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!

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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…?

Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.

Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (USA)

Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (Penguin, 2016)

First line: Thirty-two hours of my life are missing.

Seventeen years ago, Tessa Cartwright survived a horrific attack by a serial killer, who left her for dead with his other victims in a Texan field of black-eyed Susans. After testifying in court and seeing her ‘monster’ jailed, she has built a new life with her daughter Charlie. However, when new evidence suggests that the convicted man is innocent, she realises she’ll have to revisit the past.

This psychological thriller contains a number of hard-hitting elements, not least the traumatic events Tessa endures as a teenager and her subsequent treatment by the media. Heaberlin approaches this material with sensitivity and intelligence, depicting Tessa both as a victim who is physically and psychologically scarred by her experiences, and as a resourceful and resilient survivor who has found meaning in motherhood and her artistic work. She reminded me a bit of Gillian Flynn’s Libby Day in Dark Places – and hats off to both authors for choosing to depict their traumatised female protagonists in such a complex way, without sentimentality or salaciousness.

As readers, we are taken through events via a split narrative that traces present-day developments and a younger Tessie’s experiences in the months right after the attack. A particularly fascinating strand of the present-day narrative explores the work of forensic scientists and the emerging area of isotope analysis, which can help to identify victims by matching bone samples with chemical markers from specific geographical areas. The novel also takes a sober and critical look at death penalty debates.

I found Black-Eyed Susans so gripping that I read it in more or less one sitting (I discovered afterwards that it’s part of the so-called ‘Grip Lit’ phenomenon). The final section is marked by plenty of twists and turns – some a little far-fetched – but overall, this is a very satisfying novel that’s guaranteed to keep you hooked to the very last page.

You can download the opening of the book via the BBC Radio 2 Book Club.

With thanks to Susie, who recommended the novel to our local book club 🙂

Thomas Enger, Cursed (Norway)

Thomas Enger’s Cursed, translated from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, has just been published by Orenda Books, with a rather beautiful cover that references the opening scene of the novel.

First line: Daniel Schyman knew that people would talk about this day.

Since Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’, featuring investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, various Scandi crime writers have deployed journalist sleuths to good effect. Recent examples include Liza Marklund (Annika Bengtzon), Jørn Lier Horst (Lina Wisting) … and Norwegian author Thomas Enger (Henning Juul and Nora Klemetsen).

Cursed is the fourth in the ‘Henning Juul’ series, and focuses on two complex cases: a traumatic, unresolved arson attack on Juul’s flat, and the disappearance of Nora’s old college friend Hedda Hellberg, who tells her husband that she’s going on a retreat in Italy, and promptly vanishes into thin air. And then there’s the murder of an elderly Swedish man on the first day of the hunting season, which might be related, though no one can quite figure out how.

On a narrative level, Enger manages to have his cake and eat it too. Juul’s investigation into the fire is an action-packed thriller that sees him venturing into Oslo’s murky underworld in search of information, with a particularly memorable fight-club scene. By contrast, Nora’s investigation into Hedda’s disappearance and her secret life provides a more traditional crime narrative, with Nora interviewing various members of the missing woman’s family in the course of her journalistic duties, and edging slowly towards the truth. Enger interweaves these two narrative threads with great flair: the novel is expertly plotted, with the thriller/crime elements providing stylistic variety and depth.

I particularly liked that Henning’s and Nora’s storylines are given equal weight. Both journalists are shown to be resourceful and effective investigators, and their characterisation is nuanced and believable. Once a couple, but driven apart by the fatal consequences of the fire, they are nonetheless still linked by that tragedy, and the evolution of their relationship against the backdrop of their ongoing grief is one of the novel’s key strengths.

Could readers new to the series jump in here? I’d read just one of the earlier novels prior to Cursed and managed perfectly well. But some might prefer to read the novels in order, in which case you could start with Burned (Faber & Faber).

All in all, Cursed is a very enjoyable and satisfying read. And as is so often the case with Orenda, the book is a beautiful object in its own right – gorgeous cover, high-quality paper and lovely design details. If you’re a crime lover who rejoices in the aesthetic delights of *real* books, then Orenda is most definitely for you.

Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

lavender-ladies-detective-agency-death-in-sunset-grove

This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

the-mine

Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

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Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (USA)

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (Faber & Faber, 2016)

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Opening paragraph: “When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another man’s death. I wish I could tell you that we mourned the boy who died, but we did not. He was the one with murder in his heart and, sure enough, death found him that night. Funny how that works”.

I couldn’t resist quoting the first few lines of Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake, as they constitute one of the best openings I’ve read in a while. How could anyone not want to read on?

Wilde Lake was my first book of 2017, which I found while browsing Crime Time‘s Top 20 of 2016. One of the reasons I was drawn to it – aside from the opening – was my enjoyment of another Lippman novel, After I’m Gone. Wilde Lake is a similarly engrossing, high-quality crime novel, whose key strength is the depth of its characterisation, and its ability to draw a portrait of family and community life in rich, convincing detail.

The novel is set in Columbia, Maryland, and in some respects pays homage to the author’s childhood home – Lippman grew up there and attended Wilde Lake High School. The narrative has two timelines: the present, in which 45-year-old Luisa (Lu) Brant takes on a murder case in her capacity as the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, and the past (1980 onwards), narrated by Lu herself, which may or may not have a link to present-day events. We’re given an intimate portrait of Brant family life, and in particular the dynamic between Lu’s father, a distinguished attorney, her older brother AJ, and Lu as the only girl and the youngest in the family. There are shades of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Go-Between, where we see child narrators trying to interpret complex adult events to the best of their ability.

Wilde Lake was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start this year’s reading. I found myself being pulled equally into past and present events, and particularly liked the depiction of the capable and complex Lu. There was perhaps one reveal too many in the second half, but the ending was perfectly calibrated and provided plenty of food for thought.

******

Tomorrow’s going to be a tough day for many Americans. Hands across the pond, and remember to take care of yourselves. I’ll just leave this here: ‘Self-care tips for those who are terrified of Trump’s presidency’. It’s a good one to read if you’re going quietly mad about Brexit in the UK too.

I’m off to Berlin for a week, and am looking forward to enjoying spending time in a country that has competent politicians, a grown-up media, and excellent cake. Bis bald!

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Stop to smell the flowers (here are some from Hadrian’s Wall)