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

Thomas Mullen’s Darktown (Abacus, 2016)

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

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

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

Atlanta’s first African American police officers, April 1948

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

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

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

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

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

You can read an extract from Darktown here.

Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

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

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

Koutsakis’ Athenian Blues (Greece), Stanley’s A Death in the Family (Botswana), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (USA)

This week’s crime reading took in Greece, Botswana and America.

Pol Koutsakis, Athenian Blues, translated from Greek by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

Opening line: A few of them were kicking and screaming, but most of the immigrants followed orders, as the police shoved them out of the building.

Athenian Blues is Koutsakis’s debut crime novel and the first in his ‘Stratos Gazis’ series. Its main protagonist is a contract killer with a conscience, who is aided in his investigations by childhood friends Drag, a homicide cop, and Teri, a transgender sex worker. When Stratos is asked to carry out a hit by a beautiful Greek actress who promptly disappears, he and his friends are pulled into an increasingly baffling case.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the first-person, private-eye narrative, which makes effective use of hard-boiled PI conventions, and the quirky depictions of Stratos and his friends. The novel also makes the most of its contemporary Athens setting, providing interesting insights into recent Greek political and economic crises. However, I found being asked to identify positively with a hitman a bit of a stretch. Stratos is given a moral legitimacy reminiscent of popular TV killer Dexter (he only bumps off those who truly deserve it), and his friends seem to have no problem accepting his profession, due to their past experiences and the social upheavals of the present. And everyone seems to end up in bed with everyone else *yawn* (I am clearly getting old). An entertaining summer read, as long as you don’t take it too seriously…

Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family (Orenda Books, 2016).

Opening line: Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream.

A Death in the Family is the fifth in the ‘Detective Kubu’ series, co-written by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Originally from South Africa, they decided to start writing after a trip to neighbouring Botswana, where Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series is of course also set. While the ‘Kubu’ series portrays Botswana in a warm light, it also paints a more nuanced (and decidedly less twee) picture of modern Botswana life than McCall Smith. In this novel, Kubu has to deal with his most distressing case yet – the murder of his own father Wilmon – and two other cases that highlight the potentially mixed effects of foreign mining investments. The plot is highly satisfying, the characters engagingly drawn, and readers come away with a rich understanding of Botswana’s history and culture – from traditional funeral rites to the role of the tribal kgotla. There’s a handy glossary of Setswana phrases included at the back of the novel as well.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (originally published 1953; Audible book narrated by Tim Robbins)

Opening line: It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m always looking out for audiobooks to accompany my knitting, and jumped at the chance to listen to Fahrenheit 451, an American classic I’d never read. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel: it depicts an American future in which books are viewed as subversive, and reading or owning them has become a criminal offence (everyone is plugged into mind-numbing, round-the-clock entertainment provided by state radio and TV instead). The task of firemen in this society is not to put out fires, but to burn books – which catch alight at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The novel traces the evolution of Guy Montag, a fireman who is an unquestioning part of the system, following a chance encounter with Clarice McClellan, an intelligent, free-spirited teenager. Written in 1953, the novel is remarkably prescient, exploring the negative effects of advanced technology on social interaction, and asserts the fundamental right to question, challenge and advance ideas in literature and debate. There’s a highly charged murder in the novel as well, which has emboldened me to include it on the blog.

I can fully see why Fahrenheit 451 is regarded as a classic. The story is simply and sparely told, but communicates incredibly powerful ideas. If I’m not mistaken, Bradbury draws on one particular biblical story at the end (I won’t say which, as it would give too much away), and provides a chillingly realistic depiction of what it might be like to resist a repressive regime. There was only one moment where I felt the novel truly showed its age (again, slight spoiler; ask me to say more in the comments if you’re curious).

So how’s my TBR cull going? The scores on the doors are as follows:

Subtracted – 5

Added – 3

Progress of sorts…?

Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.

CrimeFest 2017: Krimi panel, Petrona Award, American Noir, and Icelandic Queens of Crime

As ever, CrimeFest in Bristol was a four day extravaganza of goodness. Here are a few highlights.

First ever Krimi panel at CrimeFest

The four German authors on the Krimi panel – Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe – had never met before, but you’d never have known given the lovely dynamic between them. Each brought a very different kind of crime novel to the event, which made for fascinating and varied discussion.

Clockwise from top left: Mrs P, Melanie, Volker; Jens Boyer (Goethe-Institut London), Mrs P, Mario, Merle, Melanie, Volker; Jess (Mantle), Volker, Melanie, Mario, Merle, Mrs P; Merle and Mario.

Mario is the author of a comic crime novel with a serious edge – Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions – which shows a recently widowed Aunt Poldi arriving in Sicily with the intention of drinking herself to death. Instead, she promptly becomes involved in a murder case and meets a handsome Sicilian police detective… Merle’s novel Collision is perhaps best described as a maritime thriller, and shows four vessels – a cruise liner, a refugee dingy, an Irish freighter and a Spanish rescue ship – crossing paths in the middle of the Mediterranean. Inspired by a short film shot by a cruise ship passenger, it has serious points to make about the refugee crisis and the negative effects of capitalism.

Volker writes historical crime novels – six in the ‘Gereon Rath’ or ‘Babylon Berlin’ series to date – which are set in Weimar Berlin and investigate (in part) the ways the Nazis came to power. The first novel is currently being adapted as a sixteen-part TV series by ARD/Sky, directed by Tom Tykwer, and will air this autumn. And Melanie presented her clever psychological thriller The Trap, which has done incredibly well for a debut, and is in the process of being made into a film by TriStar pictures. It features an intriguing protagonist – traumatised writer Linda Conrads – and explores the themes of grief, loss, isolation, madness and justice.

Erich the Bavarian duck was in attendance

Audience questions led to discussion of how the German authors work with their translators – Imogen Taylor, Niall Sellar, John Brownjohn, and Rachel Hildebrandt/Alexandra Roesch – and there was lavish praise for the very skilled work that they do. The authors also recommended some of their favourite Krimi writers, including Doris Gercke (‘Bella Block’ series, set in Hamburg), Jan Costin Wagner (‘Kimmo Joentaa’ series, set in Finland), Bernhard Aichner (Woman of the Dead, set in Austria) and Simone Buchholz (Blue Night, currently being translated by Rachel Ward for Orenda Books, set in Hamburg).

Thanks once again to our sponsors for making this very special event happen!

2017 Petrona Award

Saturday night at CrimeFest is always a special occasion for the Petrona team, as it’s when we announce the winner of the Petrona Award. This year the award went to Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen for his crime novel Where Roses Never Die, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Orenda Books.

Here’s what we said about Where Roses Never Die when we announced the shortlist: ‘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.’

Both Gunnar and Don Bartlett were at CrimeFest to accept and enjoy the award, and Gunnar paid touching tribute to his ‘perfect translator’ in his acceptance speech. Congratulations must also go to the other shortlisted authors for their wonderful crime novels – gems one and all. Sincere thanks as well to our Petrona Award sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support.

From left: Gunnar accepting the Petrona Award, flanked by Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw, Jorn Lier Horst (last year’s winner) and Adrian Muller; Barry, Gunnar, Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, Don Bartlett, Sarah Ward, Mrs P; Gunnar with Ewa Sherman

Other highlights for me included the American Noir panel, with C.J. Box (‘Joe Pickett’ series) and Bill Beverly (whose exceptional debut Dodgers has raked in prize after prize), and the Icelandic Queens of Crime panel, featuring Jónína Leósdóttir, Solveig Pálsdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. All four talked very eloquently about their work and Iceland, and also made me want to invite them to a riotous and extremely fun dinner party.

A big thank you to the CrimeFest organisers for another cracker of a year.

Clockwise from top left: Mario Giordano; Barry Forshaw with the American Noir panellists; tea with Ewa and Jacky; Barry moderating the Icelandic Queens of Crime; last but not least – Ragnar Jonasson, Melanie Raabe and Hugh Fraser after their ‘Misfits and Miscreants’ panel.

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 🙂

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.

******

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)

Here comes Santa Claus! Mrs Peabody’s 2016 Christmas recommendations

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Barter Books’ 2016 Christmas tree (photo @Argot101)

It’s snowing again on WordPress, which means it’s time for some eclectic Christmas recommendations. These might be useful when gift shopping for the crime lover in your life…or for yourself if you need a little treat. Many are new to the blog (I’ve linked back to existing reviews), and have been picked on the basis that 1. they would make lovely presents and 2. be a good read during the festive season. Enjoy!

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

Stella Darnell runs a London cleaning agency called Clean Slate. When her estranged father Detective Chief Superintendent Terry Darnell dies, she discovers files relating to an unsolved case – the murder of young mother Kate Rokesmith – in the attic of his house. Gradually, against her better judgement, Stella finds herself being drawn into the investigation.

This is an ambitious, gripping and atmospheric novel. Stella’s a great creation – a prickly and emotionally guarded figure, whose professional thoroughness and tenacity make her more like her policeman father than she would care to admit. The stories of Kate’s murder in 1981 and her son Jonathan’s subsequent life – told in flashback – are also very well delineated. I particularly enjoyed the author’s observational gifts and the way she captures the small, sometimes absurd details of everyday life (‘Terry had died fifteen minutes after the parking ticket expired’).

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Hans Olav Lahlum, Chameleon People (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2016 [2013])

It’s 1972. Norway is preparing for a referendum on its membership of the EEC, when Centre Party politician, landlord and businessman Per Johan Fredriksen is murdered in Oslo. A youth is apprehended with a bloody knife, but did he really do it? Inspector Kolbjørn ‘K2’ Kristiansen and Patricia Borchmann are once more on the case in this witty, beautifully written homage to Agatha Christie. There’s a cast of intriguing suspects, including a number of tricky ‘chameleons’, and an earlier, unsolved murder that may or may not be linked… You can read an extract from this hugely entertaining page-turner here.

Chameleon People is the fourth in the series, but works well as a standalone and would make a great-looking present (the hardback is lovely, with a bright orange flyleaf). Earlier installments, which I’d also recommend, include The Human Flies, Satellite People and The Catalyst Killing.

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Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (trans. from Spanish by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 [2011]

A Buenos Aires industrialist is found murdered at his expensive home in the gated community of Maravillosa. Author Nurit Iscar (nickname ‘Betty Boo’) is asked to cover the story by a national newspaper, and moves into the community to write a series of pieces from the scene. Before too long, she’s begun investigating the case, aided by a former colleague, the now rather jaded crime reporter Jaime Brena, and her friends.

Piñeiro is South America’s bestselling crime writer, and this novel is an excellent standalone with wonderfully realised characters. A scathing dissection of the fortress lives the rich build for themselves, Betty Boo is also a warm, humorous tribute to the importance of friendships in middle age.

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Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Doubleday, 2016 [2010])

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery, he’s drawn into investigating a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he’s assembled a team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

On the face of it, this novel doesn’t sound very festive, given the state of our poor lead investigator’s health. But the narrative is strangely uplifting, and the plotting and writing are sublime. It’s one of my favourite novels of the year, and you can read the full review here.

Like Chameleon People, The Dying Detective is part of a larger series, but can definitely be read as a standalone. Earlier novels featuring Johansson include Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End and Another Time, Another Life. These are also marvellous, but have the feel of intricate political thrillers.

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P.D. James, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Faber & Faber, 2016)

P.D. James, queen of crime fiction, sadly died in 2014, but four of her Christmas stories – written between 1969 and 1996 – have now been gathered in this beautiful little hardback volume.

Not all writers are able to pull off the short story form, but P.D James does so with some style. Her deliciously dark morality tales involve a country-house Christmas gone wrong, an illicit affair, and two mysterious murders to test a young Adam Dalgliesh. The volume is a treat for all lovers of crime fiction, and has a forward by Val McDermid.

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Joe Flanagan, Lesser Evils (Europa Editions/World Noir, 2016)

Lesser Evils is one of those exceptional debuts that punches well above its weight. Set in the summer of 1957, in the quiet Cape Cod town of Hyannis, the novel uses its investigation into the murder of a young boy to provide an authentic portrait of a small coastal community. World War Two veteran and police chief Bill Warren is a likable, nuanced character, who does his best to deal with an extraordinary case while parenting a son with learning difficulties. This is noir with a heart; a beautifully written and highly absorbing tale.

Lesser Evils would make another good-looking present. Like all Europa Editions paperbacks, the novel has an attractive, sturdy cover and flyleaf.

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David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre, 2010)

This historical novel opens in 1799 as young Dutchman Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dejima trading post near Nagasaki to make his fortune with the Dutch East India Trading Company. While not explicitly a crime novel, a terrible crime does shape the narrative, and it also features an incredibly ingenious murder.

Mitchell spent four years writing the novel, and does a remarkable job of evoking life in Japan at a time when foreign contact was highly restricted and often deemed criminal. The depiction of the growing, sometimes illicit relationship between Europeans and the Japanese – mainly via translators and interpreters – is fascinating, and shows a gradual transfer of knowledge taking place (for example about midwifery techniques). The figure of Orito, a Japanese midwife constrained by the gender expectations of the time, is particularly well-drawn. A long, satisfying read with plenty of memorable characters, this novel will transport you to another time and place.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Penguin, 2016)

This is the one I wish I’d read, but that got away, so I hope I’ll find under the Christmas tree *hint hint*. Here’s the tantalising blurb:

From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia, to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion, and to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, John le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive – reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire, or visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide, or celebrating New Year’s Eve with Yasser Arafat, or interviewing a German terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev, or watching Alec Guinness preparing for his role as George Smiley, or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humour, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood. Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.

You’ll find an extract and lots of related content here.

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Deutschland 83 (Universal Pictures UK, 2016; German with English subtitles)

This Cold War spy drama was one of my stand-out viewing experiences of 2016, and went down extremely well with UK audiences (better than in Germany, in fact).

Jonas Nay stars as young East German border-guard Martin Rausch, who is blackmailed by the Stasi into spying for West German military secrets. How will he fare, and will he manage to resist the seductions of a capitalist lifestyle? Written by Anna and Jörg Winger, a talented German/American husband-and-wife team, D83 is a genuinely thrilling ride that provides a brilliant portrait of Cold War tensions in 1983. It’s also very funny, with a killer 80s soundtrack.

See my review of the entire series here (warning – spoilers!)

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The Library Suicides [Y Llyfrgell] (Soda Pictures, 2016; Welsh with English subtitles; based on the novel by Fflur Dafydd)

The Library Suicides stars Catrin Stewart (Jenny in Doctor Who) as twin sister librarians Nan and Ana. Following the apparent suicide of their mother, famous author Elena Wdig, they become convinced that she was murdered by her biographer Eben. The film plays out over a long and bloody night in the National Library of Wales as they seek their revenge.

This clever, stylish thriller would make perfect Christmas viewing. The film moves seamlessly from high tension, as the twins track Eben through dark corridors, to laugh-out-loud black comedy, and makes ingenious use of the library’s secret spaces as a setting. As well as exploring the effects of grief and loss, the film examines the ways in which we remember, create and tell stories about ourselves, and the effects these stories have on others.

You can read a fuller review of the film and a Q&A with Fflur here.

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If you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following publisher websites. All have lots of excellent international crime fiction on offer.

Bitter Lemon Press

No Exit Press 

Orenda Books

Europa Editions

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

Scandi Xmas

Source: littlescandinavian.com

American Pie

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away

Don McLean, American Pie

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I haven’t read any crime fiction for the last two weeks, mainly because I’ve been mesmerised by the slow-mo car crash of the 2016 US election. So this post is mostly about that seismic political event, with some crime fiction stuff mixed in. Normal service will be resumed shortly, promise.

Quite a few of us in the UK stayed up for the results, and saw almost exactly the same story unfold as for the EU Referendum back in June: the polls were unreliable, the results started going in the wrong direction almost immediately, and as the hours passed, an awful sinking feeling set in. My heart went out to my American friends, because like many of us here I could understand (at least to some extent) what you were feeling during that long, dark night: the total and utter dismay of witnessing a ‘black swan’ phenomenon that will fundamentally alter your political landscape, unleash destructive forces of xenophobia, and have potentially catastrophic long-term effects.

I’ve largely steered clear of the papers since then – the headlines read like some really bad dystopian alt-history novel – but have dipped into a few online pieces. There is some solace to be had there, such as the fact that HRC appears to have won the popular vote, and that people/organisations are already rolling up their sleeves for the work ahead (see this HuffPost piece: ‘If you’re overwhelmed by the election, here’s what you can do now’).

One thing we’ve realised here in post-Brexit UK is the importance of speaking up for our core democratic values (I explain why in the final comment below), and I’ve been struck by how vocal writers/actors such as Stephen King, George Takei and J.K. Rowling have been about the US election online. Their willingness to speak up is no small thing given the often hostile response they receive in return. This wonderful tweet from Rowling (after the results) ended up being shared over 40k times: “We stand together. We stick up for the vulnerable. We challenge bigots. We don’t let hate speech become normalised. We hold the line“. King and Rowling are part of our crime-writing community too, of course, so I’m particularly proud of them.

Two thoughts on all of this and crime fiction. Firstly, Ben Winter’s ‘Last Policeman’ trilogy has been on my mind a great deal. These novels play out in an America threatened by an asteroid strike (!!!), but I’m drawn to them at the moment because they depict individuals reacting to hostile situations with integrity and resilience (for more on the trilogy, see my post here). Secondly, crime writer Eva Dolan and I had a brief Twitter chat yesterday about how crime fiction might respond to the political events of 2016. Two trends are likely: the gritty, hard-hitting crime novel that addresses these events directly, and ‘cozy’ crime fiction that offers an escape from it all. I think both have an important role to play. We obviously need crime fiction (all fiction) to illuminate serious political, social and ethical issues, but also need to look after ourselves, which may mean seeking solace in ‘respite crime’ when required. I suspect I’ll be mixing them up liberally according to mood.

Anyhow – hands across the pond, lots of love, and on we go…

The Missing (series 2), Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and the virtues of voting wisely

I’ve been catching up with lots of TV lately – Australian political thriller The Code (very good) and the new series of The Missing (BBC1), which also has me completely gripped.

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Series 1 of The Missing involved the disappearance of a young boy, Oliver Hughes, on a family holiday in France. The new series cleverly flips that ‘missing child’ scenario by opening with the unexpected reappearance of Alice Webster, a young woman abducted as a schoolgirl over a decade before. The main connection to series 1 is Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired French police detective who investigated Oliver’s case, and who is now drawn to Alice by her possible link to a second abducted girl, Sophie Giroux. Aside from him, there’s a new set of characters featuring wonderful British actors such as Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey and Roger Allam. Hawes stands out for me in particular as Alice’s mother Gemma.

There were mutterings from some viewers after episode 1 about the difficulties of keeping track of three timelines (2003 when Alice was abducted, 2014 when she returns home, and the present day), but it’s very much worth persevering as those temporal layers create a wonderfully rich story. And while the drama feels very British in tone, its international settings and characters give it added depth: the Webster family live on a fictional military base in Eckhausen in Germany; we see British military police working together with German police and (with some reluctance) the French detective; the latter’s investigations even take him to Iraq for a while. And every single episode has had a twist that will make you drop your knitting – especially episode 4! I’m looking forward to the rest immensely.

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I’m a little late to this party – Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel epic 22.11.63, which sees English teacher Jake Epping step back into a 1958 America, five years before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The big question at the heart of the narrative – ‘would you change history if you had the chance?’ – is explored in an inventive and nuanced fashion.

Like some of King’s other novels, such as Dolores Claiborne (a favourite of mine), 22.11.63 draws on elements of the crime and thriller genres. Alongside the infamous murder of Kennedy, there’s a second murder case that takes up a significant part of the narrative. Both of these place Jake in the role of a detective tracking suspects, and in the role of a potential murderer, as he *could* stop the perpetrators from committing their crimes by killing them. But taking such action would obviously raise serious ethical questions, leaving Jake with some tough choices to make…

King does a brilliant job of depicting Jake’s incredible journey back to ‘the Land of Ago’, and recreates the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s in meticulous, loving detail. The mechanics of time travel are given interesting new twists, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Two minor reservations include the sheer length of the novel (I listened to the 30-HOUR audiobook version) and the odd bit of excessive sentimentality (but that could just be me). Hats off to audiobook narrator Craig Wasson, who does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, and I must admit that I’m now curious to see the 2016 TV adaptation with James Franco.

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

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Time to liberate this little chap!

All this talk of American presidents reminds me that there’s a certain US election next week. We’ll be watching the results with baited breath on this side of the pond, and hope that our American friends can learn from the Brexit Omnishambles here in the UK.

The EU Referendum taught us that:

  • not voting is not an option. VOTE!
  • protest votes are a luxury you can’t afford. VOTE WISELY!
  • talking to swing voters can make a difference. EVERY VOTE COUNTS!
  • and that there’s NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY (polls are fickle, so pretend your candidate’s 12 points down).

Good luck! And for anyone still undecided, I’ll just leave this here: The New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton. You might also want to check out this utterly inspiring and hopeful website: I’ve waited 96 years. It’s simply wonderful.