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

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

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

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

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

I was hooked from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some really inventive use of film techniques and genres, like sequences that draw on manga. Thanks to my friend Morgan for alerting me to this series – it’s a keeper!

Guilt, BBC 2 (Scotland)

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

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

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

Unbelievable (Netflix / USA)

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

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

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

What are you watching right now? Any recommendations?

Noirwich 2019 & Ten Autumn Crime Reads

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Peabody’s 10 Autumn Crime Reads

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

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

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

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.

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!

The East Long Beach Sherlock: Joe Ide’s IQ (USA)

Joe Ide, IQ (Mulholland Books, 2016)

First lineIsaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual.

I’d heard lots of good things about Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, and on finishing it, can say that this novel is easily one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. It’s a remarkably polished debut that introduces us to a wonderfully original detective, tells an absorbing coming-of-age story, and treats us to a cracking crime investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny.

The opening immediately had me hooked. It starts out with one of those depressingly familiar prologues in which a creepy guy in a pick-up truck is stalking a young girl with malevolent intent. As a seasoned crime reader you think, uh oh, I know exactly where this is going. And then it begins to go the way you thought it would…until all of a sudden it very much doesn’t, heading off in such a gloriously unexpected direction that you feel like cheering. And at that moment, you know you’re in for something very special.

Isaiah Quintabe – or IQ – is an unlicensed African-American private investigator who lives in Hurston, a deprived neighbourhood on the edge of East Long Beach in Los Angeles. He solves ‘local cases where the police could not or would not get involved’, and as he often takes payment in kind (sweet potato pie, a new tire or a live chicken), finances are tight. Which is a problem because there are hefty bills to pay. Isaiah’s cash-flow difficulties will force him to work with Juanell Dodson, a hustler and former housemate of IQ’s, with whom he shared a dark chapter of his adolescence. And Dodson will provide the key to learning about IQ’s past and its consequences, while also accompanying him into the world of rap to solve the central investigation.

Things I loved about this novel: it takes features we associate with iconic detectives – especially Sherlock Holmes and Easy Rawlins – and fuses them into a highly original PI whose intelligence sizzles off the page, but who also knows how to handle a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. It effortlessly entwines IQ’s backstory with the present-day narrative and crime investigation. It creates three-dimensional characters who are often extremely flawed, but who also ring true, while leavening their depictions with an affectionate, sardonic humour. It’s gripping, authentic, beautifully written, and a lot of fun.

You can read an extract from the first chapter of IQ on Joe Ide’s author website.

The second in the series, Righteous, is already out, with the third, Wrecked, on its way this October.

The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

Hard truths: D. B. John’s Star of the North (USA & North Korea)

D. B. John, Star of the North, Harvill Secker, 2018

First line: The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.

I was half-way through this excellent thriller when Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned it into an especially potent read. Because what this novel offers is a meticulously researched depiction of one of the world’s most secretive societies – a dictatorship that has mind-boggling control over its citizens and is guilty of horrific, sustained human rights abuses. And which is now getting pally with the USA.

Star of the North weaves together the stories of three individuals caught up in the history and politics of North Korea – Jenna Williams, an American-Korean academic whose sister disappeared ten years previously from a beach in South Korea; Mrs. Moon, a sixty-year-old North Korean black-market trader from Ryanggang Province near the Chinese border; and Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat based in the capital Pyongyang. Each, for different reasons, will put their lives on the line to subvert or resist the North Korean regime.

Cult of the leader: huge statues of the Kims at which North Korean citizens are made to pay their respects. See http://allthatsinteresting.com/north-korea-photographs#1

I found myself pulled into Star of the North’s fast-paced narrative straight away, thanks largely to the nuanced depiction of the three main characters and their very different points of view. John uses each of them to illuminate different aspects of North Korean society and its criminality, but does so in a way that never makes readers feel like they’re being lectured. And of course the kind of detail he can draw on as an author is grimly fascinating: the way that all aspects of citizens’ lives are governed by an extraordinary Cult of the Leader; the jaw-dropping, frankly crazy abductions programme; the criminal profits that allow North Korean leaders to live a life of unimaginable opulence while their citizens starve. And that’s just for starters…

A sobering read? Absolutely. But there are also moments of lightness and redemption and hope. And this is a skilfully constructed and very well-written thriller to boot – John really does pull off that very difficult trick of entertaining and enlightening his readers simultaneously. Highly recommended.

Read an extract from the novel here, courtesy of dead good books. And there’s a great Q&A with the author over at Sarah Ward’s Crimepieces blog.

D. B. John also co-wrote The Girl with Seven Names, a memoir by North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.

A depressing coda: today Donald Trump gave an interview to Fox News in which he said ‘Hey, he’s [Kim Jong Un] the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same’. It’s the strongest indication yet of Trump’s dictatorial leanings and should set alarm bells clanging everywhere.

Going south: Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird (USA), Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (GER), Brynard’s Weeping Waters (South Africa)

Today I explore three interesting crime novels from different countries, which have a southern geographical setting in common — Texas in the American south, the Black Forest in south-west Germany, and a remote corner of South Africa.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, Serpent’s Tail, 2017 

Opening line: Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, like his uncles taught him.

I’d heard a number of good things about this novel set in East Texas, and found it a rich and absorbing read. Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose work takes him all across the state, often to isolated communities marked by racial tensions. After becoming too closely involved in a friend’s case, he’s sent to the small town of Lark, where the murders of a local white woman and a black man from Chicago are making waves. While his prestigious status as a Texas Ranger will offer him some protection from the racist forces in the town, he knows he’ll need to keep all his wits about him to stay in one piece.

Bluebird is a finely observed novel that shows us rural America from a range of black American perspectives. Mathews, our lead investigator, is particularly well drawn. Brought up in a highly educated middle-class family, he feels pulled between a safe career in law and his desire for a more hands-on law enforcement role. Deeply conflicted about Texas and the profound racism he encounters, he also has a deep love of the place and its people. His views are complemented by a range of other black voices, such as Geneva Sweet, the sixty-nine-year-old owner of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe offering ‘the best fried pies in Shelby County’. Her family story is one that has probably played out hundreds of times in American history, and is deeply moving.

You can read an extract from the novel at the Serpent’s Tale website.

A brief extra observation: a recent discussion on Facebook explored the lack of black crime bloggers and readers at UK crime conventions and publishing events, and led to a wider discussion about black crime authors. There really aren’t that many big names (Walter Mosley most obviously springs to mind), and it is notable that recent crime novels exploring black American experience (such as Thomas Mullen’s excellent Darktown) are often written by white authors. All the more reason to be delighted that Attica Locke is such a crime writing success story.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, 2018 [2004]) 

Opening lines: Louise Boni hated snow. Her brother had died in the snow, her husband had left her in the snow and she had killed a man in the snow.

Zen and the Art of Murder is the first in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Louise Boni’ series, and is set in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. It opens with a rather unusual sight: a Japanese monk, dressed only in a robe and sandals, is wandering through the snow. He is injured, but doesn’t seem to want official help, accepting only a cheese roll before trudging on through the snowy landscape. When Boni and her local police contacts follow him to find out what’s going on, the mystery suddenly takes a frightening and serious turn.

On one level, Zen is a police procedural that shows us the inner workings of a police investigation and the sometimes fraught dynamics of a police team investigating a stressful case. But the figures of the Zen monk and chief inspector Louise Boni – who is dealing with personal demons, traumatic memories from a previous case and borderline alcoholism – give the narrative a fascinating off-kilter feel. Much of the novel is seen from Boni’s embattled perspective, as she struggles to piece things together with unshakeable determination and undoubted investigative talent. The result is a highly unusual and beguiling police procedural, whose complex lead protagonist will stay with you for a long time to come.

Oliver Bottini is appearing on a special Krimi panel at this year’s CrimeFest – of which more soon!

Karin Brynard, Weeping Waters, trans. from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon

Opening lines: The call came through just after two. He was at his desk at the police station, having his lunch of vetkoek and mince. 

Like Zen’s Louise Boni, Inspector Albertus Beeslaar is a traumatised cop. Haunted by the consequences of a case gone wrong, he has fled the big city of Johannesburg for a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Already dealing with a spate of stock thefts in farms around the area, he now receives a call telling him that a local artist, Frederika Swarts, has been found murdered on her family farm, along with the four-year-old child she was planning to adopt. He embarks on the investigation with rookie policemen Ghaap and Pyl, while fighting off ever more frequent panic attacks.

While I found some parts of Weeping Waters a little uneven, there also was much to like. The characterisation of Beeslaar and of Freddie’s estranged sister Sara are excellent, and the latter’s struggle with guilt and grief is particularly well drawn. The novel also has a fantastic sense of place: the incredible heat and vastness of the desert landscape are brought vividly to life, as is the claustrophobic nature of small-town life. There’s also a good attempt to explore on-going racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa – for example how the murders of white farmers are exploited for political gain by right-wing factions. I also very much appreciated the translators’ approach to rendering the Afrikaans dialogue – the syntax and vocabulary are kept close to the original in such a way that you can really hear the characters’ voices and appreciate their local culture.

The novel is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, and is the first in a series.

El Guardián Invisible (film), Mindhunter (TV) and three Must Reads for 2018

Happy 2018, everyone! After a little hiatus, I’ve started getting back into some crime TV and film. I watched two gems over the festive break, each of which (oddly) featured serial killers and FBI inspectors, but were very different to one another in mood and tone.

The first was El Guardián Invisible, the 2017 Spanish film adaptation of Dolores Redondo’s novel of the same name, published as The Invisible Guardian here in 2015 (translated by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins). I loved the book and thought this was an excellent adaptation – faithful to the original while adding a stunning extra dimension through the visuals of Navarre’s atmospheric landscapes and weather. The rain seems to be torrential in pretty much every scene, which must have been fun for the actors… I particularly liked Marta Etura’s portrayal of lead investigator Amaia Salazar, an outstanding FBI-trained investigator, who returns to her home town to track a serial killer, and has to face up to her toxic relationship with her mother. It’s a hard-hitting, but satisfying watch.

The second was the Netflix Original series Mindhunter, which I resisted for a while due to its tough subject matter. But I kept hearing good things, and a recommendation from Brian, a regular reader of this blog, eventually led me to give it a go. And I’m glad I did, because it turns out to be a fascinating portrait of how the FBI developed a methodical approach to understanding and identifying serial killers in the 1970s. Based on the book by FBI agent John E. Douglas, the series shows two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench (Jonathan Groff/Holt McCallney), becoming increasingly aware of the rise of the serial killer in modern American society, and attempting to gain insights into the phenomenon by interviewing serial killers and helping police forces with their investigations. They are joined by Boston psychology professor Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who helps them work more systematically in building up their database and deepens their knowledge of how serial killers are formed and how they think. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I’m definitely going to stick with it, although it’s a very difficult watch in places (no gratuitous violence, but the details of the crimes are given verbally and sometimes shown in the photos used in the investigations). I tend to watch one episode at a time and then switch to something lighter!

I always get a bit of fresh reading energy around the New Year. Having read and enjoyed some Japanese crime fiction just before Christmas, I’m keen to read a little more widely – either by choosing novels set in unusual places or in different historical eras or both. Here are three Must Reads currently on my list:

  • Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail 2017), exploring race relations in East Texas
  • Joe Thomas’ Paradise City (Arcadia 2017), set in Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Nicolas Verdan’s The Greek Wall (trans. by W. Donald Wilson, Bitter Lemon Press 2018), set on the border of Turkey and Greece

Which crime novels are on your Must Read list for 2018?