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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The giveaway draw will close at 23.59 on Saturday 29 September

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

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

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

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

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

The cover of the original Italian novel (2016)

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

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

 

Extract from The Cold Summer

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

Act One – Days of Fire

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Throw away the syringe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” Fenoglio asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swear it was my first time.”

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

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

“Yes, you did.”

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

“You do talk a lot, don’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You were obviously good at not getting caught.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, sir,” Fenoglio said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (UK)

Nothing beats a leisurely weekend browse in my local bookshop. While I love discovering new reads online, there’s a special pleasure in picking up a physical book you had no intention of buying, and realising that you have to have it, because it’s exactly what you fancy reading right now.

This is how I came by Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders, which first caught my eye due to its quirky title and beautifully designed cover. And once I realised it was a science fiction / crime mash-up, I was completely hooked (next to crime, SF is probably the genre I have the greatest weakness for…)

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

First paragraph: ‘Where we are and where we aren’t. Where we can and cannot go. So, for example: human beings were not allowed onto the factory floor. The construction space was absolutely and no exceptions a robot-only zone. Human entry was forbidden. Nevertheless, and against all the rules, a human being had been there.’

The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. As the opening paragraph indicates, it shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory floor where the car has just been manufactured is completely off-limits to humans. So how on earth did the corpse get into the boot?

This nifty locked-room mystery is immediately given an added twist: the crime is committed in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures many citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. Even those who stay in the Real, like Alma, are almost permanently plugged into their feed, and navigate a world in which AI robots are ubiquitous. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it unleashes, are explored via the high-octane drama Alma finds herself caught up in. And there’s one important additional constraint that ratchets up the narrative tension: Alma must return to her partner every four hours on the dot to administer life-saving drugs (and it absolutely has to be her and no one else for a fascinating reason I won’t reveal here).

Watch out for: a famous director in a cameo role…

Alma is a great character – clever, resourceful and tough. And if I’m not mistaken, almost every other major character in the book – goody and baddie alike – is a woman. How refreshing is that?! The writing is sparky, noirish and packed to the brim with wry humour – such as when Alma gets into a chatty AI-taxi and unceremoniously says ‘small talk deselected’, after which it falls into a sulky silence.

The entire novel is a rollicking, highly inventive and hugely enjoyable ride that raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions about our future relationship with technology. If you fancy something completely different, look no further. The sequel, By the Pricking of her Thumbs, is also on its way.

The East Long Beach Sherlock: Joe Ide’s IQ (USA)

Joe Ide, IQ (Mulholland Books, 2016)

First lineIsaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual.

I’d heard lots of good things about Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, and on finishing it, can say that this novel is easily one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. It’s a remarkably polished debut that introduces us to a wonderfully original detective, tells an absorbing coming-of-age story, and treats us to a cracking crime investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny.

The opening immediately had me hooked. It starts out with one of those depressingly familiar prologues in which a creepy guy in a pick-up truck is stalking a young girl with malevolent intent. As a seasoned crime reader you think, uh oh, I know exactly where this is going. And then it begins to go the way you thought it would…until all of a sudden it very much doesn’t, heading off in such a gloriously unexpected direction that you feel like cheering. And at that moment, you know you’re in for something very special.

Isaiah Quintabe – or IQ – is an unlicensed African-American private investigator who lives in Hurston, a deprived neighbourhood on the edge of East Long Beach in Los Angeles. He solves ‘local cases where the police could not or would not get involved’, and as he often takes payment in kind (sweet potato pie, a new tire or a live chicken), finances are tight. Which is a problem because there are hefty bills to pay. Isaiah’s cash-flow difficulties will force him to work with Juanell Dodson, a hustler and former housemate of IQ’s, with whom he shared a dark chapter of his adolescence. And Dodson will provide the key to learning about IQ’s past and its consequences, while also accompanying him into the world of rap to solve the central investigation.

Things I loved about this novel: it takes features we associate with iconic detectives – especially Sherlock Holmes and Easy Rawlins – and fuses them into a highly original PI whose intelligence sizzles off the page, but who also knows how to handle a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. It effortlessly entwines IQ’s backstory with the present-day narrative and crime investigation. It creates three-dimensional characters who are often extremely flawed, but who also ring true, while leavening their depictions with an affectionate, sardonic humour. It’s gripping, authentic, beautifully written, and a lot of fun.

You can read an extract from the first chapter of IQ on Joe Ide’s author website.

The second in the series, Righteous, is already out, with the third, Wrecked, on its way this October.

Hard truths: D. B. John’s Star of the North (USA & North Korea)

D. B. John, Star of the North, Harvill Secker, 2018

First line: The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.

I was half-way through this excellent thriller when Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned it into an especially potent read. Because what this novel offers is a meticulously researched depiction of one of the world’s most secretive societies – a dictatorship that has mind-boggling control over its citizens and is guilty of horrific, sustained human rights abuses. And which is now getting pally with the USA.

Star of the North weaves together the stories of three individuals caught up in the history and politics of North Korea – Jenna Williams, an American-Korean academic whose sister disappeared ten years previously from a beach in South Korea; Mrs. Moon, a sixty-year-old North Korean black-market trader from Ryanggang Province near the Chinese border; and Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat based in the capital Pyongyang. Each, for different reasons, will put their lives on the line to subvert or resist the North Korean regime.

Cult of the leader: huge statues of the Kims at which North Korean citizens are made to pay their respects. See http://allthatsinteresting.com/north-korea-photographs#1

I found myself pulled into Star of the North’s fast-paced narrative straight away, thanks largely to the nuanced depiction of the three main characters and their very different points of view. John uses each of them to illuminate different aspects of North Korean society and its criminality, but does so in a way that never makes readers feel like they’re being lectured. And of course the kind of detail he can draw on as an author is grimly fascinating: the way that all aspects of citizens’ lives are governed by an extraordinary Cult of the Leader; the jaw-dropping, frankly crazy abductions programme; the criminal profits that allow North Korean leaders to live a life of unimaginable opulence while their citizens starve. And that’s just for starters…

A sobering read? Absolutely. But there are also moments of lightness and redemption and hope. And this is a skilfully constructed and very well-written thriller to boot – John really does pull off that very difficult trick of entertaining and enlightening his readers simultaneously. Highly recommended.

Read an extract from the novel here, courtesy of dead good books. And there’s a great Q&A with the author over at Sarah Ward’s Crimepieces blog.

D. B. John also co-wrote The Girl with Seven Names, a memoir by North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.

A depressing coda: today Donald Trump gave an interview to Fox News in which he said ‘Hey, he’s [Kim Jong Un] the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same’. It’s the strongest indication yet of Trump’s dictatorial leanings and should set alarm bells clanging everywhere.

2018 Petrona Award goes to Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand

The winner of the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is 

*QUICKSAND* 

by Malin Persson Giolito, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles and published by Simon & Schuster.


The winner was announced at the CrimeFest Gala Dinner on 19 May. The trophy was kindly collected on Malin’s behalf by last year’s Petrona Award winner Gunnar Staalesen, who also read out Malin’s acceptance speech:

“Quicksand is a story about justice and fundamental human values, and I understand that Maxine Clarke – who inspired the Petrona Award – was someone who appreciated the social and political awareness of Scandinavian crime literature. We have that in common, and that is one of the many reasons why I am particularly proud that Quicksand has received the award.

My warmest thanks to the members of the jury whose expert knowledge and passion helps Nordic Noir travel far. I also want to thank my publisher Suzanne Baboneau, and it is a special honour to share the prize with my excellent translator Rachel Willson-Broyles.”

The Petrona trophy / Gunnar Staalesen with Team Petrona – Karen Meek, Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw and Mrs Peabody – and our wonderful sponsor David Hicks.

The judges’ statement on QUICKSAND:

“In a strong year for entries to the Petrona Award, the judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings and the motives that lie behind them. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events. Gripping and thought-provoking, Quicksand is an outstanding Scandinavian crime novel and the highly worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award.”

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous continued support.

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.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas… Mrs Peabody’s 2017 recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s Christmas recommendations for 2017. Drawing on my top reads of the year, this list should contain something to suit even the most well-read crime fiction lover in your life. And don’t forget to treat yourself while you’re at it!

All available from a wonderful independent bookshop near you…

Masako Togawa, The Master Key, trans Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017, JAPAN)

Masako Togawa was born in Tokyo and led a rich life as a writer, cabaret performer, nightclub owner and gay icon. The Master Key, her debut, was first published in 1962 and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Set in the K Apartments for Ladies (an apartment block similar to the one where the author herself was raised), this off-beat crime novel features an intriguing set of characters – mainly single women hiding secrets, some benign and some criminal. The theft of the master key to all the apartments sets off a sequence of events that disturbs everyone’s equilibrium and risks triggering further crimes. Rich character studies, a 1950s Japanese setting and an original, twist-laden plot deliver high levels of reader satisfaction. Hats off to Pushkin Vertigo for republishing this vintage gem, and to translator Simon Cove for his polished handling of the text. Another Togawa novel, The Lady Killer, is due out next year.

Gunnar Staalesen, Where Roses Never Die, trans. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books 2016, NORWAY)

Where Roses Never Die is the winner of the 2017 Petrona Award. It’s the sixth novel of the famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series to be out in English (set in Bergen on the west coast of Norway), but can easily be read as a standalone. We join private investigator Veum at rock bottom, wallowing in grief and drink, and about to take on a case that will push him to his limits – a cold case whose legal expiry date is drawing near, and which involves the unsolved disappearance of a small girl in 1977. The novel is an elegant fusion of American P.I. conventions and Scandinavian social analysis, but what I really liked was the way the narrative took the reader in an unexpected direction towards the end, delivering an original and convincing denouement.

Thomas Mullen, Darktown (Little, Brown 2016, USA)

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history – the first ever induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department. The murder of a young black woman sees two sets of policemen come into uneasy contact with one another: black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw. Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and adeptly used to unsettle racial stereotypes and easy assumptions. The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opens the reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. An excellent, satisfying read (full Mrs P review here). The second novel in the series Lightning Men, is just out.

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled,  trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2016, FINLAND)

The Exiled, shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award, is the third in the ‘Fekete’ series to be published in English, but makes a good standalone due to its atypical setting – Serbia rather than Finland. We join Finnish police detective Anna Fekete as she visits the Serbian village of her birth to see family and take a holiday. But the discovery of a body pulls her into an investigation that raises a number of questions about her own father’s death decades earlier. As well as exploring the complexities of Fekete’s identity as a Hungarian Serb who has made her life in Finland, this accomplished novel looks with insight and compassion at the discrimination faced by Roma people, and the lot of refugees migrating through Europe.

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017, UK)

As a die-hard le Carré fan, I savoured every word of A Legacy of Spies. The novel opens in the present day, and shows Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s loyal right-hand man, being pulled out of retirement to justify his own and other British Secret Service agents’ actions during the Cold War. Of particular interest are the events surrounding the death of an agent and an innocent civilian – events that will immediately be familiar to readers of The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Not only does le Carré pull off the elegant closing of a literary circle – The Spy was his first major success in 1963 – but he also stays true to his core themes: the moral price and human cost of (maybe) safeguarding the nation. A must for any le Carré fan who hasn’t yet read it. And if your reader has not yet had the pleasure of entering le Carré’s world, then why not treat him or her to The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy as well (to be read in that order before Legacy).

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus 2017, UK/AUSTRALIA)

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. Even so, the town’s residents are stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife and six-year-old son before turning the shotgun on himself. Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, and reluctantly begins to look into the case…and to confront his own troubled relationship with the town. This novel was one of my absolute top reads of the year. The characterization is excellent, the plot is outstanding, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. A gripping police procedural and the first in a series. See the full Mrs P. review here.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2017, FINLAND)

The Man Who Died is a joy from start to finish. It opens with a doctor telling a man he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is just a matter of time. That man is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. Placed in a truly grave situation, Jaakko has to figure out what to do very quickly. The easiest course of action would be for him to give up, but instead he decides to investigate his forthcoming murder with admirable pluck and determination. Comparisons have rightly been drawn between the novel and Fargo: this is a stylish crime caper with lashings of black humour and a lot of heart. A special word of praise too for David Hackston, who also translated The Exile (above). He captures the off-beat humour of the novel perfectly.

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

Mina’s The Long Drop, based on the true case of Scottish rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, is a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow. What makes the novel stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two narrative strands – a long night of drinking by Manuel and William Watt (the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s victims), and Manuel’s trial, which aroused lots of public interest. I found the book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterization are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner, trans Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017, GERMANY) 

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner is a polished, quirky German crime novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith is a prickly, awkward character who is extremely good at her job, which happens to be cleaning crime scenes for a specialist company in Berlin. As she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder, Judith unexpectedly comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood, and gets entangled in a potentially life-threatening situation. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read with a wonderfully memorable lead. You may learn some handy cleaning tips along the way as well.

Arnaldur Indriðason, The Shadow District, trans Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker 2017, ICELAND)

I’ve been a big fan of Indriðason’s ‘Erlendur’ series over the years, and so was delighted to hear that the first of his new ‘Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries’ is out in English. The Shadow District interweaves two stories, one from the wartime past and the other from the present. In the first, a young woman is found strangled in Reykjavik’s ‘shadow district’, a rough area of the city. Icelandic detective Flovent investigates the case together with Thorson, a member of the American military police. In the present, retired police detective Konrad gets sucked into the odd case of a 90-year-old man who has been found dead in his apartment. In the course of the narrative, the two timelines begin to overlap in various ways… An absorbing page-turner that doesn’t hesitate to break some genre conventions.

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

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?

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

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (Abacus, 2016)

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

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

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

Atlanta’s first African American police officers, April 1948

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

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

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

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

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

You can read an extract from Darktown here.