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…?

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Tasty treats: Sherlock Holmes, Chinese crime, John le Carré and some publishing news

All sorts of interesting bits of crime news have come my way in the last couple of weeks…and are now gathered here for your delectation.

sherlock

A three-volume collection of over 60 new Sherlock Holmes stories appeared on 1st October, edited by David Marcum (MX Publishing). As well as being an absolute feast for Holmes fans, the collection supports a brilliant cause: all royalties will be used to fund preservation projects at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home, Undershaw. You can read more details of how the Undershaw rescue mission and new collection came about – a heady tale of determined fans, thwarted property developers and support from Mark Gatiss (co-creator of the TV drama Sherlock) – in this Radio Times article.

Thanks to Martin Rosenstock for alerting me to the new Sherlock adventures. Martin is one of the authors featured in the collection, and has also contributed an excellent chapter on Swiss crime fiction to our forthcoming Crime Fiction in German volume. In fact, he opens that chapter with a reference to Sherlock Holmes’ apparent demise at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, creating a rather lovely virtuous circle!

WU-Alum-Qiu-Xiaolong-book-covers-2

Chinese President Xi has been on the receiving end of a charm offensive during his recent visit to the UK, as various deals are sealed including a 25 billion pound nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset. So I was very interested to see this piece by Bruce Jacobs, entitled ‘Qiu Xiaolong’s Detective Chen novels give clues to unravelling the mysteries of China‘. I read the first in the Chen series, Death of a Red Heroine, a good while ago, and remember liking it, but hadn’t realised that there are now nine in the series. Jacobs shows how the Chen novels give ‘excellent insights into China from the time of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution to the present’, and, as the covers above indicate, explore the interaction of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Chinas. Thanks to Craig Sisterson for posting this piece on Facebook.

John le C

Regular readers to this blog will know that I am a huge John le Carré fan – you can read my appreciation of his novels here. A major new biography by Adam Sisman has just been published by Bloomsbury, which examines le Carré’s life and his career as a spy and writer in detail. There’s a long piece by Sisman in The Guardian today entitled ‘From cold war spy to angry old man: the politics of John le Carré’, which explores how the author’s political views have become more left-wing over time. Sisman uses a great German term to account for this – Alterszorn (the rage of age) – and provides some excellent insights into a number of le Carré’s novels. Well worth a read.

Untersetzer_100mm_04

‘My emergency plan: A Prosecco to wake up. Then an expresso with a shot. Around eleven, the first beer. And so on in stages’. Yours, Aunt Poldi

And finally, some publishing news generated by the Frankfurt book fair:

  • No Exit Press has acquired The Harbour Master and Night Market by Daniel Pembrey. They are the first and second installments of ‘The Amsterdam Quartet’ featuring police detective Henk van der Pol.
  • Bitter Lemon Press has acquired the English-language rights to the hilarious German crime novel Aunt Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, which will be published in 2016. Author Mario Giordano will be in London on 10th November at the Goethe Institut to talk about the book. It’s a free event – for further details see here.
  • Orenda Books has secured a three-book deal for Michael Stanley’s Detective Kubu Botswana crime novels Deadly Harvest, A Death in the Family and Dying To Live.
  • And Orenda has also acquired World English Language rights for Norwegian crime writer Thomas Enger’s next two titles in the ‘Henning Juul’ series, Coat of Arms and Mortal Wound.