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! 

‘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.

Riel’s Resin (Denmark), Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code (Norway), and translated fiction on the up!

I’ve been reading lots of Scandi crime fiction in preparation for the Petrona Award judges’ meeting, which is coming up soon. As ever, the quality has been impressively high. Two I’ve read recently and really liked are Ane Riel’s Resin and Jørn Lier Horst’s The Katharina Code.

Ane Riel, Resin, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday 2018)

First line: ‘The white room was completely dark when my dad killed my granny’.

I’m oddly pleased that Riel is a Danish writer. While Denmark seems to have a knack of turning out fabulous TV crime dramas – first and foremost The Killing – it hasn’t been quite so hot in terms of its crime fiction. So reading this very interesting novel has felt like a treat.

Resin can’t exactly be termed a conventional crime novel, but as the first line shows, there’s a crime at the heart of the novel, and it is explored, at least in part, through the eyes of a little girl named Liv. Riel expertly pieces together the events that led to the crime, and in the process tells the story of a family that has turned inwards with tragic consequences. I particularly liked the way the story was narrated from a number of different perspectives within the family, and what it had to say about love, social isolation and the importance of community.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, translated by Anne Bruce (Penguin, 2018)

First line: ‘The three cardboard boxes were stored at the bottom of the wardrobe.’

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know I’m already a huge fan of Lier Horst’s ‘Inspector Wisting’ series, one of which, The Caveman, won the Petrona Award in 2016. Can he make it a double?!

The Katharina Code contains one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her house 24 years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. Soon, a new lead in another missing persons case will get him thinking about Katharina’s case in a radically different way. Beautifully written, as ever, this is a thoroughly entertaining and absorbing read.

If you’d like to see all the eligible titles for the Petrona, then take a stroll over to Euro Crime, where Karen has put together a lovely list.

In other news – it’s heartening to hear that sales of translated fiction are booming in the UK, in spite of (or perhaps even because of) Brexit. Overall sales of translated fiction are up by 5.5%, with more than 2.6m books sold, whose value is £20.7m. You can read more in Alison Flood’s piece over at The Guardian – ‘Translated fiction enjoys sales boom as UK readers flock to European authors’ – which also notes that Chinese and Arabic translations are doing well. One of the biggest sellers is our very own Norwegian crime-writing powerhouse Jo Nesbø.

And finally… In an odd twist of fate, Brexit has led me to try my hand at fiction for the very first time. Who’d have thunk it? In any case, I’ve written a darkly humorous crime story called ‘Your Nearest Brexit’, which is available here (under a pen name). It was great fun to write, and, as a reviewer of many years standing, I’ve learned a lot about life on the other side of the fence! All profits are going to the ‘Led By Donkeys’ billboard campaign, which is very wittily and effectively holding certain UK politicians to account.

Season 2 of Trapped (Iceland), Staalesen’s Big Sister (Norway) and Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (Nigeria)

Trapped! The first two episodes of this Icelandic crime drama’s highly anticipated second season aired last night on BBC 4. It’s now three years after the events of season 1, and police chief Andri Olafsson is living in Reykjavík. But when a politician is brutally attacked outside parliament by her own brother, Andri is forced to head back north to Seyðisfjörður to unravel a tangle of familial and social conflicts. Locals are up in arms about a new aluminium plant and its effect on the community, and on top of all that, Andri has to deal with his estranged teenage daughter. Brooding landscapes, Icelandic jumpers, and a hefty dollop of the ancient sagas create a compelling mix. And it’s great to see Andri, Hinrika and Ásgeir back together as a team. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can catch up there.

Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

Which leads me on to…

Gunnar Staalesen’s Big Sister, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, 2018)

First line: I have never believed in ghosts.

This is the fifth of Gunnar Staalesen’s ‘Varg Veum’ detective novels to be published in the UK by Orenda Books, but it’s actually a pretty good place to start if you’re new to the series, as we’re given some interesting background to Veum’s own family.

The novel opens with the private eye receiving a surprise visit from a woman. Norma Bakkevik comes to him about a missing person’s case – so far, so conventional – but then reveals that she is Veum’s older half-sister, the daughter of his mother. The novel skilfully interweaves these two narrative strands, following Veum’s investigations into Norma’s goddaughter’s disappearance and his mother’s secret past. As ever, Staalesen treats us to a top-notch read, mainly set in Bergen on Norway’s southwest coast.

Staalesen won the 2017 Petrona Award for Where Roses Never Die. He’s up for the award again this year with Big Sister – can he make it a double?

Incidentally, I’m willing to bet 10p that the novel’s title was inspired by Chandler’s 1949 The Little Sister.

Which leads me to another big and little sister…

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (Doubleday 2018)

First line: Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a nurse: she is plain, respectable, and leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who then expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give too much more away, but suffice to say this is an arresting read, which fearlessly deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done, and manages to avoid an overly pat denouement.

Both the subject matter and tone of My Sister reminded me of Austrian author Bernhard Aichner’s Woman of the Dead, another wonderfully original novel featuring an unrepentant murderess…

You can read a very informative interview with Braithwaite here.

Crime smörgåsbord: Jónasson’s The Darkness (Iceland), Kidd’s Himself (Ireland), Miller’s American By Day (US/Norway), Herron’s Slow Horses (UK)

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! Work’s been a bit manic for the last few weeks, and looks set to continue that way for a while, so please excuse the slightly *ahem* stretchy gaps between my posts. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Happily, I’ve still been reading behind the scenes, even if I’ve not managed to post as much as I’d like. Here are some highlights…

Ragnar Jónasson, The Darkness, trans. Victoria Cribb (Penguin 2018, Iceland).

First line: ‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked.

Jónasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Ari Thór’ series, published by Orenda Books. The Darkness is the first in a trilogy called ‘Hidden Iceland’, featuring the rather taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Hulda is about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at its end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing where this trilogy will go next. The Darkness is one of this year’s Petrona Award contenders.

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

First line: ‘Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus and stands in the dead centre of the village of Mulderrig’

Kidd’s The Hoarder was one of my top Christmas picks this year, and made me seek out her debut, Himself, as quickly as I could. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her behaviour and supposedly disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Derek B. Miller, American By Day (Penguin 2018, US/Norway).

First line: Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office.

Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, is one of my favourite crime novels ever (see my rave review here), and this follow up novel features Sigrid Ødegård, the policewoman Sheldon met at the end of that first story. American By Day is a clever counterpart to its predecessor: while Norwegian By Night showed us an American recently transplanted to Norway, American By Day transplants a Norwegian to America, thereby opening the door to a wide-ranging comparison of the two countries’ values and policing cultures, especially in relation to race. Sigrid is a richly drawn, thoughtful character, unsettled by something she did in the course of her policing duties in Norway, and whose brother may have been involved in the death of his girlfriend, an American academic. With the help of US sheriff Irving Wylie and some Sheldon-esque chutzpah, she sets about getting to the bottom of the matter. Intelligent, accomplished and entertaining.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (Hodder & Stoughton 2010, UK)

First line: This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.

I’m extremely late to the party as far as the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series goes, but who cares – I’m here now and I’m having fun. Far from the glamour of the Intelligence Services in Regent’s Park sits Slough House, home of the Slow Horses: agents who in some way or other have screwed up, but can’t quite be pushed out of the service completely as yet. Assigned to mundane tasks and managed by the uncouth Jackson Lamb, each hides painful secrets, while yearning to get back into the action somehow. That moment may have arrived when some kidnappers threaten to broadcast the execution of their hostage Hassan live on the internet. A fabulously entertaining introduction to the Slow Horses, which also has plenty to say about the callousness of ambition and power. Hints of le Carré, but presented in a breezy and darkly humorous way.

Jingle bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations! Each is one of my top reads or views of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jess Kidd, The Hoarder, Canongate 2018 (Ireland/UK)

The star of this highly original crime novel is Maud Drennen, newly appointed carer for ancient, belligerent hoarder Cathal Flood, who lives in a massive house in London and is the despair of social services. Both are Irish exiles and both have secrets to hide. There are mysterious disappearances, perplexing clues and dicey situations, not to mention a supporting cast of half-feral cats, an eccentric landlady and levitating saints. The novel has serious things to say about violence, family dysfunction, social isolation and old age, but is also deliciously irreverent (‘Renata is especially glamorous today, clad in an appliquéd romper suit and feathered mules’), and depicts its characters with warmth and heart. Its language is strikingly rich and expressive.

Joe Ide, IQ, Mulholland Books, 2016 (USA)

Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. Taking inspiration from iconic detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, the novel fuses classic crime with urban noir in its depiction of IQ, an unlicensed black Long Beach detective, and Dodson, his streetwise sidekick (“It’s a hustler’s world, son,” Dodson said, “and if you ain’t doing the hustlin’? Somebody’s hustlin’ you”). It’s a remarkably polished debut that tells an absorbing coming-of-age story while treating us to a cracking investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Inventive, ingenious and authentic, the novel is a moving study of resilience and of life on the rougher side of town, but is also outrageously funny in places. You can read my full review here).

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster, 2017 (Sweden).

The very worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award (of which I’m a judge): “The judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings. 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.” A tough, but excellent read.

Mystery Road, dir. Rachel Perkins, Acorn Media 2008 (Australia)

Mystery Road is set in the arid town of Patterson in north-western Australia. When local worker Marley Thompson goes missing, Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case. As they form an uneasy alliance and the investigation unfolds, we’re shown not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the local townsfolk, but how long-held secrets are shaping the events taking place. The drama provides viewers with a nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community and packs genuine emotional punch. The cinematography is stunning, with aerial shots capturing the vast, harsh beauty of the outback. You can read my full review here.

Adam Sternbergh, The Blinds, faber & faber 2018 (USA)

An outstanding genre-defying fusion of thriller, whodunit and Western. The Blinds is a speck of a town in rural Texas, populated by criminals and witnesses who have their memories wiped as part of an experimental programme that allows them to ‘start over’. Sheriff Calvin Cooper has policed the town for eight years without major incident, but now suddenly has a suicide and murder on his hands. These bring outsiders to the town, all of whom have agendas that will play out in different ways in the days ahead. The novel tackles big themes – criminality, redemption, the role of memory in identity formation, what makes a proper community – but is also a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Beautifully written with fabulously inventive touches… such as the way the residents acquire their new names.

 Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018 (Poland)

Janina Duszejko, a reclusive sixty-something-year-old who’s obsessed with astrology and the poetry of William Blake (the source of the novel’s title), lives in a Polish village near the Czech border. When one of her neighbours is found dead, followed by a member of the local hunting club, she speculates that the animals they’re hunting are taking revenge, and decides to investigate. A quirky existential take on the Miss-Marple-amateur-sleuth model, Drive Your Plow has a distinctive narrative voice – as suggested by chapter titles such as ‘Now Pay Attention’ and ‘A Speech to a Poodle’, and caused a stir in Poland by daring to question its deeply rooted hunting culture. Plow has recently been adapted for film by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (titled Pokot; I’m keen to watch it soon).

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

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is a collection of freewheeling crime stories, whose narrators include a prehistoric caveman, protective mother-in-law, spoiled museum director, a vampire and a houseful of ghosts. Each story gives the author the chance to stretch her imagination to the full, with equal measures of crime, humour and the grotesque mixed into a tasty criminal cocktail. The second half of the book is particularly inspired – a set of eight Barcelona stories under the heading ‘Connections’. Readers are challenged to spot the links between the stories, which proves to be great fun. You can read my full review here.

Belinda Bauer, Snap, Black Swan/Penguin, 2018 (Wales/UK)

Belinda Bauer is a hugely original writer, who uses the crime genre to explore both intimate scenarios and big themes. Snap opens with the disappearance in 1998 of pregnant mother Eileen Bright, who leaves her broken-down car on the M5 to phone for help. In the car are her three young children, Jack, Joy and Merry, who gradually realise that their mum isn’t coming back. A grim scenario, but one that’s never gratuitously exploited by the author. Instead, she shows in human and sensitive detail what happens to the family – mainly from the children’s point of view. Jack’s fight to find out the truth of what happened that day and the brilliant depiction of a host of characters, including grumpy DCI Marvel, make for a compelling read. There’s some razor-sharp humour in the mix too. The novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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

A fabulous science fiction/crime mash-up. 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. It shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory where the car has just been made is off-limits to humans. So how did the corpse wind up in the boot? This nifty locked-room mystery is set in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it creates, are explored in this stylish, high-octane murder mystery. One for anyone who’s ever been to Reading! You can read my full review here.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke, Jonathan Cape 2018 (UK)

This graphic novel, a modern-day reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is an absolute delight. Our Scrooge is the eponymous Cassandra Darke, a disgraced London art dealer who is inadvertently drawn into a world of criminality…and possibly murder. This book would make an extremely handsome Christmas present, not only because of its author’s artistic and story-telling talents, but because it is so beautifully produced. Plus, it might be easier on the reading eye than a novel after a few glasses of Christmas plonk… You can read my full review here.

Wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Marigolds & murder: Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Cassandra Darke (UK)

My work recently has involved lots of screen hours and acres of text, so when I saw that Posy Simmonds’ new graphic novel Cassandra Darke was out, and that it had a distinctly criminal slant, I knew instantly what my next read would be. As expected, it’s been a thorough delight.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Opening line: ‘Last December – the 21st to be precise, and not so long before they came to arrest me – I remember buying macaroons in Burlington Arcade’.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s beautiful. Simmonds’ artwork, as ever, is exquisite, and is presented in hardback on high-quality paper, with gorgeous design touches like a yellow ribbon bookmark and yellow flyleaves, which match the yellow title and Cassandra’s Marigolds on the front cover. Just having the book in your hands is an aesthetic pleasure.

Simmonds is known for taking literary classics as a point of departure – for example, 2007’s Tamara Drewe was a contemporary reworking of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The inspiration for Cassandra Darke is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, although elements from the original story (such as the apparitions) are woven in with the lightest of touches.

The most obvious similarity to Dickens’ story is the Scrooge-like characterisation of Cassandra, who’s a well-heeled art dealer living in a £7 million house in Chelsea, London. Completely self-sufficient, she lives life very much on her own terms, which is laudable in some respects, but not in others, as she’s often inconsiderate, abrasive and rude. Like Scrooge, she’s forced to go on a journey of personal discovery, partly because she overreaches herself in the art world, and partly because she gets drawn into a messy and potentially criminal situation by her lodger Nicki, the daughter of Cassandra’s ex-husband. In fact, the whole novel is stuffed with crimes – an unexplained body and art fraud are just the beginning – with Cassandra taking on the mantle of detective at one point.

Cassandra braves the tube.

I loved Cassandra’s distinctive narrative voice, but the cast of characters around her, from lodger Nicki and ex-husband Freddie to Corker the dog, are all beautifully observed. Simmonds’ has a gift for capturing the cadences of dialogue, and of course the way in which she draws her characters and their settings tells us a huge amount about them as well. She also skilfully incorporates some trenchant social commentary on the wealth divide in London, on urban loneliness, and on various aspects of gender, class and violence. It’s only when you come away from the novel and start to mull on its themes that you realise how much the author has packed in.

Having read Cassandra Darke once – primarily to get to the bottom of the crimes – I’m now keen to read it again. The story is told in three sections (the middle one a flashback), and I’d like to explore that narrative structure a bit more. But mainly, I’d like to spend some time just looking at the artwork and admiring how Simmonds melds images and words. This is a book that will keep on giving.

Feast your eyes on a lengthy extract from the opening of Cassandra Darke over at The Guardian.

And you can read an interview with Posy Simmonds here: ‘Women in books aren’t allowed to be total rotters’

John le Carré’s Single & Single, and a Penguin Modern Classics giveaway!

On 27 September, John le Carré will become the living author with the greatest number of works to have been published by Penguin Modern Classics: 21 in total, which also happens to be all of his works

This is an astonishing achievement, which underlines the author’s status as one of the most important writers of our time. Since 1961, le Carré has famously portrayed the political and human fallout of the Cold War in his epic Smiley series, but his other novels have been equally ambitious and compelling, from The Constant Gardener to A Most Wanted Man to The Little Drummer Girl.

The Little Drummer Girl, first published in 1983, becomes the latest addition to the le Carré Penguin Modern Classics set on 27 September. Its tale – of how young British actress Charlie is pulled into an Israeli operation to ensnare an elusive Palestinian terrorist – will also shortly reach our screens in a lavish six-part BBC One adaptation starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Shannon and Charles Dance. The director is Park Chan-wook, who my son tells me is a defining auteur of South Korean cinema.

Florence Pugh as Charlie in the new BBC One adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl

To celebrate this multitude of riches, Penguin has asked 21 bloggers to review the 21 le Carré novels in the Modern Classics series, and to help give away lots of books!

The novel I’ve been asked to explore is Single & Single.

Single & Single may not be a le Carré novel you have heard of before. Published nineteen years ago in 1999, it’s been rather overlooked, which is a shame as it’s something of a gem.

As in many le Carré novels, the reader is dropped right into the middle of the story. Three curious events are linked, but how? An corporate lawyer from the House of Single & Single is shot dead in cold blood on a Turkish hillside – by the firm’s top client. Children’s entertainer Oliver Hawthorne is asked to explain why five million and thirty pounds have appeared in his daughter Carmen’s bank account. The splendidly monikered financier Tiger Single vanishes into thin air. How these threads interweave is stylishly revealed over the course of the narrative.

Single & Single contains a number of le Carré’s authorial trademarks. It’s a wide-ranging exploration of how respectable institutions mask and service international crime. It traces the way in which individuals find themselves sucked into complex situations in which they struggle to maintain any semblance of control. It examines the uneasy partnership between the government agencies and the people they often use shamelessly to achieve their (sometimes laudable) aims. And it takes on Big Universal Themes: the nature of loyalty, father-son relationships, integrity, morality and love.

Two things stood out for me as a reader. Firstly, Single & Single feels very timeless – the scenarios it outlines are still highly plausible in the world we inhabit today. And one character – a villain who claws his way up by exploiting the worst facets of capitalism following the fall of Russian communism – now feels particularly relevant. Secondly – what’s this? – a hint that one of the characters may be given something approaching a happy ending? How very un-le Carré! Of course you’ll now have to read the novel to see how it all turns out…

And so to the GIVEAWAY: Mrs Peabody has a copy of The Little Drummer Girl and a copy of Single & Single to give away to two lucky blog readers.

Just write YES! in a comment below the post to be entered into the draw – no matter where you are in the world. Winners will be selected randomly and notified in due course. Good luck!

The giveaway draw will close at 23.59 on Saturday 29 September

Exclusive extract from Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (Italy)

To celebrate the publication of Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (trans. by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press), we have an exclusive extract from the novel on ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ today.

And if that weren’t enough of a treat, UK readers also have the opportunity to see Gianrico Carofiglio live in conversation next week. He’ll be appearing on Wednesday 19th September at Waterstones in Bath, and on Thursday 20th September at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. Do come along if you get the chance!

For those of you who’ve not yet discovered Carofiglio’s work: he is one of Italy’s best known crime writers, whose novels draw on his experiences as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime. As well as examining the role of the Mafia in Italy, and response of the Italian police and judiciary to its diverse threats, Carofiglio’s works explore contemporary issues such as immigration, racism and justice – as seen in his acclaimed novel Involuntary Witness, featuring defence counsel Guido Guerrieri.

The Cold Summer is the first of Carofiglio’s works to feature Pietro Fenoglio, a Carabinieri officer working in Bari, Puglia (in southern Italy, just at the top of its heel). The novel is set in the cold summer of 1992, which was ‘cold’ not just because of its unseasonable temperatures, but because it was the summer in which two prominent Sicilian anti-Mafia prosecutors were killed – a major setback in the fight against organized crime.

The cover of the original Italian novel (2016)

The novel focuses on the local Mafia wars in Puglia in the early 1990s, and is based on true events. Fenoglio, at a melancholy ebb after being left by his wife, is asked to investigate the killing of a Mafia boss’s son. The most likely suspect is a rival member of the Mafia, but something about the case doesn’t feel right to Fenoglio, who probes further, with the help of his colleague Pellecchia.

A hard-hitting and multilayered novelThe Cold Summer gives readers a fascinating, detailed insight into the workings of the Mafia and the judicial system, as well as showing the enormous pressures faced by the police and public prosecutors when battling organized crime. It’s absorbing and gripping in equal measure, and the central investigative character of Fenoglio, as the extract below shows, is a complex and intriguing one.

 

Extract from The Cold Summer

Translated by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press 2018. Reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Act One – Days of Fire

Chapter 1

Fenoglio walked into the Caffè Bohème with the newspaper he’d just bought in his jacket pocket and sat down at the table by the window. He liked the place because the owner was a music lover and every day chose a soundtrack of famous romantic arias and orchestral pieces. That morning, the background was the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and given what was happening in the city, Fenoglio wondered if it was just coincidence.

The barman made him his usual extra-strong cappuccino and brought it to him together with a pastry filled with custard and black cherry jam.

Everything was the same as ever. The music was discreet but quite audible to those who wanted to listen to it. The regular customers came in and out. Fenoglio ate his pastry, sipped at his cappuccino and skimmed through the newspaper. The main focus of the local pages was the Mafia war that had suddenly broken out in the northern districts of the city and the unfortunate fact that nobody – not the police, not the Carabinieri, not the judges – had any idea what was going on.

He started reading an article in which the editor himself, with a profusion of helpful advice, informed the law enforcement agencies how to tackle and solve the phenomenon. Finding the article engrossing and irritating in equal measure, he did not notice the young man with the syringe until the latter was already standing in front of the cashier and yelling, in almost incomprehensible dialect, “Give me all the money, bitch!”

The woman didn’t move, as if paralysed. The young man held out the hand with the syringe until it was close to her face. In an impressively hoarse voice, he told her he had AIDS and yelled at her again to give him everything there was in the till. She moved slowly, her eyes wide with terror. She opened the till and started taking out the money, while the young man kept telling her to be quick about it.

Fenoglio’s hand closed over the robber’s wrist just as the woman was passing over the money. The young man tried to jerk round, but Fenoglio made an almost delicate movement – a half turn – twisting his arm and pinning it behind his back. With the other hand, he grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back.

“Throw away the syringe.”

The young man gave a muffled growl and tried to wriggle free. Fenoglio increased the pressure on his arm and pulled his head back even further. “I’m a carabiniere.” The syringe fell to the floor with a small, sharp sound.

The cashier began crying. The other customers started to move, slowly at first, then at a normal speed, as if waking from a spell.

“Nicola, call 112,” Fenoglio said to the barman, having ruled out the idea that the cashier might be in a fit state to use the telephone.

“Down on your knees,” he said to the robber. From the polite tone he used, he might have been expected to add: “Please.”

As the young man knelt, Fenoglio let go of his hair but kept hold of his arm, although not roughly, almost as if it were a procedural formality.

“Now lie face down and put your hands together behind your head.”

“Don’t beat me up,” the young man said.

“Don’t talk nonsense. Lie down, I don’t want to stay like this until the car arrives.”

The young man heaved a big sigh, a kind of lament for his misfortune, and obeyed. He stretched out, placing one cheek on the floor, and put his hands on the back of his neck with almost comical resignation.

In the meantime, a small crowd had gathered outside. Some of the customers had gone out and told them what had happened. People seemed excited, as if the moment had come to fight back against the current crime wave. Some were yelling. Two young men walked into the café and made to approach the robber.

“Where are you going?” Fenoglio asked.

“Give him to us,” said the more agitated of the two, a skinny, spotty-faced fellow with glasses.

“I’d be glad to,” Fenoglio said. “What do you plan to do with him?”

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again,” the skinny fellow said, taking a step forward.

“Have we ever had you down at the station?” Fenoglio asked them, with a smile that seemed friendly.

Taken aback, the man did not reply immediately. “No, why?”

“Because I’ll make sure you spend all day there, and maybe all night, too, if you don’t get out of here right now.” The two men looked at each other. The spotty-faced young man stammered something, trying not to lose face; the other shrugged and gave a grimace of superiority, also trying not to lose face. Then they left the café together. The little crowd dispersed spontaneously.

A few minutes later, the Carabinieri cars pulled up outside and two uniformed corporals and a sergeant came into the café and saluted Fenoglio with a mixture of deference and unconscious wariness. They handcuffed the robber and pulled him bodily to his feet.

“I’m coming with you,” Fenoglio said, after paying the cashier for the cappuccino and the pastry, heedless of the barman’s attempts to stop him.

Chapter 2

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Fenoglio said, turning to the back seat and addressing the young man he had just arrested.

“I used to stand near the Petruzzelli in the evening when there was a show on. I parked people’s cars. You must have seen me there.”

Of course – that was it. Up until a few months earlier he had been an unlicensed car park attendant near the Teatro Petruzzelli. Then the theatre had been destroyed in a fire and he had lost his job. That was how the young man put it: “I lost my job,” as if he had been working for a company and they’d dismissed him or closed down. So he’d started selling cigarettes and stealing car radios.

“But you make hardly anything at that. I’m not up to doing burglaries, so I thought I could rob places with the syringe.”

“Congratulations, a brilliant idea. And how many robberies have you committed?”

“I haven’t committed any, corporal, would you fucking believe it? This was my first one and I had to run into you, for fuck’s sake.”

“He isn’t a corporal, he’s a marshal,” the carabiniere at the wheel corrected him. “Sorry, marshal. You aren’t in uniform, so I had no idea.

I swear it was my first time.”

“I don’t believe you,” Fenoglio said. But it wasn’t true. He did believe him, he even liked him. He was funny: his timing when he spoke was almost comical. Maybe in another life he might have been an actor or a stand-up, instead of a petty criminal.

“I swear it. And besides, I’m not a junkie and I don’t have AIDS. That was all bullshit. I can’t stand needles. If talking bullshit is a crime, then they should give me a life sentence, because I talk a lot of it. But I’m just an idiot. Put in a good word for me in your report, write that I came quietly.”

“Yes, you did.”

“The syringe was new, you know, I just put a bit of iodine in it to look like blood and to scare people.”

“You do talk a lot, don’t you?”

“Sorry, marshal. I’m shitting my pants here. I’ve never been to prison.”

Fenoglio had a strong desire to let him go. He would have liked to tell the carabiniere at the wheel: stop and give me the keys to the handcuffs. Free the boy – he still didn’t know his name – and throw him out of the car. He had never liked arresting people, and he found the very idea of prison quite disturbing. But that’s not something you broadcast when you’re a marshal in the Carabinieri. Of course, there were exceptions, for certain crimes, certain people. Like the fellow they’d arrested a few months earlier, who’d been raping his nine-year-old granddaughter – his daughter’s daughter – for months.

In that case, it had been hard for him to stop his men from dispensing a bit of advance justice, by way of slaps, punches and kicks. It’s tough sometimes to stick to your principles.

It was obvious he couldn’t free this young man. That would be an offence – several offences in fact. But similarly absurd ideas went through his head increasingly often. He made a decisive gesture with his hand, as if to dismiss these troublesome thoughts, almost as if they were entities hovering in front of him.

“What’s your name?” “Francesco Albanese.”

“And you say you’ve never been inside?” “Never, I swear.”

“You were obviously good at not getting caught.”

The young man smiled. “Not that I ever did anything special. Like I said, a few cigarettes, a few cars, spare parts.”

“And I guess you sell a bit of dope, too, am I right?” “Okay, just a bit, where’s the harm in that? You’re not arresting me for these things as well now, are you?”

Fenoglio turned away to look at the road, without replying. They got to the offices of the patrol car unit and Fenoglio quickly wrote out an arrest report. He told the sergeant who had come on the scene to complete the papers for the Prosecutors’ Department and the prison authorities, and to inform the assistant prosecutor. Then he turned to the robber. “I’m going now. You’ll appear before the judge later this morning. When you talk to your lawyer, tell him you want to plea-bargain. You’ll get a suspended sentence and you won’t have to go to prison.”

The young man looked at him with eyes like those of a dog grateful to its master for removing a thorn from its paw. “Thank you, marshal. If you ever need anything, I hang out between Madonnella and the Petruzzelli – you can find me at the Bar del Marinaio. Anything you want, I’m at your disposal.”

This second reference to the Teatro Petruzzelli put Fenoglio in a bad mood. A few months earlier someone had burned it down, and he still couldn’t get over it. How could anyone even think of such an act? To burn down a theatre. And then there was the absurd, almost unbearable fact – God alone knew if it was a coincidence or if the arsonists had wanted to add a touch of macabre irony – of burning it down after a performance of Norma, an opera that actually ends with a funeral pyre.

The Petruzzelli was one of the reasons he liked – had liked? – living in Bari.

That huge theatre which could hold two thousand people, just ten minutes on foot from the station where he worked. Often, if there was a concert or an opera, Fenoglio would stay in the office until evening and then go straight there and up to the third tier, among the friezes and the stucco. When he was there, he could almost believe in reincarnation. He felt the music so intensely – that of some composers, above all baroque ones, especially Handel – that he imagined that in another life he must have been a kapellmeister in some provincial German town.

And now that the theatre was gone? God alone knew if they would ever rebuild it, and God alone knew if those responsible would ever be tracked down, tried and sentenced. The Prosecutor’s Department had opened a case file to investigate “arson by persons unknown”. A good way of saying that they hadn’t the slightest idea what had happened. Fenoglio would have liked to handle the investigation, but it had been entrusted to others, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“All right, Albanese. Don’t do anything stupid. Not too stupid, anyway.” He gave him a slap on the shoulder and walked off in the direction of his own office.

At the door he found a young carabiniere waiting for him. “The captain wants to speak to you. He’d like you to go to his office.”

**********

Captain Valente was the new commanding officer of the Criminal Investigation Unit. Fenoglio hadn’t yet decided if he liked the man or was made uncomfortable by him. Perhaps both. He was certainly different from the other officers he’d had to deal with during his twenty years in the Carabinieri.

He had arrived only a few days earlier, bang in the middle of this criminal war that didn’t yet make sense to anyone. He came from Headquarters in Rome, and nobody knew why he had been sent to Bari.

“Come in, Marshal Fenoglio,” the captain said as soon as he saw him at the door.

That was one of the things that puzzled him: Captain Valente addressed everyone formally, always using rank and surname. The unnamed rule of behaviour for officers is that you use rank and surname towards your superiors and call your subordinates by their surnames, or even their first names. And of course, among those of the same rank, first-name terms are the rule. Among non-commissioned officers, things are less clear, but in general it’s rare to find the commanding officer of a unit being so formal with all his men.

Why did he behave in that way? Did he prefer to keep a distance between himself and his subordinates? Was he a particularly formal man? Or particularly shy?

“Good morning, sir,” Fenoglio said.

“Please sit down,” Valente said, motioning him to a chair. That combination of formality and cordiality was hard to make sense of. Then there was the decor of the room: no pennants, no crests, no military calendars; nothing to suggest that this was the office of a captain in the Carabinieri. There was a TV set, a good-quality stereo, a sofa and some armchairs; a small refrigerator and some pictures in an expressionistic style, somewhat in the manner of Egon Schiele. There was a slight perfume in the air, coming, in all probability, from an incense burner. Not exactly a martial kind of accessory.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for the past two days.

I’m afraid I’ve come to Bari at a bad time.”

“That’s true, sir. And with the lieutenant’s accident, you don’t even have a second-in-command.”

The lieutenant had broken a leg playing football and would be out of action for three months. So the unit had found itself with a new captain who had no knowledge of the city and its criminal geography and was without a second-in-command, all in the middle of a Mafia war.

“Can you explain what’s going on in this city?” Valente said.

 

Further information about The Cold Summer can be found at Bitter Lemon Press here.