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 , | 12 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 Veeteran’ 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.

Petrona group

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 who is hugely compromised (e.g. supported Mussolini) 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

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 , | 13 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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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:

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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!

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