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

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!

Top TV crime as the nights draw in: Giri/Haji (Japan/UK), Guilt (Scotland) & Unbelievable (USA)

There are some outstanding TV crime series on our screens at the moment – just perfect for those dark winter evenings when going out feels like too big an ask.

These three are the top of my heap at the moment.

Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) – BBC 2 (Japan/UK) 

Giri/Haji 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 hooked 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 really inventive use of film techniques and genres, like sequences that draw on manga. Thanks to my friend Morgan for alerting me to this series – it’s a keeper!

Guilt, BBC 2 (Scotland)

Guilt is a four-part darkly comic crime caper set in Edinburgh.

On their way home from a wedding one night, brothers Max and Jake (Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives) accidentally run over a pensioner in the dark. Rather than call for an ambulance or the police, the duo carry the body back into the man’s house and settle it into an armchair before leaving. But of course, they make mistakes… And in trying to cover up those mistakes, they end up making more…

There’s a great oddball chemistry between the brothers: short-tempered, impatient lawyer Max, and the more laid-back Jake, who runs a failing record shop. Add in the dead man’s niece Angie, who’s over from America to sort out dearly departed Uncle Walter’s estate but smells a rat, and you have a recipe for plenty of criminally good fun.

Unbelievable (Netflix / USA)

Unbelievable completely blew me away. The story of a serial rape investigation in Colorado and neighbouring states, it places the female victims squarely at the heart of its narrative, along with the tenacious and meticulous police-work of two women – Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Detecive Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

The story unfolds along two timelines: the first is 2008, when police are called to the apartment of 18-year-old Marie Adler (an outstanding performance by Kaitlyn Dever), who says she has just been attacked and raped. The second is 2011, when Duvall and Rasmussen spot similarities between the cases they’re investigating and start to work together. The series gives us a detailed insight into how police cultures and attitudes can shape rape investigations, for good and ill, and highlights the urgent need for police cooperation across county and state lines, to stop perpetrators who deliberately commit crimes over a wide area to evade justice.

Unbelievable is based on a true caseas you can read in detail here – although I would strongly advise you to watch the series first and read the piece afterwards. Compelling, illuminating and thought-provoking.

What are you watching right now? Any recommendations?

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…

Noirwich 2019 & Ten Autumn Crime Reads

Well, Noirwich 2019 was a blast. It was my first time at this crime festival – now in its 6th year – and it has certainly hit its stride. I was there on the Saturday, as part of a range of panels at the incredible medieval Dragon Hall. It was quite a venue for our ‘Euro Noir’ panel.

Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen were both on top form, and there was *plenty* of interesting discussion and laughter. Although their work shares a very strong noirish feel and humour, there are also some striking differences, which made for rich conversation. For example, Simone writes the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, while Antti focuses on standalones; Simone’s work is rooted in the ‘mean streets’ of Hamburg, while Antti’s novels wander around Finland, from the capital Helsinki to seaside towns and villages in the frozen east.

Both writers acknowledged the influence of Noir writers and filmmakers from Raymond Chandler to Jakob Arjouni and the Coen Brothers, but also felt that after a few books, these were subsumed into their own authorial voices – they had made them their own. And both felt that characters were at the heart of the story rather than the plot, and that placing characters in a quandary or difficult scenario gives narratives their oomph.

You can see how much fun we all had below… It was a very lively panel! And the bilingual readings in German-English and Finnish-English went down a storm.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Simone and Antti are doing a karaoke version of ‘Islands in the Stream’…

Mrs Peabody’s 10 Autumn Crime Reads

These are my most anticipated reads as the nights draw in. Some are recent, some not; some are pure crime, some are cross-genre… All look great!

  1. Laila Lalami, The Other Americans (US)
  2. Stina Jackson, The Silver Road, trans. Susan Beard (Sweden)
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (Canada)
  4. John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (UK)
  5. George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown (US)
  6. Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier (Ireland)
  7. Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (UK/Turkey)
  8. Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (US; non-fiction)
  9. Denise Mina, Conviction (Scotland; Denise was at Noirwich and her session made me want to grab this book.)
  10. Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders, trans. Alison Watts (cheating; not out until Jan 2020, but hey).

The Silver Road is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

NOIRWICH Crime Writing Festival: ‘Dissecting Euro Noir’ with Simone Buchholz & Antti Tuomainen (Sat 14 Sept)

A heads up for all crime fans who can get to Norwich next weekend! I’ll be chairing the following event with Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen next Saturday at the Noirwich Crime Writing Festival.

Dissecting Euro Noir’, Dragon Hall, Norwich, 5pm (get your tickets here!)

Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen are two pillars of the Euro Noir community, penning some of the darkest, grittiest and most riveting crime thrillers of recent years. We are delighted to welcome Simone from Germany and Antti from Finland to dissect their latest novels in translation, their use of grisly detail and dark humour, and why they think European crime fiction is one of the most electrifying and successful genres in the world.

As part of my prep, I’ve had my nose in Beton Rouge and Little Siberia all this week, and both have been an absolute delight.

Simone’s Beton Rouge is the second in the ‘Chastity Riley’ series to be published in English – a stylish Hamburg take on hard-boiled noir, which opens with a grim discovery outside the offices of a magazine. Antti’s Little Siberia is a hilarious yet poignant noir romp, triggered by a meteorite crashing onto a car in a remote town in eastern Finland. In both cases, translators Rachel Ward and David Hackston communicate the humour and noirness of the originals with aplomb.

If you can get to Norwich for this event next Saturday – by plane, train, car or mule – then please do come along. Both of these authors are wonderfully engaging speakers, and there’ll be plenty of Euro noir chat and laughter – guaranteed!

And…as an exclusive extra today, courtesy of Orenda Books, here’s the cover reveal for Simone’s new book, Mexico Street, which is out in March next year.

Love it. And here’s a sneak preview of Chastity Riley’s third case… 

Night after night, cars are set alight across the German city of Hamburg, with no obvious pattern, no explanation and no suspect.

Until, one night, on Mexico Street, a ghetto of high-rise blocks in the north of the city, a Fiat is torched. Only this car isn’t empty. The body of Nouri Saroukhan – prodigal son of the Bremen clan – is soon discovered, and the case becomes a homicide.

Public prosecutor Chastity Riley is handed the investigation, which takes her deep into a criminal underground that snakes beneath the whole of Germany. And as details of Nouri’s background, including an illicit relationship with the mysterious Aliza, emerge, it becomes clear that these are not random attacks, and there are more on the cards…

Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

Summertime crime (Australia, UK, Iceland)

I hope you’re all in a summery mood and finding time for some relaxing crime fiction – novels that whisk you away from humdrum everyday life and morale-sapping political shenanigans.

Here are three that have done the trick for me lately.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019)

This debut novel, set an isolated Australian town suffering from drought, has attracted some rave reviews. It opens with a puzzle: why would charismatic priest Byron Swift open fire on his own congregation from the church steps one Sunday morning, killing five men? A year on, burned-out journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the impact of the tragedy on the community, and is struck by how what locals say doesn’t always fit into the accepted version of events.

I really enjoyed Scrublands, although things went a teensy bit bananas in the end. Big pluses for me included the intriguing puzzle of Swift’s actions, the depictions of troubled journalist Scarsden and the embattled Riversend community, and an utterly gripping section on the battle to contain a bushfire. The rather irritating characterization of the (stunningly beautiful) love interest and an increasingly overloaded plot were less beguiling. In the end, there were enough twists and turns to fill three crime novels, and the chunks of exposition needed to explain these felt a bit intrusive. But overall this was a worthwhile and entertaining read, and very well written in parts.

Lesley Thomson, The Dog Walker (Head of Zeus, 2017)

Lesley Thomson’s ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ series has become one of my favourites in recent years. I always enjoy the company of her quirky sleuthing duo, Stella Darnell (detective’s daughter and cleaner extraordinaire) and her sidekick Jack Harmon. In The Dog Walker, Stella and Jack investigate the 1987 disappearance of Helen Honeysett, a young wife who went for a run along the Thames towpath one evening and never came home. Suspicion immediately fell on one of her neighbours, but perhaps he was innocent after all? Thomson provides readers with an intriguing array of suspects living in a row of five riverside cottages (there’s a great little map at the front of the novel showing who lives where). The chapters set in the 1980s stand out for their narration of events from a child’s perspective – that of young Megan – and are extremely well observed.

If you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the series opener, The Detective’s Daughter, before you start this one.

Quentin Bates, Cold Breath, Constable 2018 

Another of my favourite investigators is Officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladdóttir, a no-nonsense middle-aged Icelandic policewoman. In this, the seventh novel in Quentin Bates’ absorbing series, Gunna is placed in the unusual position of acting as a police bodyguard to Osman, a high-profile foreign guest. What should be a straightforward assignment turns into something much more serious when there’s an attempt on Osman’s life. The novel tracks events from the perspectives of the would-be assassins, those unfortunate enough to inadvertently get in their way, and Gunna and Osman respectively. The larger mystery of Osman’s identity hangs over proceedings as well. A thrilling plot, strong characterization and plenty of wry humour all make for a great read – and the novel’s Icelandic settings are evocatively drawn.

What stand-out crime novels have you been reading this summer?

Post your recommendations below! 

The 2019 Petrona Award shortlist has landed!

Here we go!!!

Six outstanding crime novels from Denmark, Iceland and Norway have been shortlisted for the 2019 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today. They are… *drumroll*

  • THE ICE SWIMMER by Kjell Ola Dahl, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)
  • THE WHISPERER by Karin Fossum, tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)
  • THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, tr. Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph; Norway)
  • THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson, tr. Victoria Cribb (Penguin; Iceland)
  • RESIN by Ane Riel, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday; Denmark)
  • BIG SISTER by Gunnar Staalesen, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

THE ICE SWIMMER by Kjell Ola Dahl, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

Kjell Ola Dahl has achieved international acclaim for his ‘Oslo Detectives’ police procedural series, of which The Ice Swimmer is the latest instalment. When a dead man is found in the freezing waters of Oslo Harbour, Detective Lena Stigersand takes on the investigation while having to deal with some difficult personal issues. With the help of her trusted colleagues Gunnarstranda and Frølich, she digs deep into the case and uncovers possible links to the Norwegian establishment. Once again, Dahl has produced a tense and complex thriller, with his trademark close attention to social issues.

THE WHISPERER by Karin Fossum, tr. Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)

Winner of the prestigious Riverton Award and Glass Key Award for Nordic crime, Karin Fossum is a prolific talent. The Whisperer focuses on the case of Ragna Riegel, an unassuming woman with a complicated emotional history, who has recently been arrested. As Inspector Konrad Sejer delves into her psyche in the course of a claustrophobic interrogation, Fossum slowly reveals the events leading up to Ragna’s crime. This is a highly assured mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, which really gets to the heart of one woman’s mental turmoil, and how easy it is for an individual to become unmoored from society.

THE KATHARINA CODE by Jørn Lier Horst, tr. Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph; Norway)

Jørn Lier Horst’s ‘William Wisting’ novels are distinguished by their excellent characterisation and strong plots. In The Katharina Code, a dormant investigation is reopened when police focus on a missing woman’s husband and his possible involvement in an earlier, apparently unconnected case. Wisting, who has long harboured doubts about the man’s innocence, becomes a somewhat unwilling participant in the surveillance operation. This finely plotted thriller with a strong sense of unresolved justice shows how Lier Horst is as comfortable writing about rural landscapes as urban settings.

THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jónasson, tr. Victoria Cribb (Penguin; Iceland)

In Ragnar Jónasson’s The Darkness, the first in the ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy, a Reykjavík policewoman on the brink of retirement looks into a final case – the death of Elena, a young Russian woman, which may mistakenly have been labelled a suicide. As much a portrait of its flawed investigator, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir, as of the investigation itself, the novel explores themes ranging from parental estrangement and the costs of emotional withdrawal to the precarious status of immigrants trying to make their way in a new land. The novel’s ending is bold and thought-provoking.

RESIN by Ane Riel, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday; Denmark)

Ane Riel’s Resin is an ambitious literary crime novel with a remote Danish setting. Narrated mainly from the perspective of Liv, a young girl, it tells the story of three generations of one family, while exploring the complicated factors that can lead individuals to justify and commit murder. Other narrative voices – such as those of Liv’s mother and a neighbour – provide further nuance and depth. A moving meditation on the consequences of social isolation and misguided love, Resin is an innovative novel that offers its readers a keenly observed psychological portrait of a close-knit but dysfunctional family.

BIG SISTER by Gunnar Staalesen, tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books; Norway)

In this highly acclaimed, long-running series, former social worker turned private investigator Varg Veum solves complex crimes which often have a strong historic dimension. In Big Sister, Veum is surprised by the revelation that he has a half-sister, who asks him to look into the whereabouts of her missing goddaughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse. Expertly plotted, with an unsettling, dark undertone, this novel digs deep into Veum’s family past to reveal old secrets and hurts, and is by turns an absorbing and exciting read.

Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers!

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

The Petrona Award judges faced a challenging but enjoyable decision-making process when drawing up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for their writing, characterisation, plotting, and overall quality. They are original and inventive, often pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, and tackle highly complex subjects such as mental health issues, the effects of social and emotional alienation, and failures of policing and justice.

We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

There were 38 entries for the 2019 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 25 translators and submitted by 24 publishers/imprints. There were 14 female and 20 male authors, and two male-female writing duos.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Norway strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Iceland each have one.

The crime genres represented include the police procedural, the private investigator novel, psychological crime, literary crime and the thriller.

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 11 May during CrimeFest, held in Bristol 9-12 May 2019.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2019 Petrona Award. Huge 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/