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

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Barter Books’ 2016 Christmas tree (photo @Argot101)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitter Lemon Press

No Exit Press 

Orenda Books

Europa Editions

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

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Source: littlescandinavian.com

Women in Translation Month: Claudia Piñeiro’s A Crack in the Wall (Argentina)

August is Women in Translation Month. To celebrate, here’s a bit about Claudia Piñeiro, a giant of South American crime fiction, who was in the UK earlier this summer and appeared at CrimeFest 2016.

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Claudia Piñeiro

Piñeiro is a prestigious journalist and best-selling crime author in her home country of Argentina. Bitter Lemon Press has published four of her novels in English thus far – All Yours, Thursday Night WidowsA Crack in the Wall and Betty Boo. I’ve read the latter two, which are both excellent, but very different from one another in subject-matter and tone – showcasing Piñeiro’s authorial versatility. This is a writer of tremendous range, who’s a keen observer of the world around her, and is particularly good at depicting the highs and lows of middle-age (!).

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A Crack in the Wall (2013 [2009]), expertly translated from Spanish by Miranda France, is a beautifully written crime novel that doubles as a study of troubled masculinity. It’s told from the perspective of architect Pablo Simó, who’s in the grip of a classic mid-life crisis: his marriage is stale, his teenage daughter is being difficult, and he’s reached a professional dead-end designing soulless office buildings. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s plagued by memories of his involvement in a crime, which began innocuously with a complaint about a crack in a wall.

Piñeiro offers us a wry look at Simó’s inner life (when you start calculating how many thousands of days you’ve been married, you know you’re in trouble) – one that doubles as a thoughtful critique of capitalism. An aspect of the novel I particularly liked was that it surprised me: I thought I knew exactly where the story was heading, but the last quarter of the narrative took a stylish turn that led to a rather unexpected conclusion. Architecture buffs are also bound to enjoy a tour of some of Buenos Aires’ Art Nouveau treasures in the novel’s middle section.

You can read an extract from A Crack in the Wall courtesy of Bitter Lemon Press here.

There’s also a lovely interview with the author over at Crime Watch.

There’s more info about ‘Women in Translation Month’ and its aims over at the Biblibio blog. For those of you on Twitter, the hashtag is #WITMonth. Happy reading!

CrimeFest 2016 highlights: Holt, Piñeiro, le Carré, Krimis and The Petrona Award

CrimeFest 2016 took place last week in Bristol, UK. It featured a succession of fabulous panels and, as ever, provided a wonderful opportunity to catch up with other criminally minded readers, as well as the great and the good of the publishing world. Here are my highlights.CFhighreslogo-2016

Anne Holt is one of Norway’s best-known crime writers and the creator of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. She very rarely appears at crime conventions, so it was something of a coup to have lured her to Bristol as a featured guest author.

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Norwegian author Anne Holt

Barry Forshaw’s interview with Holt on Sunday was fascinating and wide-ranging.

  • Holt worked in journalism, as a news anchor, as a lawyer, and briefly as Minister of Justice for Norway. Then, at the age of 40, she moved away from a workaholic lifestyle and started to write. Her first novel was Blind Goddess (1993) and she’s never looked back.
  • Hanne Wilhelmsen was the first lesbian investigative lead in Norwegian crime fiction. Hanne is a complex figure. Due to her upbringing and family background, she’s very private and prefers not to reveal herself to others. In this respect, she’s very different to Holt – a conscious decision in order to make the character more challenging to write.
  • Holt has deep love of British crime, especially Agatha Christie. Her novels are still recruiting readers, for which we should be thankful. The eighth Wilhelmsen novel, 1222, is a homage to the golden age of crime (critics in Norway panned it – she’s not sure why- but it did well in other countries).
  • Holt is friends with Jo Nesbo and has discussed the subject of violence with him. She feels that violence should not be directly described in crime novels unless necessary. She rarely does so (one exception), preferring to focus on the effects of violence instead.
  • Holt says how crime novels do in Germany is a barometer for publishers in relation to British & European markets.
  • Holt on the EU referendum: the EU is an instrument for peace and trade, and it would be a tragedy if Britain were to leave. It could be the beginning of end for the EU.
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Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro

I was also very excited to see Claudia Piñeiro at CrimeFest (and indeed in the UK) for the first time. Piñeiro is an Argentine crime-writing superstar whose work has been translated into numerous languages, but she’s not known here nearly as well as she should be. Bitter Lemon Press has published four of her novels in translation so far, including Betty Boo, which is set in a gated community in Buenos Aires and explores the nature of modern journalism (review pending). Piñeiro is an incredibly versatile writer, whose depictions of Argentine society are astute, insightful and sardonic – I really hope to see more of her work in English in the future.

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Adam Sisman, John le Carré’s official biographer, was also at CrimeFest, in a packed session with broadcaster and writer James Naughtie. Sisman spoke very eloquently about the benefits and challenges of writing on a ‘living subject’. For example, one of le Carré’s conditions was that he should be the first to see the manuscript, and he promptly emailed Sisman 22 pages of notes. At one point he told Sisman ‘it’s very strange to have you here poking around my mind’.

  • Sisman rightly emphasised le Carré’s position at the top of the writing game from the early 60s to the present day.
  • He also noted that le Carré’s political arc was unusual – from establishment to left-wing anger. While studying at Oxford University in the 1950s he spied on other students for MI5, something that troubles him now.
  • The spying terms le Carré uses in his novels are often made up, but have been adopted by spying agencies. One CIA agent told Sisman that le Carré is ‘part of our DNA’.
  • The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue/mimicry, and often rehearses characters’ conversations out loud when on walks.
  • He’s always enthusiastic about the future, about new projects such as The Night Manager, and does not live in the past.

Mrs Pea was also in action, presenting the Crime Fiction in German volume to a delightful audience in one of the ‘In the Spotlight’ sessions. David Young, author of Stasi Child, kindly acted as Draw Meister. Rather impressively, we managed to give away twelve Krimis and two copies of the volume in twenty minutes. Thanks again to the Goethe Institut, Swansea University, the University of Wales Press, Bitter Lemon Press, Penguin, Michael Joseph and Vintage for their support.

Krimi Spotlight collage

Clockwise from top left: David Young (Draw Meister) with Mrs Peabody; a beautifully attentive audience; the Krimi Giveaway winners; the last copy of the volume in the bookshop…

And on Saturday night, the winner of the 2016 Petrona Award was announced: Norwegian writer Jørn Lier Horst for his novel The Caveman (see my interview with the author here). Bob Davidson of Sandstone Press accepted the award on Jørn’s behalf from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the 2015 Petrona winner. You can see the transcript of Jørn’s acceptance speech (which was rather lovely) on the Petrona website, along with details of the shortlisted titles. As ever, I’m very proud to be a judge for this excellent award, set up in memory of Maxine Clarke.

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From left: the winning novel and the Petrona trophy (photo Sandstone Press); Sarah Ward and Barry Forshaw announcing the award with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (photo by Ali Karim); Bob Davidson accepting the award on Jørn’s behalf.

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The Petrona Award judges with Anne Holt (photo by Andy Lawrence)

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of CrimeFest16 in this post. For example, Ian Rankin, another one of the featured guest authors, gave a wonderful interview and treated the audience to an extract of his next Rebus book. Hopefully other bloggers will cover some different events/panels.

And…the CWA International Dagger longlist was also announced. I’ll leave you with the list of nominees below. Please note that two German novels have made the cut (Arango and Rademacher). I’ve also got my eye on Six Four, a Japanese crime novel highly praised by David Peace. Disappointed by the lack of women authors, though.

Title Author Translated by Publisher
The Truth and Other Lies Sascha Arango Imogen Taylor Simon & Schuster
The Great Swindle Pierre Lemaître Frank Wynne MacLehose Press
Icarus Deon Meyer K L Seegers Hodder & Stoughton
The Sword of Justice Leif G.W. Persson Neil Smith Doubleday
The Murderer in Ruins Cay Rademacher Peter Millar Arcadia
The Father Anton Svensson Elizabeth Clark Wessel Sphere
The Voices Beyond Johan Theorin Marlaine Delargy Transworld
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama Jonathan Lloyd-Davis Quercus

Many thanks to the CrimeFest16 organisers for a wonderful four days!

European Literature Festival – Kutscher & Raabe – CrimeFest is on its way!

There’s lots of highly criminal activity in the UK over the next couple of weeks.

Here are a few highlights.

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The European Literature Festival is currently under way, with a packed programme including a very special evening at the British Library on Friday 13 May – tomorrow! ‘Criminal Worlds: Detective Fiction in Europe‘ features three wonderful crime writers – Peter James (UK), Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland; shortlisted for the Petrona Award) and Volker Kutscher (Germany), and is chaired by the marvellous Barry Forshaw. They will be ‘casting their forensic eye on the celebrated and lesser-known investigators of European fiction’. 

Babylon Berlin

Volker Kutscher pops up again at the Goethe Institut London on Monday 16 May to talk about Babylon Berlin, the first in his ‘Gereon Rath’ series, which is published in English by Sandstone Press on 19 May. This bestselling series has sold over a million copies worldwide to date. Its five novels follow the fortunes of Berlin Detective Inspector Rath as he navigates the turbulent political waters of Weimar Berlin, and are both gripping and rich in historical detail. Together with translator Niall Sellar and Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press, Volker will discuss his books, the translation process, and the reception of German crime fiction in Great Britain (further info available here).

AND you can hear Volker talking about Babylon Berlin tonight at 10.00pm on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ programme, together with the celebrated director Tom Tykwer (of Lola Rennt fame), who is adapting the crime series for television. As this Variety article explains, two eight-episode seasons are in the pipeline, scheduled for international release in 2017.

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Another interesting German author is published in English for the first time next week. Melanie Raabe grew up in the former East Germany and has worked as a journalist, magazine editor and playwright. The Trap, published by Mantle/Pan Macmillan, is her first novel and won the Stuttgarter Krimipreis (Stuttgart Crime Prize) for best crime debut. It has a wonderfully intriguing premise: reclusive best-selling writer Linda Conrads is convinced that a journalist she sees on TV is her sister Anna’s killer. She decides to set a trap: after writing a novel about the murder of a woman whose killer is never caught, she offers the journalist an exclusive interview… I’ve read the first couple of chapters and am already hooked.

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CrimeFest takes place next week *excited face*. I’m hugely looking forward to attending and seeing a host of wonderful authors in action, including Anne Holt (Norway), Ian Rankin (Scotland), Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) and Adam Sisman (biographer of John le Carre). And of course the Petrona Award winner will be announced at the gala dinner on Saturday evening :-).

The full CrimeFest programme is available here.

CFIG launch book collage

Mrs. Peabody will also be in action at CrimeFest, with an ‘In the Spotlight’ session on all things Krimi (Friday 20 May at 11.20). There will be a giveaway of ten German-language crime novels, courtesy of the Goethe Institut London, Bitter Lemon Press, Penguin, Michael Joseph and Vintage. Two copies of the Crime Fiction in German volume will also be up for grabs thanks to the Goethe Institut and the University of Wales Press.

And a little reminder: you can download a completely FREE chapter from Crime Fiction in German here!

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Yes! Erich the Bavarian duck will be at CrimeFest!

New Bitter Lemon signings, The Edgars and CrimeFest

Here’s a round up of some interesting crime fiction news and events.

Joshua Farrington of The Bookseller reports that >>Bitter Lemon Press has signed a series of deals for female crime writers from around the world, with the books set to lead the publisher’s schedule in the second half of the year.

Publisher and co-founder Laurence Colchester has acquired titles from Brazil’s Patrica Melo, Turkey’s Esmahan Aykol and Argentina’s Claudia Piñeiro.

Melo’s The Body Snatcher is the story of a drug deal gone wrong, with police corruption and blackmail. Melo’s previous novels Lost World, The Killer, In Praise of Lies and Inferno were published in English by Bloomsbury. The Body Snatchers, which will be published in July, is translated by Clifford E. Landers.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol will be published in September. It is the third in a murder mystery series featuring crime bookshop owner and accidental investigator Kati Hirschel. The previous two books, Hotel Bosphorous and Baksheesh were also published by Bitter Lemon Press, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

Piñeiro’s Betty Boo is set in Buenos Aires, and sees a sensitive woman trying to save her career and personal life while caught up in a criminal conspiracy. Piñeiro’s previous titles, translated by Miranda France, were also published by Bitter Lemon Press. Betty Boo will be published in January 2016.

Colchester said: “We are very proud to bring these three women crime writers from Brazil, Turkey and Argentina to English speaking readers. It is part of our mission as an independent press to introduce new voices from abroad and here, in the autumn season of 2015, are three of the most successful women writing in the crime genre today.”<<

Over in the States, the annual Edgar Awards have taken place. A full list of the nominees and winners is available here. The focus is on English-language crime, and a number of titles have already migrated to my groaning TBR pile, such as Ben Winter’s World of Trouble, which is the final installment in The Last Policeman series (see my discussion of his earlier work here).

The winner in the best novel category was Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, which I’m currently half way through and enjoying very much (although I will never look at a hamburger in the same way again).

Last but not least, the international crime fiction convention CrimeFest takes place in Bristol next week, with a sterling programme you can see in full here. I’m very much looking forward to attending, not least because this year’s special guest is Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall, co-author of the seminal Martin Beck series, and she will be helping us to present the 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I have been enjoying all the online speculation about the Petrona shortlist. The judges have now made their choice…! But will you agree?!

Merry Christmas! Mrs Peabody’s festive round-up

I’m behind on my Christmas preparations this year, which means that this festive round-up is a little later than usual. On the plus side, it may help a few of you out of a last-minute present conundrum, or lead you to a nice, independent bookshop because it’s too late for online orders. You might also be moved to buy yourself a little gift. Go on, you deserve it.

The following are just some of my favourite crime novels of the year. All, in my view, would make a delightful escape from the mayhem of Christmas or family, especially when curled up on the sofa with a nice glass of wine.

Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Anderson, The Lion’s Mouth (NORWAY: trans. by Anne Bruce, Corvus, 2014). Anne Holt is often described as the queen of Norwegian crime, and has drawn expertly on her own career in the police, law and government in the creation of the ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ police series (she was even Norwegian Minister of Justice for a while). This fourth installment in the series, originally published in 1997, explores the suspicious death of the Norwegian Prime Minister, who is found dead in her office just six months following election. A fusion of locked-room mystery, Borgen and police procedural, it’s a quietly satisfying read that’s held up well.

Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights (ICELAND: trans. by Victoria Cribb, Harvill Secker, 2014). This prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series is a wonderfully absorbing read, which traces the start of Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are also shown how a traumatic childhood event begins to shape Erlendur’s personal life and investigative career. The novel is a great read for those who are new to the series and for long-established Erlendur fans alike.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (AUSTRALIA/ICELAND: Picador, 2013). This impressive debut novel by a young Australian author is not for those looking for ‘cosy’ Christmas crime. Kent spent some time in Iceland as an exchange student and describes the book as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country: set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last Icelandic woman to be executed for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas stayed with me long after reading it.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (NORWAY: trans. by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2014, [2010]) sounds like a horror film that’s best avoided after a large meal. However, it turns out to be something quite different: a well-constructed and witty homage to the classic crime fiction of Agatha Christie, set in 1968 Oslo, which has some interesting historical depth. Featuring ambitious young police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen on his first big case – the murder of a former resistance fighter – readers are treated to an apartment building of intriguing suspects and a page-turning investigation, as well as the considerable intellect of Kristiansen’s wheelchair-bound partner Patricia.

Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone (USA: Faber and Faber, 2014). Ignore the rather daft cover. After I’m Gone is a literary crime novel that dissects a murder case by means of a rich narrative with some wonderful characterisation (the latter is one of Lippman’s great strengths). Told on a number of different time levels, it traces the stories of five women left behind when white-collar criminal Felix Brewer disappears in July 1976 – his wife Bambi Gottschalk, his three daughters, and his mistress Julie – as well as the investigation into Julie’s murder by detective Sandy Sanchez in the present. An engrossing, quality read.

Anya Lipska, Death Can’t take a Joke (UK/POLAND: The Friday Project, 2014). This is the second in the ‘Kiszka and Kershaw’ series, featuring Polish ‘fixer’ Janusz Kiszka and London police detective Natalie Kershaw. While I enjoyed Lipska’s first novel, Where the Devil Can’t Go, the second is where the series really gets into its stride: the duo’s investigation into two deaths, including one of Kiszka’s closest friends, is a tightly constructed page-turner with an engaging, blackly comic tone. The novel also features one of the best first chapters I’ve read this year… For a more in-depth exploration, head over to Margot Kinberg’s marvellous Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

Marco Malvaldi, Game for Five and Three Card Monte. 1 and 2 of the ‘Bar Lume Trilogy’ (ITALY: Europa Editions/World Noir 2013/14). These light-hearted crime novels feature amateur detective Massimo Viviani, the maverick owner of Bar Lume, investigating mysterious deaths in Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo is ably assisted in his work by four cantankerous, octogenarian barflies, including his own extremely opinionated grandfather. Witty, entertaining and stylishly packaged.

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (ARGENTINA: trans. by John Cullen, Other Press, 2011 [2005]). I was given this novel last Christmas and it became one of my first and favourite reads of the year. Benjamin Miguel Chaparro, a newly retired Deputy Clerk in Buenos Aires, begins to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself. The 2010 film adaptation was also a cracker. A full review is available here.

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow (FRANCE/LAPLAND: trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie, Trapdoor, 2014). This novel uses its criminal investigation as a means of exploring the history, culture and climate of Lapland. It also features the reindeer police! The novel opens with Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and partner Nina Nansen investigating the theft of a priceless Sámi drum from a museum. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9′ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked. A gripping novel that shines a spotlight on a fascinating part of the world. A full review is available here.

If the crime lover in your life is into TV drama, then my two top picks are as follows:

The Australian series The Code, which aired on BBC4 a few weeks ago and I reviewed enthusiastically here. This six-part political thriller opens with the mysterious death of Aboriginal teenager Sheyna Smith in Lindara, a remote New South Wales township. The circumstances of her death are hushed up, so when Ned Banks (a journalist for an internet newspaper) and his brother Jesse (an internet hacker on the autistic spectrum) start to investigate, you just know there’s going to be trouble. An utterly gripping, intelligent drama.

British police drama Happy Valley, a hard-hitting, six-part series that traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, while exploring its protagonists’ complex personal lives. Sarah Lancashire gives an absolutely outstanding performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, together with an excellent supporting cast. Be warned that there is some very graphic (though in my view not gratuitous) violence. I think that 18 would be a more accurate rating than the 15 on the box. An addictive and top quality crime series.

And my own indulgence this Christmas? That would be the American drama True Detective, which I’m very much looking forward to watching. Have you indulged yourself as well? Do share if so!

Wishing all the readers of this blog a very happy and relaxing Christmas.

See you all in 2015!

German Zimtsternchen (little cinnamon star).    Quite addictive.

#45 / Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (La pregunta de sus ojos), translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (New York, Other Press, 2011 [2005])  5 stars

Opening line: Benjamin Miguel Chaparro stops short and decides he’s not going.

I’d been looking forward to reading The Secret in Their Eyes ever since seeing Juan José Campanella’s film adaptation, which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Happily, the novel was as pleasurable to read as the movie was to view – a complex, multilayered narrative of genuine humanity and warmth.

Benjamin Miguel Chaparro is newly retired from his position as Deputy Clerk of an investigative court in Buenos Aires. Now a man of leisure, he decides to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: grieving husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself.

While undoubtedly crime fiction, The Secret in Their Eyes is also partly a historical novel, exploring the time before, during and after Argentina’s Guerra Sucia or Dirty War. This period (1976-1983) saw a state-sponsored campaign of violence against citizens deemed to be leftist and/or politically subversive, resulting in the ‘disappearance’ of between 13,000 and 30,000 ArgentiniansBoth narrative strands – the criminal and the historical – provide an in-depth consideration of the nature of justice, and the impact of a justice that is delayed or denied. But at the same time, the novel can also be viewed as a pair of love stories – that of a husband and wife (Ricardo Morales and Liliana), and of long-time co-workers (Benjamin and his boss, Irene Hornos) – as well as the moving chronicle of a friendship (Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval). Beautifully written, with complex and often endearing characters, the novel is a rich, satisfying read.  

As soon as I finished the novel, I watched the film again. What a fabulous adaptation this is, especially in its use of the visual to bring out key themes (close-ups of eyes and gazes, for example, and the symbolism of the colour red – look out in particular for Irene’s roses). The acting is superb, and the wittiness of the script really captures the dynamics of Benjamin, Irene and Sandoval’s relationships.

But it was also interesting to note some modifications to the plot: Irene is much more of a participant in the film than in the novel (which I liked), and there were a couple of other changes towards the end designed to provide some extra drama (which I wasn’t so keen on). However, the latter certainly aren’t deal-breakers. It’s rare that a novel and film adaptation complement each other so well, and I’d recommend both wholeheartedly.   

If you’re interested in further Argentinian crime set during this period, see Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack.

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Out with the old, in with the new. Happy 2014!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I always love those quiet days between Christmas and New Year. They’re the perfect time for reading, and – for the bloggers among us – provide a great chance to tie up loose ends and plan ahead.

Some loose ends now neatly tied up in a bow:

  • I took part in two reading challenges last year, the 2013 Global Reading Challenge and the 2013 Translation Challenge. I completed both, and enjoyed the global challenge in particular, as it made me reflect on the geographical distribution of my reading (somewhat biased towards Europe and the US). You can see which books I read for the challenges here.
  • I’ve managed to finish my two Christmas reads, which complemented one other very well. Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a literary memoir exploring a father-son relationship and the legacy of Argentina’s military dictatorship. It’s an interesting read, but took a little while to get going (it would probably benefit from a second reading, as the significance of earlier sections becomes clearer in the light of later ones). While not a crime novel, criminality is a key theme and the genre is frequently referenced, albeit in slightly contradictory ways. For example, the narrator comments: ‘I understood for the first time that the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents’ pasts, like detectives, and that what we were going to find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we’d never bought’ (p.152). But then a little later it’s suggested that exploring ‘social crime […] through the artifice of a detective novel’ is inadequate, because ‘the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the conviction that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book, and that the world outside the book is guided by the same principles of justice as the tale told inside and should not be questioned’ (p.153). Of course that’s not always the case: lots of contemporary crime authors have pushed the boundaries of the genre to explore the absence of justice for state crimes. I wonder if Pron has read Ernesto Mallo’s outstanding 2006 crime novel Needle in a Haystack (see my review here), which examines the same historical period? It’s precisely the lack of a resolution/punishment for the crimes committed by the junta that gives the narrative its power.

  • My other Christmas novel was Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House (Harvill Secker 2013), the fourth in the German/Finnish Kimmo Joentaa series, which was an excellent read. Even though each installment is made up of quite similar elements, the quality of the characterisation and narrative construction is such that they never appear formulaic. The starting points in Light in a Dark House are the disappearance of Kimmo’s secretive on-off lover, and the murder of a nameless, comatose woman in a hospital. Intriguingly, the only clue left by the murderer is ‘lacrimal fluid’, or tears.
  • And the connections between the two? The legacies of past violence, unresolved traumas, and the damaging effects of silence. These issues are presented quite differently in each, which makes them an interesting pair to read together.

Looking ahead:

  • Santa was kind enough to bring me a number of crime novels, including Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (Phoenix 2007), Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes (Other Press 2005/2011) and John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (Viking 2013). I’m going to make the Sacheri my first crime novel of 2014, as I enjoyed the Oscar-winning film adaptation of 2010, and am keen to read the original novel. That’ll keep me going on my Argentinian reading path as well for now.
  • As a 2014 Petrona judge, I need to pick up the pace of my reading. Thus far I’ve read 20 of the submissions, which means I have rather a lot to go. (This is by way of a confession to Karen, Barry and Sarah, but I will get cracking now, promise…once I’ve read the Sacheri, that is).
  • More generally, 2014 is going to be different compared to other years, as I’m on research leave for a semester from the end of January *happy face*. More on my plans for that interlude another time…

Wishing you all a great start to the year and many hours of good reading!

Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten!

So we’re about to head off on our seasonal travels. My brother is cooking the big Christmas dinner this year, while the rest of us chill out on the sofa. What a hero.

I’m packing a couple of novels to read over the Christmas break. The first is Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House, the fourth in the German/Finnish Kimmo Joentaa series, and a submission for the 2014 Petrona Award (a list of all the eligible novels can be seen over at Euro Crime). The other is Argentinian writer Patricio Pron’s literary memoir, My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, in which the author/detective investigates his family’s past. I’ve been saving both of these up, and look forward to reading them with a late-night glass of wine. How about you? What literary treats do you have lined up?

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Here are Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat, Kermit the Frog, Pepe the King Prawn, Miss Piggy and Fozzy Bear singing ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’. Enjoy! Viel Spaß!

#12 Ernesto Mallo / Needle in a Haystack

Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack [La aguja en el pajar], translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (London: Bitter Lemon Press 2010 [2006]). This crime novel paints a searing portrait of 1970s Argentina under military rule  5 stars

Opening sentence: Some days the side of the bed is like the edge of an enormous abyss.

This is a hard-hitting crime novel, set against the backdrop of Junta-controlled Argentina in the late 1970s, where power lies primarily in the hands of the military, and ‘disappearances’ of young political activists – supposed ‘subversives’ – are common. Such extra-judicial detentions and executions are typically not questioned by the police (the very body that should be protecting the nation’s citizenry), as doing so is perceived as a pointless exercise that would have extremely negative consequences for the individual.

Superintendent Lascano is a recently bereaved detective (see also Kimmo Joentaa), struggling to maintain his integrity in this morally bankrupt society. In the opening chapter, we see him leaving the house at the beginning of the day, trying to ignore the presumably common sights of bus passengers being searched, and a boy and a girl being driven away in a convoy of military trucks. The girl makes desperate eye-contact with Lascano ‘and then she is swallowed up by the fog’ (8). When Lascano is directed to investigate a report of two bodies dumped by the riverside, he finds that there are now three dead lying there. Unable to investigate the first two, who are clearly the victims of the death squads, he is drawn into investigating the third, and soon finds himself in danger as he treads on some highly-placed military toes.

In the process of following Lascano’s investigations, the reader is presented with a finely-drawn portrait of a corrupt Argentina and its ‘Dirty War’. The narrative is told from a number of viewpoints, giving us multiple perspectives of life under the regime, from a member of a guerrilla cell opposing the Junta (Eva), to the honest cop (Lascano and his friend Fuseli the pathologist), the decadent Argentinian (Amancio, Lara and Horacio), the Jewish businessman (Biterman), the right-wing major (Giribaldi) and the major’s wife (Maisabe). Maisabe is procured a baby by her husband – the newborn son of a young ‘subversive’, who has almost certainly been killed by the regime. The focus is very much on the enormous human price that the younger generation – ‘the kids’ – paid for trying to oppose the regime. The author, who is himself a former member of the anti-Junta movement, would have been the same age as these characters in the 1970s, and it’s hard not to see the novel as a lament for his lost contemporaries and their suffering.

One element I found very interesting was the way that members of the Junta were styled as National Socialists in the novel. For example, we’re told how shortly after a couple have been arrested, the military return to their flat to cart off their possessions: ‘Various conscripts come in and out carrying furniture … and they put everything in the back of a truck, supervised by an arrogant blond captain’ (113). For me, this scene immediately brought to mind the deportations of Jewish citizens in Germany, and the appropriation of their property by the Nazi state (signalled here by the presence of the ‘blond’ captain). Lascano is also Jewish, so there seems to be a fundamental opposition being posited in the novel between good versus evil along the fault-line of Jews:Nazis. The kind of right-wing equivalences being made here also reminded me of Imre Kertész’s 1977 novel Detective Story, which is set in an unspecified South American dictatorship and features a police-man whose interrogation methods are modelled on those of the Nazis. (Kertész is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, and the novel, which can loosely be viewed as a crime novel, is well worth a read – published in translation by Vintage in 2009).

It’s notable (and rather fascinating) that the English translation of Needle in a Haystack was funded by the ‘Sur Translation Support Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Argentine Republic’. This suggests that the novel is viewed as part of a national project of engaging with the crimes committed in the Argentine past. The first two novels are also being adapted for film in Argentina, which will undoubtedly help them reach a wider audience.

Needle in a Haystack is a compelling, absorbing and unsettling read. I’d recommend Mallo to anyone who likes quality crime novels that address serious political issues and the legacies of difficult historical pasts. It’s the first of a trilogy and the second, Sweet Money, is already out with Bitter Lemon Press.

Mrs. Peabody awards Needle in a Haystack an outstanding 5 stars.

Update: for a recent article on the process of bringing former members of the junta to justice for the theft of babies from female political prisoners, see here.