‘German Historical Fiction’ and ‘German Noir’ panels at Newcastle Noir, Sat 29 April

A week today, I’ll be chairing two wonderful German-themed panels at Newcastle Noir. If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please do come along. The events are truly excellent value (£5!) and offer a brilliant opportunity to see six outstanding British, Irish and German crime writers in action.

 

Panel 4 on ‘German Historical Fiction’, Sat 29 April, 3 – 4pm at the Lit and Phil.

*Book your tickets here*

The ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel features Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, three English-language authors who write historical crime novels and thrillers featuring German protagonists and/or German settings. We’ll be exploring each of these authors’ works and the challenges of writing on morally complex historical subjects.

Luke McCallin’s work with the UN inspired him to write the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ historical crime series, which follows a German intelligence officer in Sarajevo during the Second World War (No Exit Press). His latest novel, The Ashes of Berlin, sees Reinhardt return to Berlin, now under Allied occupation, in 1947.

William Ryan’s ‘Captain Korolev’ series, set in 1930s Stalinist Russia, has established him as a top historical crime writer. His latest novel, The Constant Soldier (Mantle), is a historical thriller set in German-occupied Silesia in 1944, and was inspired by genuine photos showing SS personnel on leave at a ‘rest-hut’ near Auschwitz.

David Young was a journalist before becoming a full-time author. His debut novel Stasi Child, set in 1970s East Germany, won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. The second in the ‘Karin Müller’ series, Stasi Wolf, was published earlier this year (Bonnier Zaffre).

 

Panel 6 on ‘German Noir’, Sat 29 April, 6.30-7.30pm at the Lit and Phil.

The ‘German Noir’ panel features three of German crime fiction’s brightest talents – Sascha Arango, Cay Rademacher and Wulf Dorn. They’ll be talking about their works, ranging from historical crime to psychological thrillers, and the vibrant German Krimi scene.

*Book your tickets here!*

Sascha Arango is one of Germany’s most prominent screenplay writers and a two-time winner of the Grimme Prize for his work on the iconic TV-crime series Tatort. His 2015 novel The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor; Simon & Schuster), features an outrageous Ripley-esque protagonist and was a Radio 2 Bookclub choice.

Cay Rademacher is the author of the ‘Stave’ trilogy (trans. Peter Millar; Arcadia), which shows Chief Inspector Frank Stave fighting crime in the ruins of 1947 British-occupied Hamburg. Cay is also the author of a series set in the Provence – the first, Murderous Mistral, will be available in English in September 2017 (St Martin’s Press).

Wulf Dorn’s first novel Trigger was an international bestseller. Since then he has published six more psychological thrillers, which have been translated into ten languages. He has won numerous awards, including the French Prix Polar for Best International Author.

The Night Belongs to Wolves

‘German Noir’ is supported by Goethe-Institut London and Swansea University.

And for a free chapter from Crime Fiction in German, just click here > https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

AND if you’re around on Thursday 27th AprilDavid Young, author of Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf, offers an illustrated talk about the real-life stories behind his novels at the Newcastle Noir fringe. This includes world exclusive photos of a mid-1970s escape with a twist which inspired a key plot point in Stasi Child. Dare you take part in a Communist v Capitalist tasting test of hazelnut chocolate spread? I’ll be helping out… Yum!

*Book your tickets here*

 

 

Heretics: Exclusive interview with top Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s foremost authors, was in London last week for the launch of his new novel, Heretics, with Bitter Lemon Press at Daunt Books. And while he was here, he kindly gave ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ an exclusive interview.

If you haven’t heard of Padura or read any of his crime novels, now is the time… Padura is a master of the genre, “whose prize-winning series of novels about Cuban detective Inspector Mario Conde has changed the face of Latin American crime writing, taking a conventional formula into the category of dark and serious literary fiction” (Jane Jakeman, The Independent).

The first four Mario Conde novels, known as The Havana Quartet, were published in Cuba in the 1990s, and a few years later in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, which has consistently championed Padura’s work. The quartet comprises Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red and Havana Black all translated by Peter Bush – and track four of Conde’s investigations in winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Padura has recently been involved in the quartet’s TV adaptation for American Netflix – entitled Four Seasons in Havana – which I very much hope we will see in the UK soon. Here’s the trailer, which gives a really good flavour of the crime novels and the starring role Havana plays in them (some explicit content):

The highly acclaimed fifth novel, Havana Fever (trans. Peter Bush), rejoins Conde in 2003. Now working as an antiquarian bookseller, he is pulled into investigating the disappearance of 1950s bolero singer Violeta del Rio.

And so we come to Heretics, the latest Conde novel, translated by Anna Kushner. It has to be regarded as something of a departure for Padura, as it’s nearly twice as long as any other novel in the series and moves far beyond the author’s usual Havana setting. I’ve read about a quarter of it so far, and am dazzled by its ambition and heart. In my view, it could be read either as a new instalment in the series or as a standalone in its own right.

Here’s the book jacket description –

“In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his parents, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure they hope will save them: a Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbour with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of the lost masterpiece. He hires Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times.

A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its centre.”

The original cover of the novel, showing the painting at the heart of the narrative.

Now it’s time for that interview!

Leonardo gave his interview answers in Spanish, and I’m very grateful to Peter Bush for providing us with this excellent translation.

Mrs. Peabody: Leonardo, a very warm welcome to the blog. Heretics, your latest Mario Conde novel, is over 500 pages long and thus significantly longer than the others in the series. Can you tell us why the story Heretics tells needed more space than those featured in the other novels?

Leonardo Padura: Novels are realms of freedom, and what that allows is the potential to exceed yourself as much as you need, to say whatever you need, always with one aim in mind: to communicate whatever you need. Moreover, this isn’t simply another novel in the Mario Conde series, but an experiment in the fusing of the historical novel and police procedural, in having more than one hero and more than one story, in mixing everything up and breaking all limits…even the number of pages.

Mrs PeabodyHeretics has incredible historical breadth. Portions of the novel are set in Poland in the 1600s, Havana and Europe in the 1930s, Havana in the 1950s, America in the 1980s, as well as more modern-day Havana. How did you go about researching the historical events you portray? And was it difficult to integrate so much history into one literary narrative? Was there a danger that the history would overwhelm the novel?

Leonardo PaduraThe research behind this novel was complex because, as you say, it involves different eras and locations. I had to study in depth Jewish culture and religion, the art of Rembrandt, Cuba in the 1940s and 50s… in order to focus on the issue of our right as individuals to exercise our freedom. I wanted it to be a reflection that went beyond a perspective locked into a single context and became as universal as the issues of freedom, free will and heresy are… And if you are a novelist you must recognise your limits and aims and try to write a novel rather than a historical essay. There is a frontier between history and fiction and you must never let it out of your sight.

Map of Cuba

Mrs PeabodyWas there a particular historical incident that inspired the novel, such as the shameful story of the Saint Louis in 1939?

Leonardo PaduraThe story of the Saint Louis is the origin of everything, but that’s all: I used it as a highly dramatic and horrific historical pretext to go in search of other stories relating to individuals who suffer the weight of history, who are condemned though they have never committed a crime, who only suffer because they are what they are or want to be. That’s why the novel is what it is.

Mrs PeabodyWhat is the significance of the novel’s title, Heretics?

Leonardo PaduraThere are various heretics in my novel, in different historical periods and places. They are individuals who decide to exercise their free will and then pay the price. Society doesn’t ordinarily accept people who refuse to toe the line, non-conformists, rebels, people who are different, and generally considered to be “heretics”… However, the world would never have progressed or changed without “heretics”. In a way, even if they don’t take up arms, they are the revolutionaries…

Mrs PeabodyHow would you categorise Heretics – as a crime novel, historical crime novel or historical epic?

Leonardo PaduraI don’t know. It is a “heretical” novel in the sense that it can be read as combining all those perspectives, and even a philosophical one. And that was what I intended. A novel that was simultaneously many different novels, in its plot, possible interpretations and structure and language.

Leonardo Padura

Mrs PeabodyWas Heretics designed to be read as a warning from history?

Leonardo PaduraTo a degree, it was. History is something that you live and when you look back, it becomes History with a capital H. While you are living it, you are often unaware that such an act, whether individual or social, may be crucial, but History relentlessly pursues us, stays with us, influences our lives and… requires careful handling!

Mrs PeabodyYou describe your detective, Mario Conde, as a ‘paradigmatic member … of the most disappointed and f*cked up generation within the new country that was taking shape’ (Heretics, 10). Can you explain to readers unfamiliar with recent Cuban history why Mario’s generation feels this way?

Leonardo PaduraMario Conde’s, my generation, grew up with and participated in the [Cuban] Revolution, with greater or lesser faith, but nevertheless participated. And we thought we would have a future that we had earned through our own efforts as students, professionals or workers… That future had a different face, it wasn’t lavish, but it existed and… then suddenly everything fell apart, because it was a dream based on another dream that turned into a nightmare. The disappearance of the USSR and, with it, the aid that sustained Cuba economically, reduced us to a state of poverty and meant we really had to struggle to survive, now without the possibility of imagining a future. We could only struggle … in Cuba or in the diaspora. Over the last few years some things have changed in Cuba and with these changes my generation has been displaced. Too young to die, too old to recycle itself and… and many people have simply felt a huge sense of failure and loss… Beginning with the dreams we once had.

Mrs PeabodyThe city of Havana plays a major role in the Conde series. Did you always intend to use the series as a way of chronicling the changes taking place there, or did that happen naturally as the series unfolded?

Leonardo Padura: I write intending to write the best novel possible, and reflect the trials and tribulations of the human condition and, at the same time, to leave a chronicle that closely follows the nature of life in Cuba over recent decades. That’s why time and space are so important. My time, my country and, of course, my city, because I am, above all a writer who is from Havana – un habanero -, who writes in the language of Havana and sets his stories in Havana… and when I wander far off in time or history, I always return to Cuba, to Havana. A Cuba and a Havana that, for sure, sometimes seem both enigmatic and alien to a character like Mario Conde.

Mrs. Peabody: Many thanks for visiting the blog, Leonardo, and for taking the time to answer those questions. It’s much appreciated!

Julia Heaberlin, Black-Eyed Susans (USA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2017 Petrona Award shortlist

Here we go!!!

Six outstanding crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2017 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today. They are… *drumroll*

THE EXILED by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

Finnish police detective Anna Fekete returns to the Serbian village of her birth for a holiday, but is pulled into an investigation that throws up 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.

THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif G.W. Persson tr. Neil Smith (Doubleday; Sweden)

Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffers a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery, he is drawn into investigating a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Expertly plotted and highly gripping, The Dying Detective features characters from a number of other crime novels by the author, but succeeds brilliantly as a standalone in its own right. You can read Mrs Peabody’s review here.

THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books, Norway)

Former TV presenter Allis takes up the post of housekeeper and gardener at a house on a remote fjord. But her employer is not the old man she was expecting, and the whereabouts of his wife are tantalisingly unclear. Isolated from other villagers, Allis and Sigurd’s relationship becomes progressively more claustrophobic and tense. A haunting psychological thriller and study in obsession that is perfectly complemented by the author’s beautiful, spare prose.

WHY DID YOU LIE? by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, Iceland)

Yrsa Sigurđardóttir is as adroit a manufacturer of suspense as any writer in the Nordic Noir genre, as this standalone thriller comprehensively proves. Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves the stories of a policewoman whose husband has committed suicide, a work group stranded by hostile weather on a remote lighthouse, and a family whose American guests go missing. A compelling exploration of guilt and retribution, which builds to a nerve-jangling finale.

WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, Norway)

Grieving private detective Varg Veum is pushed to his limits when he takes on a cold case involving the disappearance of a small girl in 1977. As the legal expiry date for the crime draws near, Veum’s investigation uncovers intriguing suburban secrets. In what may well be the most accomplished novel in a remarkable series, the author continues to work in a traditional US-style genre, but with abrasive Scandi-crime social commentary very much in evidence.

THE WEDNESDAY CLUB by Kjell Westö tr. Neil Smith (MacLehose Press, Finland)

This multilayered novel tells the story of how a crime is triggered following the chance meeting of two people in a lawyer’s office. While the narrative can be seen as a tragic individual story, it also takes on larger historical dimensions as it unfolds. Set in Helsinki in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, The Wednesday Club offers an insightful exploration into the legacy of the Finnish Civil War, and the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present. You can read Mrs. Peabody’s review here.

Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers!

The Petrona judges – Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and myself – had the following to say about the shortlist: 

“It was difficult to choose just six crime novels for the Petrona Award shortlist this year, given the number of truly excellent submissions from around the Scandinavian world. Our 2017 Petrona Award shortlist testifies to the extremely high quality of translated Scandi crime, with authors from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden making expert use of police investigations, psychological thrillers, private eye novels and historical crime fiction both to entertain and to explore pertinent social, political and historical issues. We are extremely grateful to the translators for their skill and expertise in bringing us these outstanding examples of Scandinavian crime fiction.”

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia and published in the UK in the previous calendar year. The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 20 May during CrimeFest, held in Bristol 18-21 May 2017.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2017 Petrona Award. Enormous thanks too to Karen Meek (aka Euro Crime), for all of her excellent organisational work throughout the year!

For further information about the Petrona Award, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children (Germany) – author interview and exclusive extract

Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins, the first in the ‘Inspector Frank Stave’ series, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Its sequel, The Wolf Children, is now out with Arcadia Books, and looks to be another exceptional historical crime novel, set in the bleak post-war Germany of 1947.

Cay has kindly answered some questions about the novels below, and there’s also an exclusive extract from The Wolf Children for Mrs. Peabody readers, courtesy of Arcadia Books.

Cay will be on the ‘German Noir’ panel I’m moderating at Newcastle Noir on Saturday 29 April, thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut London. If you’re in the area, do come along! You can see the full Newcastle Noir programme here.

Author interview with Cay Rademacher

MP: Welcome, Cay. The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are both set in Hamburg in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Why did you choose this particular location and year?

CR: I stumbled over it by chance – I did some research, as a journalist, for an article on daily life in post-war Germany. So this was the time: after 1945 and before 1949 (the Occupation years between the fall of National Socialism and the foundation of West and East Germany). And Hamburg was my home-town then, which I knew quite well.

Partly cleared bomb damage in 1947 Hamburg, photographed by Arabella Kurdi

MP: You very effectively depict life in a ruined post-war German city. How do you go about researching the detail of what it was like to experience that place and time?

CR: It’s a multi-layer approach –

  • Talk to historical witnesses and survivors.
  • Study documents from the period: police records, newspapers, letters, official documents, anything written.
  • Visit the Hamburg Museum, the city’s history museum, which has lots of things on display.
  • Historical research: interviews with historians and historical literature on the subject.
  • Films and photographs (the visual aspect is very important).
  • And, last but not least: visit all places personally. Though a lot of them have changed considerably, there are still many places to see. And even when a certain house or street has changed, there is still some kind of atmosphere there.

A Spiegel magazine cover from 1947, the year in which it was established with the support of the Allies. It’s still going strong 50 years later…

MP: Tell us a little about your investigator, Chief Inspector Frank Stave.

CR: There was a real ‘Oberinspektor Frank Stave’ in the Hamburg police, who signed a lot of documents in this period. But he is long gone and his biography is completely fictional. ‘My Stave’ was in the police even before Hitler came to power. He was never in the Nazi-party, but also never wanted to quit the service. So he feels guilty, in a way. His wife died during a night of bombing. His only son was an ardent follower of the regime and joined the Wehrmacht [the army] as a teenager in the last days of the war. He went missing fighting against the Red Army. So, working as a CID-man amidst the ruins of post-war Germany, Stave has to fight crime – and his inner demons too.

MP: Who are the ‘wolf children’, and why did you decide to make them central to the second Stave novel?

CR: Wolfskinder were, mostly, children who lost their entire families during their flight from Eastern territories around the end of the Second World War (roughly from the end of 1944 to the summer of 1946). These refugees were stranded in the cities, mostly in what would become West Germany. They formed gangs to survive. In Hamburg, which had about one million citizens at that time, there were about 10,000 to 12,000 wolf children in 1947. This, in itself, was for me reason enough to make them the tragic heroes of the novel.

The original German cover of The Wolf Children

MP: The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are part of a trilogy – the final part, Der Fälscher [The Forger], was published in Germany in 2013. Why did you decide to write a trilogy rather than a longer series?

CR: It’s a kind of circle. The Murderer in Ruins is set in the winter of 1947, which was, in a lot of ways, really Germany’s darkest hour (even more than 8 May 1945) – concerning poverty, desperation, shame, chaos. The third novel is set in the summer of 1948 – exactly during the weeks when the famous Deutsche Mark (German Mark) was introduced as new currency. This marked the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and the birth of West Germany. All of a sudden, optimism was everywhere (and the will to ‘forget’ the Nazi past). So these three novels were set in the transition period between two very different regimes, in a kind of historical no man’s land.

Extract from the opening of Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children, trans. by Peter Millar and reproduced with the kind permission of Arcadia Books, 2017 (pp.1-12).

Chapter 1. The Boy and the Bomb

Friday, 30th May 1947

The dead boy’s blood coated the five-hundred-pound British bomb like a red veil. Light coming through the shattered roof of the warehouse fell on the corpse and on the unexploded bomb, a thing the size of a man, like some monstrous fish that had buried itself in the concrete flooring. The rest of the warehouse was in darkness. It was as if the sunlight shining in on the boy and the bomb was some giant theatrical floodlight, Chief Inspector Frank Stave of Hamburg CID thought to himself.

Stave was in charge of a small team investigating the murder and had to prepare a report on the condition of the body and the presumed crime scene, take statements from witnesses, look for clues or traces of the killer. There was no question that the boy, aged about twelve, or fourteen at most, had suffered a violent death. But Stave was crouched down with a few other policemen behind the partially concealed steel frame of a broken crane, looking through a hole in the wall into the warehouse. There was just one man in the building, taking careful steps as he walked around the scrawny body of the boy and the fat bomb. He gave the corpse a brief glance before finally kneeling next to the bomb and gingerly setting down the big heavy leather bag he had been carrying in his right hand.

He was a bomb disposal expert, sent to defuse the thing. As long as the detonator was still active, it was far too dangerous for the investigation team to approach the body. I just hope he doesn’t remove any traces the killer might have left, Stave thought to himself.

The chief inspector had been alerted to the incident by a phone call just as he was starting his shift. He had gathered together a few uniformed police and set off from the CID headquarters on Karl Muck Platz. Most of them were young, wet behind the ears, appointed by the British occupation forces. Stave spotted among them Heinrich Ruge, a captain who had helped on previous enquiries.

‘The victim isn’t going to run off on us’, Ruge had called out to him rather too snappily.

Stave had said nothing, just gave a sympathetic look at the lad who had beads of perspiration leaking out from under his helmet and running down his temples. Even at the best of times the uniformed police called their tall, uncomfortable headgear ‘sweat boxes’. Today the temperature was nearly thirty degrees.

Stave thought back with a shiver to the previous winter, a merciless six months when the thermometer regularly showed between minus ten and minus twenty – sometimes even lower. And now this spring was as warm as anyone could remember. It was as if the weather was going as mad as humanity had done all too recently.

The war’s over, the chief inspector reassured himself. Ruge and another five uniforms were bent down next to him, shielded by the damaged crane, the sun right above their heads, no shade anywhere around them. He could smell their sweat evaporating. Was it just the heat? Or maybe it was fear that had them dripping with sweat?

A small, scraggy red-haired man whose freckled face was already glowing red from the sun crouched alongside them. Ansgar Kienle was a police photographer and at the moment, for lack of alternatives, Hamburg CID’s sole crime scene specialist.

Only one person seemed to be suffering worse from the sun than Kienle – Dr Alfred Czrisini, the pathologist, whose bald head was going bright red. Czrisini just happened to have a British colleague visiting when Stave called him, and was able to borrow his Jeep to drive to meet them at the crime scene. Despite his sunburn, Czrisini looked pale as his shaking hands held a Woodbine to his lips.

‘Do you think that’s a good idea when there’s a five-hundred-pound bomb being defused nearby?’ Stave hissed between his teeth, even though he knew that nobody and nothing, not even a bomb, would stand between Czrisini and his cigarettes. The doctor gave him a brief smile and shook his head, a little pale blue wisp of smoke rising from his mouth over the sea of ruins. Stave had brought his men across the Elbe in a launch to Steinwerder. Blohm & Voss shipyard lay at the hammer-shaped end of a peninsular on the southern side of the Elbe. There were two huge docks parallel to the river, and a third jutting diagonally into the shore like a giant sword. Behind the two big docks there was a third basin. All along the riverbank stood long brick warehouses, cranes lined up in rows like soldiers standing to attention, and the tangle of rails for the puffing narrow-gauge railways that brought boilers, gun barrels and steel bulkheads down to the docks. Or rather used to.

It was only a few years ago that the battleship Bismarck had been built here by Blohm & Voss. It was from here that nearly fifty per cent of the German U-boat fleet had first slid down the gangways into the sea. Stave could still see some fifteen almost finished hulls, tubes of grey steel, some sixty or seventy metres long, with the closed torpedo door flaps in their hulls, rudders, gleaming propellor screws, a few of them so new they could almost set off immediately to patrol the seas, others already half-submerged beneath the waters of the basin, like stranded whales. Two or three of the wrecks looked as if they had been beaten to death by some giant right here in the shipyard. The British and Americans had bombed Blohm & Voss again and again.

Stave looked at the mountains of rubble, stretching hundreds of metres in every direction: toppled chimneys lying on the two- to three-hundred metre docks, the walls of which had been blown in, heaps of molten metal produced in a matter of seconds in the ferocious heat. Bracken and sorrel bushes sprouted from the broken cobblestones. The old bulkheads with their shattered concrete now covered in verdigris. Beyond the last of the docks the Elbe flowed on, fast and grey. And beyond that again ruins upon ruins with only the tower of St Michael’s rising in the heat haze like some giant tombstone.

Only a few years ago, even in the CID headquarters, they could hear the sound of the jackhammers echoing across the Elbe like a low humming, as continuous and unremarkable as the gurgling sound of a waterfall: after a while you simply didn’t notice it any more.

Now it was almost totally silent. There were no ships in the docks, no sparks flying from welding machines or ice saws. The only noise came from a crane on rails at the far end of the dock, jerking and creaking as it pulled steel girders out of the ruins of a building and piled them on to a barge floating on the Elbe: material that could be melted down and recycled somewhere.

A fireman colleague of the specialist in the warehouse crawled over to the crouching police.

‘How much longer is he going to take?’ Stave asked him. He noticed that he was speaking softly, as if a word pronounced too loudly might set off the unexploded bomb.

The fireman spoke softly too, though: ‘Hard to say. Depends on what type of detonator it is, and what state it’s in. We’ve seen hundreds of bombs like that. Most of them have an ordinary detonator, one that should set the explosives off the minute it hits. Sometimes they get stuck, either because they hit a roof that was already damaged or because they were screwed in wrongly in the first place. Those we can deal with quickly enough. But some of these beasts have timed fuses set to go off hours or even days later.’

Stave nodded. He remembered how sometimes days after the horrific nights of the bombing raids, suddenly there would be an enormous boom and another building would collapse in ruins. The Americans and British had done it deliberately to make the job of clearing up the rubble more difficult – that was one of the reasons why the local Gauleiter Karl Kaufman had ordered prisoners from the Neugamme concentration camp into the ruins to do the clearing up. On two or three occasions he had been told to watch over them.

‘Those types of detonators,’ the fireman went on, ‘sometimes don’t work. When you look at them they can seem undamaged, but if you make the slightest mistake, even the tiniest vibration, the whole thing can explode in your face.’

‘Would human footsteps be vibration enough?’ the chief inspector asked him.

The fireman smiled. ‘Sometimes, yes. But not in this case. My colleague has clearly already tested that.’

‘Risk of the job, I suppose,’ Stave muttered.

‘We get extra rations cards for doing difficult work.’

‘Sounds fair enough.’ The CID man looked round and saw, about fifty metres away, a group of workers watching them morosely. Then he turned back to the figure crouching next to him.

‘How long is he going to stay there leaning over the bomb?’

The fireman nodded at the part of the roof that had caved in. ‘That’s where the bomb hit,’ he said. ‘We call that a “wall hit”, where the bomb hits the wall first, goes into a spin and eventually hits the ground at such an oblique angle that the detonator doesn’t go off properly. It’s complex. My colleague is going to be in there for an hour at least.’

‘Wait here,’ Stave ordered the uniformed policemen. They nodded, not exactly thrilled with the instruction. ‘Dr Czrisini, come with me. You too, Kienle. Won’t do any harm if we use the time to ask a few questions of the workers over there. They look like they’re bursting to help us.’

‘They look as if they think you’re more likely to explode on them than the bomb,’ replied the pathologist. He pulled himself to his feet – no easy task given his weight – grunting with the effort, and followed the two CID men.

Five men in dark reefer jackets over collarless blue-and-white striped shirts, corduroy trousers, peaked caps and with hands like shovels shot hostile looks at Stave and his companions as they approached. The chief inspector introduced himself, whipped out his police badge and handed round English cigarettes: John Player, a sailor wearing a life belt round his neck on the packet.

The men looked surprised, then hesitated, before finally grabbing them, with sounds that might even be interpreted as thanks. Stave, who was a non-smoker, had been carrying a few spare cigarettes on him for a while now. At one time he had traded them with returning prisoners-of-war down at the station for any possible information on his missing son. But ever since he had found out that Karl was in a Soviet camp in Vorkuta, he no longer needed to do that. Now he used the cigarettes to make interrogations go a bit more smoothly.

Czrisini put a Woodbine between his lips. The men stood there silently for a few minutes, blue wisps of smoke twisting in the air between the cracked brick walls, the smell of sweet oriental tobacco oddly comforting against the background aroma of bricks and lubricating oil. There was a heat haze in the air, and a stench of rubbish and dead fish rose from the Elbe. Stave could have done with a glass of water.

The oldest worker present – Stave put him at sixty or more – cleared his throat and took a step forwards.

‘Your name?’

‘Wilhelm Speck.’

He was as skinny and hard packed as a smoked sausage. Stave didn’t like to think how many times he must have heard jokes about his surname – ‘bacon’.

‘Was it you who called us?’

‘No, that was the site manager.’ He nodded towards a square redbrick building a few hundred metres away, which Stave guessed was the administration building.

‘We found the bomb,’ the man hesitated a moment before continuing, ‘and the dead boy, just after we came on shift. We ran over to the office.’

‘How long have you been working for Blohm & Voss?’

Speck gave him a surprised look. ‘Forever.’ He thought a moment and then added, “Forty-four years. If you can call the past few years “work”.’

His colleagues muttered in agreement. Even that sounded threatening.

‘You don’t exactly look as though it’s been a holiday.’

‘I’m part of the shit squad,’ the old man announced proudly.

Stave stared at him in surprise.

Kettelklopper,’ Speck said, as if in explanation. Then he realised that the chief inspector still didn’t get the message and repeated, in standard German rather than the thick Hamburg dialect: ‘Kettle knocker: we climb inside the kettles – the hulls of ships laid up in the docks for refit – and knock on the walls to dislodge any dirt.’

‘That sounds like hard work, harder than what you’re doing now.’

‘Work?’ Speck said. ‘Work is building ships or refitting them. Hammering, riveting. You start out with an empty dock and at the end a ship slides down the slipway into the Elbe. That’s what work is.’

‘And nowadays?’ The chief inspector knew what Speck was getting at, but he wanted to hear it from the man’s lips. It would make it easier for a man who wasn’t used to speaking much to answer his other questions.

‘Nowadays?’ The man was getting worked up. ‘Nowadays we’re dismantling the yard. The English want us to destroy our own workplace. Or what’s left of it after they bombed most of it to hell.’

It was true enough that the giant shipyard had been bombed to hell. Officially. Any machinery and tools had been sent off to other countries in reparation for the damage the Germans had done to them in the war. In Hamburg it was an open secret that the British wanted to close down once and for all what had been one of the best shipyards in the world. They wanted to eliminate a rival that had not just turned out warships and U-boats, but in peacetime had also built hundreds of ocean liners and freighters, orders that had more often than not been snatched from shipyards in Liverpool or Belfast.

Speck nodded towards a pile of machinery roasting in the sunshine some thirty metres away near one of the workshops: ‘Lathes, welding machines, riveting machines, milling machines,’ he said. ‘Nine months ago they made us dismantle all that stuff and leave it over there. It’s supposed to be delivered to the Soviet Union. They sent in English military police specially to keep an eye on us. And now it’s all lying there rusting away. Comrade Stalin isn’t interested in our machinery. The English just made us move it out there so it would fall apart.’

He had to be a communist, Stave reckoned. Since 1945, when the Brits allowed elections to take place again in Hamburg, one in every five shipyard workers had voted for the Communist Party of Germany. It wasn’t hard to understand, he told himself, but out loud he said, ‘You’ve been working here for two years, dismantling the shipyard, but nobody spotted an unexploded bomb lying around?”

Speck shook his head. ‘Up until 1945, U-boat spare parts were stored in here. Ever since it’s been lying empty. It was only by chance that we looked in this morning.’ He hesitated for a moment, glanced round as if he was worried somebody was eavesdropping, and added in a quieter voice: ‘All that machinery over there, we couldn’t just leave it lying there. We wanted to move it in here to…’ he was looking for the right word, ‘to keep it safe.’ And then added hastily, ‘Until the English come to take it away.’

‘Absolutely,’ Stave said in a sarcastic tone of voice. What the old man meant was they wanted to keep their tools safe until the day when they could get Blohm & Voss back up and running again. But what business was that of his? ‘And that’s when you came across the bomb with the dead body lying on it?’

‘We could hardly miss it,’ Speck said, his chapped hands shaking slightly. ‘We were shocked.’

‘How close did you get? Did you touch anything?’

They all shook their heads. ‘Touch an unexploded bomb? I’m not that tired of living yet,’ Speck said. ‘We’re forever coming across them. The bomb disposal people could set up shop here, the number of times we’ve had to call them in.’

‘So you didn’t go past the entrance?’ the chief inspector asked, glancing at the door lying open at the narrow end of the hangar, further away from the dead body than the hole in the wall they had been taking cover behind.

Speck nodded. ‘Maybe a couple of paces, then we turned tail.’

‘Did you recognise the boy?’

They all shook their heads again.

‘Could he have been an apprentice? An errand boy?’

‘No. We’re not allowed to train any more apprentices. What would we be training them for anyway? And we’ve no need for errand boys.’

Speck dithered for a moment, until Stave gave him an encouraging nod and handed over another cigarette. Then he said, ‘There are always lads running around here. Orphan kids. Refugees. Displaced persons, as they call them. Urchins with no homes and no parents to take them by the scruff of the neck. They steal anything they can get their hands on. You should know that, in the police.’

The chief inspector sighed. There were between ten and twelve thousand children living in the ruins of Hamburg. Kids of ten, twelve or fourteen years of age who had been the only ones in their families to survive the hail of bombs or the long trek west from homes they’d been expelled from. They stole coal from the freighters, pinched ration cards, worked as lookouts for black market traders or hung around the station selling themselves for sex in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a bed for the night. Some of them had even gone so far as to kill.

‘When the bomb disposal man has done his job, this man here,’ Stave indicated Kienle, ‘will take photos of the dead body. Afterwards he will pass them around the shipyard, and you need to ask all your workmates to take a look. It might be that somebody will recognise him, might have caught him up to something, chased him off. I need to know who he is, where he lived – or at least where he hung out if he was homeless. What he was doing here, in an empty shipyard hangar with a five-hundred-pond English bomb lying in it.’

After dismissing the workers with a nod, Stave and his colleagues tiptoed back to their cover next to the crane, where the uniformed police were still sitting motionlessly, dripping with sweat and scarcely daring to breathe.

‘Why would the dead boy be lying on top of the bomb?’ he asked Czrisini.

The pathologist coughed, causing the policemen to start with fright, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ll need to take a closer look at the lad – that is, providing the bomb disposal man does his job well enough.’

‘It looks as if the murderer deliberately deposited the body on a live bomb to make our investigation all the harder,’ Stave muttered.

‘Or wanted to send us a message,’ Kienle replied.

The chief inspector turned to him in surprise, and the photographer gave an embarrassed smile. ‘A dead boy lying on an English bomb – maybe the killer wanted to make a point? Tell us something? Or maybe it’s a signature of some sort?’

‘If that’s his signature, then I’d appreciate it if he used a typewriter next time,’ the chief inspector replied.

The bomb disposal man made a gesture towards his colleague who was taking cover alongside the police, then took from his pocket a longish object that looked like a steam hammer of some kind, reduced to the size of a man’s forearm, and set it on the far end of the bomb, between the stabiliser fins.

‘What’s he doing now?’ Stave asked, whispering unintentionally.

‘It’s got a timer fuse, housed at the end of the bomb,’ the disposal team man replied. ‘Shit things. The English dropped more than 100,000 bombs fitted with them, and one in seven didn’t go off. My grandchildren will still live in fear of the things; that’s if I live long enough to have grandchildren.’

He nodded in the direction of the odd piece of equipment his colleague had produced. ‘That’s what we call a “rocket clamp”, the only thing that enables you to deal with a timer fuse. In a normal fuse there’s a needle that strikes the charge and sets the whole thing off. But with a timer fuse the needle is held back by steel springs, like a bowstring. Between the needle and the charge there’s a little celluloid plate. When the bomb hits, the impact releases acetone from a little glass ampule. The chemical gradually eats away the celluloid and as soon as it does, the needle is released – and BOOM!’

‘The tricky bit about these things is that you can’t see in. It may be that the acetone was never released and the celluloid plate is still intact, or on the other hand it may equally well be that the plate is long gone and the needle could strike at any moment, but has just got stuck somehow. Then one cough might well be enough to set it off. On top of all that the way the detonators are fitted means you can’t just unscrew them. Try that and the answer’s the same: BOOM!”

‘Who on earth would think up something like that?’ Stave mumbled.

‘The same boffins who dreamed up the rocket clamp. It’s a sort of specialist spanner that means you can get at the detonator and unscrew it. A lot faster at any rate than a human being could. But most importantly, faster than the detonator can react. Any minute now my colleague is going to set off a tiny explosive charge within the clamp and that will yank the detonator out in one go. The centrifugal force within the rotating detonator will squeeze all the mechanical components together for a fraction of a second, meaning that the released needle will be delayed that tiny bit so that it can no longer detonate the bomb, because by then the detonator will already be out. Most of the time, anyway.’

The chief inspector was staring at him disbelievingly: ‘Sounds a bit like Russian Roulette to me.’

The bomb disposal man shrugged. ‘There’s always the possibility that the detonator got screwed in at an angle, in which case even a rocket clamp won’t get it out quickly enough. Then there’s always a chance that the explosive charge in the clamp doesn’t go off properly and it’s not fast enough. Nobody can be sure about that. When something like that happens, you can’t exactly ask the disposal man what happened afterwards. This is the one occupation where there’s no opportunity to learn from your colleagues’ mistakes or bad luck.’

The man in the hangar had by now carefully put the rocket clamp over the pointed tail of the bomb. He could be seen taking a deep breath. Then he made a brief movement, so fast the CID man barely noticed it. There was a short, sharp bang, like a gunshot. Involuntarily Stave caught his breath, dropped to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

Nothing happened.

Ever so slowly, he breathed out, noticing that he was shaking and that there was sweat running into his eyes.

‘Good,’ said the bomb disposal man next to him. He was already on his feet, stretching his legs. He waved through the hole in the wall to his colleague inside. ‘The detonator is out. The bomb is now just a big steel tube with a few chemicals inside. No longer a direct threat.’ He glanced at Czrisini. ‘But we’ll have to ask you not to smoke when you’re in there. It would be a pity if a spark were to drop through the detonator hole into the bomb.’

The pathologist looked bleakly into the hangar and seemed paler than ever under his suntan. Nonetheless he took long drags on his Woodbine until it was down to the tiniest of butts, and then carefully extinguished it.

Stave dusted himself down and said, ‘Let’s go and take a look at our corpse.’

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut.

Thomas Enger, Cursed (Norway)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

Laura Lippman, Wilde Lake (USA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

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First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

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This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

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