Eurotour Stop 3. Stockholm, Sweden: “So he took a quick detour to the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden”

Hej from Stockholm! Today’s extract is from…

Leif G. W. Persson, The Dying Detective (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Black Swan, 2017 [2010], 11-12).

Karlbergsvägen 66 in Stockholm is the location of Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden. It’s surrounded by sturdy stone buildings many storeys high, all constructed at the start of last century. Solid brickwork, carefully laid, brick upon brick, with lime-mortar rendering, bow windows and old-fashioned glass. There are generous lawns in front of the properties and – at this time of year – leafy trees lining the street. When you enter the buildings there is usually red marble in both the lobbies and stairwells, friezes on the ceilings, ornate plasterwork, even dado panelling in places. The skirting boards and doors are made of oak. It is an area that gives a bourgeois, affluent impression.

Günter’s is also located within the old city boundaries of the most beautiful capital in the world. Just a few hundred meters south of Karlberg Palace and Karolinska University Hospital, and close to two of the major roads leading away from the north of the city centre.

The former head of the National Criminal Police, Lars Martin Johansson, really ought to have been at his summerhouse up in Roslagen today, but that morning he had been obliged to come into the city for a meeting with his bank, to conclude a deal about a patch of forest that he and his eldest brother had an interest in. […]

Just a few hundred meters before he would be passing the old tollgate at Roslagstull on his drive north, his hunger got the better of him. There was no way he was going to spend an hour driving when his stomach was already screaming at him. So he took a quick detour to the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden for a well-spiced Yugoslavian bratwurst with salt-pickled Åland gherkins, sauerkraut and Dijon mustard. Or maybe a Zigeuner sausage with its taste of freshly ground pepper, paprika and onion? Or should he stay true to his Norrland roots and partake of a lightly smoked elk sausage with Günter’s homemade mash of salad potatoes?

Stockholm gallery

One of my first destinations in Stockholm was of course Günter’s, the best hotdog kiosk in Sweden. What can I say? The hotdogs are indeed divine (I had a Thüringer with salt-pickled Åland gherkins) and it’s clear from the queues that the place has genuine cult status. Pleasingly, part of the extract above was pinned on the kiosk’s noticeboard: they are rightly very proud of their Persson connection.

We’re both rather in love with Stockholm. The city is filled with architectural beauty and its location on the water is stunning. We’re getting around a lot by ferry.

Then there are the buns…

And last, but by no means least…THE ABBA MUSEUM. A lifetime’s ambition fulfilled!

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

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Eurotour Stop 2. Copenhagen, Denmark: “I take the train to Enghave station”

Goddag from Copenhagen! Today’s extract is from…

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (trans. from Danish by F. David; Harvill Press, 1996 [1992], 129-30.

I take the train to Enghave station. From there I walk. I’ve had a look at Krak’s Map of Copenhagen at the library on Torvegade. In my mind I have an image of a labyrinth of winding streets.

The station is cold. A man is standing on the opposite platform. He’s staring longingly towards the train that will take him away, into the city, into the crowds. He’s the last person I see.

Right now the inner city is like an anthill. People are crowding into the department stores. They’re getting ready for theatre premieres. They’re standing in line in front of Hviid’s Wine Cellar.

Sydhavnen is a ghost town. The sky is low and grey. The inhaled air tastes of coal smoke and chemicals.

Anyone who is afraid that machines will soon take over should not take a stroll in Sydhavnen. The snow hasn’t been cleared away. The pavements are impassable. Along the narrow, ploughed tracks now and then enormous articulated lorries with dark windows devoid of any humans move. A blanket of green smoke hovers over a soap factory. A cafeteria advertises potato fry-up and sausages. Behind the windows, red and yellow lights shine on lonely deep-fat fryers in an empty kitchen. Above a pile of coal and slush a crane moves aimlessly and restlessly back and forth on its rails. From the cracks in closed garage doors there are some bluish glimmers and the crackling of arc welders, and the jingling of the illegal money being earned, but no human voices.

Then the road opens on to a picture postcard: a large harbour basin surrounded by low yellow warehouses. The water is iced over, and while I’m still taking stock of the view, the sun appears, low, white-gold, surprising, and lights up the ice like an underground electric bulb behind frosted glass. There are small fishing boats at the wharf with blue hulls the colour of the sea where it meets the horizon. On the outer edge of the basin, out in the harbour itself, there is a big three-masted sailing ship. That’s Svajerbryggen.

Copenhagen gallery

We’re staying in the suburb of Westerbro, a gentrified working-class area with lots of lovely red-brick apartment blocks like the one below. Just down the road from us is Enghave station, the first stop on Smilla’s journey in the extract above.

Strøget is the main shopping street in Copenhagen. It opens out onto a little square featuring this delightful stork fountain. There are posh department stores nearby…

…featuring these kinds of fashion posters. Happily, I can confirm that this is still an *unusual* look for Danish men in the capital.

Here’s the famous Nyhaven, an unfeasibly photogenic harbour right in the heart of the city. The harbour that Smilla visits is much bigger (and now much more developed) than this tourist attraction.

Nyhaven is also one of Copenhagen’s main cycling arteries. Pretty much everyone seems to get to work or school by bike, even in the rain. Small kids go in the barrow on the front.

A new bridge now connects Nyhaven and the area of Christiania. This photo looks south; Smilla’s library (on Torvegade) lies on the right-hand shore.

For the foodies: here’s the open prawn sandwich I had for lunch yesterday. It was divine.

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

Eurotour Stop 1. Hamburg, Germany: “Nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly”

Guten Tag from Hamburg! Our first extract comes from…

John le Carré, Smiley’s People (Sceptre, 2011 [1979], pp. 29-30). 

The extract is set at the height of the Cold War.

The second of the two events that brought George Smiley from his retirement occurred a few weeks after the first, in the early autumn of the same year: not in Paris at all, but in the once ancient, free, and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, now almost pounded to death by the thunder of its own prosperity; yet it remains true that nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly than along the gold and orange banks of the Alster, which nobody has yet drained or filled with concrete. George Smiley, needless to say, had seen nothing of its languorous autumn splendour. Smiley, on the day in question, was toiling obliviously, with whatever conviction he could muster, at his habitual desk in the London Library in St. James’s Square, with two spindly trees to look at through the sash-window of the reading room. The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded – if he had afterwards attempted the connection, which he did not – was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry, for at the time he was composing a monograph on the bard Opitz, and trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period.

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. A candescent haze hung over the flat water of the Aussenalster, and through it the spires of the Eastern bank were like green stains dabbed on the wet horizon. Along the shore, red squirrels scurried, foraging for the winter. But the slight and somewhat anarchistic-looking man standing on the jetty wearing a tracksuit and running shoes had neither eyes nor mind for them. His red-rimmed gaze was locked tensely upon the approaching steamer, his hollow face darkened by a two-day stubble. He carried a Hamburg newspaper under his left arm, and an eye as perceptive as George Smiley’s would have noticed at once that it was yesterday’s edition, not today’s.

Klaxon! le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies is out on 7 September. After 25 years, George Smiley is back! 

Hamburg Gallery

We’ve had a wonderful couple of days in Hamburg, seeing family, friends and lots of sights. It really is a most beautiful place. A few highlights below…

View across the Aussenalster (Outer Alster), which is mentioned in the passage above and lies right in the middle of the city:

Here’s the kind of boat our young man was waiting for – these chug around the Alster like genteel water-taxis:

Here’s the front of the Rathaus or City Hall. We noticed that it was flying the Hamburg flag and the European flag, but not a German one. The city’s Hanseatic Free City status is one it is very proud of and likes to stress:

Here’s the back of the Rathaus. Rather splendid:

Pavement graffiti – ‘be free’:

A local delicacy from this seafaring city – matjes (herring) with Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes). Delicious!

The German election is coming up later in September, so election posters are everywhere. Behind to the left, the offices of Die Zeit, the influential weekly broadsheet.

The Elbphilharmonie, a swish new concert hall and architectural wonder, has just opened. This is the way in (*hums stairway to heaven*). Hamburg locals have already nicknamed the building ‘Elphie’:

Lastly, the best souvenirs ever: an iconic Tatort key-ring and a book-bag (Lesestoff = reading matter).

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

 

Rucksacks at the ready! Time for a Eurotour of criminal goodness

It’s September and there’s European adventure in the air…

Swansea-Hamburg-Copenhagen-Malmö-Stockholm-Turku-Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga-Vilnius-Gdansk-Olsztyn-Poznan-Berlin-Swansea

Mr. P and I will shortly be donning our ancient rucksacks and heading over the Channel.

  • Destination: northern and eastern Europe.
  • Duration: one month.
  • Transport: train, ferry, bus, car, llama (well you never know).

Our Eurotour – aka the ‘Bollux to Brexit’ tour – will take us to a number of wonderful European cities (see image caption above).

When we reach certain cities, I’ll be posting a short extract from a crime novel or thriller focused on the place in question, giving an insight into the city’s geography, architecture, history, politics, food…

The featured cities are as follows:

  1. Hamburg, Germany
  2. Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Helsinki, Finland
  5. Tallinn, Estonia
  6. Riga, Latvia
  7. Olsztyn, Poland
  8. Berlin, Germany

Each extract will be accompanied by a few photos I’ve taken while out and about (I suspect there will be a bit of an emphasis on food…and beer…).

I won’t give away which crime novels I’ve picked out, but here’s a little teaser for you…

Our first extract, for the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, contains the following sentence: 

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. 

Just for fun: Who is the author? And in which novel does this elegant sentence appear?

And if you’d like some reading ideas for European crime fiction, then head here:

35 European crime novels

Southern Cross Crime: 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards & 2017 Ned Kelly Awards shortlists

My crime reading’s taken a bit of an antipodean turn recently, so the recent announcements of both the 2017 New Zealand Ngaio Marsh Awards shortlists and the 2017 Australian Ned Kelly Awards shortlists are very welcome. I’d like to get my hands on at least 10 of the books listed below – a mouthwatering selection.

Ngaio Marsh shortlist for BEST CRIME NOVEL:

  • Finn Bell, Pancake Money (ebook)
  • CJ Carver, Spare Me The Truth (Zaffre)
  • Jonothan Cullinane, Red Herring (HarperCollins)
  • Ben Sanders, Marshall’s Law (Allen & Unwin)
  • Fiona Sussman, The Last Time We Spoke (Allison & Busby)

Ngaio Marsh shortlist for BEST FIRST CRIME NOVEL:

  • Finn Bell, Dead Lemons (ebook)
  • Jonothan Cullinane, Red Herring (HarperCollins)
  • Gordon Ell, The Ice Shroud (Bush Press)
  • Simon Wyatt, The Student Body (Mary Egan Publishing)
  • Sue Younger, Days Are Like Grass (Eunoia Publishing)

Ngaio Marsh shortlist for BEST NON-FICTION CRIME (new category!):

  • Michael Bennett, In Dark Places (Paul Little Books)
  • Steve Braunias, The Scene of the Crime (HarperCollins)
  • Simonne Butler with Andra Jenkin, Double-Edged Sword (Mary Egan)
  • David Hastings, The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie (AUP)
  • Lucy Sussex, Blockbuster! (Text Publishing)

For an overview of all the shortlisted titles, as well as the judges’ comments, head over to the excellent Crime Watch blog

Ned Kelly shortlist for BEST CRIME FICTION:

  • Emily Maguire, An Isolated Incident (Pan Macmillan)
  • Candice Fox, Crimson Lake (Penguin)
  • Ann Turner, Out of the Ice (Simon & Schuster)
  • Adrian McKinty, Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly (Allen & Unwin)
  • Wendy James, The Golden Child (HarperCollins)
  • Jock Serong, The Rules of Backyard Cricket (Text Publishing)

Ned Kelly shortlist for BEST FIRST CRIME FICTION:

  • Ron Elliot, Burn Patterns (Fremantle Press)
  • Holly Throsby, Goodwood (Allen & Unwin)
  • Anna Snoekstra, Only Daughter (Harlequin Books)
  • Andy Muir, Something for Nothing (Affirm Press)
  • Jane Harper, The Dry (Pan Macmillan). FAB! See my review here.
  • Laura Elizabeth Woollett, The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe Publications)

Ned Kelly shortlist for TRUE CRIME:

  • Colin Dillon with Tom Gilling, Code of Silence (Allen & Unwin)
  • Terry Smyth, Denny Day (Penguin)
  • Duncan McNab, Getting Away with Murder (Penguin)
  • Mark Tedeschi, Murder at Mile Creek (Simon & Schuster)
  • Duncan McNab, Roger Rogerson (Hachette)
  • Brendan James Murray, The Drowned Man (Echo Publishing)

For an overview of all the shortlisted titles, as well as the judges’ comments, head over to the Australian Crime Writers’ Association website.

P.S. Craig Sisterson, who convenes the judging for the Ngaio Marsh Awards, has been discussing the best way to tag New Zealand and Australian crime for international audiences. He and crime writer Emma Viskic have come up with Southern Cross Crime #southerncrosscrime. He says: ‘Sums things up nicely, as the Southern Cross is on both our flags, and a big thing in our part of the world’. I like it, Craig!

Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place (Japan), Top of the Lake (NZ/Aus), Women in Translation Month

A crime novel, a TV series, and a tasty WIT Month list…

Seicho Matsumoto, A Quiet Place (trans. from Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai; Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 [1975]

First lineTsuneo Asai was on a business trip to the Kansai region when he heard the news.

Seicho Matsumoto (1909-1992) was a ground-breaking Japanese crime writer: his obituary in the Independent says that ‘he pushed the art of the detective story in Japan to new dimensions, depicting Japanese society with unprecedented realism’. His 1962 novel Inspector Imanishi Investigates was the second I ever reviewed on this blog, so it was a pleasure to return to his work with A Quiet Place, first published in Japan in 1975.

Tsuneo Asai is a respected government official working for the Ministry of Agriculture. While on a business trip to Kobe, he is informed that his wife Eiko has died of a heart attack. While in some ways this is not a surprise, as she had a heart condition, the location of her death is: a small shop in a Tokyo neighbourhood Eiko had no reason to frequent. We see a perplexed Asai take on the role of detective, trying to piece together the circumstances of his wife’s demise, until the narrative eventually takes a darker turn.

Gripping in spite of its leisurely pace, this existential crime novel provides intriguing insights into Japanese society at the time, such as the strong influence of giri – duty or social obligation (for more on this, see Harry Martin’s review for the Japan Society of the UK). The novel’s style also feels extremely fresh, thanks no doubt to Louise Heal Kawai’s excellent translation. A very satisfying read.

It’s been ages since I really got stuck into some TV crime drama, and I’ve become a bit daunted at all the riches on offer – there’s SO MUCH GOOD STUFF ON! But last week, I made a start on the second series of Top of the Lake: China Girl. I loved the opening series, directed by Jane Campion and starring Elisabeth Moss (review here), and the second very much picks up the themes and concerns of the first: misogyny and the exploitation of women on the one hand, and the complex figure of Detective Robin Griffin on the other, who is brilliant at her job but struggling emotionally.

The action has moved from New Zealand to Sydney in Australia, where Robin re-joins her old police unit and begins to connect with Mary, the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 16. At the same time, Robin begins investigating the murder of a woman whose body is found in a suitcase washed up on Bondi beach. As ever, this is a hard-hitting, at times very bleak crime drama, with brilliant characterisation, acting and some stunning cinematography. One extra bonus is the presence of Nicole Kidman, who plays Mary’s adoptive mother – she apparently asked to be given a part after seeing the first series.

As you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation Month’. The idea of this project is to shine a spotlight on all the wonderful literature by women that’s available in translation, and to encourage English-language publishers to translate lots more (numbers show that far fewer female authors are currently translated than male authors). Other initiatives such as the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation will hopefully help as well.

You can read more about WIT month at https://womenintranslation.com/. Twitter hashtags: #Ireadwomenintranslation and #WITmonth. 

Here are just a few fab crime novels by women in translation:

  • Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (trans. from Greek by Yiannis Panas, Black & White Publishing, 2013)
  • Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (trans. from German by John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press, 2007)
  • Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt; Manilla 2017)
  • Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston; Orenda Books, 2016)
  • Dominique ManottiAffairs of State (trans. from French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson; EuroCrime 2009).
  • Ingrid NollThe Pharmacist (trans. from German by Ian Mitchell, Harper Collins, 1999)
  • Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (trans. from Spanish by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016)
  • Melanie Raabe, The Trap (trans. from German by Imogen Taylor; Mantle, 2016)
  • Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (trans. from Norwegian by Rosie Hedger; Orenda Books, 2016)
  • Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian (trans. from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins, 2015)
  • Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm (trans from German by Anthea Bell; Quercus, 2008).
  • Yrsa Sigurđardóttir, Why Did You Lie? (trans. from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
  • Maj Sjöwall (and Per Wahlöö), The Laughing Policeman (trans. from Swedish by Alan Blair; Harper Perennial, 2007
  • Fred Vargas, Have Mercy on us All (trans. from French by David Bellos, Vintage, 2004)

If you have any favourites you’d like to add to this list, just let me know!

Shining a light on Atlanta’s history: Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (USA)

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (Abacus, 2016)

First line: It was nearing midnight when one of the new lampposts on Auburn Avenue achieved the unfortunate fate of being the first to be hit by a car.

I had seen Thomas Mullen’s Darktown recommended by a number of bloggers on their ‘Best of 2016’ lists, and snapped up a copy in Foyles a few months ago. It proved to be an excellent, hugely satisfying read.

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history: the induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department for the very first time. These pioneers were Claude Dixon, Henry Hooks, Johnnie Jones, Ernest Lyons, Robert McKibbens, John Sanders, Willard Strickland and Willie Elkins (pictured below).

Atlanta’s first African American police officers, April 1948

The new black police officers faced the most difficult of uphill struggles: they were stationed at a YMCA rather than at police headquarters, and were thus effectively segregated from the rest of the force; they were assigned lowly beat duties in ‘Darktown’, as Atlanta’s black neighbourhoods were dismissively termed; they patrolled on foot without access to patrol cars; they were forbidden to arrest white suspects, and had no prospect of promotion. On top of all that, as the novel shows, they had to deal with scepticism from the African American community, whose past experience told it not to trust the police, and racial prejudice from their white police colleagues, who sought to openly disparage and undermine their efforts.

Mullen takes this scenario and breathes life into it quite brilliantly. We are shown how two sets of policemen become caught up in the investigation of a young black woman’s murder – black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw (Rake). Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and they are often used to unsettle stereotypes and easy assumptions: Lucius is the son of the highly respected and relatively affluent Reverend Boggs, and is thus part of an emerging college-educated black middle class. Smith comes from a less affluent background and served in the Second World War, like Rake, whose German mother has also given him some insights into the experience of being an ‘outsider’ in the US. These different personal perspectives create a rich and multifaceted narrative.

Map of central Atlanta, produced for the Armed Forces in 1940. The novel opens on Auburn Avenue (centre right)

The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opened this (privileged white) reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. The power of the narrative lies in its cumulative detail about segregation laws and unwritten rules, such as avoiding eye contact if you happen to be a black person talking to someone who is white. This is a shifting, uncertain world where even acts carried out with good intentions can very quickly backfire. The threat of violence is grimly real, both in particular parts of the city and in the countryside, where racism often takes cruder forms.

Darktown is beautifully written, and still feels acutely relevant today. A TV series with Jamie Foxx as executive producer is in the pipeline, and a second novel, Lightning Men, is out this September.

You can read an extract from Darktown here.

Murder in the Outback: Jane Harper’s The Dry (Australia)

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus, 2017; Hachette audiobook)

First line: Even those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats.  

If you haven’t read The Dry yet, then drop everything. I’d heard on the grapevine that this Australian debut was fantastic, and following a reminder from my mum (who likes to read The Times crime recommendations down the phone to me), finally managed to get hold of it.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. However, the community is still stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife Karen and six-year-old son Billy, before turning the shotgun on himself. The lone survivor of the murder-suicide is baby Charlotte, who is found unharmed in her cot at the family farm.

Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, the first time he has set foot in the town since leaving as a teenager in difficult circumstances. His intention is to leave again as soon as possible, but he’s persuaded to stay on by Luke’s mother Barb, who is convinced of her son’s innocence. After a visit to the Hadler farm and crime scene, Falk starts an informal investigation into the killings with Kiewarra’s recently appointed community police sergeant, Greg Raco, who feels that something about the case is off.

Where to start when singing this novel’s praises? The writing and characterisation are excellent. The reader is immediately drawn into the life of Kiewarra’s remote community, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. The plotting is meticulous, with Falk and Raco’s investigation providing tantalising clues as various lines of inquiry unfold. The police procedural detail is gripping, and the resolution to the case is both unexpected and completely plausible. There is also a second, parallel narrative strand – the story of why Falk and his father were forced to leave Kiewarra twenty years earlier – which is expertly woven into the main investigation. It provides a fascinating insight into teenage life in an isolated community, and, like the main narrative, shows how such communities can turn on those they deem to have transgressed social codes. Secrets and lies abound. Tension is also generated by sections in which the past and present alternate, adding layers of richness to the story.

It’s hard to believe that The Dry is Harper’s debut novel. It’s an extraordinary achievement: accomplished, hard-hitting and completely gripping. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

You can read the first chapter of The Dry here. One extra note: I listened to the audiobook version, and hearing the story told by an Australian voice was a definite plus. Stephen Shanahan’s narration was excellent (though the Scottish accent of one of the characters needed a little work!).

Australian drought

Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker, 2017)

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

Koutsakis’ Athenian Blues (Greece), Stanley’s A Death in the Family (Botswana), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (USA)

This week’s crime reading took in Greece, Botswana and America.

Pol Koutsakis, Athenian Blues, translated from Greek by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

Opening line: A few of them were kicking and screaming, but most of the immigrants followed orders, as the police shoved them out of the building.

Athenian Blues is Koutsakis’s debut crime novel and the first in his ‘Stratos Gazis’ series. Its main protagonist is a contract killer with a conscience, who is aided in his investigations by childhood friends Drag, a homicide cop, and Teri, a transgender sex worker. When Stratos is asked to carry out a hit by a beautiful Greek actress who promptly disappears, he and his friends are pulled into an increasingly baffling case.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the first-person, private-eye narrative, which makes effective use of hard-boiled PI conventions, and the quirky depictions of Stratos and his friends. The novel also makes the most of its contemporary Athens setting, providing interesting insights into recent Greek political and economic crises. However, I found being asked to identify positively with a hitman a bit of a stretch. Stratos is given a moral legitimacy reminiscent of popular TV killer Dexter (he only bumps off those who truly deserve it), and his friends seem to have no problem accepting his profession, due to their past experiences and the social upheavals of the present. And everyone seems to end up in bed with everyone else *yawn* (I am clearly getting old). An entertaining summer read, as long as you don’t take it too seriously…

Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family (Orenda Books, 2016).

Opening line: Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream.

A Death in the Family is the fifth in the ‘Detective Kubu’ series, co-written by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Originally from South Africa, they decided to start writing after a trip to neighbouring Botswana, where Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series is of course also set. While the ‘Kubu’ series portrays Botswana in a warm light, it also paints a more nuanced (and decidedly less twee) picture of modern Botswana life than McCall Smith. In this novel, Kubu has to deal with his most distressing case yet – the murder of his own father Wilmon – and two other cases that highlight the potentially mixed effects of foreign mining investments. The plot is highly satisfying, the characters engagingly drawn, and readers come away with a rich understanding of Botswana’s history and culture – from traditional funeral rites to the role of the tribal kgotla. There’s a handy glossary of Setswana phrases included at the back of the novel as well.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (originally published 1953; Audible book narrated by Tim Robbins)

Opening line: It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m always looking out for audiobooks to accompany my knitting, and jumped at the chance to listen to Fahrenheit 451, an American classic I’d never read. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel: it depicts an American future in which books are viewed as subversive, and reading or owning them has become a criminal offence (everyone is plugged into mind-numbing, round-the-clock entertainment provided by state radio and TV instead). The task of firemen in this society is not to put out fires, but to burn books – which catch alight at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The novel traces the evolution of Guy Montag, a fireman who is an unquestioning part of the system, following a chance encounter with Clarice McClellan, an intelligent, free-spirited teenager. Written in 1953, the novel is remarkably prescient, exploring the negative effects of advanced technology on social interaction, and asserts the fundamental right to question, challenge and advance ideas in literature and debate. There’s a highly charged murder in the novel as well, which has emboldened me to include it on the blog.

I can fully see why Fahrenheit 451 is regarded as a classic. The story is simply and sparely told, but communicates incredibly powerful ideas. If I’m not mistaken, Bradbury draws on one particular biblical story at the end (I won’t say which, as it would give too much away), and provides a chillingly realistic depiction of what it might be like to resist a repressive regime. There was only one moment where I felt the novel truly showed its age (again, slight spoiler; ask me to say more in the comments if you’re curious).

So how’s my TBR cull going? The scores on the doors are as follows:

Subtracted – 5

Added – 3

Progress of sorts…?