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/

Easter treats! Menasse’s The Capital (Austria), French’s The Wych Elm (Ireland), Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice (New Zealand)

A short one from me today, as I’m still firmly wedged under a pile of work and have managed very little reading in the past couple of weeks. BUT that hasn’t stopped me from adding new books to my TBR list. And now that the Easter weekend is coming up, I’m hoping to get stuck into at least one of the following…

I was kindly sent a copy of Robert Menasse’s The Capital by MacLehose Press after a serendipitous meeting with translator Jamie Bulloch and editor Katharina Bielenberg at London Book Fair. Then the pressure of two Brexit deadlines kicked in, and the last thing I felt like doing was reading an Austrian satire on the EU! However, now that we’re in (temporarily) calmer waters, I’ve finally sampled the first couple of chapters and enjoyed them very much. So far, we’ve had a pig on the loose in central Brussels, a murder in the Hotel Atlas, and a thoughtful meditation on mustard – all delivered with beguilingly dry humour. We’ve also been introduced to a cast of European characters who are in some way connected to the European Commission and its possibly doomed jubilee celebration plans.

The Capital is a genre-busting political-satirical-literary crime novel, so may not be one for purists, but it’s garnered a series of excellent reviews, such as Mark Lawson’s for The Guardian, and is nothing if not timely for us Brits.

For years, fellow readers have been telling me how brilliant Tana French’s novels are – particularly her ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series. And for years, I’ve somehow not managed to read a single one of her books. So when I was going through a pile of old Review magazines today and spotted an interview (below) about her novel The Wych Elm – a psychological thriller that’s been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – I knew that the time had come. It sounds like the perfect high quality escape for an Easter weekend.

‘Nobody with a lot of imagination should ever commit a crime’ (Feb 2019)

Last but not least, Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice is out *today* from Orion (thanks to Craig Sisterson for the heads up). I was lucky enough to have a sneak peak at this novel in August last year, when I interviewed the author, a former policeman, about this debut novel for the blog. The story centres on Auckland Detective Matt Buchanan and a traumatic crime encountered early in his career – and was nominated for both the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award *and* Best Novel Award. Impressive!

You can read the full interview here – which gives fascinating insights into the author’s own policing experiences and how he’s deployed them as a writer.

Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!

‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

Which leads me on to…

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

First line: I have never believed in ghosts.

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

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

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

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

Which leads me to another big and little sister…

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

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

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

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

You can read a very informative interview with Braithwaite here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jingle bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations! Each is one of my top reads or views 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…

Jess Kidd, The Hoarder, Canongate 2018 (Ireland/UK)

The star of this highly original crime novel is Maud Drennen, newly appointed carer for ancient, belligerent hoarder Cathal Flood, who lives in a massive house in London and is the despair of social services. Both are Irish exiles and both have secrets to hide. There are mysterious disappearances, perplexing clues and dicey situations, not to mention a supporting cast of half-feral cats, an eccentric landlady and levitating saints. The novel has serious things to say about violence, family dysfunction, social isolation and old age, but is also deliciously irreverent (‘Renata is especially glamorous today, clad in an appliquéd romper suit and feathered mules’), and depicts its characters with warmth and heart. Its language is strikingly rich and expressive.

Joe Ide, IQ, Mulholland Books, 2016 (USA)

Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. Taking inspiration from iconic detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, the novel fuses classic crime with urban noir in its depiction of IQ, an unlicensed black Long Beach detective, and Dodson, his streetwise sidekick (“It’s a hustler’s world, son,” Dodson said, “and if you ain’t doing the hustlin’? Somebody’s hustlin’ you”). It’s a remarkably polished debut that tells an absorbing coming-of-age story while treating us to a cracking investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Inventive, ingenious and authentic, the novel is a moving study of resilience and of life on the rougher side of town, but is also outrageously funny in places. You can read my full review here).

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster, 2017 (Sweden).

The very worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award (of which I’m a judge): “The judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events.” A tough, but excellent read.

Mystery Road, dir. Rachel Perkins, Acorn Media 2008 (Australia)

Mystery Road is set in the arid town of Patterson in north-western Australia. When local worker Marley Thompson goes missing, Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case. As they form an uneasy alliance and the investigation unfolds, we’re shown not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the local townsfolk, but how long-held secrets are shaping the events taking place. The drama provides viewers with a nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community and packs genuine emotional punch. The cinematography is stunning, with aerial shots capturing the vast, harsh beauty of the outback. You can read my full review here.

Adam Sternbergh, The Blinds, faber & faber 2018 (USA)

An outstanding genre-defying fusion of thriller, whodunit and Western. The Blinds is a speck of a town in rural Texas, populated by criminals and witnesses who have their memories wiped as part of an experimental programme that allows them to ‘start over’. Sheriff Calvin Cooper has policed the town for eight years without major incident, but now suddenly has a suicide and murder on his hands. These bring outsiders to the town, all of whom have agendas that will play out in different ways in the days ahead. The novel tackles big themes – criminality, redemption, the role of memory in identity formation, what makes a proper community – but is also a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Beautifully written with fabulously inventive touches… such as the way the residents acquire their new names.

 Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018 (Poland)

Janina Duszejko, a reclusive sixty-something-year-old who’s obsessed with astrology and the poetry of William Blake (the source of the novel’s title), lives in a Polish village near the Czech border. When one of her neighbours is found dead, followed by a member of the local hunting club, she speculates that the animals they’re hunting are taking revenge, and decides to investigate. A quirky existential take on the Miss-Marple-amateur-sleuth model, Drive Your Plow has a distinctive narrative voice – as suggested by chapter titles such as ‘Now Pay Attention’ and ‘A Speech to a Poodle’, and caused a stir in Poland by daring to question its deeply rooted hunting culture. Plow has recently been adapted for film by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (titled Pokot; I’m keen to watch it soon).

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

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is a collection of freewheeling crime stories, whose narrators include a prehistoric caveman, protective mother-in-law, spoiled museum director, a vampire and a houseful of ghosts. Each story gives the author the chance to stretch her imagination to the full, with equal measures of crime, humour and the grotesque mixed into a tasty criminal cocktail. The second half of the book is particularly inspired – a set of eight Barcelona stories under the heading ‘Connections’. Readers are challenged to spot the links between the stories, which proves to be great fun. You can read my full review here.

Belinda Bauer, Snap, Black Swan/Penguin, 2018 (Wales/UK)

Belinda Bauer is a hugely original writer, who uses the crime genre to explore both intimate scenarios and big themes. Snap opens with the disappearance in 1998 of pregnant mother Eileen Bright, who leaves her broken-down car on the M5 to phone for help. In the car are her three young children, Jack, Joy and Merry, who gradually realise that their mum isn’t coming back. A grim scenario, but one that’s never gratuitously exploited by the author. Instead, she shows in human and sensitive detail what happens to the family – mainly from the children’s point of view. Jack’s fight to find out the truth of what happened that day and the brilliant depiction of a host of characters, including grumpy DCI Marvel, make for a compelling read. There’s some razor-sharp humour in the mix too. The novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

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

A fabulous science fiction/crime mash-up. The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. It shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory where the car has just been made is off-limits to humans. So how did the corpse wind up in the boot? This nifty locked-room mystery is set in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it creates, are explored in this stylish, high-octane murder mystery. One for anyone who’s ever been to Reading! You can read my full review here.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke, Jonathan Cape 2018 (UK)

This graphic novel, a modern-day reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is an absolute delight. Our Scrooge is the eponymous Cassandra Darke, a disgraced London art dealer who is inadvertently drawn into a world of criminality…and possibly murder. This book would make an extremely handsome Christmas present, not only because of its author’s artistic and story-telling talents, but because it is so beautifully produced. Plus, it might be easier on the reading eye than a novel after a few glasses of Christmas plonk… You can read my full review here.

Wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Anthea Bell (1936-2018): doyenne of German crime translation

The German and French literary worlds lost one of their most talented, versatile and beloved translators last month. Anthea Bell died on 18 October at the age of 82, and the number of obituaries and articles honouring her achievements – from The Guardian to The New York Times – testify to the stature and range of her output.

If you read Asterix in English as a child, as I did, then you had the luck of being introduced to Anthea’s skills early on. Who could ever forget her delightfully inventive translations of assorted villagers’ names – Getafix the potion-cooking druid, Cacofonix the tone-deaf bard, Vitalstatistix the generously proportioned chief, and of course Dogmatix, Asterix’s little sidekick?

And there was pretty much nothing that Anthea couldn’t or didn’t translate, from the luminaries of German literature and thought – Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Stephan Zweig, W. G. Sebald, Julia Franck, Saša Stanišic – to children’s literature – Cornelia Funke and Erich Kästner – to a surprising amount of crime fiction.

German crime novels from my bookshelf, translated by Anthea Bell

Here’s a list of all the crime novels Anthea Bell translated (I think…!)

  • Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)
  • Kismet (Kayankaya #4) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • Brother Kemal (Kayankaya #5) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • A Crime in the Family (non-fiction) by Sacha Batthyany (Quercus 2017)
  • Silence (Kimmo Joentaa #2) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2011)
  • The Winter of the Lions (Joentaa #3) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2012)
  • Light in a Dark House (Joentaa #4) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2013)
  • The Snowman by Jörg Fauser (Bitter Lemon Press, 2004)
  • Berlin by Pierre Frei (Harper Collins 2005)
  • Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach (Bitter Lemon Press, 2005)
  • Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2013)
  • The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (Arabia Books, 2010)
  • The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus 2014)
  • The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2015)
  • The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin XXX)
  • The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin 2015)
  • The Late Monsieur Gallet (Maigret #2) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2013)
  • Cécile is Dead (Maigret #20) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2015)
  • Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann (Doubleday 2006)

There’s every conceivable type of crime on that list: classic crime, police procedurals, private-eye novels, courtroom dramas, psychological thrillers, comic crime, historical crime and true crime. The novel below is one of my favourites (a German-Finnish hybrid police procedural and psychological crime novel).

The fact that Anthea was such a prolific translator of crime fiction isn’t really mentioned in her obituaries, and that’s a shame. Translating crime fiction requires a very special set of skills – you need an eagle-eye for plot shifts, for nuances of characterization, tone and pace, and for red herrings and clues that depend on precisely calibrated wording. And of course, as one of the bestselling genres, crime fiction reaches a mass audience, making it the perfect vehicle for getting German, Austrian and Swiss literature into the hands of eager crime fiction fans in the English-speaking world … and surreptitiously introducing them to multiple facets of German history, politics and society. Anthea played a huge role in making that kind of cultural exchange happen through the hundreds of the works she translated in her long career.

The loveliest thing is that Anthea was a genuine crime fiction aficionado. I had the good fortune of appearing with her on a Waterstones Piccadilly panel on German crime back in 2015, along with Barry Forshaw (our chair), Charlotte Ryland from New Books in German, and authors Sascha Arango and Bernhard Aichner. Aichner’s novel Woman of the Dead had just been translated by Anthea, and she gleefully recounted how much she had enjoyed translating the main character – the charming yet murderous anti-heroine Brünhilde Blum. Anthea turned out to be very knowledgeable about the early history of German-language crime, and put me onto a new source which I then included in Crime Fiction in German. She also took the time to tell me that she’d read and enjoyed this blog, which I thought was exceedingly generous and kind.

Later, without her knowing it, she became my crime translation mentor, when I was asked to translate a short story from Ferdinand von Schirach’s Strafe / Punishment for a publisher. His works always make copious reference to the German legal system, legal procedure and German law, and Anthea’s prior translation of courtroom drama The Collini Case was a hugely helpful and reassuring guide as I worked to get those details right.

A bit blurry, but here we all are after the 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly event. Anthea is seated in the centre.

Glancing through the list of titles above, I see there are a few I haven’t yet read. I’m intrigued by The Dark Side of Love (set in Syria) and by the sheep detectives of Three Bags Full – and look forward to enjoying Anthea’s talents and skills once more.

There’s a lovely interview with Anthea Bell here, conducted by fellow translator Ruth Martin for New Books in German, to mark Anthea’s 80th birthday.

Tribute posted on Twitter by Anthea Bell’s son Oliver Kamm