Top TV crime as the nights draw in: Giri/Haji (Japan/UK), Guilt (Scotland) & Unbelievable (USA)

There are some outstanding TV crime series on our screens at the moment – just perfect for those dark winter evenings when going out feels like too big an ask.

These three are the top of my heap at the moment.

Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) – BBC 2 (Japan/UK) 

Giri/Haji is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities. A dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was hooked from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some really inventive use of film techniques and genres, like sequences that draw on manga. Thanks to my friend Morgan for alerting me to this series – it’s a keeper!

Guilt, BBC 2 (Scotland)

Guilt is a four-part darkly comic crime caper set in Edinburgh.

On their way home from a wedding one night, brothers Max and Jake (Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives) accidentally run over a pensioner in the dark. Rather than call for an ambulance or the police, the duo carry the body back into the man’s house and settle it into an armchair before leaving. But of course, they make mistakes… And in trying to cover up those mistakes, they end up making more…

There’s a great oddball chemistry between the brothers: short-tempered, impatient lawyer Max, and the more laid-back Jake, who runs a failing record shop. Add in the dead man’s niece Angie, who’s over from America to sort out dearly departed Uncle Walter’s estate but smells a rat, and you have a recipe for plenty of criminally good fun.

Unbelievable (Netflix / USA)

Unbelievable completely blew me away. The story of a serial rape investigation in Colorado and neighbouring states, it places the female victims squarely at the heart of its narrative, along with the tenacious and meticulous police-work of two women – Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Detecive Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

The story unfolds along two timelines: the first is 2008, when police are called to the apartment of 18-year-old Marie Adler (an outstanding performance by Kaitlyn Dever), who says she has just been attacked and raped. The second is 2011, when Duvall and Rasmussen spot similarities between the cases they’re investigating and start to work together. The series gives us a detailed insight into how police cultures and attitudes can shape rape investigations, for good and ill, and highlights the urgent need for police cooperation across county and state lines, to stop perpetrators who deliberately commit crimes over a wide area to evade justice.

Unbelievable is based on a true caseas you can read in detail here – although I would strongly advise you to watch the series first and read the piece afterwards. Compelling, illuminating and thought-provoking.

What are you watching right now? Any recommendations?

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (Japan) & the 2019 Booker Prize

The minute I saw this ravishing book cover, I wanted a copy. And – oh happy day – it’s turned out to be one of my most satisfying crime reads of the year.

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (trans. from Japanese by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon Press, out Jan 2020)

Opening line: What do you remember?

The Aosawa Murders is an fascinating exploration of a crime: the poisoning of seventeen people at a big family birthday party in 1970s Japan. The case was supposedly solved by the police, but as the novel immediately shows, a number of people have doubts that the truth was properly established – including the lead investigator. In particular, the enigmatic figure of Hisako, the blind daughter and sole family member to survive, is the focus of much scrutiny and speculation.

I loved this novel’s originality, intelligence and verve. Readers are invited to glean new clues about the murders from interviews carried out by an anonymous individual – a kind of Rashomon homage that sifts the memories of those close to the crime, such as local kids who visited the family home, the housekeeper’s daughter, the prime suspect’s neighbour, and the detective in charge of the case. One of these interviewees is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime eleven years after it happened, and who reports on the interviews she carried out back then, creating a kind of Chinese-box narrative on three different time levels (1970s,1980s, 2000s). As we move through the novel, more and more details about what people knew are revealed, along with the toll the crime has taken on them personally. Beautifully written and translated, with great characterization and sense of place, I was hooked from the first to the last page.

Many thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the preview copy.

Booker Prize news. As you’ve probably heard, the Booker Prize jury staged a ‘joyful mutiny’ and awarded the 2019 prize to two authorsBernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

I’ve yet to read Girl, Woman, Other, but can thoroughly recommend The Testaments, especially to fans of the Handmaid’s Tale and the excellent TV adaptation. It’s a surprisingly difficult novel to review without giving spoilers away, so I’ll resist detailed descriptions. Suffice to say that it’s a searing exploration of state-sanctioned crimes against women, and features one of the most complex and fascinating characters from the TV series, whose perspective provides fresh insights into the origins and workings of Gilead. It’s a book I’ll be reading at least twice…

Noirwich 2019 & Ten Autumn Crime Reads

Well, Noirwich 2019 was a blast. It was my first time at this crime festival – now in its 6th year – and it has certainly hit its stride. I was there on the Saturday, as part of a range of panels at the incredible medieval Dragon Hall. It was quite a venue for our ‘Euro Noir’ panel.

Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen were both on top form, and there was *plenty* of interesting discussion and laughter. Although their work shares a very strong noirish feel and humour, there are also some striking differences, which made for rich conversation. For example, Simone writes the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, while Antti focuses on standalones; Simone’s work is rooted in the ‘mean streets’ of Hamburg, while Antti’s novels wander around Finland, from the capital Helsinki to seaside towns and villages in the frozen east.

Both writers acknowledged the influence of Noir writers and filmmakers from Raymond Chandler to Jakob Arjouni and the Coen Brothers, but also felt that after a few books, these were subsumed into their own authorial voices – they had made them their own. And both felt that characters were at the heart of the story rather than the plot, and that placing characters in a quandary or difficult scenario gives narratives their oomph.

You can see how much fun we all had below… It was a very lively panel! And the bilingual readings in German-English and Finnish-English went down a storm.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Simone and Antti are doing a karaoke version of ‘Islands in the Stream’…

Mrs Peabody’s 10 Autumn Crime Reads

These are my most anticipated reads as the nights draw in. Some are recent, some not; some are pure crime, some are cross-genre… All look great!

  1. Laila Lalami, The Other Americans (US)
  2. Stina Jackson, The Silver Road, trans. Susan Beard (Sweden)
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (Canada)
  4. John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (UK)
  5. George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown (US)
  6. Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier (Ireland)
  7. Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (UK/Turkey)
  8. Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (US; non-fiction)
  9. Denise Mina, Conviction (Scotland; Denise was at Noirwich and her session made me want to grab this book.)
  10. Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders, trans. Alison Watts (cheating; not out until Jan 2020, but hey).

The Silver Road is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

NOIRWICH Crime Writing Festival: ‘Dissecting Euro Noir’ with Simone Buchholz & Antti Tuomainen (Sat 14 Sept)

A heads up for all crime fans who can get to Norwich next weekend! I’ll be chairing the following event with Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen next Saturday at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.

Dissecting Euro Noir’, Dragon Hall, Norwich, 5pm (get your tickets here!)

Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen are two pillars of the Euro Noir community, penning some of the darkest, grittiest and most riveting crime thrillers of recent years. We are delighted to welcome Simone from Germany and Antti from Finland to dissect their latest novels in translation, their use of grisly detail and dark humour, and why they think European crime fiction is one of the most electrifying and successful genres in the world.

As part of my prep, I’ve had my nose in Beton Rouge and Little Siberia all this week, and both have been an absolute delight.

Simone’s Beton Rouge is the second in the ‘Chastity Riley’ series to be published in English – a stylish Hamburg take on hard-boiled noir, which opens with a grim discovery outside the offices of a magazine. Antti’s Little Siberia is a hilarious yet poignant noir romp, triggered by a meteorite crashing onto a car in a remote town in eastern Finland. In both cases, translators Rachel Ward and David Hackston communicate the humour and noirness of the originals with aplomb.

If you can get to Norwich for this event next Saturday – by plane, train, car or mule – then please do come along. Both of these authors are wonderfully engaging speakers, and there’ll be plenty of Euro noir chat and laughter – guaranteed!

And…as an exclusive extra today, courtesy of Orenda Books, here’s the cover reveal for Simone’s new book, Mexico Street, which is out in March next year.

Love it. And here’s a sneak preview of Chastity Riley’s third case… 

Night after night, cars are set alight across the German city of Hamburg, with no obvious pattern, no explanation and no suspect.

Until, one night, on Mexico Street, a ghetto of high-rise blocks in the north of the city, a Fiat is torched. Only this car isn’t empty. The body of Nouri Saroukhan – prodigal son of the Bremen clan – is soon discovered, and the case becomes a homicide.

Public prosecutor Chastity Riley is handed the investigation, which takes her deep into a criminal underground that snakes beneath the whole of Germany. And as details of Nouri’s background, including an illicit relationship with the mysterious Aliza, emerge, it becomes clear that these are not random attacks, and there are more on the cards…

Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

Summertime crime (Australia, UK, Iceland)

I hope you’re all in a summery mood and finding time for some relaxing crime fiction – novels that whisk you away from humdrum everyday life and morale-sapping political shenanigans.

Here are three that have done the trick for me lately.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019)

This debut novel, set an isolated Australian town suffering from drought, has attracted some rave reviews. It opens with a puzzle: why would charismatic priest Byron Swift open fire on his own congregation from the church steps one Sunday morning, killing five men? A year on, burned-out journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the impact of the tragedy on the community, and is struck by how what locals say doesn’t always fit into the accepted version of events.

I really enjoyed Scrublands, although things went a teensy bit bananas in the end. Big pluses for me included the intriguing puzzle of Swift’s actions, the depictions of troubled journalist Scarsden and the embattled Riversend community, and an utterly gripping section on the battle to contain a bushfire. The rather irritating characterization of the (stunningly beautiful) love interest and an increasingly overloaded plot were less beguiling. In the end, there were enough twists and turns to fill three crime novels, and the chunks of exposition needed to explain these felt a bit intrusive. But overall this was a worthwhile and entertaining read, and very well written in parts.

Lesley Thomson, The Dog Walker (Head of Zeus, 2017)

Lesley Thomson’s ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ series has become one of my favourites in recent years. I always enjoy the company of her quirky sleuthing duo, Stella Darnell (detective’s daughter and cleaner extraordinaire) and her sidekick Jack Harmon. In The Dog Walker, Stella and Jack investigate the 1987 disappearance of Helen Honeysett, a young wife who went for a run along the Thames towpath one evening and never came home. Suspicion immediately fell on one of her neighbours, but perhaps he was innocent after all? Thomson provides readers with an intriguing array of suspects living in a row of five riverside cottages (there’s a great little map at the front of the novel showing who lives where). The chapters set in the 1980s stand out for their narration of events from a child’s perspective – that of young Megan – and are extremely well observed.

If you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the series opener, The Detective’s Daughter, before you start this one.

Quentin Bates, Cold Breath, Constable 2018 

Another of my favourite investigators is Officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladdóttir, a no-nonsense middle-aged Icelandic policewoman. In this, the seventh novel in Quentin Bates’ absorbing series, Gunna is placed in the unusual position of acting as a police bodyguard to Osman, a high-profile foreign guest. What should be a straightforward assignment turns into something much more serious when there’s an attempt on Osman’s life. The novel tracks events from the perspectives of the would-be assassins, those unfortunate enough to inadvertently get in their way, and Gunna and Osman respectively. The larger mystery of Osman’s identity hangs over proceedings as well. A thrilling plot, strong characterization and plenty of wry humour all make for a great read – and the novel’s Icelandic settings are evocatively drawn.

What stand-out crime novels have you been reading this summer?

Post your recommendations below! 

CrimeFest 2019: Crime Cymru, Nordic Noir & The Petrona Award winner!

The sun shone for almost all of CrimeFest this year, helping to smooth our transition to the convention’s new home at The Grand in Broad Street, Bristol.

As ever, the entire festival was wonderful – thank you Adrian and Donna! Here are a few of my highlights.

The Crime Cymru panel: ‘It’s not all Rugby, Sheep and Singing’

This was such a special panel – the very first dedicated to Welsh crime writing at CrimeFest. Authors Cathy Ace, Rosie Claverton, Alis Hawkins and John Lincoln were in discussion with G.B. Williams, and explored everything from how the Crime Cymru collective came about, to the richness of Welsh settings (gritty urban Cardiff; the rural Teifi Valley), and the Welsh concept of ‘hiraeth’ or ‘longing for home’ – which Swansea-born Cathy particularly relates to as a Crime Cymru writer based in Canada. The panellists have produced an impressively varied body of crime fiction between them – offbeat P.I. novels, cosy crime, historical crime, true crime, cold case investigations – demonstrating that Welsh crime fiction is in rude health.

The ‘Scandi is Dandy’ panel took the ‘dandy’ bit to heart – especially Jørn Lier Horst, who turned up in a truly arresting Norwegian jacket. He’s pictured here on the right, if you hadn’t guessed, with Finnish fellow panellist Antii Tuomainen (bedecked in paisley), and the more soberly attired Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen sandwiched in the middle (who like Jørn was shortlisted for the 2019 Petrona Award).

The ‘Nordic’ panels are always great, and moderator Kevin Wignall helped to bring out plenty of light and shade in the course of the discussion. Jørn revealed that the starting points for The Katharina Code were a cold case he’d worked on and the question ‘what’s it like to be a murderer trying to lead an ordinary life?’ Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Antii discussed how a desire to push themselves as writers had led to a change of series and subgenre respectively. They all had high praise for the talented translators who made it possible for their works to be read in the English-speaking world: Anne Bruce (Jørn), Vicky Cribb (Yrsa) and David Hackston, whose musicality Antii felt helped hone his deft translations.

As a Petrona judge, a clear highlight for me was the announcement of the seventh Petrona Award winner at the Gala Dinner – Jørn Lier Horst for The Katharina Code, translated by Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph). Jørn is the first writer to have won the award twice (+ The Caveman in 2016).

Here’s what we judges had to say about the winning novel: 

THE KATHARINA CODE is a twenty-year-old mystery and failure of justice that haunts its investigator. From the code’s intriguing introduction in the novel’s opening pages to the duel of wits at its end, Jørn Lier Horst has crafted an outstanding and thrilling police procedural. The judges were particularly impressed with how the author takes established tropes – the ‘cold case’, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh. THE KATHARINA CODE is the seventh novel in Horst’s ‘William Wisting’ series to be superbly translated by Anne Bruce from Norwegian into English, and is a highly worthy winner of the 2019 Petrona Award.

You can read more over at the Petrona website – and see the entire shortlist of six novels from Norway, Denmark and Iceland: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

Jorn with the Petrona Award team and Kristin from the Norwegian Embassy.

*******************

I have to confess that I attended less panels this year than I normally do. This was partly because I only managed to get to CrimeFest on Friday afternoon, and partly because I really wanted to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in ages. So often you cross paths with someone as you’re going in or out of a panel and say, ‘let’s meet up later’… and then somehow it doesn’t happen. This year I caught up properly with some dear crime buddies including Anya Lipska, Quentin Bates, Louise Mangos, Marina Sofia, Jackie Collins, Ewa Sherman, Tana Collins, Ayo Onatade, Ali Karim, Sarah Ward, Karen Meek, Raven (that G&T was *really* good), and someone I hadn’t seen in over 30 years – it’s a small world Mick Finlay!

Criminally good friendships – what more could we want?

The 2019 Petrona Award shortlist has landed!

Here we go!!!

Six outstanding crime novels from Denmark, Iceland and Norway have been shortlisted for the 2019 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today. They are… *drumroll*

  • THE ICE SWIMMER by Kjell Ola Dahl, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)
  • THE WHISPERER by Karin Fossum, tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)
  • THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, tr. Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph; Norway)
  • THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson, tr. Victoria Cribb (Penguin; Iceland)
  • RESIN by Ane Riel, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday; Denmark)
  • BIG SISTER by Gunnar Staalesen, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

THE ICE SWIMMER by Kjell Ola Dahl, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

Kjell Ola Dahl has achieved international acclaim for his ‘Oslo Detectives’ police procedural series, of which The Ice Swimmer is the latest instalment. When a dead man is found in the freezing waters of Oslo Harbour, Detective Lena Stigersand takes on the investigation while having to deal with some difficult personal issues. With the help of her trusted colleagues Gunnarstranda and Frølich, she digs deep into the case and uncovers possible links to the Norwegian establishment. Once again, Dahl has produced a tense and complex thriller, with his trademark close attention to social issues.

THE WHISPERER by Karin Fossum, tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

Winner of the prestigious Riverton Award and Glass Key Award for Nordic crime, Karin Fossum is a prolific talent. The Whisperer focuses on the case of Ragna Riegel, an unassuming woman with a complicated emotional history, who has recently been arrested. As Inspector Konrad Sejer delves into her psyche in the course of a claustrophobic interrogation, Fossum slowly reveals the events leading up to Ragna’s crime. This is a highly assured mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, which really gets to the heart of one woman’s mental turmoil, and how easy it is for an individual to become unmoored from society.

THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, tr. Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph; Norway)

Jørn Lier Horst’s ‘William Wisting’ novels are distinguished by their excellent characterisation and strong plots. In The Katharina Code, a dormant investigation is reopened when police focus on a missing woman’s husband and his possible involvement in an earlier, apparently unconnected case. Wisting, who has long harboured doubts about the man’s innocence, becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in the surveillance operation. This finely plotted thriller with a strong sense of unresolved justice shows how Lier Horst is as comfortable writing about rural landscapes as urban settings.

THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson, tr. Victoria Cribb (Penguin; Iceland)

In Ragnar Jónasson’s The Darkness, the first in the ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy, a Reykjavík policewoman on the brink of retirement looks into a final case – the death of Elena, a young Russian woman, which may mistakenly have been labelled a suicide. As much a portrait of its flawed investigator, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir, as of the investigation itself, the novel explores themes ranging from parental estrangement and the costs of emotional withdrawal to the precarious status of immigrants trying to make their way in a new land. The novel’s ending is bold and thought-provoking.

RESIN by Ane Riel, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday; Denmark)

Ane Riel’s Resin is an ambitious literary crime novel with a remote Danish setting. Narrated mainly from the perspective of Liv, a young girl, it tells the story of three generations of one family, while exploring the complicated factors that can lead individuals to justify and commit murder. Other narrative voices – such as those of Liv’s mother and a neighbour – provide further nuance and depth. A moving meditation on the consequences of social isolation and misguided love, Resin is an innovative novel that offers its readers a keenly observed psychological portrait of a close-knit but dysfunctional family.

BIG SISTER by Gunnar Staalesen, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

In this highly acclaimed, long-running series, former social worker turned private investigator Varg Veum solves complex crimes which often have a strong historic dimension. In Big Sister, Veum is surprised by the revelation that he has a half-sister, who asks him to look into the whereabouts of her missing goddaughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse. Expertly plotted, with an unsettling, dark undertone, this novel digs deep into Veum’s family past to reveal old secrets and hurts, and is by turns an absorbing and exciting read.

Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers!

The Petrona judges – Jackie Farrant, Sarah Ward and myself – had the following to say about the shortlist: 

The Petrona Award judges faced a challenging but enjoyable decision-making process when drawing up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for their writing, characterisation, plotting, and overall quality. They are original and inventive, often pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, and tackle highly complex subjects such as mental health issues, the effects of social and emotional alienation, and failures of policing and justice.

We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

There were 38 entries for the 2019 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 25 translators and submitted by 24 publishers/imprints. There were 14 female and 20 male authors, and two male-female writing duos.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Norway strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Iceland each have one.

The crime genres represented include the police procedural, the private investigator novel, psychological crime, literary crime and the thriller.

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia and published in the UK in the previous calendar year. The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 11 May during CrimeFest, held in Bristol 9-12 May 2019.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2019 Petrona Award. Huge thanks too to Karen Meek (aka Euro Crime), for all of her excellent organisational work throughout the year!

For further information about the Petrona Award, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

Easter treats! Menasse’s The Capital (Austria), French’s The Wych Elm (Ireland), Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice (New Zealand)

A short one from me today, as I’m still firmly wedged under a pile of work and have managed very little reading in the past couple of weeks. BUT that hasn’t stopped me from adding new books to my TBR list. And now that the Easter weekend is coming up, I’m hoping to get stuck into at least one of the following…

I was kindly sent a copy of Robert Menasse’s The Capital by MacLehose Press after a serendipitous meeting with translator Jamie Bulloch and editor Katharina Bielenberg at London Book Fair. Then the pressure of two Brexit deadlines kicked in, and the last thing I felt like doing was reading an Austrian satire on the EU! However, now that we’re in (temporarily) calmer waters, I’ve finally sampled the first couple of chapters and enjoyed them very much. So far, we’ve had a pig on the loose in central Brussels, a murder in the Hotel Atlas, and a thoughtful meditation on mustard – all delivered with beguilingly dry humour. We’ve also been introduced to a cast of European characters who are in some way connected to the European Commission and its possibly doomed jubilee celebration plans.

The Capital is a genre-busting political-satirical-literary crime novel, so may not be one for purists, but it’s garnered a series of excellent reviews, such as Mark Lawson’s for The Guardian, and is nothing if not timely for us Brits.

For years, fellow readers have been telling me how brilliant Tana French’s novels are – particularly her ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series. And for years, I’ve somehow not managed to read a single one of her books. So when I was going through a pile of old Review magazines today and spotted an interview (below) about her novel The Wych Elm – a psychological thriller that’s been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – I knew that the time had come. It sounds like the perfect high quality escape for an Easter weekend.

‘Nobody with a lot of imagination should ever commit a crime’ (Feb 2019)

Last but not least, Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice is out *today* from Orion (thanks to Craig Sisterson for the heads up). I was lucky enough to have a sneak peak at this novel in August last year, when I interviewed the author, a former policeman, about this debut novel for the blog. The story centres on Auckland Detective Matt Buchanan and a traumatic crime encountered early in his career – and was nominated for both the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award *and* Best Novel Award. Impressive!

You can read the full interview here – which gives fascinating insights into the author’s own policing experiences and how he’s deployed them as a writer.

Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!

‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.