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! 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going south: Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird (USA), Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (GER), Brynard’s Weeping Waters (South Africa)

Today I explore three interesting crime novels from different countries, which have a southern geographical setting in common — Texas in the American south, the Black Forest in south-west Germany, and a remote corner of South Africa.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, Serpent’s Tail, 2017 

Opening line: Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, like his uncles taught him.

I’d heard a number of good things about this novel set in East Texas, and found it a rich and absorbing read. Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose work takes him all across the state, often to isolated communities marked by racial tensions. After becoming too closely involved in a friend’s case, he’s sent to the small town of Lark, where the murders of a local white woman and a black man from Chicago are making waves. While his prestigious status as a Texas Ranger will offer him some protection from the racist forces in the town, he knows he’ll need to keep all his wits about him to stay in one piece.

Bluebird is a finely observed novel that shows us rural America from a range of black American perspectives. Mathews, our lead investigator, is particularly well drawn. Brought up in a highly educated middle-class family, he feels pulled between a safe career in law and his desire for a more hands-on law enforcement role. Deeply conflicted about Texas and the profound racism he encounters, he also has a deep love of the place and its people. His views are complemented by a range of other black voices, such as Geneva Sweet, the sixty-nine-year-old owner of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe offering ‘the best fried pies in Shelby County’. Her family story is one that has probably played out hundreds of times in American history, and is deeply moving.

You can read an extract from the novel at the Serpent’s Tale website.

A brief extra observation: a recent discussion on Facebook explored the lack of black crime bloggers and readers at UK crime conventions and publishing events, and led to a wider discussion about black crime authors. There really aren’t that many big names (Walter Mosley most obviously springs to mind), and it is notable that recent crime novels exploring black American experience (such as Thomas Mullen’s excellent Darktown) are often written by white authors. All the more reason to be delighted that Attica Locke is such a crime writing success story.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, 2018 [2004]) 

Opening lines: Louise Boni hated snow. Her brother had died in the snow, her husband had left her in the snow and she had killed a man in the snow.

Zen and the Art of Murder is the first in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Louise Boni’ series, and is set in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. It opens with a rather unusual sight: a Japanese monk, dressed only in a robe and sandals, is wandering through the snow. He is injured, but doesn’t seem to want official help, accepting only a cheese roll before trudging on through the snowy landscape. When Boni and her local police contacts follow him to find out what’s going on, the mystery suddenly takes a frightening and serious turn.

On one level, Zen is a police procedural that shows us the inner workings of a police investigation and the sometimes fraught dynamics of a police team investigating a stressful case. But the figures of the Zen monk and chief inspector Louise Boni – who is dealing with personal demons, traumatic memories from a previous case and borderline alcoholism – give the narrative a fascinating off-kilter feel. Much of the novel is seen from Boni’s embattled perspective, as she struggles to piece things together with unshakeable determination and undoubted investigative talent. The result is a highly unusual and beguiling police procedural, whose complex lead protagonist will stay with you for a long time to come.

Oliver Bottini is appearing on a special Krimi panel at this year’s CrimeFest – of which more soon!

Karin Brynard, Weeping Waters, trans. from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon

Opening lines: The call came through just after two. He was at his desk at the police station, having his lunch of vetkoek and mince. 

Like Zen’s Louise Boni, Inspector Albertus Beeslaar is a traumatised cop. Haunted by the consequences of a case gone wrong, he has fled the big city of Johannesburg for a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Already dealing with a spate of stock thefts in farms around the area, he now receives a call telling him that a local artist, Frederika Swarts, has been found murdered on her family farm, along with the four-year-old child she was planning to adopt. He embarks on the investigation with rookie policemen Ghaap and Pyl, while fighting off ever more frequent panic attacks.

While I found some parts of Weeping Waters a little uneven, there also was much to like. The characterisation of Beeslaar and of Freddie’s estranged sister Sara are excellent, and the latter’s struggle with guilt and grief is particularly well drawn. The novel also has a fantastic sense of place: the incredible heat and vastness of the desert landscape are brought vividly to life, as is the claustrophobic nature of small-town life. There’s also a good attempt to explore on-going racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa – for example how the murders of white farmers are exploited for political gain by right-wing factions. I also very much appreciated the translators’ approach to rendering the Afrikaans dialogue – the syntax and vocabulary are kept close to the original in such a way that you can really hear the characters’ voices and appreciate their local culture.

The novel is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, and is the first in a series.

Friday afternoon treats: Friis’ What My Body Remembers (DEN), Ramqvist’s The White City (SWE), Verdan’s The Greek Wall (SWI), BBC 2’s Collateral (UK)

I’m in the thick of my 2018 Petrona Award reading at the moment, and have chanced on two quite unusual submissions. While different books in many respects, both are gripping explorations of what it’s like to be a mother in traumatic circumstances.

Agnete Friis, What My Body Remembers (trans from Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen; Soho Crime, 2017). First line: “Can’t you get him to shut up at night?”

This standalone novel takes us into the world of Ella Nygaard, a 27-year-old single mother who’s struggling to make ends meet while dealing with the fallout of her own traumatic past – she was made a ward of state at the age of seven after her father murdered her mother. Ella suffers from PTSD panic attacks and strange physical symptoms that she can’t quite decode. When the state threatens to place her son Alex in care, she takes decisive action. But the price of keeping Alex with her is a return to the seaside town in northern Denmark where she was brought up, and a confrontation with the traumatic events of the past.

I really liked this novel. Ella is a great character – traumatised but tough – and the book gives a sobering insight into the strains of living on the edges of poverty and under the constant gaze of a state that can take your child away from you. Ella’s physical symptoms are used very effectively to show the severity of her trauma, but are cleverly also clues to the mystery of what happened the night her mother died twenty years before. While some aspects of the novel’s ending might make you raise an eyebrow, this is a very well-written, gripping thriller that stays with the reader thanks to Ella’s characterisation (shades here of Gillian Flynn’s resilient heroine in Dark Places).

Karolina Ramqvist, The White City (trans from Swedish by Saskia Vogel; Grove Press, 2017). First line: ‘It was the end of winter’.

This novella tells a tale normally lost in the margins of gangster stories: the fate of women who are left behind by their gangster husbands when things go wrong. Here, the woman in question is Karin, whom we meet a few months after the disappearance of her husband John. Gone is the high-flying life she used to enjoy on the proceeds of her husband’s criminal activities. All that’s left now is a once-grand house, serious financial difficulties, and government agencies closing in. Oh, and a baby that Karin never actually wanted to have.

The White City is a raw, but utterly compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom, and her efforts to heave herself out of a state of despair. As in What My Body Remembers, Karin’s body becomes a symbol of a life that’s out of control. I’ve rarely seen the physical realities of motherhood described in such unvarnished, powerful terms in a literary work.

Nicolas Verdan, The Greek Wall (trans from French by W Donald Wilson; Bitter Lemon Press, 2018). First line: ‘In normal circumstances he’d have gone on his way’.

Nicolas Verdan’s debut, The Greek Wall, is a truly European novel. Its author is a French-speaking Swiss journalist who divides his time between Switzerland and Greece. It’s set partly in Athens – the symbolic heart of the Greek political and economic crisis – and partly on the Greek-Turkish border, where the river Evros is a favoured crossing point for immigrants trying to enter the Schengen Area. Its characters are Greek, Turkish, German, Finnish and Russian.

When a severed head is discovered on the Greek-Turkish border by a Frontex patrol, Agent Evangelos of Greek Intelligence is sent to investigate, and finds himself embroiled in a politically sensitive case that exposes the realities of power, corruption and illegal immigration. Verdan draws heavily on the true story of the wall (actually a 12.5 kilometer barbed-wire fence) erected by Greece along the Evros in 2012 (an interesting article on it here by EU Observer, with a handy map).

I particularly liked the character of Evangelos, who’s a veteran of turbulent Greek politics and has his own murky past, and the novel’s lyrical style, which is at times dreamy and looping, like the thoughts of its investigator, and at times brutally frank about Fortress Europe, and the way that nationality and wealth so often dictate people’s life chances. The ending is neat too.

A bit of exciting telly news for those in the UK. Next Monday, 12th February, sees the start of a new four-part series on BBC 2 that looks very promising indeed.

Political thriller Collateral is scripted by playwright David Hare (the David Hare) and features an absolutely stellar cast. Along with the fabulous Carey Mulligan, who plays Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie, there’s an ensemble cast including John Simm, Nicola Walker and Billie Piper. I know!!!

Set over four days in London, Collateral explores the consequences of the fatal shooting of a pizza delivery man.

David Hare says of the series: 

‘At its start, Collateral may seem to be familiar. After all, it does involve a police investigation. But I hope you will notice the absence of any of the usual apparatus of police procedurals. […] After an illegal immigrant is shot in the opening moments, I am much more interested in exploring how the death of one individual, who has lived out of the sight of respectable society, resonates and reaches into various interconnecting lives.’

Carey Mulligan adds:

‘There is such a scarcity of great writing for women and this drama has so much. It is happening much more in TV than in film, but it is still rare to have this many well rounded female characters in one drama, and what I love is that they are not all likeable – they are flawed, three-dimensional, real people. Often women are encouraged to be amenable, likeable characters and these women are much more than that, they have so much going on which is really exciting.’

Read the full interview with David Hare here, the full interview with Carey Mulligan here, and an overview of the series at the BBC’s Media Centre here.

Variety is the spice of life… Nesser’s The Darkest Day (Sweden), Viskic’s Resurrection Bay (Australia), Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died (Finland), Alias Grace & The Sinner (Canada/Germany/US)

I’m going through a phase where I want lots of variety in my crime reading and viewing. This is when having scandalously large piles of unread crime fiction and a huge backlog of TV crime drama comes in rather handy…

Håkan Nesser, The Darkest Day, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Mantle, 2017).

First line: When Rosemary Wunderlich Hermansson awoke on Sunday 18 December, it was a few minutes to six and she had a very vivid image in her head.

Håkan Nesser is best known for his Inspector van Veeteren series, but his second series, featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, has also enjoyed significant success, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. The Darkest Day is the first of the five Barbarotti novels to be translated into English, a happy development for all lovers of Swedish crime fiction.

The Darkest Day is a long, satisfying read, the kind of crime novel that’s a slow-burner and rewards the unhurried reader. The first 185 pages feel a bit like a Scandinavian version of The Corrections: we’re introduced to the Hermansson family, who have come together for a double birthday celebration at Karl-Erik and Rosemary’s house in Kymlinge on the darkest day of the year, and through the eyes of family members from three generations, form a wry picture of the complex dynamics between them. By the end of the weekend, two of the family have disappeared without trace, and Inspector Barbarotti and his team have very little to help them figure out what’s been going on. The resolutions to both cases are original and, thanks to the skills of the author, remain on just the right side of melodrama.

The existentialist Inspector Barbarotti also proves to be an interesting character. The product of a fleeting Swedish-Italian union, he attempts to navigate his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a dialogue with God (who is invited to prove his existence in various ways to the disillusioned policeman). All of this is handled with humour and a light touch, and adds wit and depth to the novel.

Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017 [2015]).

First line: Caleb was still holding him when the paramedics arrived.

Jane Harper’s The Dry recently woke me up to the quality of crime writing in Australia. Like The Dry, Viskic’s Resurrection Bay has won a host of awards and (remarkably) is the author’s debut novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and features a highly unusual investigative figure, Caleb Zelic, who for much of his life has been profoundly deaf. The novel opens with the aftermath of a murder – Caleb’s childhood friend, policeman Gary Marsden, has just been found dead – and we are immediately shown some of the difficulties Caleb faces when communicating with others, as well as his extra powers of perception in relation to details like facial and body language. Caleb, who is a private investigator, starts to look into Gary’s death. Suspecting that it may be linked to an insurance case he was working on, he follows a trail that eventually leads him back to his childhood town of Resurrection Bay.

For me, one of the major strengths of this novel was its characterization. Aside from Caleb, we’re introduced to a number of other complex and well-drawn characters such as Frankie (his work partner), Kat (his ex-wife) and Anton (his brother), as well as contacts within the worlds of policing and crime in Melbourne. The dialogue feels gritty and authentic, and if there’s the odd touch of melodrama, this is a minor drawback. Overall, Resurrection Bay is an absorbing and thrilling read.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line‘It’s a good job you provided a urine sample too’.

Antti Tuomainen is one of the most versatile crime writers around. I was first introduced to him via the novel The Healer – a dark, post-apocalyptic crime novel written in a beautifully poetic style. Since then he’s written a number of novels, each of which has a beguiling premise, but feels stylistically very different to the last. The Man Who Died is no exception: here we have a grimly brilliant starting point – a man whose doctor tells him he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is a question of when rather than if – which is developed into black, comedic crime of the highest order. The man in question is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. He sets about investigating his own murder, and quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects.

The narrative is related in the first-person, which is always tricky to pull off, but Tuomainen does a great job. Jaakko is a great character: placed in a truly grave situation, he very quickly has to decide how to react. The easiest course of action would be to give up, but instead he decides to get to the bottom of the matter with admirable pluck, determination and resourcefulness. Comparisons have been made between the novel and Fargo, which is spot on – the heroes and anti-heroes are all engagingly imperfect and human, and there are a couple of set pieces that perfectly capture Fargo‘s cartoonish black humour. It feels like it was great fun to write, and I can’t wait for it to be made into a film.

I remember George Peleconos – scriptwriter for the HBO series The Wire – explaining to a Harrogate audience one year why crime writers like him were increasingly drawn to writing for TV rather than film. Aside from greater job security, the main lure was the chance to develop characters and story-lines with much greater nuance and detail than a film would allow.

I do think we’re living in a golden age of TV crime drama (e.g. Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, The Code). ‘Netflex Originals’ are also helping to lead the way, with superb adaptations of literary crime and psychological crime fiction by outstanding women authors.

Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel of the same name, tells the story of a young serving woman, Grace Marks, imprisoned for her role in two notorious 1843 murders, and a doctor, Simon Jordan, who is commissioned to write a psychological report on her, but finds himself becoming inappropriately drawn to her as well. The series provides a superb but also extremely sobering insight into the class and gender politics of the period, and Sarah Gadon is outstanding in the lead role.

The Sinner is adapted from German writer Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 novel of the same name. I’ve seen the first four episodes and have been hugely impressed by the quality of the adaptation and its leading actors. The first (pretty harrowing) episode shows young housewife Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) stab a man to death while on a family outing to a lake. While it’s absolutely clear that she committed the deed, neither she nor anyone else has any inkling why. Rather than locking her up and throwing away the key, as would probably happen in real life, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is determined to understand what motivated Cora’s actions, and starts to dig around in her shadowy early life. The characterization is outstanding, and the after-effects of the crime – particularly on Cora and her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) – are explored in a way that’s reminiscent of the first series of The Killing.

The Sinner is a top-quality, stylish crime drama that brilliantly questions the extent to which Cora can be labelled a perpetrator. If you haven’t yet read the novel, then do grab a copy of The Sinner, translated by John Brownjohn, from Bitter Lemon Press – it’s still one of my all-time top German crime novels nearly 20 years on. Perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers ever written?

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…?