Summer smörgåsbord of international crime

Somehow it’s been five months since I last blogged, but thankfully I’ve still found time to read some quality crime – a very welcome oasis amidst the grind of daily life. Here’s a round-up: an eclectic assortment of international crime fiction to suit various reading moods.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town, Century 2014 (USA)
First line: Dawn broke over Peachtree Street.

This standalone by Karin Slaughter was featured on Margot Kinberg’s excellent crime blog and immediately piqued my interest.

Atlanta, 1974: Kate Murphy’s first day as a policewoman gets off to a rough start when she runs into a wall of sexism at the precinct. On top of that, a policeman has just been killed and tensions are high. Paired with reluctant but street-savvy patrolwoman Maggie Lawson, Kate has to learn the job fast while navigating a highly dangerous case.

Cop Town provided an illuminating and enjoyable glimpse into the everyday life of pioneering policewomen. I couldn’t help but imagine the lead characters as a young Cagney & Lacey – two characters from very different backgrounds who somehow form a great team. The novel is also a good ‘sequel’ to Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, which focuses on the difficulties faced by black policemen in the Atlanta force during the late 1940s.

Håkan Nesser, The Secret Life of Mr Roos, tr. by Sarah Death, Mantle 2020 (Sweden)

First line: The day before everything changed, Ante Valdemar Roos had a vision.

The Secret Life of Mr Roos is the third in Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarotti’ series and the most satisfying installment yet.

Middle-aged, unhappily married accountant Valdemar Roos wins the lottery and secretly buys himself a hut in the remote Swedish countryside. Anna Gambowska, a twenty-one-year-old former drug addict fleeing from a domineering partner, is forced to seek refuge there one night. Before long, a crime takes place that will transform both their lives.

This was a wonderfully absorbing 500-page read. The characterisation of the two main protagonists is excellent, as is the story of their relationship, which is told with both compassion and humour. Barbarotti only makes his entrance half-way through the novel, ensuring that Valdemar and Anna remain firmly centre stage and that we genuinely care about their fates. Scandi crime at its best.

Agnes Ravatn, The Seven Doors, tr. by Rosie Hedger, Orenda Books 2021 (Norway)

First line: Berg slinks along the walls, just as the two surveyors did the week before.

The Seven Doors is a deliciously dark psychological thriller that skewers middle-class hypocrisies and the individual’s capacity for self-deception when unpalatable truths threaten a comfortable life.

Ingeborg, the pregnant daughter of university professor Nina and consultant Mads, unwittingly sets off a chain of events when she insists on viewing the house her parents rent out as a prospective new home. Within days, tenant Mari has gone missing, and bit by bit, things spiral out of control. This is a novel about gender, class entitlement and wilful blindness, expertly spiced with some Freud and Bluebeard, and has a cracking ending – I had to re-read it twice for the sheer thrill of it!

Adania Shibli, Minor Detail, tr. from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2020 (Palestine)

First line: Nothing moved except the mirage.

This is a novel to save for when you are feeling emotionally robust. I think it’s one of the most devastating reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Shibli is a Palestinian writer based in Berlin, who uses elements of the crime genre to create a story with two distinct halves. The first is a crime committed in 1949 just after the War of Independence or Nakba: an Israeli officer and his platoon rape, murder and bury a young Palestinian woman in the Negev desert. The second follows a woman from present-day Ramallah who becomes obsessed with this ‘minor detail’ of history, and decides to investigate and memorialise the young woman’s death. However, doing so means travelling to areas that are strictly off-limits to her as a Palestinian, a nerve-wracking journey that subverts any conventional narrative expectations we might have.

The novel was longlisted for the 2021 International Man Booker Prize, and reminded me how crucial translation is for illuminating under-represented viewpoints and for giving a voice to authors who write in less frequently translated languages.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.

I also recently watched an outstanding Danish crime series –The Investigation (dir. Tobias Lindholm) – which explored the extraordinary Kim Wall murder case.

The way the drama approached its subject matter blew me away. It completely sidelined the attention-seeking murderer – to the point where his name wasn’t even mentioned – and focused instead on the investigative process that convicted him, on the relationship between lead investigator Jens Moller Jensen and Kim’s parents – and crucially on Kim and her journalism. The acting is fantastic throughout (fans of Wallander, The Killing and Borgen will recognise a number of faces), and the details of how the investigation unfolded to the point where they could successfully prosecute are riveting. A grown-up crime drama that makes conventional serial-killer narratives look tired and formulaic.

The series is still available to view on BBC 2 iPlayer.

And finally…. I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 Trilogy, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. The whole thing comes to a whopping 1318 pages, so should keep me out of mischief for a while.

The reason I include it here is because it turns out to have a strong crime element, as I discovered to my amusement about 50 pages in, when one of the lead characters was revealed not to be a smart young businesswoman after all, but something rather more murderous. You can always rely on the wildly unexpected when you read Murakami. Bananas, but in a very marvellous way.

I hope you’re all keeping well and enjoying some quality crime reading. Do let me know your top reads below. And is anyone watching Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet? Is it as good as everyone says?!

Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations

Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.

Treat others! Treat yourself!

And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.

My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)

Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.

This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962] (USA)

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.

I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)

Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’

Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!

Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.

Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)

Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.

And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).

The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s 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 the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!

Happy reading, stay safe, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Turkey) and Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (USA)

Hello everyone – how *are* you? I very much hope that you’re weathering the current turbulence OK, and that reading is bringing you some solace and distraction.

Here are a couple of novels that have hit the mark for me recently – impressive examples of literary and American Gothic crime respectively.

Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking 2019)

Opening line: Her name was Leila.

I’ve had 10 Minutes on my reading pile ever since I saw it shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. I was drawn by its intriguing title and Istanbul setting, but was also somewhat nervous about whether the author could pull off ‘the concept’ – chronicling the final 10 minutes and 38 seconds of a woman’s ebbing consciousness *after* she has been murdered. It sounded both like a compelling narrative device and one that could easily go wrong.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Shafak was up to the task. Leila’s memories of her favourite tastes and smells, like cardamom coffee and spiced goat stew, trigger rich memories from her life, but never tip into mawkishness. We’re shown with sensitivity and compassion why Leila’s life took the course it did, and how she navigated its challenges with spirit and resilience. We also get to know her highly original friends, as well as the city they’ve chosen to make their home: the complex fusion of East and West that is Istanbul. The novel is above all a celebration of friendship and solidarity in an often intolerant, unequal world. It’s stayed with me a long time.

If you’d like to find out more about Elif Shafak, she’s given a TED talk on the politics of fiction in which she also speaks about her own background and writing.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962]

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

I found my way to this cult American Gothic novel in a very roundabout way. I’m a fan of the actress Elisabeth Moss, saw a clip of her playing the author Shirley Jackson in the film Shirley (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell), and decided I had to read something by her – because by all accounts she was an incredibly interesting woman and has had a huge influence on writers from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. My eyes lit up when I found Castle, because it has a *strong* element of crime.

Our young narrator – Mary Katherine or Merricat – lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian for company. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future. 

I was hooked within a couple of pages by Merricat’s highly original voice and the creepy Gothic atmosphere that pervades the novel. While you could happily classify Castle as Gothic crime, it’s also the kind of novel that ranges well beyond one genre, and has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m pretty certain I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Here’s an image of Moss playing (the fictionalized version of) Shirley Jackson

Shirley

Current reading: I’m making my way through the final Petrona 2020 submissions – Scandinavian crime in English translation – in preparation for our judges’ meeting. This has had to be pushed back due to the pandemic, but we’re looking forward to announcing our shortlist soon! There’ll be further updates on the award website: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

I’m also halfway through Margot Kinberg’s latest novel A Matter of Motive, the first in the ‘Patricia Stanley’ series, which is proving to be a lovely distraction from the outside world. I’m particularly enjoying the depiction of Patricia’s learning curve as a young policewoman on her first case, and the intricacies of a rather puzzling murder. I have my theories, but suspect there’ll be a few plot twists yet… You can find out more at Margot’s blog, which also features short stories and posts on crime fiction (Margot has an encyclopedic knowledge of crime as some of you may already know). Highly recommended!

Crime Fiction: Respite Reading for the Pandemic

I hope you’re all safe and well in this strange and worrying time. For many of us (including me), reading has taken a back seat while we process the situation, and deal with its fallout for our families, working lives and communities.

Aside from the practical challenges we’re facing, many of us are feeling too stressed to read, or can’t find the ‘right book’ to settle down with.

If this is you, then here are some suggestions and strategies for Respite Reading.

Even if you manage just a chapter a day, you’ll hopefully feel the benefit. Reading has an amazing ability to ground us, distract us and provide solace – in short, to provide us with respite in these very tough times. A study by the University of Sussex found that a mere 6 minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68%! Sounds good to me.

7 types of Respite Reading: find the one that works for you!

1.   An old favourite. There’s no rule that says you have to read something new. Perhaps a novel you know and love is already on your bookshelf, waiting to wrap itself around you like a comforting blanket. For me, that’s John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Or Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, a novel I first read in 1988, which explores the fallout of a crime in The British Raj. Or your favourite Agatha Christie – hard to choose, I know… For me it’s a toss up between The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

2.   Travel to another time or place. If the present is too much for you right now, then take a break in another era with some historical crime and/or crime set in another country – like Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (1919 India), Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (1970s Japan), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1327 Italy) or Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (1970s and 1980s Argentina).

3.    Cosy, comforting crime. If you’re finding the gritty end of the crime fiction spectrum a bit much right now, then perhaps you’re in need of a cute baby elephant: yes, we’re talking Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraOr try out Peter Bartram’s comic ‘Crampton of the Chronicle’ series, which follows the adventures of a young journalist in 1960s Brighton. Or how about Ellis Peter’s classic ‘Brother Cadfael’ series, set in medieval times? Another personal favourite: Harry Kemelman’s ‘Rabbi Small’ series, which offers an affectionate portrait of 1960s small-town America, along with some pearls of wisdom.

4.   Crime with heart, whose characters you’ll love to spend time with – try Elly Griffiths’s ‘Ruth Galloway’ series (forensics in Norfolk) or Lesley Thomson’s ‘Detective’s Daughter’ series – both are marvellous. And if you’ve not yet met octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, then it’s definitely time for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. It’s still one of my top favourites.

5.   Criminally black humour. If your way of getting through involves grim laughter, then Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ spy novels are a wonderful read – start with Slow Horses. Or get to know Jo Ide’s IQ, the Long Beach Sherlock – a thoroughly engaging and original detective. And Leif GW Persson’s novels are always up there for me – Linda, as in the Linda Murder is a good opener, with moments that are wonderfully wry.

6.   Hair ‘o’ the dog apocalypse crime. Because one way to deal with our fears is to read about stuff that’s just that little bit worse. Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn is excellent, and check out my earlier blog post on ‘Apocalyptic Crime Fiction from America and Finland’ for a few other suggestions. My top non-crime recommendation is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Bleak, but strangely uplifting and hopeful.

7.   Still not sure… Just give me top-quality crime! No worries – have a browse through my Xmas recommendations over the years. These are effectively my annual best-of-the-best lists, so hopefully you’ll find something there that’ll hit the spot…

2014   2015   2016   2017   2018   2019

There’s also a list of trilogies here should you fancy a more ambitious reading project.

And if you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following indie publishers. They could all do with some love and support right now!

Bitter Lemon Press   No Exit Press   Orenda Books   Europa Editions

OK everyone – stay home – stay safe – save lives!

Please do add your own thoughts and recommendations below, or just drop by for a chat. It would be lovely to hear from you! Hugs and kisses xxx

46 European crime novels #LeaveALightOn

Back in June 2016 I posted a list of 35 European crime novels I loved. Here’s a slightly updated version with 46 European crime novels.

I’ve included some British crime novels, because at the time of posting – and until 11.00pm on 31 January 2020 – the UK is still officially part of the EU.

It may take a while, but I firmly believe we will rejoin one day.

#LeaveALightOn

Euro 4

Jakob Arjouni, Happy Birthday, Turk! (trans. from German by Anselm Hollo, Melville House 2011 [1987])

Belinda Bauer, Rubbernecker (Wales, UK; Black Swan 2014)

Pieke Biermann, Violetta (trans. from German by Ines Rieder and Jill Hannum, Serpent’s Tail 1996 [1991])

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (trans. from Greek by Yiannis Panas, Black & White Publishing 2013 [2007])

Jan Costin Wagner, Silence (Germany/Finland; trans. from German by Anthea Bell, Harvill Secker 2010 [2007])

Didier Daeninckx, Murder in Memoriam (trans. from French by Liz Heron, Serpent’s Tail 1991 [1984]; republished by Melville House in 2012)

Euro 2

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Swiss; trans. from German by Joel Agee, University of Chicago Press 2006 [1958])

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (trans. from Italian by William Weaver, Vintage 2004 [1980])

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin (trans. from German by Michael Hofmann, Penguin 2009 [1947])

Eugenio Fuentes, At Close Quarters (trans. from Spanish by Martin Schifino, Arcadia 2009 [2007])

Friedrich Glauser, In Matto’s Realm (Swiss; trans. from German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2006 [1936])

Euro 6

Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (trans. from German by John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press 2007 [1999])

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Defenceless (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books 2015 [2014])

Paulus Hochgatterer, The Sweetness of Life (Austria; trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch, MacLehose 2012 [2006])

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (trans. from Danish by Felicity David, Vintage 2014 [1992])

Francis Iles, Before the Fact (UK; Arcturus 2011 [1932])

Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos (trans. from French by Howard Curtis, Europa Editions 2005 [1995])

Euro 1

Jess Kidd, Himself (Ireland; Canongate 2017)

Hans Hellmut Kirst, The Night of the Generals (trans. from German by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, Cassell 2002 [1962])

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt, Manilla 2017)

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trans. from Swedish by Reg Keeland, MacLehose Press 2008 [2005])

John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK; Sceptre 2011 [1974])

Carlo Lucarelli, Carte Blanche (trans. from Italian by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions 2006 [1990])

Henning Mankell, The Dogs of Riga (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Taylor, Vintage 2012 [1992])

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State (trans. from French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson, Arcadia Books 2009 [2001])

Euro 5

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Buenos Aires Quintet (trans. from Spanish by Nick Calstor, Serpent’s Tail 2005)

Denise Mina, Garnethill (Scotland, UK; Orion 2014)

Harry Mulisch, The Assault (trans. from Dutch by Clare Nicolas White, Random House 1985 [1982])

Håkan Nesser, Bjorkman’s Point (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Pan 2007 [1994])

Ingrid Noll, The Pharmacist (trans. from German by Ian Mitchell, HarperCollins 1999 [1994])

David Peace, 1974 (UK; Serpent’s Tail 1999 – the first in the ‘Red Riding’ quartet)

Lief G.W. Persson, Linda, as in the Linda Murder (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Vintage 2013)

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand (trans. from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster 2017)

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian (trans. from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins 2015 [2013])

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

Georges Simenon, Pietr the Latvian (Belgium, trans from French by David Bellos, Penguin 2013 [1930])

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman (trans. from Swedish by Alan Blair, Harper Perennial 2007 [1968])

Euro 3

Josef Skvorecky, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (trans. from Czech by Rosemary Kavan, Kaca Polackova, and George Theiner, Norton 1991 [1966])

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

Lesley Thomson, The Detective’s Daughter (UK; Head of Zeus 2013)

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018)

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow (set in Lapland; trans. from French by Louise Rogers LaLaurie, Trapdoor 2014)

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

Simon Urban, Plan D (trans. from German by Katy Derbyshire, Harvill Secker 2013 [2011])

Fred Vargas, Have Mercy on us All (trans. from French by David Bellos, Vintage 2004 [2001])

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (UK; John Murray 2014)

#LeaveALightOn 

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations! Each is one of my top reads of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jane Harper, The Lost Man, Abacus (Australia)

This novel was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. An in-depth character study of a family and their community, it’s also a page-turner that will keep you completely riveted for hours.

Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote part of his cattle station by the so-called ‘Stockman’s Grave’. The mystery of how and why he got there, and why his car is so far away become the subject of a police investigation. Cameron’s older brother Nathan, who owns the adjacent property, and his younger brother Bub both had complicated relationships with him, and further complexities and secrets soon start to be revealed. This is the third of Harper’s novels, and has a neat link back to her first, The Dry but no prior reading or knowledge is required. If you’re feeling generous, leave both for your lucky reader under the tree.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2019 (Japan)

I’ve just read The Honjin Murders, and immediately knew I had to add it to this list, because it’s the perfect gift for any fan of classic crime fiction or locked room mysteries. As an added bonus, it’s set in Japan! Plus: it’s the first in master crime writer Seishi Yokomizo’s acclaimed ‘Konsuke Kindaichi’ series, and the first to be translated (beautifully) into English.

It’s 1937, and the grand Ichiyanagi family is celebrating a family wedding. But that night, the family is woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. It’s an impossible puzzle, but eccentric amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to figure it out.

George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown, Orion (USA)

This quietly powerful crime novel interweaves the stories of three individuals. Anna Byrne is a prison librarian, who tries to better the lives of inmates through reading, and to broaden their horizons through regular book-group discussions. One of her readers is Michael Hudson, a bright young man who has gone off the rails, but is keen to go straight. When he’s suddenly released ahead of his trial, he’s relieved but can’t quite understand why. The answer lies with Phil Ornazian, a private investigator who regularly flirts with danger when making money illicitly on the side. Pelecanos was a scriptwriter for The Wire, and his characterisation of each of these figures is superb. The novel is also a wonderful homage to the life-changing power of reading.

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

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a plain, respectable nurse, who 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 expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give anything else away, but suffice to say that this is an arresting read, which 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 a lot of fun.

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, Viking 2019 (UK)

It’s such a pleasure to step back into le Carré’s world and to meet a fresh cast of beautifully observed, but very human spies. Shown weaving their way through the complexities of modern politics as best they can, they soon learn that they need to keep a sharp eye on their own superiors as much as their adversaries elsewhere. Our guide to all this is Nat, an agent runner at the end of his career who’s asked to take over The Haven, a lowly substation of London General. He and a colleague begin to plan an operation targeting a Ukrainian oligarch, but then something strange happens… Light relief takes the form of regular badminton games with young Ed, an affable but somewhat mysterious figure who may be more than he seems. A completely convincing and gripping depiction of murky espionage shenanigans.

M.T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, Macmillan 2019 (Sweden)

This accomplished novel tracks the fallout from a murder via the perspectives of three members of one family: a mother, a father, and a daughter who’s been accused of killing a well-connected, rich young man. An ostensibly ‘normal’ and respectable middle-class family – dad is a pastor, mum is a lawyer, and daughter Stella is unruly but bright – they are pushed to the limits by the stress of Stella’s arrest, detention and trial. The three points of view and family dynamics are beautifully handled, and there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader, even after the end of the trial. The novel is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room, Vintage 2018 (USA)

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes next. 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’re 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 provide for her son Jackson. The novel explores the circumstances that shape Romy as an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as the justice system) shape her destiny. Beautifully written – and shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, tr. by Anne Bruce, Penguin 2018 (Norway)

The 2019 Petrona Award winner! The Katharina Code is one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Chief Inspector William Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her home twenty-four years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. This particular year, however, a development in another investigation finally moves the case on… An outstanding police procedural that takes established tropes – the cold case, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh.

Jess Kidd, Himself, Canongate 2017 (Ireland)

Himself takes us back to the good old, bad old days. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny rural village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her wild behaviour as a young woman, and who 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.

Happy reading, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (Japan) & the 2019 Booker Prize

The minute I saw this ravishing book cover, I wanted a copy. And – oh happy day – it’s turned out to be one of my most satisfying crime reads of the year.

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (trans. from Japanese by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon Press, out Jan 2020)

Opening line: What do you remember?

The Aosawa Murders is an fascinating exploration of a crime: the poisoning of seventeen people at a big family birthday party in 1970s Japan. The case was supposedly solved by the police, but as the novel immediately shows, a number of people have doubts that the truth was properly established – including the lead investigator. In particular, the enigmatic figure of Hisako, the blind daughter and sole family member to survive, is the focus of much scrutiny and speculation.

I loved this novel’s originality, intelligence and verve. Readers are invited to glean new clues about the murders from interviews carried out by an anonymous individual – a kind of Rashomon homage that sifts the memories of those close to the crime, such as local kids who visited the family home, the housekeeper’s daughter, the prime suspect’s neighbour, and the detective in charge of the case. One of these interviewees is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime eleven years after it happened, and who reports on the interviews she carried out back then, creating a kind of Chinese-box narrative on three different time levels (1970s,1980s, 2000s). As we move through the novel, more and more details about what people knew are revealed, along with the toll the crime has taken on them personally. Beautifully written and translated, with great characterization and sense of place, I was hooked from the first to the last page.

Many thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the preview copy.

Booker Prize news. As you’ve probably heard, the Booker Prize jury staged a ‘joyful mutiny’ and awarded the 2019 prize to two authorsBernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

I’ve yet to read Girl, Woman, Other, but can thoroughly recommend The Testaments, especially to fans of the Handmaid’s Tale and the excellent TV adaptation. It’s a surprisingly difficult novel to review without giving spoilers away, so I’ll resist detailed descriptions. Suffice to say that it’s a searing exploration of state-sanctioned crimes against women, and features one of the most complex and fascinating characters from the TV series, whose perspective provides fresh insights into the origins and workings of Gilead. It’s a book I’ll be reading at least twice…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

Which leads me on to…

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

First line: I have never believed in ghosts.

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to another big and little sister…

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

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

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

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

You can read a very informative interview with Braithwaite here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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