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.

16271683479_b5659f34a0_k (1)

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 | 35 Comments

Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

Last Friday, to pass some time while ill in bed, I started listening to the podcast SERIAL, which explores a real and very complex murder case from 1999. I don’t consider myself to be a fan of true crime, which is all too often voyeuristic and salacious, and so wasn’t expecting to get drawn in. But I found myself hooked from the opening of the very first episode, and by the end of the day had listened eight (EIGHT!) episodes.

SERIAL is a podcast phenomenon. Since it started in October it has become the fastest podcast on iTunes to be downloaded or streamed 5 million times, and is one of reddit’s most discussed topics. The series first crossed my radar when writer Linda Grant wrote about her fascination with it and I’m glad to have finally caught up, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

SERIAL is an offshoot of This American Life (a weekly radio show by Chicago Public Media), and is presented by journalist Sarah Koenig. This is how SERIAL’s website describes what the podcast is about:

>> On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A few weeks later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers. <<

So the podcast is a 360 degree examination of a murder case, one that Sarah carries out with great intelligence, care and respect for all the individuals involved. Although the hope is to get to the bottom of the case’s contradictions by looking at the evidence with fresh eyes, Koenig pledges to ‘follow the story where it takes us’, even if that means failing to achieve closure. It’s this willingness to accept all outcomes that is one of the series’ chief strengths; in many respects it is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of finding the truth.

Eleven episodes of SERIAL are currently available. The 12th and final episode airs this coming Thursday. If you haven’t yet listened, you might want to leave this post and head over to episode 1. If you’ve already caught up, you might be interested in reading on below…

What I’m not going to discuss is the (admittedly fascinating) question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, because it’s being dissected exhaustively elsewhere, and to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. Arguably, one of the few pitfalls of the podcast is that it’s been treated by some as a fictional crime whodunit, losing sight of the fact that the story is about real people. I’m more interested in the insights Sarah Koenig (SK) has offered listeners into the impact of murder, the minutiae of police investigations and the complexities of the trial process. These are meta-observations that have made me think really, really hard about the justice system in a way that I haven’t done before.

Memory. The first episode of SERIAL opens with an observation about how hard it can be to remember past events. Can you remember exactly what you were doing the whole of last Wednesday? Now, how about a Wednesday six weeks ago, which turns out to have been the day of a murder, in which you are a suspect? What happens if you genuinely can’t remember? Or if you think you can, but then realise you’ve got it wrong? Or if you can, but no one can corroborate what you say? Any of these could be the beginning of a road to wrongful conviction. Unless of course you’re lying, which is when things get even trickier.

A piece of evidence can appear utterly damning when viewed in one context, and completely innocent in another. It all depends on how you build it into a larger narrative or how you spin it. SK demonstrates this by discussing specific bits of evidence with those who think Adnan is guilty and those who don’t. The same applies in the courtroom: building a convincing narrative is key for the prosecution and defence. They are telling competing stories to the jury and are fighting for their own to be believed.

The power of narrative is also illustrated by the podcast itself (something that SK does not explicitly acknowledge). Episodes are constructed in such a way as to consider one side of the argument, then the other, and inevitably sway the listener back and forth as well (ooh, he’s guilty/nooo, he can’t be). There’s a cliff-hanger element built into the episodes, with previews of ‘next time’ promising new evidence that will keep us hooked. Very successfully.

On a moral level, we listeners are gripped by questions of guilt or innocence. But in a legal context, guilt or innocence may never be definitively proved. The more important question then becomes ‘is there reasonable doubt’?

Murder investigations are HUGELY complex. We all know this, but listening to over ten hours of detail about one case makes you appreciate that fact all the more. It instills a respect for police investigators, who have to process mountains of potential evidence and decide what it relevant and what is not. It also makes you realise how easily the truth can be lost if the wrong leads are followed, or if prejudices start to cloud investigators’ judgments.

The police are not necessarily looking for the truth. Rather, they are trying to build a case against someone. This means that there may be ‘verification bias’ present in the investigation – the disregarding of so-called ‘bad evidence’ that does not fit the detectives’ theories of what happened. Scary stuff, and this is why it’s so important for justice systems to have a robust element of defence and cross-examination, so that lots of difficult questions can be asked.

SK’s own investigations show us a range of different perspectives and voices: we hear sound clips of police interviews and court proceedings, readings from Hae’s teenage diary, SK’s interviews with family, friends and witnesses (all of whom were deeply affected by the murder), and her phone conversations with Adnan in prison. These are augmented by her own commentary on the difficulties she is encountering as she tries to figure out this ‘Rubik’s cube of a case’.

‘Cops assume that everyone is lying all the time’. A pragmatic, logical approach or a breach of the presumption of innocence? They will ‘offer the suspect a theme’ – meaning that they will discuss the subject of the crime in a way that suggests understanding to encourage a confession (e.g. ‘I can understand why you hit that man. After all he provoked you’).

‘How easy it is to stir stereotypes in with facts, all of which then gets baked into a story’. SK does a great job of exploring the possible bias of the judicial system (for example, the use of certain types of vocabulary in reports or in court). This quote is also a wonderful example of how SK sums up ideas in an accessible and interesting way.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis examine some evidence. Photo by Elise Bergerson.

I never quite realised how many factors can feed into the outcome of a trial: the quality of the prosecution or defence lawyers, cultural biases, the composition of the jury, alibis or the lack of alibis, the presence or absence of forensic evidence, the efficiency or inefficiency of the investigators (did they ask for that crucial item to be checked for DNA?), the willingness or refusal of witnesses to testify, the credibility of witnesses, etc. etc. etc.

If you are innocent, and continue to maintain your innocence following conviction, then your chances of parole are low, because the parole board is looking for evidence of remorse. So you can lie and get out, or be honest and stay in. Hmmmm.

SK and her listeners may be playing the role of the detective, but that does not remotely guarantee the discovery of a ‘solution’, because this is real life. Will the final episode offer listeners the closure they crave? At the simplest level, Adnan’s guilt/innocence may only be known to three people: murder victim Hae Lee, Adnan himself and his friend Jay. Of these last two, one has to be lying. I’m doubtful that SERIAL can reveal who’s telling the truth, but it certainly succeeds in showing us plenty of others.

Posted in 5 stars | 26 Comments

Iceland Noir 2014: volcanoes, glaciers and crime

Having been extremely jealous of everyone at Iceland Noir last year, it was brilliant to make it this November, not least because Reykjavik has been on my wishlist of places to visit for a long, long time. The event was held at Nordic House, and was expertly organised by author Quentin Bates and the rest of the Icelandic Noir team, who put together a great programme over two days. Quite a few bloggers have already posted reports (see list below), so I’m going to focus on the panels/discussions that particularly interested me and say a little about my first impressions of Iceland … with plenty of photos!

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Nordic Perspectives panel – and yes, it was early in the morning…

Nordic Perspectives. This panel featured David Hewson (UK), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway), Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland) and Michael Ridpath (UK), with Jake Kerridge moderating. It was interesting to see how these authors positioned themselves or their countries’ crime output in relation to ‘nordic crime’. Sigurðardóttir felt that Icelandic crime had affinities to Scandinavian crime through its focus on the complexity of the criminal (citing the work of Norwegian author Karin Fossum as an example). However Lahlum saw himself as a historical crime writer rather than a Nordic crime writer, while Ridpath’s Icelandic-American investigator is an insider-outsider figure who negotiates different cultural traditions.

This panel also included discussion of historical crime fiction and adaptation. Lahlum told us that Norwegian crime fiction often engages with historical events, especially the Second World War (as evidenced in his novel The Human Flies). Hewson discussed his adaptation of the Danish TV crime drama The Killing, which involved adding contextualising historical detail. For example, the beginning and end of The Killing II are set in Ryvangen Memorial Park, which was the site of partisan executions by the Nazis and points to the core theme of the series – the long-term impact of war on society. Hewson provided extra information about the memorial, as British readers would not be aware of its significance (interesting; now on my TBR pile).

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‘Translating crime across cultures’ panel

The ‘translating crime fiction across cultures’ panel featured Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (Iceland), Mari Hannah (UK), Bogdan Hrib (Romania) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), with academic Jacky Collins moderating. I left this panel wanting to read Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy: the first installment, The Land of Dreams, won the prestigious Riverton Prize in 2008, and its exploration of Norwegian-American history and culture sounds right up my street. It was also interesting to hear Hrib discussing Romanian crime novels and his ongoing mission to see them more widely translated into English: there are currently just three, published by Profusion Press, which I’m now curious to read. Mari Hannah tantalised us by revealing that she’s written a novel partly set in Norway (a break from the Kate Daniels series, which we were reassured is also continuing). Icelandic author Ingólfsson currently has one novel translated into English – The Flatley Enigmawith others translated into German, which appears to be quite a common route for Icelandic writers (those Germans do love their nordic Krimis!).

A companion panel on the Saturday celebrated the inaugural Icepick Award for best crime novel translated into Icelandic, with Antii Tuomainen (Finnish author of The Healer) and Icelandic translators Ævar Örn Jósepsson, Bjarni Gunnarsson, Bjarni Jónsson and Sigadur Karlsson (Magnea Matthiasdóttir moderating).

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Icepick Award panel – a sea of translators!

The panel gave a fascinating insight into the dialogue between writers and translators about linguistic and cultural issues during the process of translation, although Gunnarsson also illustrated the important role of technology today: when translating Nesbo, he used Google Earth to take a closer look at Oslo, a city he’s never visited but now feels he knows well. Tuomainnen made lifelong friends in the translation community with his heartfelt appreciation for the work of the translator; he also specifically thanked Sigurdur Karlsson for translating his work and for bringing it to the attention of Icelandic publishers in the first place, thereby highlighting the influential role translators play in identifying promising new work. The Icepick was awarded on the Saturday evening at the Iceland Noir dinner (for further details, see my previous post).

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The ‘settings’ panel

Tuomainnen popped up again on the settings panel with Ragnar Jónasson (Iceland), Johan Theorin (Sweden) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), moderated by Jacky Collins. The settings discussed included urban Finland, a village in northern Iceland, an isolated Swedish island and the American Midwest. In each case, the novel’s location plays a crucial role – sometimes even becoming a character in its own right – and is used to create unease or suspense (Theorin’s Öland novels), a sense of remoteness and isolation (Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series), or to explore themes such as migration (Sundstol’s Minnesota Trilogy) and climate change (Tuomainen’s The Healer).

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The ‘supernatural in crime fiction’ panel – a suitably shaky shot from the back…

One of my favourite panels was on supernatural crime, featuring James Oswald (Scotland), Johan Theorin (Sweden), Alexandra Sokoloff (US) and Michael Sears (South Africa) in discussion with Jake Kerridge. It was fascinating to hear the varying reasons why crime authors use supernatural elements in their work: as a means of exploring the clash between the rational and irrational (Oswald), illustrating evil (Sokoloff), exploring cultural beliefs (Sears) or taking genre in new direction (Theorin). Hearing the panelists talk about the extra dimensions the supernatural can add to a crime narrative reminded me why I like hybrid crime fiction so much: there’s a creativity at work here that pushes the boundaries of the genre and – when it works – can produce fantastic results. Sokoloff rather intriguingly described a magpie approach when writing – she has blended Jewish lore and witch-y elements into her novels to create particular effects. And it struck me that at least two other writers at the conference – Tuomainen and Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – also write hybrid crime fiction (drawing on traditions of apocalyptic literature and horror). The days when crime publishers were reluctant to publish this type of fusion fiction thankfully appear to be over.

Other blog posts, articles and tweetery on Iceland Noir 2014:

  • Crime Fiction Lover – lots of coverage including the debut authors’ panel, featuring blogger and Petrona judge Sarah Ward, whose novel In Bitter Chill (Faber and Faber 2015) I’m greatly looking forward to reading
  • Crimepieces – Sarah Ward with three posts
  • The Reykjavik Grapevine on the author reading held at Solon on Thursday evening
  • Miriam Owen live-tweeted Iceland Noir via @NordicNoirBuzz

Do also check out the site for next year’s rather wonderful-looking Shetland Noir (Iceland Noir will be back in 2016).

I’m going to finish up with a few Reykjavik/Iceland photos to show those of you who haven’t yet visited what a great place this is!

1. An Eymundsson bookshop in Reyjkavik. This capital, which is around the size of my hometown Swansea, with a population of around 200,000, has at least five massive bookshops. Iceland is a nation of book lovers with a deep appreciation of culture (probably instilled by long winter nights and the reading aloud of Icelandic sagas). Fittingly, Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature.

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Booktastic Reykjavik

2. The bubbling, steaming landscape of Haukadalur. Wandering around on a crust of earth just above plentiful geothermal activity, with geysers going off at regular intervals, instils an added appreciation of our volatile, ever-changing planet. In a land not heavy on natural resources, Icelanders have made the most of their free geothermal energy to heat their homes, create outdoor thermal pools, grow tomatoes, process aluminium, keep their streets de-iced, and so on… Ingenious and admirable.

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The land of fire and ice – a geothermal landscape here, but glaciers are not far away

3. Reykjavik is charming. Here are a few random photos.

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Hallgrímskirkja, which looks a lot like a space rocket, guarded by the statue of Leifur Eiriksson

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View over Reykjavik from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja – on the day the sun came out

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Reykjavik Harbour, looking out to Faxafloi Bay and the mountains beyond

4. There’s a lot of Icelandic wool. Which gets turned into gorgeous mittens to feed my newly discovered mitten addiction.

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Takk fyrir Icelandic sheep!

5. Friendly Vikings. I think this is my favourite Iceland Noir photo.

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Miriam and Ewa – awesomely stylish Vikings

Huge thanks to the Iceland Noir organisers for making the event such a wonderful success!

Posted in America, By country, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, Scotland, South Africa, Sweden, Wild card! | Tagged | 21 Comments

Iceland Noir: Winner of first Icepick Award announced!

Hot off the presses from Iceland Noir! The winner of the inaugural Icepick Award, given to the best crime novel translated into Icelandic in 2014, is…

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… Swiss author Joël Dicker’s La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair], translated from the French by Friðrik Rafnsson.

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This novel is a publishing phenomenon – here’s the blurb from Penguin, which has certainly made me want to read the book:

>> The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a fast-paced, tightly plotted, cinematic literary thriller, and an ingenious book within a book, by a dazzling young writer.

August 30, 1975: the day fifteen-year-old Nola Kellergan is glimpsed fleeing through the woods, never to be heard from again; the day Somerset, New Hampshire, lost its innocence. Thirty-three years later, Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist, visits Somerset to see his mentor, Harry Quebert, one of the country’s most respected writers, and to find a cure for his writer’s block as his publisher’s deadline looms. But Marcus’s plans are violently upended when Harry is suddenly and sensationally implicated in the cold-case murder of Nola Kellergan—with whom he admits he had an affair. As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues through his mentor’s books, the backwoods and isolated beaches of New Hampshire, and the hidden history of Somerset’s citizens and the man they hold most dear. To save Harry, his own writing career, and eventually even himself, Marcus must answer three questions, all of which are mysteriously connected: Who killed Nola Kellergan? What happened one misty morning in Somerset in the summer of 1975? And how do you write a book to save someone’s life?<<

The Icepick Award is judged both on the quality of the original work and its translation, acknowledging the vital role of the translator in allowing crime fiction to travel beyond national and linguistic boundaries to the ever grateful reader. The process of translating (which of course involves not just linguistic but detailed cultural knowledge) is often invisible, so it’s very welcome to see it being celebrated by the award.

The shortlist for the 2014 Icepick Award, with novels from America, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and Sweden, was as follows:

Joël Dicker, La Vérité sur l’affaire Harry Quebert [The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair] – Icelandic translation from French: Friðrik Rafnsson

Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl – Icelandic translation from English: Bjarni Jónsson

Jo Nesbø, Panserhjerte [The Leopard] – Icelandic translation from Norwegian: Bjarni Gunnarsson

Håkan NesserMänniska utan hund [Man Without Dog] – Icelandic translation from Swedish: Ævar Örn Jósepsson Antti Tuomainen, Veljeni vartija [My Brother’s Keeper] – Icelandic translation from Finnish: Sigurður Karlsson The award is founded by the Reykjavik Crime Festival Iceland Noir, The Icelandic Association of Translators and Interpreters and The Icelandic Crime Writing Association. 

Posted in America, By country, Finland, France, Norway | 28 Comments

Iceland Noir 2014 and BBC1’s The Fall

I’ll be heading to Reykjavik next week for Iceland Noir 2014. To say I’m a little excited is something of an understatement.

As this poster shows, Iceland Noir 2014 features the crème de la crème of Icelandic and international crime writers. There’s an exciting programme running over two days, with lovely extras such as Reykjavik crime walks, jazz-infused crime readings and the announcement of the Icepick Award (shortlist available here). With luck we’ll also have some northern lights swirling above. I’m very much looking forward to meeting old friends and new, and to uncovering lots of fabulous new crime fiction. There may be some tweeting too…

My reading on the plane out will be Ragnar Jónasson’s novel Snjóblinda (Snowblind, 2010), the first in his ‘Dark Iceland’ series.

Here’s a brief description: >> Winter in a small, isolated fishing town in the northernmost part of Iceland, only accessible via a small mountain tunnel. A young woman is found lying in the snow, bleeding and unconscious. An old writer falls to his death in the local theatre. A young police officer, new in town, must distinguish between truth and lies, while uncovering hidden crimes of the past, in a community where he can trust no-one, before the constant snowstorms and the twenty four hour darkness push him over the edge. << I’ll be tucking into the German translation, but am pleased to hear that the novel will be published in English translation by Orenda Press in 2015.

Online chatter has alerted me to the start of the second series of BBC1’s The Fall, which features Gillian Anderson as police superintendent Stella Gibson on the trail of Belfast serial killer Paul Spector. I’ve not seen any of this crime drama as yet. The Northern Ireland setting and the female lead have definitely piqued my interest, but the focus on the serial killer, and his depiction as mild-mannered family man by day and murderer of women by night, has rather put me off, as has the view of critics such as Rachel Cooke. My neighbour Ernie (who’s not at all keen on the serial-killer angle either) considers it a well-made drama with depth, so now I’m in two minds again. Have any of you watched it? Would you recommend viewing it or not?

Posted in By country, Iceland, Northern Ireland, TV | Tagged , | 43 Comments

25 years on: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘deutsch-deutscher Krimi’

On a wall in my study hangs a Falk map of Berlin, on which the Berlin Wall is marked with a subtle rosy line. It’s the map I used on my year abroad in Germany, in the tumultuous year of 1989. In the space of six months I visited West and East Berlin (via Checkpoint Charlie), stayed with an East German family in Karl Marx Stadt (relatives of my German boyfriend), and then, rather disbelievingly, watched the Wall fall on TV with my great-aunt (who had seen it go up in 1961) before heading back to Berlin, this time to climb through a freshly created hole in the Wall and ponder the craziness of history while standing in the former no-man’s land.

This image of the Berlin Wall was taken in 1986 by Thierry Noir and corresponds with my memories of it in 1989

9th November 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the remarkable day that East Germany collapsed without a single shot being fired. It’s being commemorated with a programme of events in Berlin, culminating in a Lichtgrenze (Border of Light), which sees 12 kilometers of the Wall’s former route lit with 8000 helium lights as an act of remembrance and as ‘a symbol of hope for a world without walls’. This is what it’ll look like at night:

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Lichtgrenze installation, 7-9 November (http://www.bauderfilm.de/lichtgrenze/)

Of course, one of the myriad ways in which the legacy of the East German past is still being explored is via crime fiction. Here are some examples of recent Krimis that engage with the so-called ‘deutsch-deutscher’ (German-German) question. (Unfortunately only the first one is in English translation at the moment, but hopefully the summaries below will give non-German speakers a flavour of what’s out there. And who knows, perhaps some publishers might be tempted?)

Simon Urban, Plan D (Schoeffling, 2011; Harvill Secker translation, 2013). This gutsy alternative history imagines a 2011 world in which the Berlin Wall did not fall. A blackly humorous satire, it follows the misadventures of Volkspolizei (People’s Police) investigator Martin Wegener, while giving readers an insight into life in East Germany and its historical contexts. I reviewed it favourably in 2013, and posted an East German glossary that explains some of the key events and terms in the novel.

Christa Bernuth’s Innere Sicherheit (Inner Security; Piper, 2006) is set in the East Germany of the early 1980s, before reunification seemed likely. GDR police investigator Martin Beck (a nod to Sjöwall/Wahlöö?) looks into a fatal case of Republikflucht (‘flight from the republic’) that’s not all it seems. Why has the victim been shot with a bullet used by the West? And what are her links to the West German terrorism of the 1970s? There’s an extract available (in German) on the author’s website.

Uwe Klausner, Stasi-Konzern (Stasi Business; Gmeiner, 2014). Retired police chief Tom Sydow is strolling through a West Berlin park on 9. October 1964 when shots ring out. A man has been murdered, but perpetrator and corpse quickly disappear. Sydow discovers the victim was meeting a Stasi officer and is pulled into a case that leads to the top of the East German secret police. This is the sixth installment in the historical ‘Sydow’ series. The fifth, Kennedy-Syndrom, is set in August 1961, just as the Berlin Wall goes up.

Oliver G. Wachlin, Wunderland (Wonderland; Emons, 2008). This humorous ‘Berlin-Krimi’ takes place as the Wall is falling in 1989. West German police investigator Hans Dieter Knoop views a corpse by a lake who’s wearing ice-skates … even though the water’s not yet frozen. He sets about solving this puzzle in the midst of the historical jubilation around him, and receives some unexpected visitors from the East. The second in the series, Tortenschlacht (Death by Cake), plays in 1990, shortly before German reunification.

Jay Monika Walther, Goldbroiler oder die Beschreibung einer Schlacht (Roast Chicken or the Chronicle of a Slaughter; Orange Cursor, 2009). Set shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Warnemünde, this novel shows former East German citizens floundering economically in the new order. The villains are former Nazis from the west, who co-opt eastern neo-Nazis, former Stasi members and disgruntled former GDR citizens into activities such as extortion, smuggling and importing women as sex workers from eastern Europe. A bleak view of the reunited Germany.

As this small selection shows, there’s a huge amount of diversity in crime novels that engage with the East German past – in terms of the historical moment they examine (from 1961 to 1990), the perspectives they adopt (investigators from East and West), the themes they pick up (political repression, corruption, the impact on ordinary people of major social and political changes), and the style in which they are written (satirical, thriller, comic). They link to other legacies of the German past (National Socialism, left-wing terrorism) and sometimes form part of larger historical series attempting to process twentieth-century German history (Klausner’s ‘Sydow’ novels). All of them form part of a wider boom in German-language historical crime fiction, which was triggered by 1989 and the renewed interest in Germany’s ‘double past’ of fascism and communism – Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’ writ large. I’ve just finished a chapter on this subject for the University of Wales Crime Fiction in German volume, which has been very illuminating to write. A final point: only one of the authors above actually had lived experience of East Germany – Oliver Wachlin, who was born in the GDR in 1966. The latter is obviously not a prerequisite for writing crime about the GDR, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

The famous image of the East German Trabi busting through the Berlin Wall

Here are a few extra links to articles and websites about the former East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coverage has been excellent:

A brilliant collection of video clips from rbb (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg) that chronicle the history of the Berlin Wall and its fall. They can be viewed in German or in English.

Before and after shots of the Berlin Wall and the city from The Guardian. Click on the old image and the modern one appears – quite uncanny!

Great piece on the fall of the Berlin Wall by Timothy Garton Ash, a historian who was also an eye witness – some great images too.

An interesting piece by Philip Oltermann, on how some positive aspects of GDR society (from football to gender equality to education) are only now being properly acknowledged.

Over at Kafka’s Mouse, PD Smith has a great post on the changes to urban Berlin in the wake of reunification, with before and after images.

The British Museum currently has a major exhibition on exploring German history through a variety of objects. It’s called Germany – Memories of a Nation, and runs until January 2015. There’s a companion Radio 4 series: you can listen to an episode on the two Germanies here – the object in question is a wet-suit that was used in an escape attempt from the East in 1987.

Posted in By country, East Germany, Germany, Historical | Tagged | 39 Comments