Interview with New Zealand crime writer Nathan Blackwell – 2018 Ngaio Marsh Award finalist

I’m delighted to welcome New Zealand crime writer Nathan Blackwell to the blog today for a Q & A.

Nathan has just pulled off an impressive double by being shortlisted for both the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award *and* Best Novel Award for The Sound of her Voice: One Cop’s Decent into Darkness. He drew extensively on his own experience of policing in Auckland when writing the novel, and uses a pseudonym due to his past as an undercover cop.

Book blurb: For Detective Matt Buchanan, the world is a pretty sick place. He’s probably been in the job too long, for one thing. And then there’s fourteen-year-old Samantha Coates, and the other unsolved murder cases. When Buchanan pursues some fresh leads, it soon becomes clear he’s on the trail of something big. As he pieces the horrific crimes together, Buchanan finds the very foundations of everything he once believed in starting to crumble. He’s forced across that grey line that separates right and wrong – into places so dark, even he might not make it back.

Nathan has kindly taken the time to answer some questions about his policing experience, the novel’s key themes, and how he was inspired by the TV series True Detective. 

Mrs P: Nathan, you spent the best part of a decade in the New Zealand Police, working in the Criminal Investigation Branch and undercover. Could you tell us a bit about the kinds of investigations you were involved in?

Nathan: The most common cases were armed robberies (of commercial premises), serious violence (broken bones, stabbings) and the spectrum of sexual offences. Those were daily occurrences, unfortunately, and while you initially work them with your team, invariably somebody ends up the sole investigator moving forwards, and you’re pretty much on your own. And of course there were murders. They’re treated differently – it’s a team effort all the way through, and you usually get assigned to a specific role, whether it’s focusing on the crime scene, the witnesses, or the suspect. Later in my career, I was involved in proactive organised crime investigations – drugs. Not users or street dealers but the higher tiers – meth cooking and large importations. It’s a different type of work – instead of responding to a tragic event, the crime is already happening and you have to sniff it out and gather evidence without the suspects knowing you’re doing it. It’s sneaky, it’s clever, it’s more of an outside-the-box approach as opposed to the more clinical general work.

Photo Nathan Blackwell

Mrs P: What made you decide to write The Sound of Her Voice, and to what extent is it based on your own experiences?

Nathan: Writing a novel was a bucket list wish, but I felt I had a bit of an advantage when it came to police procedure. I was scared it’d be boringly realistic though, so I needed to go darker than the mainstream, really kick things up a notch with that internal voice. It was always present for me, so I knew I had to feature it in the story. And the various crimes in The Sound of Her Voice are all on some level based on things that have happened… some I worked on, others I heard about through colleagues, and some are loosely based on high-profile crimes that may ring bells with many people.

Auckland skyline (Wiki Commons)

Mrs P: The subtitle of the novel is ‘One Cop’s Descent into Darkness’. The cop in question is Detective Matt Buchanan, who undergoes a traumatic experience as a young policeman early on in the novel. Is a key focus of the novel the cumulative damage that certain cases and experiences can inflict on individual investigators?

Nathan: Absolutely. That’s a key theme throughout the novel, and I wanted to realistically portray how a good person can end up in a horrific place. In some ways, it’s a show of empathy with anyone who ends up on the wrong side of the law. How can we judge if we haven’t walked in their shoes? But it’s definitely an examination of the stresses that law enforcement officers find themselves under. If people can read the novel and look at police differently afterward, perhaps with a bit more understanding, then I’ve achieved one of my main aims I think.

Mrs P: Why did you decide to narrate Matt’s story using the first-person voice?

Nathan: Haha – that’s a two-part answer, but an easy one. Firstly, I’m no literary genius (I can barely recite the alphabet), so anything else was going to be quite an effort for me to pull off. But I always wanted that perspective from the main character – that internal voice constantly at odds with their actions. That was crucial to telling the story, and the only way to do that justice was to get inside Matt Buchanan’s head in the first-person.

Mrs P: How important was it to you that the police detail in the novel was authentic?

Nathan: Very. I’d like people working in law enforcement to read it and go “yep, it’s been beefed up but that’s pretty much how it’s done, that’s pretty spot on”. I also wanted the reality of policing out there, so readers can get an inside look at how it’s really done, how cops really think and act, and the toll that takes…rather than a glossy, fun version of policing that overlooks the reality for the sake of an exciting plot.

Mrs P: You were raised in Auckland, where the novel is set. What sort of impression do you think UK readers will get of New Zealand’s biggest city when reading the book?

Nathan: That’s a good question. I hope it comes across as pretty Kiwi in essence, but I’ve definitely painted a much darker Auckland than you’d ever see if you visited. That’s the point I guess – police see that side of the city every day, whereas visitors and even residents don’t. The story mostly takes place on the rural fringes too – so hopefully I’ve showcased some of the scenery that Auckland has to offer. I promise there aren’t that many bodies just lying about in the swamps and on the beaches!

Mrs P: In a Radio New Zealand interview, you likened The Sound of Her Voice to the American TV series True Detective. Could you say a little about the affinities between the two?

Nathan: I’d say I was inspired by True Detective, rather than directly comparing the novel to that show… I was drawn into that series by how dark it was – it was just episode after episode of nothing good ever happening. I wanted to explore that, how people can experience that and yet somehow continue to function… right up until it all comes crashing down, of course. True Detective did a scarily good job of examining the worst humans can do to each other … it definitely steered me down the path of darker thinking.

Mrs P: If you were asked to recommend a couple of New Zealand crime writers to British audiences, who would you pick and why?

Nathan: Paddy Richardson – great NZ settings, and great plots that focus on the people involved, rather than the various crimes that have taken place. Her stories are psychological, smart, and authentically Kiwi. Also Paul Cleave – a unique, twisted perspective on our third largest city of Christchurch. His novels are original, clever – and will make you squirm more than you’d like to.

Many thanks, Nathan!

ABOUT NATHAN BLACKWELL: Nathan was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and had a ten-year career in the New Zealand Police. Seven of those years were spent as a Detective in the Criminal Investigation Branch. Because some of his work was conducted covertly, Nathan chooses to hide his true identity. THE SOUND OF HER VOICE is his first novel. It will be published in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in 2019.

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The 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best Novel Award finalists

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Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer (Spain) #WITMonth

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Bitter Lemon Press 2018 – published 15 August)

First line: A number of us woke up this morning when the storm broke, only to find another corpse in the cave.

Teresa Solana has carved out a distinctive space for herself as a crime writer with her ‘Barcelona’ crime series, featuring private detective twins Borja and Eduard. Irreverent and satirical, her novels deconstruct Catalan society, puncturing the pretensions of rarefied literary circles or the New Age meditation scene. One of the murder weapons in The Sound of One Hand Killing is a Buddha statue, which gives you some idea of the wicked humour that infuses Solana’s writing.

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is something a little different – a collection of crime stories that shows the author at her most freewheeling and inventive. Take for example the eponymous opening story, which is set in prehistoric times, but whose detective caveman, Mycroft, seems to have an in-depth knowledge of psychological profiling and investigative terms – all very tongue-in-cheek. Narrators range from a concerned mother-in-law and spoiled museum director to a vampire and a houseful of ghosts, with each story giving Solana a chance to stretch her imagination to the full – crime, humour and the grotesque are mixed in equal measure into a vivid narrative cocktail.

For me, however, it was the second half of the book that stood out – a set of eight stories under the heading ‘Connections’ – almost all set in Barcelona, and all linked in some way. In a note to readers, Solana describes the stories as a ‘noirish mosaic that shows off different fragments of the city, its inhabitants and history’ and then throws down a gauntlet… ‘Reader, I am issuing you with a challenge: spot the connections, the detail or character that makes each story a piece of this mosaic’.

Well, it took me a while, but I had the greatest of fun figuring out the links between the stories (some really are just a passing detail, and I can only imagine the devious pleasure the author had in planting them). My favourites were ‘The Second Mrs Appleton’, for its deliciously twisted denouement, and ‘Mansion with Sea Views’, whose conclusion was unexpectedly dark and disturbing.

As some of you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation’ month  (#WITMonth), an initiative that seeks to promote the works of international women authors, and to highlight the relative lack of women’s fiction in translation. Big thanks are due to Bitter Lemon Press for championing the work of Solana in the English-speaking world, and to her translator, Peter Bush, who does such a wonderful job of communicating Solana’s very special authorial voice.

And here, in no particular order, are another five crime novels by women in translation that I’ve particularly enjoyed and covered on the blog.

Masako Togawa, The Master Keytranslated from Japanese by Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017) – 1960s character-driven Tokyo crime with a twisty-turny plot. 

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from Greek by Yannis Panas (Black and White Publishing 2013) – a mind-bendingly imaginative apocalyptic hybrid crime novel.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleanertranslated from German by Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017) – a quirky Berlin thriller with an unforgettable protagonist. 

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, translated from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins, 2015) – the first in a distinctive police series, set in the Basque country.

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster 2017) – our 2018 Petrona Award winner; a superb exploration of the fallout from a school shooting.

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (UK)

Nothing beats a leisurely weekend browse in my local bookshop. While I love discovering new reads online, there’s a special pleasure in picking up a physical book you had no intention of buying, and realising that you have to have it, because it’s exactly what you fancy reading right now.

This is how I came by Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders, which first caught my eye due to its quirky title and beautifully designed cover. And once I realised it was a science fiction / crime mash-up, I was completely hooked (next to crime, SF is probably the genre I have the greatest weakness for…)

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz, 2017)

First paragraph: ‘Where we are and where we aren’t. Where we can and cannot go. So, for example: human beings were not allowed onto the factory floor. The construction space was absolutely and no exceptions a robot-only zone. Human entry was forbidden. Nevertheless, and against all the rules, a human being had been there.’

The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. As the opening paragraph indicates, it shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory floor where the car has just been manufactured is completely off-limits to humans. So how on earth did the corpse get into the boot?

This nifty locked-room mystery is immediately given an added twist: the crime is committed in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures many citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. Even those who stay in the Real, like Alma, are almost permanently plugged into their feed, and navigate a world in which AI robots are ubiquitous. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it unleashes, are explored via the high-octane drama Alma finds herself caught up in. And there’s one important additional constraint that ratchets up the narrative tension: Alma must return to her partner every four hours on the dot to administer life-saving drugs (and it absolutely has to be her and no one else for a fascinating reason I won’t reveal here).

Watch out for: a famous director in a cameo role…

Alma is a great character – clever, resourceful and tough. And if I’m not mistaken, almost every other major character in the book – goody and baddie alike – is a woman. How refreshing is that?! The writing is sparky, noirish and packed to the brim with wry humour – such as when Alma gets into a chatty AI-taxi and unceremoniously says ‘small talk deselected’, after which it falls into a sulky silence.

The entire novel is a rollicking, highly inventive and hugely enjoyable ride that raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions about our future relationship with technology. If you fancy something completely different, look no further. The sequel, By the Pricking of her Thumbs, is also on its way.

Cover reveal! Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge (Orenda Books)

It’s a pleasure to reveal the cover for Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge, the Hamburg crime writer’s second novel with Orenda Books – which will be out in February 2019, translated by Rachel Ward.

Love that neon lettering! And the significance of that very arresting image becomes a little clearer when you read this teaser from Orenda:

Simone is a wonderfully engaging crime writer. If you haven’t yet read the first in the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, Blue Night – beautifully translated by Rachel Ward – then head over to Orenda Books for a peek. And you can read a great interview with Simone here. Key takeaway – ‘everyone needs a beer family’.

🙂

Simone pictured in her beloved Hamburg

The East Long Beach Sherlock: Joe Ide’s IQ (USA)

Joe Ide, IQ (Mulholland Books, 2016)

First lineIsaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual.

I’d heard lots of good things about Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, and on finishing it, can say that this novel is easily one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. It’s a remarkably polished debut that introduces us to a wonderfully original detective, tells an absorbing coming-of-age story, and treats us to a cracking crime investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny.

The opening immediately had me hooked. It starts out with one of those depressingly familiar prologues in which a creepy guy in a pick-up truck is stalking a young girl with malevolent intent. As a seasoned crime reader you think, uh oh, I know exactly where this is going. And then it begins to go the way you thought it would…until all of a sudden it very much doesn’t, heading off in such a gloriously unexpected direction that you feel like cheering. And at that moment, you know you’re in for something very special.

Isaiah Quintabe – or IQ – is an unlicensed African-American private investigator who lives in Hurston, a deprived neighbourhood on the edge of East Long Beach in Los Angeles. He solves ‘local cases where the police could not or would not get involved’, and as he often takes payment in kind (sweet potato pie, a new tire or a live chicken), finances are tight. Which is a problem because there are hefty bills to pay. Isaiah’s cash-flow difficulties will force him to work with Juanell Dodson, a hustler and former housemate of IQ’s, with whom he shared a dark chapter of his adolescence. And Dodson will provide the key to learning about IQ’s past and its consequences, while also accompanying him into the world of rap to solve the central investigation.

Things I loved about this novel: it takes features we associate with iconic detectives – especially Sherlock Holmes and Easy Rawlins – and fuses them into a highly original PI whose intelligence sizzles off the page, but who also knows how to handle a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. It effortlessly entwines IQ’s backstory with the present-day narrative and crime investigation. It creates three-dimensional characters who are often extremely flawed, but who also ring true, while leavening their depictions with an affectionate, sardonic humour. It’s gripping, authentic, beautifully written, and a lot of fun.

You can read an extract from the first chapter of IQ on Joe Ide’s author website.

The second in the series, Righteous, is already out, with the third, Wrecked, on its way this October.

The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

Hard truths: D. B. John’s Star of the North (USA & North Korea)

D. B. John, Star of the North, Harvill Secker, 2018

First line: The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.

I was half-way through this excellent thriller when Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned it into an especially potent read. Because what this novel offers is a meticulously researched depiction of one of the world’s most secretive societies – a dictatorship that has mind-boggling control over its citizens and is guilty of horrific, sustained human rights abuses. And which is now getting pally with the USA.

Star of the North weaves together the stories of three individuals caught up in the history and politics of North Korea – Jenna Williams, an American-Korean academic whose sister disappeared ten years previously from a beach in South Korea; Mrs. Moon, a sixty-year-old North Korean black-market trader from Ryanggang Province near the Chinese border; and Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat based in the capital Pyongyang. Each, for different reasons, will put their lives on the line to subvert or resist the North Korean regime.

Cult of the leader: huge statues of the Kims at which North Korean citizens are made to pay their respects. See http://allthatsinteresting.com/north-korea-photographs#1

I found myself pulled into Star of the North’s fast-paced narrative straight away, thanks largely to the nuanced depiction of the three main characters and their very different points of view. John uses each of them to illuminate different aspects of North Korean society and its criminality, but does so in a way that never makes readers feel like they’re being lectured. And of course the kind of detail he can draw on as an author is grimly fascinating: the way that all aspects of citizens’ lives are governed by an extraordinary Cult of the Leader; the jaw-dropping, frankly crazy abductions programme; the criminal profits that allow North Korean leaders to live a life of unimaginable opulence while their citizens starve. And that’s just for starters…

A sobering read? Absolutely. But there are also moments of lightness and redemption and hope. And this is a skilfully constructed and very well-written thriller to boot – John really does pull off that very difficult trick of entertaining and enlightening his readers simultaneously. Highly recommended.

Read an extract from the novel here, courtesy of dead good books. And there’s a great Q&A with the author over at Sarah Ward’s Crimepieces blog.

D. B. John also co-wrote The Girl with Seven Names, a memoir by North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.

A depressing coda: today Donald Trump gave an interview to Fox News in which he said ‘Hey, he’s [Kim Jong Un] the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same’. It’s the strongest indication yet of Trump’s dictatorial leanings and should set alarm bells clanging everywhere.

A celebration of Welsh crime fiction & ‘Crime Cymru’ at Cardiff Libraries’ ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’

The inaugural ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ was held in Cardiff on 1-2 June, organised by Cardiff Libraries (@cdflibraries), which provided a very lovely and hospitable setting for the event.

A number of the writers featured at the festival are members of Crime Cymru, a collective of Welsh crime writers who live in Wales, identify as Welsh, or set their books in Wales. ‘Cymru’, in case you’re wondering, is the Welsh word for Wales and is pronounced ‘kum-ri’. You can follow their activities on Facebook or Twitter (@CrimeCymru), or check out their website here: http://crime.cymru/.

The rather impressive line up for the ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ included Belinda Bauer, Christopher Fowler, Katherine Stansfield, Kate Hamer, Mark Ellis, Rosie Claverton, Alis Hawkins and Matt Johnson, along with Welsh-language crime writers Gareth Williams, Geraint Evans and Jon Gower.

I managed to get along to some of the Saturday sessions, all of which featured lively discussions with panellists and attentive, engaged audiences.

One stand-out session for me was ‘Beyond Psychopaths: Mental Health in Crime Fiction’, with Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. Rosie is a junior psychiatrist, whose ‘Amy Lane’ mysteries features an agoraphobic investigator suffering from anxiety. Matt is a former soldier and policeman who left the service with C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), and took up writing as a form of therapy. His ‘Wicked Game’ trilogy draws on his own experiences, and the first was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasy Dagger.

It was fascinating to hear Rosie and Matt, informed by very different professional and personal experiences, discussing the depiction of mental health conditions in crime fiction and film (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Gone Girl). Both emphasised the importance of researching mental health issues, and felt that writers had a responsibility to ‘find out and not simply imagine’. Reading will get you a long way, but MIND, the mental health charity, is apparently also able to put writers in touch with individuals willing to discuss their experiences, thus helping to minimise inaccurate depictions of mental health issues.

I picked up Binary Witness, the first in the ‘Amy Lane’ series, at the Octavo’s festival bookshop (after reading the first chapter I won’t be putting my bins out late any time soon).

Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson

The afternoon featured an engaging discussion with Mark Ellis, author of the ‘DCI Frank Merlin’ series, set in World War Two London. Mark told us a bit about how he came to write the series (partly inspired by anecdotes his Welsh mum told him about the war), about Merlin’s Spanish heritage, and about the rich possibilities that wartime opened up for the criminal community in London – a bonanza for the unscrupulous. His discussion partner was his editor Hazel Cushion, who also runs the Octavo’s Book Cafe and Wine Bar in Cardiff Bay. On my list of places to visit shortly!

Mark Ellis

The evening brought us all a wonderful treat, in the shape of Belinda Bauer, who’s undoubtedly one of the UK’s most exciting and most versatile crime authors. Belinda has written a number of outstanding novels, including Blacklands and Rubbernecker (a particular favourite of mine), which have been garlanded with prizes such as the CWA Gold Dagger. Her eighth novel, Snap, has just been published by Penguin.

A slightly blurry shot of Belinda Bauer, but one that captures the fun we all had.

Belinda was in conversation with Kate Hamer, and in spite of the sometimes grim subject matter, there was a lot of laughter.

Belinda talked a little about Snap and read us an unsettling extract from the opening chapter, which depicts what happens when three children are left by their mum in a car after it breaks down. We also heard how – rather astonishingly – she now reads only non-fiction, because she’s too aware of the mechanics of fiction to enjoy it when writing herself, and feels it frees her up to write whatever she wants (she probably wouldn’t have written Rubbernecker if she had known that there were other novels featuring leading protagonists with Asperger’s Syndrome at the time).

The need for meticulous research was another key theme – especially the importance of going to places to experience, for example, how they would smell. Rubbernecker, which features an anatomy student, involved visits to the Wales Centre for Anatomical Education in Cardiff, which wasn’t easy as she is rather squeamish. But, as she also wisely noted: ‘research always pays off’.

Another intriguing revelation: Belinda lived in South Africa for ten years in her youth, and would like to set a novel there during the Apartheid era. I’m very much hoping she does…

If you haven’t yet read any of Belinda Bauer’s novels, then I recommend you do: they have wonderfully compelling premises, are dark but leavened with sardonic humour, and feature beautifully rounded, interesting characters.

Congratulations and thank you to everyone involved in organising the first Coffee & Crime Festival. It was a rip-roaring success!

 

German Krimi writers shine at CrimeFest 2018

The sun shone at CrimeFest, and so did the four German crime writers who had travelled from Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt to join us in Bristol for our panel ‘Krimi Time! The Best of German Crime Fiction’.

Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger have produced an impressive array of crime novels between them, ranging from police procedurals to thrillers and noir. Our panel focused on the novels they’ve published in English – Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (MacLehose), Buchholz’s Blue Night (Orenda), Kurbjuweit’s Fear (Orion) and Pflüger’s In the Dark (Head of Zeus) – and the authors each gave a short, tantalising reading from their works to a rapt audience.

In the course of the panel discussion, we heard from Simone about the influence of German writer Jakob Arjouni and his Turkish-German PI Kemal Kayankaya on on her ‘Chastity Riley’ series, and about why the St. Pauli area in Hamburg, where Blue Night is set, is so much more than the city’s red-light district. Oliver talked about his rural Black Forest setting and its proximity to France, which is designed to reflect the German-French heritage of his policewoman Louise Boni, and why he decided to incorporate Buddhist philosophy into Zen and the Art of Murder. Andreas explained some of the reasons he choose to create Jenny Aaron, his blind lead protagonist – including the challenge this presented to him as a writer – and about why the Japanese Bushido code is so important to Jenny. Dirk related the real-life events behind his psychological thriller Fear – and explained how the law was able to offer only limited help in dealing with their family’s stalker, placing him in a difficult position as a husband and father keen to protect his family.

The Krimi panel in action (l to r): Mrs P, Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger. Photo taken by Sarah Ward.

We were also very fortunate to have two of the authors’ translators with us in the audience – Jamie Bulloch, who translates Oliver’s ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series, and Astrid Freuler, who is currently translating the second of Andreas’ ‘Jenny Aaron’ series. Each of the authors spoke about the process of working with their translators (Rachel Ward and Imogen Taylor in the case of Simone and Dirk respectively) – and were keen to praise their skills and expertise. A recurring theme was the importance of communication between the author and the translator, who typically asks lots of detailed questions. Simone felt that these made her look afresh at the text, and she particularly enjoyed seeing her work in English, the ‘first language’ of noir.

Astrid with Andreas, and Oliver with Jamie. In both cases it was the first time the authors had met their translators! Jamie is holding the proof of A Summer of Murder, the second in the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series.

To close the panel, I asked each of the authors to nominate one German crime writer/novel they would recommend to English-language readers. Their picks were as follows:

  • Simone: Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk (trans. Anselm Hollo, No Exit Press)
  • Oliver: Jan Costin Wagner’s ‘Kimmo Joentaa’ novels; Ice Moon is the first novel in the series (trans. John Brownjohn, Vintage)
  • Andreas: Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor, Simon & Schuster)
  • Dirk: Ferdinand von Schirach’s Crime and Guilt (trans. Carol Brown Janeway, Vintage)
  • Mrs P: Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner (trans. John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press)

Each of the authors also appeared on a second panel, discussing topics such as disability, obsession, the figure of the villain, and ‘putting your characters through the mill’. Here are a few slightly grainy photos of them in action:

One lovely surprise over the weekend was the news that Oliver’s Zen and the Art of Murder had been longlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award – congratulations to Oliver, Jamie and MacLehose Press! Here’s the full list, which includes several crackers:

Finally, I had lots of fun wandering around CrimeFest giving away 14 German-language crime novels. Here are photos of a few happy recipients:

Richard, Abir, Alison and Janet with their free Krimis!

Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for its generous support in bringing our German writers to CrimeFest. Many thanks also to the CrimeFest organisers, and Adrian Muller in particular for his help.

2018 Petrona Award goes to Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand

The winner of the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is 

*QUICKSAND* 

by Malin Persson Giolito, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles and published by Simon & Schuster.


The winner was announced at the CrimeFest Gala Dinner on 19 May. The trophy was kindly collected on Malin’s behalf by last year’s Petrona Award winner Gunnar Staalesen, who also read out Malin’s acceptance speech:

“Quicksand is a story about justice and fundamental human values, and I understand that Maxine Clarke – who inspired the Petrona Award – was someone who appreciated the social and political awareness of Scandinavian crime literature. We have that in common, and that is one of the many reasons why I am particularly proud that Quicksand has received the award.

My warmest thanks to the members of the jury whose expert knowledge and passion helps Nordic Noir travel far. I also want to thank my publisher Suzanne Baboneau, and it is a special honour to share the prize with my excellent translator Rachel Willson-Broyles.”

The Petrona trophy / Gunnar Staalesen with Team Petrona – Karen Meek, Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw and Mrs Peabody – and our wonderful sponsor David Hicks.

The judges’ statement on QUICKSAND:

“In a strong year for entries to the Petrona Award, the judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings and the motives that lie behind them. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events. Gripping and thought-provoking, Quicksand is an outstanding Scandinavian crime novel and the highly worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award.”

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous continued support.