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!

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…?

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 🙂

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.

fossum

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)

Eva Dolan’s After You Die (UK), Val McDermid’s Out of Bounds (UK) and Iceland Noir 2016

My reading mojo has been largely restored courtesy of two fine British authors, Eva Dolan and Val McDermid.

dolan-after-you-die

Eva Dolan After You Die (Vintage 2016)

After You Die is the third novel in Dolan’s ‘DI Zigic and DS Ferreira’ series. Like its predecessors, it’s a skilfully crafted police procedural set in Peterborough, and features a hard-hitting crime: the murder of a woman, Dawn Prentice, and the possible murder of her severely disabled daughter, Holly. Dolan uses the investigation to explore a number of weighty issues, such as hate crimes, internet abuse and right-to-die debates, but does so with a deft touch, so that readers never feel like they’re being lectured. The characterisation of the Hate Crimes team and its suspects is also excellent – there’s lots of beautifully observed, authentic detail that grounds these figures in a recognisable reality. The development of DS Ferreira’s character after the events of the previous novel, Tell No Tales, is particularly good.

If you’re new to this series, you might like to start with the opening novel, Long Way Home, which is a very accomplished debut.

mcdermid-out-of-bounds

Val McDermid, Out of Bounds (Little Brown, 2016; Whole Story audiobook narrated by Cathleen McCarron)

Out of Bounds is the fourth book in the ‘DCI Karen Pirie’ series, set in Edinburgh and Fife. I haven’t read the others yet, having dived in to this one by chance, but am now very keen to do so (the first is The Distant Echo).

Detective Chief Inspector Pirie, who heads up Police Scotland’s Historic Crimes Unit, is tenacious, resourceful and prepared to bend the rules in the service of justice. Her job is to review cold cases when new evidence comes to light – such as when a teenage joyrider’s DNA profile links to DNA from a young hairdresser’s murder two decades earlier. In a parallel investigation, an odd-looking suicide leads Karen to examine an old murder that was presumed – possibly erroneously – to have been caused by an IRA bomb.

There were two aspects of this novel that I particularly enjoyed. The first was the depiction of a strong Scottish policewoman leading multiple investigations with aplomb – a nice counterpoint to Ian Rankin’s Rebus. While facing plenty of personal and professional challenges, Karen is kept going by a combination of her own determination and the support of close friends. (The emphasis on the importance of friendship reminded me a little of Claudia Piñeiro’s Argentinian crime novel Betty Boo). The second was the plotting masterclass McDermid provided as she moved effortlessly between the developments in the individual cases while maintaining a clear, unified narrative. I remember hearing the author argue, in a debate on crime fiction vs ‘high literature’, that plotting is a skill that is often underestimated and overlooked, and think her point is beautifully made in this novel.

One extra thought: I listened to the audiobook version, expertly narrated by Cathleen McCarron. I think that this added to my enjoyment of the book, because it allowed me to hear and appreciate the novel’s Scottish inflections and turns of phrase.

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As it happens, Val McDermid is one of the headliners at Iceland Noir 2016, which is taking place right now in Reykjavík (hope you’re all having a great time!). Val gave the convention’s opening address on Thursday evening – as reported here by CrimeFictionLover – in which she rightly asserted that ‘there ain’t no cure for loving crime fiction’. 

You can check out Iceland Noir’s programme here and its featured authors here. It’s a great convention and I would thoroughly recommend going. Hope to make it in 2018!

If you’re new to Icelandic crime, here are some earlier Mrs Peabody posts on the subject:

Indriđason’s The Draining Lake

Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie?

Icelandic TV drama Trapped

Quentin Bates interview about his ‘Gunnhildur (Gunna) Gísladóttir’ series

Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series – translation special

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Heading out to sea from Reykjavík harbour, 2014

#49 K.T. Medina, White Crocodile (UK/Cambodia)

K.T. Medina, White Crocodile (Faber & Faber, 2014). An impressive debut that explores the dangerous world of landmine clearance in Cambodia 4 stars

white-crocodile-jacket

Opening line: Tian was woken by a noise.

This powerful debut novel draws on K.T. Medina’s experience of working as a consultant for mine-clearance agencies in Cambodia. Its lead protagonist, Tess Hardy, arrives in the country following the suspicious death of her ex-husband while defusing a mine. The disappearance of several local women and mounting fear of the ‘White Crocodile’ myth soon confirm that there’s a clear and present danger – one that Tess must handle carefully if she wishes to survive.

There are several aspects of this novel that I really like. The first is its depiction of mine-clearance expert Tess, who faces complex personal and professional challenges throughout the narrative. The second is the insight into life in Battambang Province in north-west Cambodia, a highly fertile rice-producing region, but one ravaged by political conflict and the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, which have left the countryside studded with lethal mines. The novel also shows how UN peace keeping forces and aid agencies can sometimes worsen the situation of countries they’re supposed to be helping – for example by bringing HIV into local communities.

Two slight reservations: there was perhaps one plot-strand too many near the end of the novel, and a surfeit of scenes told from the perspective of terrified victims-to-be. But White Crocodile remains a highly impressive debut and is very much worth reading for its depiction of Cambodia, and for its nuanced and honest exploration of a number of important issues.

You can read a sobering essay by Jay Tindall called ‘Cambodia: Land Mine Nation’ here – http://jaytindall.asia/land-mine-nation/ – and about the work of the remarkable Halo Trust in Cambodia here – https://www.halotrust.org/where-we-work/south-asia/cambodia/.

Cambodian landmine sign

Photograph: Jay Tindall

Women in Translation Month: Claudia Piñeiro’s A Crack in the Wall (Argentina)

August is Women in Translation Month. To celebrate, here’s a bit about Claudia Piñeiro, a giant of South American crime fiction, who was in the UK earlier this summer and appeared at CrimeFest 2016.

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Claudia Piñeiro

Piñeiro is a prestigious journalist and best-selling crime author in her home country of Argentina. Bitter Lemon Press has published four of her novels in English thus far – All Yours, Thursday Night WidowsA Crack in the Wall and Betty Boo. I’ve read the latter two, which are both excellent, but very different from one another in subject-matter and tone – showcasing Piñeiro’s authorial versatility. This is a writer of tremendous range, who’s a keen observer of the world around her, and is particularly good at depicting the highs and lows of middle-age (!).

Crack in the Wall

A Crack in the Wall (2013 [2009]), expertly translated from Spanish by Miranda France, is a beautifully written crime novel that doubles as a study of troubled masculinity. It’s told from the perspective of architect Pablo Simó, who’s in the grip of a classic mid-life crisis: his marriage is stale, his teenage daughter is being difficult, and he’s reached a professional dead-end designing soulless office buildings. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s plagued by memories of his involvement in a crime, which began innocuously with a complaint about a crack in a wall.

Piñeiro offers us a wry look at Simó’s inner life (when you start calculating how many thousands of days you’ve been married, you know you’re in trouble) – one that doubles as a thoughtful critique of capitalism. An aspect of the novel I particularly liked was that it surprised me: I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, but the last quarter of the narrative took a stylish turn that led to a rather unexpected conclusion. Architecture buffs are also bound to enjoy a tour of some of Buenos Aires’ Art Nouveau treasures in the novel’s middle section.

You can read an extract from A Crack in the Wall courtesy of Bitter Lemon Press here.

There’s also a lovely interview with the author over at Crime Watch.

There’s more info about ‘Women in Translation Month’ and its aims over at the Biblibio blog. For those of you on Twitter, the hashtag is #WITMonth. Happy reading!

Summer musings on Walters (UK), Hykänen (Finland), and the visibility of women in crime fiction awards

After a busy few months, I’m looking forward to 1. writing up reviews of some excellent crime novels and 2. getting down to some quality summer reading.

A fairly random start: two very different novels I’ve recently enjoyed, and some musings on the visibility of women on crime fiction award longlists/shortlists.

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Disordered Minds (Pan Macmillan 2003). I picked up this plump psychological crime novel at Oxfam Books, and it turned out to be a perfect summer read. Two amateur detectives – Jonathan Hughes, a social anthropologist with a chip on his shoulder, and George Gardener, a middle-aged local councillor, find themselves drawn into investigating a contested old case, the murder of Grace Jeffries in 1970. Her grandson Harold was convicted of the crime, but new evidence suggests that the original investigation may have been botched.

I’ve not read anything by Walters before – a bit of an omission on my part – and am now keen to read more. Her approach to dissecting criminality reminded me of PD James and Ruth Rendell, particularly in its focus on British attitudes to race and class. A satisfying read with some lovely characterisation and interesting socio-political commentary (it’s set against the backdrop of the Iraq war in 2003), but with a slightly over-convoluted ending.

Nykanen

Harri Nykänen, Behind God’s Back, trans. from Finnish by Kristian London (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015 [2009]). This novel is the second in the ‘Ariel Kafka’ series (I reviewed the first here back in 2012). Aside from its Finnish setting, the most distinctive aspect of this series is its lead investigator, who is one of only two Jewish policemen in Helsinki. He views the world with a typically wry Jewish humour and allows readers to gain an insight into Helsinki’s small Jewish community, with which he has a slightly strained relationship as he’s not exactly a ‘model Jewish citizen’ – non-observant and stubbornly single.

The novel opens with the murder of a Jewish businessman. Kafka is tasked with figuring out whether the murder is racially motivated, a business deal gone wrong, or something altogether more complex… As was the case with the first novel, the plot got a bit complicated towards the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kafka’s irreverent, blokey company, and was very happy to go along for the ride. A superior police procedural.

And so to the subject of crime fiction longlists and shortlists.

Gold

My last post included the CWA International Dagger longlist, which I was disappointed to see included no works by women authors. Here it is again:

Title Author Translated by Publisher
The Truth and Other Lies Sascha Arango Imogen Taylor Simon & Schuster
The Great Swindle Pierre Lemaître Frank Wynne MacLehose Press
Icarus Deon Meyer K L Seegers Hodder & Stoughton
The Sword of Justice Leif G.W. Persson Neil Smith Doubleday
The Murderer in Ruins Cay Rademacher Peter Millar Arcadia
The Father Anton Svensson Elizabeth Clark Wessel Sphere
The Voices Beyond Johan Theorin Marlaine Delargy Transworld
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama Jonathan Lloyd-Davis Quercus

I started thinking about how this all-male longlist might have come about. Here are some possibilities, some of which are valid, some not. The answer probably comprises a few of these factors in combination.

  • No works by women authors were submitted for the award. Not the case: the list of novels submitted for this year’s International Dagger is available at http://cwadaggers.co.uk/cwa-international-dagger/. It shows that there were 45 works submitted, of which 13 were authored or co-authored by a woman. If my maths is right, that’s nearly 30%.
  • Fewer works by women were submitted, so the chances of these reaching the longlist were accordingly smaller. That’s definitely the case, given the 70% (male), 30% (female) split. And this kind of ratio seems to be typical. Translator Katy Derbyshire, writing in The Guardian, recently identified a twofold negative trend in relation to international fiction. Firstly, fewer women authors are published in their home markets; secondly, fewer still are selected by English-language publishers for translation. This means that works by international women authors in English are ‘a minority in a minority’. Their chances of winning prestigious literary prizes are thus pretty low.
  • However, even given those factors, the law of averages would still suggest 2 or 3 works by women could have made the International Dagger longlist. There were certainly some strong contenders on the submission list, such as Karin Fossum’s The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker), Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (Orenda) and Claudia Pinero’s Betty Boo (Bitter Lemon Press). Why didn’t they make the cut?
  • At this point we have to acknowledge that judging is a subjective process involving a number of factors and evaluations. So it may simply be coincidence that the longlist ended up being male-dominated (their novels happened to be the best this time round). Equally, however, there may be unconscious biases that drew the judges towards that particular set of novels. These *may* include a gender bias, but could also include others, such as a preference for a particular type of crime fiction (psychological, police procedural, thriller, whatever), or for crime set in a particular country (Sweden, Japan, South Africa)…

A swift look at some other recent longlists/shortlists shows the following: 

  • The 2016 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger features three women authors on its longlist of eight (37%).
  • The 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel (announced today!) features three women authors on its longlist of nine (33%).
  • The 2016 Petrona Award (for which I’m a judge) featured two women authors on its shortlist of six (33%). Our submission list had a worse male/female ratio to the International Dagger this year – 8 works by women authors on a submission list of 42 (19%).
  • The 2016 Man Booker International featured two female authors on its shortlist of six (33%). It was won by Han Kang – a woman author – for The Vegetarian.
  • A significant exception is the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, which features eleven women authors on its longlist of eighteen (61%). This award has also been won by women for the last four years (Denise Mina twice, Belinda Bauer and Sarah Hilary).

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

All the above has made me scrutinise my own reading practices and biases (not always a comfortable process). I’m keeping a list to check my own reading/gender ratio, which I know some other bloggers do as well. It’ll be interesting to compare notes.

Some thought-provoking articles on and around the subject

Katy Derbyshire, ‘Translated fiction by women must stop being a minority in a minority’The Guardian, 10 March 2016

Hannah Ellis Peterson, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds’, The Guardian, 7 April 2015 (particularly interesting contribution by Rob Spillman on tackling systemic problems)

VIDA, ‘The 2015 VIDA Count’, 30 March 2016. VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) is a US-based organisation that scrutinizes the representation of women in the sector (looking at interesting stats like the proportion of women reviewers on magazines).

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Renoir’s The Reader

Author interview with Abir Mukherjee about Calcutta crime novel A Rising Man

Wishing a very happy publication day to Abir Mukherjee! Abir is the winner of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing’ competition. A Rising Man, his highly accomplished debut crime novel, is set in Calcutta in 1919 and marks the start of the ‘Captain Wyndham’ series. He joins me below for a fascinating interview about the novel, his historical research, and the writers who inspire him.

A RISING MAN

Opening lines: ‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’

Cover text: Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard Detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

Abir Mukherjee c. Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTO

Abir Mukherjee (photo by Nick Tucker)

Mrs. Peabody: Abir, thanks very much for joining me. A Rising Man is set in the India of 1919, just after the end of the First World War. Why did you choose that particular historical moment for the start of your series?

Abir: My parents came to Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties, and my life has always been shaped by both cultures. As such I’ve always been interested in the period of British Rule in India. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and to modern Britain, but it’s a period that’s been largely forgotten or mischaracterised, either romanticised or brushed under the carpet.

I’ve always been rather surprised by this and wanted to look at it from the point of view of an outsider who’s new to it all. One of the things that’s always fascinated me is that, in an era when totalitarian regimes were rampant in Europe, regularly murdering anyone who showed any dissent, in India, this largely peaceful freedom struggle was playing out between Indians and their British overlords. At the time, there was no parallel to this anywhere in the world, and I think it says a lot about the people of both nations that such a struggle could be played out in an comparatively civilised way.

Huntley and Palmer Raj

A thoroughly British depiction of the Indian Raj

Abir: I also wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and in something that’s been relatively unexamined.

I wanted to write a series exploring the relationships between these two different, but in many ways very similar cultures, but from the viewpoint of someone new to it all and 1919 just felt like the right place to start. To me, it was the start of the modern age. The Great War had just ended, it had destroyed a lot of the old certainties and left a lot of people disillusioned and no longer willing to simply accept what they were told by their betters. Sam, the protagonist, is a product of that time and I think he is one of the first modern men.

Calcutta map

Kolkata/Calcutta lies in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal

Mrs. Peabody: How did you go about recreating the Calcutta of the time? What kind of research did you carry out?

Abir: In the period that the book is set, Calcutta was still the premier city in Asia and was as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. At the same time, it was a city undergoing immense change and was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. It seemed the natural choice for the series I wanted to write. Of course, it helped that my parents are both from Calcutta and I’d spent a quite a bit of time there over the years. I even speak the language, though with a Scottish accent.

In terms of recreating the Calcutta of the period, it’s amazing how much of that history is still around in the Calcutta (or Kolkata) of today. Calcuttans have a great sense of the history of their city, possibly because the city was at its zenith during that period, and so many people were more than willing to answer the many questions I had.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to be granted access to the Calcutta Police Museum where a lot of the police documents from the period are on exhibit. That was fascinating as the Kolkata Police today has a rather ambivalent view of its own history during that time. In terms of research though, most of that was done sitting at home in front of the computer and trawling the internet.

Mrs. Peabody: Tell us a bit about your leading investigator, Captain Sam Wyndham, and the perspective he offers us of India.

Abir: Sam’s a rather strange fish. He’s an ex-Scotland Yard detective who’s basically spent his whole life struggling against the tide. Life’s not exactly been kind to him. He gets packed off to boarding school at a young age and some of his best years were spent sitting in a trench in France getting shot at by Germans. He survives the war, though only to find that his wife has died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scarred by his wartime experiences and burdened by survivor’s guilt, he comes to India mainly because he has no better alternative.

At the point in his life where he arrives in Calcutta, he’s a pretty jaded soul with a bit of an alcohol and chemical dependency, though he’d tell you he used them for medicinal purposes. He’s been disillusioned by the war and I think he’s more open to seeing India with his own eyes than swallowing everything he’s told. He’s happy to point out hypocrisy where he sees it, whether it be from the whites or the natives.

Mrs Peabody: The novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the political, racial and social tensions of life under the British Raj. Do you think that crime fiction offers particular opportunities in this respect?

Abir: Definitely.

I think most authors have something to say beyond the telling of a good story and I think crime fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring deeper societal issues, because it allows you to look at all of society from the top to the bottom.

As Ian Rankin said in an interview earlier this year, “the crime novel is a good way of raising this stuff because … a detective has an access all areas pass to the entire city, to its riches and deprivations.”

In terms of India in 1919, as a white policeman, Sam has is exposed to all sections of Calcutta society, from the politicians and businessmen right down to the rickshaw-wallahs and brothel keepers. He’s part of the whole fabric, but at the same time separate from it and able to see it objectively.

Kolkata flower market

Kolkata flower market. Image Courtesy of Parasarathi Mukherjee, Walks in Kolkata

Mrs Peabody: Which authors/works have inspired you as a writer?

Abir: There are so many.

There are the books which have left the greatest impression on me and which I’ve read quite a few times. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.

Lahiri

Abir: Other works that have left an impression include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t with many other books.

Then there are others which are pretty special, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a tale of love lost set in the world of string quartets, Kafka’s The Trial – the only book I’ve read that made me feel claustrophobic, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls with its amazing use of language.

In terms of crime and thrillers, there are a number of authors whose work I look out for and will buy as soon as it hits the shelf. Top of this list has to be Ian Rankin – I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the standalone novels too. Then there’s Philip Kerr, Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, all three of whom produce novels shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.

Finally, and in a special category, there’s William McIlvanney, whose Glasgow Detective, Laidlaw is a fantastic creation. I think McIlvanney was a true genius. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

Mrs P: Many thanks, Abir!

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99). And here’s an interesting Telegraph article in which Abir gives some tips on writing.

A Rising Man blog tour poster