Bad case of Weltschmerz? Try Indian elephants, Icelandic chills and Series 2 of The Code

Tearing your hair out over Brexit? Anxious about the US election results? Worried about the bees and climate change? If so, you may be suffering from a German malady called Weltschmerz – a sense of frustration, pain and despair at the state of the world (Welt = world; Schmerz = pain, ache, sorrow).

When Weltschmerz strikes crime fans, certain reading difficulties may arise. You may not feel in quite the right mood to tackle a social crime novel revealing further grim realities about the world, or noir crime devoid of the faintest glimmer of happiness or hope. You may instead find yourself drawn to crime that provides a refreshing antidote or escape, also known as Respite Crime.

Option 1. Comedy crime involving baby elephants

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Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation (Mulholland Books/Hodder, 2015)

Any crime novel that’s been called ‘utterly charming’ (The Guardian) or ‘endearing’ (The Sunday Times), would normally make me run for the hills. The same goes for crime series that use excessive whimsy (‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, I’m looking at you). While The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra strays into such territory occasionally, there’s enough grit about modern-day Indian life in Mumbai to give this novel plenty of interest and depth.

The opening shows Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who’s about to retire from the police, discovering that he’s inherited an Indian elephant from his uncle Bansi. A cute, baby elephant. When Chopra investigates one last case – the suspicious death of a young man found on some waste ground – policeman and elephant form an unlikely investigative team. It’s a well-written, entertaining and satisfying read, and a funny, life-affirming antidote to Weltschmerz.

Did I mention the baby elephant? He’s really cute.

Option 2. Scare yourself witless with terrifying Icelandic crime

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Why Did You Lie?, trans by Victoria Cribb (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016 [2013]; a 2017 Petrona Award submission).

Or you could go completely the other way and immerse yourself in a chilling world where hapless individuals are being killed off one by one for telling lies. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of a young policewoman whose journalist husband has recently committed suicide, a work group stranded on the Þrídrangar lighthouse as hostile Icelandic weather closes in, and a family who return after a house-swap to find their American guests are missing. The author has an impressively fertile imagination and expertly ratchets up the suspense. It’s perhaps not one to read too late at night, but is brilliant at keeping Weltschmerz at bay. You’ll simply be too terrified to think about anything else.

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The Þrídrangar lighthouse

Option 3. Lose yourself in some top-quality crime drama set on the other side of the world

By happy coincidence, the second series of outstanding Australian political thriller The Code starts on BBC4 this Saturday 22 October at 9.00pm. Series 1 aired back in 2014 – you can read my post on it here.

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Opening episode: After the events of series 1, journalist Ned Banks and his computer hacker brother Jesse face the prospect of being extradited to the US to face criminal charges. Fortunately for them, Australian National Security has an explosive case it can’t crack, and Jesse may be the man to do it. The brothers also encounter black-market king Jan Roth, and risk being drawn into his shady world. 

If those options fail, treat yourself to this lovely clip of Mike, aka the ‘Hamster of Serenity’. Here he is eating a carrot. If you turn the volume up you can hear him munching.

The Library Suicides (Wales) & 2016 CWA Dagger Awards

One great plus of this decade’s Scandi crime-drama boom has been getting Brits into subtitled international crime drama from Europe and beyond. In recent years, this trend has also fuelled the success of Welsh-language crime drama Y Gwyll (Hinterland), which has been deftly exported back to a number of European countries.

Welsh-language thriller The Library Suicides (Soda Pictures, 2016) is enjoying similar success. Adapted from Fflur Dafydd’s bestselling novel Y Llyfrgell (The Library) and directed by Euros Lyn (Doctor Who, Sherlock, Broadchurch, Happy Valley), it received the prize for ‘Best Performance’ at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and was nominated in the ‘Best Film’ category at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in Germany. I watched it on the big screen at Swansea’s The Taliesin this week and loved it. 

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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 stylish, clever thriller had me gripped from the outset. The twins are superbly played by Catrin Stewart, with a fantastic supporting cast – especially spliff-smoking night porter Dan (Dyfan Dwyfor). The film’s tone 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 can have on others.

Click here to see a clip.

After the film, there was an illuminating Q&A with writer Fflur Dafydd, who is also a lecturer in creative writing at Swansea University. She talked about the six-year process of getting the adaptation made with various partners including BBC Films, and the kinds of compromises that are required of the writer along the way. For example, while the film is clearly based on the book, some core elements were changed (the film is set in the present rather than the future), and the experience of the director and production team sometimes guided decisions – such as cutting certain scenes in order to maintain the pace of the film.

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Writer Fflur Dafydd and director Euros Lyn

Fflur also spoke about the reception of the film in different places. In Edinburgh, audiences had viewed it primarily as a thriller rather than as a Welsh-language film, while in Germany, there was a positive response to hearing Welsh for what was probably the first time. The English title was extended in translation from The Library to The Library Suicides for commercial reasons – and as a nod to the novel The Virgin Suicides.

The Library Suicides is available to pre-order on DVD (in Welsh with English subtitles)

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The CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) Dagger Awards were held last night at a swanky gala dinner in London. Here are the winners – many congratulations to them all!

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Goldsboro Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year – Bill Beverly, Dodgers (USA, No Exit Press). The story of a young LA gang member named East, who is sent by his uncle, along with some other teenage boys, to kill a key witness hiding out in Wisconsin.

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Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best crime thriller of the year – Don Winslow, The Cartel (USA, William Heinemann). A powerful account of the drug wars in early 2000s Mexico. 

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John Creasey New Blood Dagger for the best debut crime novel – Bill Beverly, Dodgers (USA, No Exit Press). A double winner! See above.

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International Dagger for crime fiction translated and published in the UK – Pierre Lemaître, The Great Swindle, trans by Frank Wynne (France, MacLehose Press). This novel opens with murder in the last days of the Great War and continues in peace-time with profiteering, criminal negligence, cooked books and a spectacular fraud.

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Non-Fiction Dagger – Andrew Hankinson, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) (Scribe)

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Dagger in the Library to the author of the most enjoyed collection of work in libraries – Elly Griffiths, author of the ‘Dr Ruth Galloway’ series of forensic archaeology mysteries and the ‘Stephens & Mephisto’ series. (Quercus)

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Author Elly Griffiths

Short Story Dagger for a short crime story published in the UK – John Connolly, On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier from Nocturnes 2: Night Music (Hodder and Stoughton)

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Debut Dagger for unpublished writers – Mark Brandi, Wimmera (Australia). Fab is haunted by a terrible secret. A chance discovery threatens to uncover his past, and expose the dark underbelly of Australian rural life.

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Endeavour Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel – David Young, Stasi Child (Twenty7Books), which is set in East Germany in the 1970s. Oberleutnant Karin Müller is summoned to the Berlin Wall to investigate the death of a girl who has apparently been shot trying to cross the wall… from the West.

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Diamond Dagger for outstanding achievement – Peter James, the author of the much loved ‘Roy Grace’ series.

Further information about the shortlisted books and winners is available at the CWA website.

Extensive re-run of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on now!

Thanks to Andy Lawrence for spotting that BBC Radio 4 is re-running episodes from Mark Lawson’s excellent ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on BBC Radio Four extra and BBC iPlayer Radio. Most episodes will be available online for a month following broadcast, and offer 15-minute opportunities to delve into the work of key crime writers and traditions from around the world.

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The ‘Foreign Bodies’ series are close to my heart for their celebration of international crime fiction, their focus on some of our most interesting detective figures, and their analysis of how crime fiction is used to explore important political and social issues. I was also lucky enough to contribute to two episodes in Series 1 – on the works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Jakob Arjouni respectively.

Here’s a list of the ‘Foreign Bodies’ programmes you can listen to via BBC Radio iPlayer, either now or in the coming days. If you’re looking for some gems to add to your reading list, then these programmes are definitely for you.

Series 1, Episode 1  Belgium: Hercule Poirot and Jules Maigret (Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon)

Series 1, Episode 2  Switzerland/Germany: Inspector Bärlach (Friedrich Dürrenmatt… with a contribution from Mrs Peabody)

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Series 1, Episode 3  Czechoslovakia: Lieutenant Boruvka (Josef Skvorecky)

Series 1, Episode 4  The Netherlands: Commissaris Van Der Valk (Nicolas Freeling)

Series 1, Episode 5  Sweden: Inspector Martin Beck (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö)

Series 1, Episode 6  UK: Commander Dalgliesh/Chief Inspector Wexford (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell)

Series 1, Episode 7  Sicily: Inspector Rogas (Leonardo Sciascia)

Series 1, Episode 8  Spain: PI Pepe Carvalho (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán)

Series 1, Episode 9  UK: DCI Jane Tennison (Linda La Plante)

Episodes 10 to 15 are not yet listed as available, but they may well be soon – I’ll update if so (these include Montalbano/Italy, Kayankaya/Germany, Rebus/Scotland, Wallander and Salander/Sweden, Harry Hole/Norway and Fandorin/Russia).

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Series 3, Episode 1  Cuba: an exploration of fictional investigations of Cuba after the Castro revolution with Leonardo Padura, author of The Havana Quartet, and Caroline Garcia-Aquilera, a Cuban-American writing from exile in Miami.

Series 3, Episode 2  USA: Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, the creators of private eyes Tess Monaghan and Easy Rawlins, discuss how they introduced the experience of women and black Americans into crime fiction dominated by men and a McCarthyite fear of outsiders.

Series 3, Episode 3  Poland: Zygmunt Miloszewski and Joanna Jodelka reflect on how Polish crime fiction depicts the country’s occupation by Nazis and Communists, the transition to democracy through the Solidarity movement and lingering accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

Series 3 Episode 4  Australia: Australia’s leading crime novelist, South African-born Peter Temple, discusses depicting a society shaped by both British colonialism and American power, and why Australian crime fiction should contain as few words as possible.

Series 3 Episode 5  Nigeria: Writers Helon Habila and C.M. Okonkwo discuss how a flourishing new tradition of Nigerian crime fiction explores British legacy, tribal tradition and the new “corporate colonialism” as global companies exploit the country’s mineral reserves.

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Mark Lawson’s article on the first ‘Foreign Bodies’ series is also available via The Guardian: ‘Crime’s Grand Tour: European Detective Fiction’.

TV crime drama (Deep Water & McMafia) and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel

Two TV crime dramas in the pipeline have recently caught my eye.

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Noah Taylor in Deep Water (photo Sean O’Reilly/SBS)

Deep Water (BBC Four)

From the BBC press release: ‘A gripping four-part crime drama set in contemporary Australia, the series is inspired by the unsolved gay-hate crime epidemic that swept through Sydney in the 80s and 90s, known as the Bondi Beach Murders.

The drama unfolds after detectives Tori Lustigman and Nick Manning are assigned a brutal murder case. They uncover evidence that suggests the killing is connected to a spate of unexplained deaths, ‘suicides’ and disappearances throughout the 80s and 90s. Is this the result of shoddy police work, indifference, or something far more sinister?’

The series stars Noah Taylor as detective Nick Manning; Yael Stone as detective Tori Lustigman; William McInnes as Inspector Peel; Daniel Spielman as Rhys; and Danielle Cormack as Brenda. It’s a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia & Screen New South Wales. Transmission date to be confirmed, but probably in the autumn.

There’s a bit more info in this Guardian article by Steph Harmon.

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McMafia (BBC One)

From the BBC press release: ‘Inspired by Misha Glenny’s bestselling book McMafia – a hard-hitting look at global crime – Hossein Amini and James Watkins have created a thrilling international crime drama that centres on one family in London.

James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) will play the lead, Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia past. 

McMafia charts Alex’s journey through a terrifying labyrinth of international criminals, money launderers, corrupt politicians and ruthless intelligence agencies. He finds himself embroiled in an underworld that stretches from London to Moscow, Dubai to Mumbai, Africa to the Americas; a battleground where Mexican cocaine cartels compete with Pakistani drug lords, Balkan smugglers and the Russian Mafia itself. What starts out as a story of survival and revenge becomes an epic tale of a man’s struggle against the lures of corruption in the modern world and in himself.

This fast-paced thriller is epic and intimate, glamorous and gritty, global in scale and forensic in detail. It delves into how, with the rise of globalization, the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate and how, driven by the global demand for cheap products, everyone is complicit in some way.

The writing team includes David Farr (The Night Manager, Spooks, Troy – Fall Of A City), Peter Harness (Doctor Who, Wallander, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and Laurence Coriat (Wonderland, Me Without You).’ Cuba Pictures. Transmission date tbc.

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

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

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge John le Carré fan (see my post ‘In praise of John le Carré‘), so I’m delighted that his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life is now out with Penguin. Stacks of fabulous content has been released to promote the book, including an extract, readings from le Carré’s works by actors such as Rachel Weisz, and fantastic TV interview snippets. My favourite insight from the author so far: conflict makes for a good story (thus ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is not a promising start, whereas ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is).

le Carré will be reading extracts from The Pigeon Tunnel on BBC Radio 4 from Monday 12 September in the ‘Book of the Week’ slot.

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.

Catching up with Australian political thriller The Code

This post is about Series 1 of The Code.

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The last couple of weeks have been busy, so it was only last night I realised that a bit of a gem is currently being shown in the BBC4 Saturday night crime slot.

The Code is a six-part Australian political thriller, which begins with the mysterious death of Aboriginal teenager Sheyna Smith in Lindara, a remote New South Wales township. For reasons that are unclear, the circumstances of her death have to be 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, trouble comes a-calling. Back in Lindara, Sheyna’s schoolteacher Alex Wisham gets pulled into the case in unexpected ways.

Jesse does stuff that he most probably shouldn’t do

I caught up with the first episode this evening, and very much liked what I saw. The plot is gripping, the characterisation is excellent, and the production is sleek and stylish, with wonderful shots of the Australian outback calling to mind New Zealand’s Top of the Lake. By coincidence, the character of Ian Bradley is played by David Wenham, who also appeared in Top of the Lake, and there’s another well-known face in Lucy Lawless (Xena; Spartacus; Battlestar Galactica) as Alex Wisham. Dan Spielman and Ashley Zukerman create a very nice dynamic as brothers Ned and Jesse.

Shades of Top of the Lake (wide open spaces hiding secrets and lies), The Bridge (young Jesse) and Sherlock (the neat use of graphics) – what’s not to like?

There’s an article exploring the drama with its creator Shelley Birse over in The Guardian (some spoilers). Note also the irony of an Australian political thriller being partially funded by the Australian government!

There’s a BBC guide to the characters and cast here.

#44 / Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar

Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar (ebook: Melbourne, Text Publishing, 2006)         4 stars

Opening line: The sluggish Bangkok traffic forced Jayne Keeney to slow to a crawl at Siam Square.

Behind the Night Bazaar is the first novel in the Jayne Keeney series by Australian author Angela Savage, and was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Best First Book Award in 2007. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for ages and am glad I finally have, as it’s an excellent debut that vividly evokes its Thai setting. As a bonus, it’s distracted me from the cold of the British winter and triggered some happy back-packing memories from my youth.

Jayne Keeney is an Australian private investigator based in Bangkok, who is pulled into a murder investigation when visiting her good friend Didier, an HIV-outreach worker in Chiang Mai. Certain that the authorities are guilty of a cover-up, Jayne sets out to expose the truth behind the case and to right some wrongs.

Among the many things I liked about this crime novel were the depiction of Jayne as an independent woman and highly capable investigator who speaks flawless Thai (being bilingual is an essential asset for her work); the inspiration Jayne takes from crime classics such as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple during her investigation (even as the narrative draws on the conventions of hard-boiled crime); the wonderful evocation of place and the insights we’re given into Thai culture (oh the food!); and last but not least, the guest appearance of a diva academic…(I promise we’re not all like that).

The author also explores larger social issues, such as HIV and the sex trade (drawing on her own time in Bangkok as head of the Australian Red Cross HIV/AIDS sub-regional programme), and I was impressed by the way that these were integrated into the main narrative. Savage takes care to avoid stereotyping, providing a nuanced examination of difficult issues, such as why women might opt to become sex-workers. Notable too, are the rounded depictions of the villains in the novel, which show us the flawed logic they employ to justify their crimes.

In sum, The Night Bazaar is a highly impressive opener, and I’m very much looking forward to the next novel in the series, The Half Child.

Angela has an author/crime blog that’s a great read, and has recently posted her crime picks of the year over at Pulp Curry – including the rather intriguing Australian/Icelandic novel Burial Rites.

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#36 / Wendy James, The Mistake

Wendy James, The Mistake (Penguin / Michael Joseph ebook, 2012). An outstanding portrait of a family in crisis and the repercussions of past mistakes  4.5 stars

Opening line: If, before all this happened, before her – before their – unravelling, she had been asked how her life was, she’d have said that life was good.

The Mistake is Australian author Wendy James’ fourth novel. Like her first, Out of the Silence, which won the Ned Kelly Award for ‘Best First Crime Novel’ and was shortlisted for the Dobbie women’s writing award, it’s a hybrid narrative aimed at a diverse reading audience (doesn’t that cover remind you of something by Jodi Picoult?). While not a conventional crime novel, it raises profound questions about legal and moral boundaries, and the media’s role in pre-judging those it deems to be guilty of transgressing social and cultural norms.

Jodie Garrow is a middle-class wife and mother living in the affluent New South Wales town of Arding. She has the requisite lawyer husband, two children and a dog, and is a respected figure in the local community. However, when daughter Hannah breaks a leg on a school trip to Sydney, Jodie’s carefully ordered existence begins to fall apart. The hospital Hannah is taken to is the same one where Jodie secretly gave birth to a daughter many years before, and when a nurse from that time recognises her, a damaging piece of information comes to light: there is no record of baby Elsa Mary having been given up for adoption as Jodie claims. In the absence of legal proof, the baby may have to be classified as a ‘missing person’ by the police, with suspicion of foul play falling on Jodie as the last documented person to see her alive.

While the question of what happened to the baby looms large, the exploration of the fallout from Jodie’s ‘mistake’ (whatever that turns out to be) is central to this rich, multi-layered narrative. The novel can be read simultaneously as a portrait of a complicated woman, of a family in crisis, of a possible crime, and of the vilification of ‘bad mothers’ by the press. The ‘bad mother’, in this context, is a woman who fails to show the requisite ‘maternal’ qualities or emotion to convince the public that she is innocent of wrong-doing (as in, to a greater or lesser degree, the examples of Lindy Chamberlain, Sally Clark and Kate McCann). We are shown in brilliantly-drawn detail the destruction of an individual’s reputation, and the social consequences for the entire family of the doubts raised about Elsa Mary’s fate.

What stood out for me in particular was the novel’s excellent characterisation, which allows a nuanced picture of Jodie’s identity and her relationships with others to emerge. There’s also a superb analysis of how Jodie is shaped by class, which helps to illuminate her response to her unplanned pregnancy at the age of nineteen. Fittingly for a novel that is critical of a rush to judgement, no absolute moral position is taken. It thereby success-fully avoids stereotyping and knee-jerk reactions, focusing instead on the very individual circumstances that lie behind the case.

I read The Mistake in almost one sitting, and can therefore happily testify to its properties as a page-turner. The plotting and pace are excellent (although there is one ‘lead’ that would surely have been followed up sooner), and its ending will stay with me for a long time to come.

My thanks to Angela Savage for encouraging me to read this novel following an earlier post on crime novels that critique the media (Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Yvonne Erskine’s The Brotherhood). You can read Angela’s own review of The Mistake here as well as Bernadette’s review at ‘Fair Dinkum Crime’ here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Mistake a thought-provoking and utterly gripping 4.5 stars

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The press on trial: crime fiction and the media

One of my favourite things when reading crime fiction is the random emergence of a theme that links successive books. I experienced this recently with three quite diverse novels from Sweden, America and Australia, all of which focused heavily on the role of the media. None were too flattering of journalists and their trade, using the crime narrative to put the press ‘on trial’.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Linda, as in the Linda Murder (2005), is a recently translated Swedish police procedural that investigates the killing of Linda Wallin, a trainee police-woman at Vaxjo Police Academy. The novel is particularly scathing of the media’s sensationalist depictions of female murder victims, which are designed to generate sales: ‘From trainee police officer Linda Wallin, 20. To the Linda murder […] The Kajsa murder, the Petra murder, the Jenny murder… They had quite simply been transformed from women of flesh and blood into media messages’. This transformation is especially resonant in its original Swedish context, where the victim’s first name forms part of a compound noun that reduces her life to no more than its violent end – in this case, the Lindamordet [‘the Lindamurder’]. In contrast, the narrative notes drily, ‘men’s names were never used as prefixes to the word ‘murder”.

Gillan Flynn’s 2011 novel Gone Girl, a darkly humorous dissection of a marriage gone sour, critiques the media’s damaging influence when reporting criminal cases. Husband Nick Dunne, dealing with the press in the aftermath of his wife’s disappearance, soon discovers how fickle journalists can be: he’s styled as an anxious, bereft husband one minute, and as a sinister-looking potential murderer the next. Before long, he’s forced to hire a savvy lawyer who specialises in manipulating media narratives in his clients’ favour. The truth becomes largely superfluous: expensive lawyers and public opinion appear to count more than any meaningful judicial process (one can’t help thinking of the media circus that was the OJ Simpson case, and of the more recent Pistorius case).

Yvonne Erskine’s 2011 novel The Brotherhood is a 360 degree examination of the events leading up to and following a Tasmanian policeman’s murder. The police are shown having to manage press reactions to the killing from the minute the news gets out, a time-consuming and politically sensitive job, as the main suspect has Aboriginal heritage. We’re also introduced to amoral journalist Tim Roberts, who writes up a potentially damaging story knowing that he might jeopardise the case. Investigative journalism is portrayed here as seedy and self-interested, with no positive contribution to make to society.

Three crime novels obviously don’t make a trend, but I’d be interested to know if there are others that are similarly critical of the media. Of course, some crime novels contain more sympathetic depictions of the press: Stieg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon are two examples of journalists who are given leading investigative roles within crime narratives, and who are depicted as thoughtful practitioners of their trade.

If you think of more, let me know – I’ll compile a list if we gather enough!

Update 3 May 2013: The Guardian has just run a profile of Gillian Flynn (interesting discussion on misogyny and female villains amongst other things, including the press angle). My review on Wendy James’ The Mistake (as recommended by Angela Savage in the comments below), can be read here.

What’s your first crime novel of 2013?

For some reason, I always take particular care when choosing my first crime novel of the new year. I like it to be a good one, and one that’s perhaps a little different to crime novels that I’ve read recently. This year I opted for a classic that I’ve been meaning to read for the longest time and was lucky enough to find under the Christmas tree: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Originally published in 1955, it’s still brilliant and chilling in equal measure.

Just for fun, I asked some crime aficionados on Twitter for their first crime novel of the year. Please do feel free to add your own below in the comments. It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of patterns emerge, if any.

I’m off now for my annual adventure on the outdoor ice-rink at the Winter Wonderland. I’ll report back on my bumps and bruises a little later…