about* the Becks and the notion of a real-time series may have chimed’.
  • Maj does not have explanation for why series is so popular. She likes the recent work of Leif G. W. Persson because he stays close to reality. But in her view too many contemporary crime novels are set in small towns and focus on personal narratives.
  • One of Maj’s favourite Beck novels is The Locked Room, due to its structure and logic, and the memories she has of writing it.

The Sjöwall interview was sponsored by British Institute for Literary Translation, which is very fitting: we would never have been able to read the Beck series without the services of marvellous translators like Lois Roth, Joan Tate, Alan Blair, Thomas Teal and Paul Britten Austin. Huge thanks to them! Here’s a list of the ‘Martin Beck’ novels and a few interesting links:

  • 1965 – Roseanna (Roseanna)
  • 1966 – Mannen som gick upp i rök (The Man who Went Up in Smoke)
  • 1967 – Mannen på balkongen (The Man on the Balcony)
  • 1968 – Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman)
  • 1969 – Brandbilen som försvann (The Fire Engine That Disappeared)
  • 1970 – Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy)
  • 1971 – Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (The Abominable Man)
  • 1972 – Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room)
  • 1974 – Polismördaren (Cop Killer)
  • 1975 – Terroristerna (The Terrorists)
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A wonderful memento from a wonderful event

Coming up in the next CrimeFest post: The 2015 Petrona Award, Euro Noir and other international delights.

Posted in 5 stars, By country, Interviews, Sweden | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

New Bitter Lemon signings, The Edgars and CrimeFest

Here’s a round up of some interesting crime fiction news and events.

Joshua Farrington of The Bookseller reports that >>Bitter Lemon Press has signed a series of deals for female crime writers from around the world, with the books set to lead the publisher’s schedule in the second half of the year.

Publisher and co-founder Laurence Colchester has acquired titles from Brazil’s Patrica Melo, Turkey’s Esmahan Aykol and Argentina’s Claudia Piñeiro.

Melo’s The Body Snatcher is the story of a drug deal gone wrong, with police corruption and blackmail. Melo’s previous novels Lost World, The Killer, In Praise of Lies and Inferno were published in English by Bloomsbury. The Body Snatchers, which will be published in July, is translated by Clifford E. Landers.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol will be published in September. It is the third in a murder mystery series featuring crime bookshop owner and accidental investigator Kati Hirschel. The previous two books, Hotel Bosphorous and Baksheesh were also published by Bitter Lemon Press, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

Piñeiro’s Betty Boo is set in Buenos Aires, and sees a sensitive woman trying to save her career and personal life while caught up in a criminal conspiracy. Piñeiro’s previous titles, translated by Miranda France, were also published by Bitter Lemon Press. Betty Boo will be published in January 2016.

Colchester said: “We are very proud to bring these three women crime writers from Brazil, Turkey and Argentina to English speaking readers. It is part of our mission as an independent press to introduce new voices from abroad and here, in the autumn season of 2015, are three of the most successful women writing in the crime genre today.”<<

Over in the States, the annual Edgar Awards have taken place. A full list of the nominees and winners is available here. The focus is on English-language crime, and a number of titles have already migrated to my groaning TBR pile, such as Ben Winter’s World of Trouble, which is the final installment in The Last Policeman series (see my discussion of his earlier work here).

The winner in the best novel category was Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, which I’m currently half way through and enjoying very much (although I will never look at a hamburger in the same way again).

Last but not least, the international crime fiction convention CrimeFest takes place in Bristol next week, with a sterling programme you can see in full here. I’m very much looking forward to attending, not least because this year’s special guest is Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall, co-author of the seminal Martin Beck series, and she will be helping us to present the 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I have been enjoying all the online speculation about the Petrona shortlist. The judges have now made their choice…! But will you agree?!

Posted in America, Argentina, Brazil, By country, Germany, Petrona Award, Sweden, Turkey | Tagged , | 16 Comments

Under African skies: Férey’s Zulu and Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy

By chance, I’ve read two novels set in Africa recently: Caryl Férey’s Zulu (translated by Howard Curtis, World Noir/Europa Editions 2010) and Vamba Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy (HopeRoad 2015). While different to one another in many respects, both are highly interesting, worthwhile reads that explore the key theme of power in African contexts.

Caryl Férey is an intriguing author. He’s French, but chooses to set his crime novels in countries far from home, such as New Zealand (Utu), South Africa (Zulu) and Argentina (Mapuche). What unites his work is a focus on ethnic/social minorities and power structures, which are explored in gritty, noir crime narratives.

Zulu, the winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008, is a highly absorbing read, which features the talented but psychologically damaged head of the Cape Town homicide unit, Ali Neumann. He and his team investigate the brutal slaying of a young woman in a post-Apartheid South Africa fractured by racial tension, violence and drugs crimes. The novel provides both a fascinating insight into difficult aspects of the Apartheid past (such as the rivalry between the black ANC and Inkatha movements) and contemporary challenges such as AIDS.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of hard-hitting violence throughout, which makes for uncomfortable reading, but is (mostly) linked to the larger social and political contexts the novel explores. On the basis of Zulu, I’m keen to read Férey’s other two works soon.

Vamba Sherif is another intriguing and very well travelled author. He was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, moved to Kuwait in his early early teens, then settled in Syria and The Netherlands, where he read Law. His crime novel Bound to Secrecy is the first published by independent publisher HopeRoad, which aims to support literary voices neglected by the mainstream.

In contrast to Zulu, which is 400 pages in length, Bound to Secrecy is a compact read – more of a novella – focusing on the mysterious disappearance of paramount chief Tetese in the Liberian border town of Wologizi. In terms of its tone, the narrative also differs enormously to Férey’s work – it has an otherworldly, unsettling quality, partly due to the remoteness of Wologizi and partly due to the author’s subversion of crime conventions. Detective William Mawolo’s investigation is continually hampered by the silence of the townsfolk, the contradictory evidence he uncovers and a series of disturbing events that leave him and the reader in a state of confusion. The novel has echoes of Kafka, and the figure of Mawolo reminded me of Dürrenmatt’s compromised detectives, who seek clarity and resolution, but can’t always find them.

Unlike Zulu, Bound to Secrecy doesn’t provide detailed information about its country’s troubled history (the West African country of Liberia). Instead, it explores the central theme of power – both on those who wield it and those who are subject to it – in an elliptical, abstract way. The narrative also has some interesting things to say about gender roles and the power of women. Beautifully written, this compelling literary crime novel will draw me back for a second reading.

There’s a good interview here with Sherif, which also provides a bit of information about Liberian literature and culture.

*****

On a sad note, we heard yesterday that crime writer Ruth Rendell has died. One of the most prominent and ground-breaking UK crime authors of the twentieth-century, she’ll be hugely missed. Her final novel, Dark Corners, will be published in October (and may we all still be writing at 85).

There have been some wonderful obituaries and pieces that explore Rendell’s legacy as a crime writer and as a Labour peer in the House of Lords. I’ve added a few links below:

Ruth Rendell

The Guardian obituary

Tribute by Val McDermid in The Guardian

Financial Times obituary by Barry Forshaw

Appreciation by Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

New York Times obituary

A list of Rendell’s works via the British Council

Posted in 4 stars, Africa, Book reviews, By country, Liberia, South Africa | 10 Comments