Summertime crime (Australia, UK, Iceland)

I hope you’re all in a summery mood and finding time for some relaxing crime fiction – novels that whisk you away from humdrum everyday life and morale-sapping political shenanigans.

Here are three that have done the trick for me lately.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019)

This debut novel, set an isolated Australian town suffering from drought, has attracted some rave reviews. It opens with a puzzle: why would charismatic priest Byron Swift open fire on his own congregation from the church steps one Sunday morning, killing five men? A year on, burned-out journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the impact of the tragedy on the community, and is struck by how what locals say doesn’t always fit into the accepted version of events.

I really enjoyed Scrublands, although things went a teensy bit bananas in the end. Big pluses for me included the intriguing puzzle of Swift’s actions, the depictions of troubled journalist Scarsden and the embattled Riversend community, and an utterly gripping section on the battle to contain a bushfire. The rather irritating characterization of the (stunningly beautiful) love interest and an increasingly overloaded plot were less beguiling. In the end, there were enough twists and turns to fill three crime novels, and the chunks of exposition needed to explain these felt a bit intrusive. But overall this was a worthwhile and entertaining read, and very well written in parts.

Lesley Thomson, The Dog Walker (Head of Zeus, 2017)

Lesley Thomson’s ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ series has become one of my favourites in recent years. I always enjoy the company of her quirky sleuthing duo, Stella Darnell (detective’s daughter and cleaner extraordinaire) and her sidekick Jack Harmon. In The Dog Walker, Stella and Jack investigate the 1987 disappearance of Helen Honeysett, a young wife who went for a run along the Thames towpath one evening and never came home. Suspicion immediately fell on one of her neighbours, but perhaps he was innocent after all? Thomson provides readers with an intriguing array of suspects living in a row of five riverside cottages (there’s a great little map at the front of the novel showing who lives where). The chapters set in the 1980s stand out for their narration of events from a child’s perspective – that of young Megan – and are extremely well observed.

If you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the series opener, The Detective’s Daughter, before you start this one.

Quentin Bates, Cold Breath, Constable 2018 

Another of my favourite investigators is Officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladdóttir, a no-nonsense middle-aged Icelandic policewoman. In this, the seventh novel in Quentin Bates’ absorbing series, Gunna is placed in the unusual position of acting as a police bodyguard to Osman, a high-profile foreign guest. What should be a straightforward assignment turns into something much more serious when there’s an attempt on Osman’s life. The novel tracks events from the perspectives of the would-be assassins, those unfortunate enough to inadvertently get in their way, and Gunna and Osman respectively. The larger mystery of Osman’s identity hangs over proceedings as well. A thrilling plot, strong characterization and plenty of wry humour all make for a great read – and the novel’s Icelandic settings are evocatively drawn.

What stand-out crime novels have you been reading this summer?

Post your recommendations below! 

‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.

Crime smörgåsbord: Jónasson’s The Darkness (Iceland), Kidd’s Himself (Ireland), Miller’s American By Day (US/Norway), Herron’s Slow Horses (UK)

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! Work’s been a bit manic for the last few weeks, and looks set to continue that way for a while, so please excuse the slightly *ahem* stretchy gaps between my posts. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Happily, I’ve still been reading behind the scenes, even if I’ve not managed to post as much as I’d like. Here are some highlights…

Ragnar Jónasson, The Darkness, trans. Victoria Cribb (Penguin 2018, Iceland).

First line: ‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked.

Jónasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Ari Thór’ series, published by Orenda Books. The Darkness is the first in a trilogy called ‘Hidden Iceland’, featuring the rather taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Hulda is about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at its end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing where this trilogy will go next. The Darkness is one of this year’s Petrona Award contenders.

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

First line: ‘Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus and stands in the dead centre of the village of Mulderrig’

Kidd’s The Hoarder was one of my top Christmas picks this year, and made me seek out her debut, Himself, as quickly as I could. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her behaviour and supposedly disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Derek B. Miller, American By Day (Penguin 2018, US/Norway).

First line: Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office.

Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, is one of my favourite crime novels ever (see my rave review here), and this follow up novel features Sigrid Ødegård, the policewoman Sheldon met at the end of that first story. American By Day is a clever counterpart to its predecessor: while Norwegian By Night showed us an American recently transplanted to Norway, American By Day transplants a Norwegian to America, thereby opening the door to a wide-ranging comparison of the two countries’ values and policing cultures, especially in relation to race. Sigrid is a richly drawn, thoughtful character, unsettled by something she did in the course of her policing duties in Norway, and whose brother may have been involved in the death of his girlfriend, an American academic. With the help of US sheriff Irving Wylie and some Sheldon-esque chutzpah, she sets about getting to the bottom of the matter. Intelligent, accomplished and entertaining.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (Hodder & Stoughton 2010, UK)

First line: This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.

I’m extremely late to the party as far as the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series goes, but who cares – I’m here now and I’m having fun. Far from the glamour of the Intelligence Services in Regent’s Park sits Slough House, home of the Slow Horses: agents who in some way or other have screwed up, but can’t quite be pushed out of the service completely as yet. Assigned to mundane tasks and managed by the uncouth Jackson Lamb, each hides painful secrets, while yearning to get back into the action somehow. That moment may have arrived when some kidnappers threaten to broadcast the execution of their hostage Hassan live on the internet. A fabulously entertaining introduction to the Slow Horses, which also has plenty to say about the callousness of ambition and power. Hints of le Carré, but presented in a breezy and darkly humorous way.

Jingle bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations! Each is one of my top reads or views of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jess Kidd, The Hoarder, Canongate 2018 (Ireland/UK)

The star of this highly original crime novel is Maud Drennen, newly appointed carer for ancient, belligerent hoarder Cathal Flood, who lives in a massive house in London and is the despair of social services. Both are Irish exiles and both have secrets to hide. There are mysterious disappearances, perplexing clues and dicey situations, not to mention a supporting cast of half-feral cats, an eccentric landlady and levitating saints. The novel has serious things to say about violence, family dysfunction, social isolation and old age, but is also deliciously irreverent (‘Renata is especially glamorous today, clad in an appliquéd romper suit and feathered mules’), and depicts its characters with warmth and heart. Its language is strikingly rich and expressive.

Joe Ide, IQ, Mulholland Books, 2016 (USA)

Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. Taking inspiration from iconic detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, the novel fuses classic crime with urban noir in its depiction of IQ, an unlicensed black Long Beach detective, and Dodson, his streetwise sidekick (“It’s a hustler’s world, son,” Dodson said, “and if you ain’t doing the hustlin’? Somebody’s hustlin’ you”). It’s a remarkably polished debut that tells an absorbing coming-of-age story while treating us to a cracking investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Inventive, ingenious and authentic, the novel is a moving study of resilience and of life on the rougher side of town, but is also outrageously funny in places. You can read my full review here).

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster, 2017 (Sweden).

The very worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award (of which I’m a judge): “The judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events.” A tough, but excellent read.

Mystery Road, dir. Rachel Perkins, Acorn Media 2008 (Australia)

Mystery Road is set in the arid town of Patterson in north-western Australia. When local worker Marley Thompson goes missing, Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case. As they form an uneasy alliance and the investigation unfolds, we’re shown not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the local townsfolk, but how long-held secrets are shaping the events taking place. The drama provides viewers with a nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community and packs genuine emotional punch. The cinematography is stunning, with aerial shots capturing the vast, harsh beauty of the outback. You can read my full review here.

Adam Sternbergh, The Blinds, faber & faber 2018 (USA)

An outstanding genre-defying fusion of thriller, whodunit and Western. The Blinds is a speck of a town in rural Texas, populated by criminals and witnesses who have their memories wiped as part of an experimental programme that allows them to ‘start over’. Sheriff Calvin Cooper has policed the town for eight years without major incident, but now suddenly has a suicide and murder on his hands. These bring outsiders to the town, all of whom have agendas that will play out in different ways in the days ahead. The novel tackles big themes – criminality, redemption, the role of memory in identity formation, what makes a proper community – but is also a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Beautifully written with fabulously inventive touches… such as the way the residents acquire their new names.

 Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018 (Poland)

Janina Duszejko, a reclusive sixty-something-year-old who’s obsessed with astrology and the poetry of William Blake (the source of the novel’s title), lives in a Polish village near the Czech border. When one of her neighbours is found dead, followed by a member of the local hunting club, she speculates that the animals they’re hunting are taking revenge, and decides to investigate. A quirky existential take on the Miss-Marple-amateur-sleuth model, Drive Your Plow has a distinctive narrative voice – as suggested by chapter titles such as ‘Now Pay Attention’ and ‘A Speech to a Poodle’, and caused a stir in Poland by daring to question its deeply rooted hunting culture. Plow has recently been adapted for film by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (titled Pokot; I’m keen to watch it soon).

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press 2018 (Spain)

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is a collection of freewheeling crime stories, whose narrators include a prehistoric caveman, protective mother-in-law, spoiled museum director, a vampire and a houseful of ghosts. Each story gives the author the chance to stretch her imagination to the full, with equal measures of crime, humour and the grotesque mixed into a tasty criminal cocktail. The second half of the book is particularly inspired – a set of eight Barcelona stories under the heading ‘Connections’. Readers are challenged to spot the links between the stories, which proves to be great fun. You can read my full review here.

Belinda Bauer, Snap, Black Swan/Penguin, 2018 (Wales/UK)

Belinda Bauer is a hugely original writer, who uses the crime genre to explore both intimate scenarios and big themes. Snap opens with the disappearance in 1998 of pregnant mother Eileen Bright, who leaves her broken-down car on the M5 to phone for help. In the car are her three young children, Jack, Joy and Merry, who gradually realise that their mum isn’t coming back. A grim scenario, but one that’s never gratuitously exploited by the author. Instead, she shows in human and sensitive detail what happens to the family – mainly from the children’s point of view. Jack’s fight to find out the truth of what happened that day and the brilliant depiction of a host of characters, including grumpy DCI Marvel, make for a compelling read. There’s some razor-sharp humour in the mix too. The novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, Gollancz 2017 (UK)

A fabulous science fiction/crime mash-up. The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. It shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory where the car has just been made is off-limits to humans. So how did the corpse wind up in the boot? This nifty locked-room mystery is set in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it creates, are explored in this stylish, high-octane murder mystery. One for anyone who’s ever been to Reading! You can read my full review here.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke, Jonathan Cape 2018 (UK)

This graphic novel, a modern-day reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is an absolute delight. Our Scrooge is the eponymous Cassandra Darke, a disgraced London art dealer who is inadvertently drawn into a world of criminality…and possibly murder. This book would make an extremely handsome Christmas present, not only because of its author’s artistic and story-telling talents, but because it is so beautifully produced. Plus, it might be easier on the reading eye than a novel after a few glasses of Christmas plonk… You can read my full review here.

Wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Anthea Bell (1936-2018): doyenne of German crime translation

The German and French literary worlds lost one of their most talented, versatile and beloved translators last month. Anthea Bell died on 18 October at the age of 82, and the number of obituaries and articles honouring her achievements – from The Guardian to The New York Times – testify to the stature and range of her output.

If you read Asterix in English as a child, as I did, then you had the luck of being introduced to Anthea’s skills early on. Who could ever forget her delightfully inventive translations of assorted villagers’ names – Getafix the potion-cooking druid, Cacofonix the tone-deaf bard, Vitalstatistix the generously proportioned chief, and of course Dogmatix, Asterix’s little sidekick?

And there was pretty much nothing that Anthea couldn’t or didn’t translate, from the luminaries of German literature and thought – Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Stephan Zweig, W. G. Sebald, Julia Franck, Saša Stanišic – to children’s literature – Cornelia Funke and Erich Kästner – to a surprising amount of crime fiction.

German crime novels from my bookshelf, translated by Anthea Bell

Here’s a list of all the crime novels Anthea Bell translated (I think…!)

  • Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)
  • Kismet (Kayankaya #4) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • Brother Kemal (Kayankaya #5) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • A Crime in the Family (non-fiction) by Sacha Batthyany (Quercus 2017)
  • Silence (Kimmo Joentaa #2) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2011)
  • The Winter of the Lions (Joentaa #3) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2012)
  • Light in a Dark House (Joentaa #4) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2013)
  • The Snowman by Jörg Fauser (Bitter Lemon Press, 2004)
  • Berlin by Pierre Frei (Harper Collins 2005)
  • Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach (Bitter Lemon Press, 2005)
  • Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2013)
  • The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (Arabia Books, 2010)
  • The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus 2014)
  • The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2015)
  • The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin XXX)
  • The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin 2015)
  • The Late Monsieur Gallet (Maigret #2) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2013)
  • Cécile is Dead (Maigret #20) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2015)
  • Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann (Doubleday 2006)

There’s every conceivable type of crime on that list: classic crime, police procedurals, private-eye novels, courtroom dramas, psychological thrillers, comic crime, historical crime and true crime. The novel below is one of my favourites (a German-Finnish hybrid police procedural and psychological crime novel).

The fact that Anthea was such a prolific translator of crime fiction isn’t really mentioned in her obituaries, and that’s a shame. Translating crime fiction requires a very special set of skills – you need an eagle-eye for plot shifts, for nuances of characterization, tone and pace, and for red herrings and clues that depend on precisely calibrated wording. And of course, as one of the bestselling genres, crime fiction reaches a mass audience, making it the perfect vehicle for getting German, Austrian and Swiss literature into the hands of eager crime fiction fans in the English-speaking world … and surreptitiously introducing them to multiple facets of German history, politics and society. Anthea played a huge role in making that kind of cultural exchange happen through the hundreds of the works she translated in her long career.

The loveliest thing is that Anthea was a genuine crime fiction aficionado. I had the good fortune of appearing with her on a Waterstones Piccadilly panel on German crime back in 2015, along with Barry Forshaw (our chair), Charlotte Ryland from New Books in German, and authors Sascha Arango and Bernhard Aichner. Aichner’s novel Woman of the Dead had just been translated by Anthea, and she gleefully recounted how much she had enjoyed translating the main character – the charming yet murderous anti-heroine Brünhilde Blum. Anthea turned out to be very knowledgeable about the early history of German-language crime, and put me onto a new source which I then included in Crime Fiction in German. She also took the time to tell me that she’d read and enjoyed this blog, which I thought was exceedingly generous and kind.

Later, without her knowing it, she became my crime translation mentor, when I was asked to translate a short story from Ferdinand von Schirach’s Strafe / Punishment for a publisher. His works always make copious reference to the German legal system, legal procedure and German law, and Anthea’s prior translation of courtroom drama The Collini Case was a hugely helpful and reassuring guide as I worked to get those details right.

A bit blurry, but here we all are after the 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly event. Anthea is seated in the centre.

Glancing through the list of titles above, I see there are a few I haven’t yet read. I’m intrigued by The Dark Side of Love (set in Syria) and by the sheep detectives of Three Bags Full – and look forward to enjoying Anthea’s talents and skills once more.

There’s a lovely interview with Anthea Bell here, conducted by fellow translator Ruth Martin for New Books in German, to mark Anthea’s 80th birthday.

Tribute posted on Twitter by Anthea Bell’s son Oliver Kamm

Marigolds & murder: Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel Cassandra Darke (UK)

My work recently has involved lots of screen hours and acres of text, so when I saw that Posy Simmonds’ new graphic novel Cassandra Darke was out, and that it had a distinctly criminal slant, I knew instantly what my next read would be. As expected, it’s been a thorough delight.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke (Jonathan Cape, 2018)

Opening line: ‘Last December – the 21st to be precise, and not so long before they came to arrest me – I remember buying macaroons in Burlington Arcade’.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s beautiful. Simmonds’ artwork, as ever, is exquisite, and is presented in hardback on high-quality paper, with gorgeous design touches like a yellow ribbon bookmark and yellow flyleaves, which match the yellow title and Cassandra’s Marigolds on the front cover. Just having the book in your hands is an aesthetic pleasure.

Simmonds is known for taking literary classics as a point of departure – for example, 2007’s Tamara Drewe was a contemporary reworking of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The inspiration for Cassandra Darke is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, although elements from the original story (such as the apparitions) are woven in with the lightest of touches.

The most obvious similarity to Dickens’ story is the Scrooge-like characterisation of Cassandra, who’s a well-heeled art dealer living in a £7 million house in Chelsea, London. Completely self-sufficient, she lives life very much on her own terms, which is laudable in some respects, but not in others, as she’s often inconsiderate, abrasive and rude. Like Scrooge, she’s forced to go on a journey of personal discovery, partly because she overreaches herself in the art world, and partly because she gets drawn into a messy and potentially criminal situation by her lodger Nicki, the daughter of Cassandra’s ex-husband. In fact, the whole novel is stuffed with crimes – an unexplained body and art fraud are just the beginning – with Cassandra taking on the mantle of detective at one point.

Cassandra braves the tube.

I loved Cassandra’s distinctive narrative voice, but the cast of characters around her, from lodger Nicki and ex-husband Freddie to Corker the dog, are all beautifully observed. Simmonds’ has a gift for capturing the cadences of dialogue, and of course the way in which she draws her characters and their settings tells us a huge amount about them as well. She also skilfully incorporates some trenchant social commentary on the wealth divide in London, on urban loneliness, and on various aspects of gender, class and violence. It’s only when you come away from the novel and start to mull on its themes that you realise how much the author has packed in.

Having read Cassandra Darke once – primarily to get to the bottom of the crimes – I’m now keen to read it again. The story is told in three sections (the middle one a flashback), and I’d like to explore that narrative structure a bit more. But mainly, I’d like to spend some time just looking at the artwork and admiring how Simmonds melds images and words. This is a book that will keep on giving.

Feast your eyes on a lengthy extract from the opening of Cassandra Darke over at The Guardian.

And you can read an interview with Posy Simmonds here: ‘Women in books aren’t allowed to be total rotters’

John le Carré’s Single & Single, and a Penguin Modern Classics giveaway!

On 27 September, John le Carré will become the living author with the greatest number of works to have been published by Penguin Modern Classics: 21 in total, which also happens to be all of his works

This is an astonishing achievement, which underlines the author’s status as one of the most important writers of our time. Since 1961, le Carré has famously portrayed the political and human fallout of the Cold War in his epic Smiley series, but his other novels have been equally ambitious and compelling, from The Constant Gardener to A Most Wanted Man to The Little Drummer Girl.

The Little Drummer Girl, first published in 1983, becomes the latest addition to the le Carré Penguin Modern Classics set on 27 September. Its tale – of how young British actress Charlie is pulled into an Israeli operation to ensnare an elusive Palestinian terrorist – will also shortly reach our screens in a lavish six-part BBC One adaptation starring Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Shannon and Charles Dance. The director is Park Chan-wook, who my son tells me is a defining auteur of South Korean cinema.

Florence Pugh as Charlie in the new BBC One adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl

To celebrate this multitude of riches, Penguin has asked 21 bloggers to review the 21 le Carré novels in the Modern Classics series, and to help give away lots of books!

The novel I’ve been asked to explore is Single & Single.

Single & Single may not be a le Carré novel you have heard of before. Published nineteen years ago in 1999, it’s been rather overlooked, which is a shame as it’s something of a gem.

As in many le Carré novels, the reader is dropped right into the middle of the story. Three curious events are linked, but how? An corporate lawyer from the House of Single & Single is shot dead in cold blood on a Turkish hillside – by the firm’s top client. Children’s entertainer Oliver Hawthorne is asked to explain why five million and thirty pounds have appeared in his daughter Carmen’s bank account. The splendidly monikered financier Tiger Single vanishes into thin air. How these threads interweave is stylishly revealed over the course of the narrative.

Single & Single contains a number of le Carré’s authorial trademarks. It’s a wide-ranging exploration of how respectable institutions mask and service international crime. It traces the way in which individuals find themselves sucked into complex situations in which they struggle to maintain any semblance of control. It examines the uneasy partnership between the government agencies and the people they often use shamelessly to achieve their (sometimes laudable) aims. And it takes on Big Universal Themes: the nature of loyalty, father-son relationships, integrity, morality and love.

Two things stood out for me as a reader. Firstly, Single & Single feels very timeless – the scenarios it outlines are still highly plausible in the world we inhabit today. And one character – a villain who claws his way up by exploiting the worst facets of capitalism following the fall of Russian communism – now feels particularly relevant. Secondly – what’s this? – a hint that one of the characters may be given something approaching a happy ending? How very un-le Carré! Of course you’ll now have to read the novel to see how it all turns out…

And so to the GIVEAWAY: Mrs Peabody has a copy of The Little Drummer Girl and a copy of Single & Single to give away to two lucky blog readers.

Just write YES! in a comment below the post to be entered into the draw – no matter where you are in the world. Winners will be selected randomly and notified in due course. Good luck!

The giveaway draw will close at 23.59 on Saturday 29 September

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders (UK)

Nothing beats a leisurely weekend browse in my local bookshop. While I love discovering new reads online, there’s a special pleasure in picking up a physical book you had no intention of buying, and realising that you have to have it, because it’s exactly what you fancy reading right now.

This is how I came by Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders, which first caught my eye due to its quirky title and beautifully designed cover. And once I realised it was a science fiction / crime mash-up, I was completely hooked (next to crime, SF is probably the genre I have the greatest weakness for…)

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders (Gollancz, 2017)

First paragraph: ‘Where we are and where we aren’t. Where we can and cannot go. So, for example: human beings were not allowed onto the factory floor. The construction space was absolutely and no exceptions a robot-only zone. Human entry was forbidden. Nevertheless, and against all the rules, a human being had been there.’

The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. As the opening paragraph indicates, it shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory floor where the car has just been manufactured is completely off-limits to humans. So how on earth did the corpse get into the boot?

This nifty locked-room mystery is immediately given an added twist: the crime is committed in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures many citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. Even those who stay in the Real, like Alma, are almost permanently plugged into their feed, and navigate a world in which AI robots are ubiquitous. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it unleashes, are explored via the high-octane drama Alma finds herself caught up in. And there’s one important additional constraint that ratchets up the narrative tension: Alma must return to her partner every four hours on the dot to administer life-saving drugs (and it absolutely has to be her and no one else for a fascinating reason I won’t reveal here).

Watch out for: a famous director in a cameo role…

Alma is a great character – clever, resourceful and tough. And if I’m not mistaken, almost every other major character in the book – goody and baddie alike – is a woman. How refreshing is that?! The writing is sparky, noirish and packed to the brim with wry humour – such as when Alma gets into a chatty AI-taxi and unceremoniously says ‘small talk deselected’, after which it falls into a sulky silence.

The entire novel is a rollicking, highly inventive and hugely enjoyable ride that raises some genuinely thought-provoking questions about our future relationship with technology. If you fancy something completely different, look no further. The sequel, By the Pricking of her Thumbs, is also on its way.

Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

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

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.