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.

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.

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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?

 

Have yourself a merry little Christmas… Mrs Peabody’s 2017 recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s Christmas recommendations for 2017. Drawing on my top reads of the year, this list should contain something to suit even the most well-read crime fiction lover in your life. And don’t forget to treat yourself while you’re at it!

All available from a wonderful independent bookshop near you…

Masako Togawa, The Master Key, trans Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017, JAPAN)

Masako Togawa was born in Tokyo and led a rich life as a writer, cabaret performer, nightclub owner and gay icon. The Master Key, her debut, was first published in 1962 and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Set in the K Apartments for Ladies (an apartment block similar to the one where the author herself was raised), this off-beat crime novel features an intriguing set of characters – mainly single women hiding secrets, some benign and some criminal. The theft of the master key to all the apartments sets off a sequence of events that disturbs everyone’s equilibrium and risks triggering further crimes. Rich character studies, a 1950s Japanese setting and an original, twist-laden plot deliver high levels of reader satisfaction. Hats off to Pushkin Vertigo for republishing this vintage gem, and to translator Simon Cove for his polished handling of the text. Another Togawa novel, The Lady Killer, is due out next year.

Gunnar Staalesen, Where Roses Never Die, trans. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books 2016, NORWAY)

Where Roses Never Die is the winner of the 2017 Petrona Award. It’s the sixth novel of the famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series to be out in English (set in Bergen on the west coast of Norway), but can easily be read as a standalone. We join private investigator Veum at rock bottom, wallowing in grief and drink, and about to take on a case that will push him to his limits – a cold case whose legal expiry date is drawing near, and which involves the unsolved disappearance of a small girl in 1977. The novel is an elegant fusion of American P.I. conventions and Scandinavian social analysis, but what I really liked was the way the narrative took the reader in an unexpected direction towards the end, delivering an original and convincing denouement.

Thomas Mullen, Darktown (Little, Brown 2016, USA)

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history – the first ever induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department. The murder of a young black woman sees two sets of policemen come into uneasy contact with one another: black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw. Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and adeptly used to unsettle racial stereotypes and easy assumptions. The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opens the reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. An excellent, satisfying read (full Mrs P review here). The second novel in the series Lightning Men, is just out.

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled,  trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2016, FINLAND)

The Exiled, shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award, is the third in the ‘Fekete’ series to be published in English, but makes a good standalone due to its atypical setting – Serbia rather than Finland. We join Finnish police detective Anna Fekete as she visits the Serbian village of her birth to see family and take a holiday. But the discovery of a body pulls her into an investigation that raises a number of questions about her own father’s death decades earlier. As well as exploring the complexities of Fekete’s identity as a Hungarian Serb who has made her life in Finland, this accomplished novel looks with insight and compassion at the discrimination faced by Roma people, and the lot of refugees migrating through Europe.

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017, UK)

As a die-hard le Carré fan, I savoured every word of A Legacy of Spies. The novel opens in the present day, and shows Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s loyal right-hand man, being pulled out of retirement to justify his own and other British Secret Service agents’ actions during the Cold War. Of particular interest are the events surrounding the death of an agent and an innocent civilian – events that will immediately be familiar to readers of The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Not only does le Carré pull off the elegant closing of a literary circle – The Spy was his first major success in 1963 – but he also stays true to his core themes: the moral price and human cost of (maybe) safeguarding the nation. A must for any le Carré fan who hasn’t yet read it. And if your reader has not yet had the pleasure of entering le Carré’s world, then why not treat him or her to The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy as well (to be read in that order before Legacy).

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus 2017, UK/AUSTRALIA)

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. Even so, the town’s residents are stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife and six-year-old son before turning the shotgun on himself. Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, and reluctantly begins to look into the case…and to confront his own troubled relationship with the town. This novel was one of my absolute top reads of the year. The characterization is excellent, the plot is outstanding, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. A gripping police procedural and the first in a series. See the full Mrs P. review here.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2017, FINLAND)

The Man Who Died is a joy from start to finish. It opens with a doctor telling a man he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is just a matter of time. That man is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. Placed in a truly grave situation, Jaakko has to figure out what to do very quickly. The easiest course of action would be for him to give up, but instead he decides to investigate his forthcoming murder with admirable pluck and determination. Comparisons have rightly been drawn between the novel and Fargo: this is a stylish crime caper with lashings of black humour and a lot of heart. A special word of praise too for David Hackston, who also translated The Exile (above). He captures the off-beat humour of the novel perfectly.

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

Mina’s The Long Drop, based on the true case of Scottish rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, is a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow. What makes the novel stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two narrative strands – a long night of drinking by Manuel and William Watt (the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s victims), and Manuel’s trial, which aroused lots of public interest. I found the book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterization 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.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner, trans Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017, GERMANY) 

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner is a polished, quirky German crime novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith is a prickly, awkward character who is extremely good at her job, which happens to be cleaning crime scenes for a specialist company in Berlin. As she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder, Judith unexpectedly comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood, and gets entangled in a potentially life-threatening situation. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read with a wonderfully memorable lead. You may learn some handy cleaning tips along the way as well.

Arnaldur Indriðason, The Shadow District, trans Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker 2017, ICELAND)

I’ve been a big fan of Indriðason’s ‘Erlendur’ series over the years, and so was delighted to hear that the first of his new ‘Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries’ is out in English. The Shadow District interweaves two stories, one from the wartime past and the other from the present. In the first, a young woman is found strangled in Reykjavik’s ‘shadow district’, a rough area of the city. Icelandic detective Flovent investigates the case together with Thorson, a member of the American military police. In the present, retired police detective Konrad gets sucked into the odd case of a 90-year-old man who has been found dead in his apartment. In the course of the narrative, the two timelines begin to overlap in various ways… An absorbing page-turner that doesn’t hesitate to break some genre conventions.

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

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 🙂