Crime Fiction: Respite Reading for the Pandemic

I hope you’re all safe and well in this strange and worrying time. For many of us (including me), reading has taken a back seat while we process the situation, and deal with its fallout for our families, working lives and communities.

Aside from the practical challenges we’re facing, many of us are feeling too stressed to read, or can’t find the ‘right book’ to settle down with.

If this is you, then here are some suggestions and strategies for Respite Reading.

Even if you manage just a chapter a day, you’ll hopefully feel the benefit. Reading has an amazing ability to ground us, distract us and provide solace – in short, to provide us with respite in these very tough times. A study by the University of Sussex found that a mere 6 minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68%! Sounds good to me.

7 types of Respite Reading: find the one that works for you!

1.   An old favourite. There’s no rule that says you have to read something new. Perhaps a novel you know and love is already on your bookshelf, waiting to wrap itself around you like a comforting blanket. For me, that’s John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Or Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, a novel I first read in 1988, which explores the fallout of a crime in The British Raj. Or your favourite Agatha Christie – hard to choose, I know… For me it’s a toss up between The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

2.   Travel to another time or place. If the present is too much for you right now, then take a break in another era with some historical crime and/or crime set in another country – like Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (1919 India), Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (1970s Japan), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1327 Italy) or Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (1970s and 1980s Argentina).

3.    Cosy, comforting crime. If you’re finding the gritty end of the crime fiction spectrum a bit much right now, then perhaps you’re in need of a cute baby elephant: yes, we’re talking Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraOr try out Peter Bartram’s comic ‘Crampton of the Chronicle’ series, which follows the adventures of a young journalist in 1960s Brighton. Or how about Ellis Peter’s classic ‘Brother Cadfael’ series, set in medieval times? Another personal favourite: Harry Kemelman’s ‘Rabbi Small’ series, which offers an affectionate portrait of 1960s small-town America, along with some pearls of wisdom.

4.   Crime with heart, whose characters you’ll love to spend time with – try Elly Griffiths’s ‘Ruth Galloway’ series (forensics in Norfolk) or Lesley Thomson’s ‘Detective’s Daughter’ series – both are marvellous. And if you’ve not yet met octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, then it’s definitely time for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. It’s still one of my top favourites.

5.   Criminally black humour. If your way of getting through involves grim laughter, then Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ spy novels are a wonderful read – start with Slow Horses. Or get to know Jo Ide’s IQ, the Long Beach Sherlock – a thoroughly engaging and original detective. And Leif GW Persson’s novels are always up there for me – Linda, as in the Linda Murder is a good opener, with moments that are wonderfully wry.

6.   Hair ‘o’ the dog apocalypse crime. Because one way to deal with our fears is to read about stuff that’s just that little bit worse. Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn is excellent, and check out my earlier blog post on ‘Apocalyptic Crime Fiction from America and Finland’ for a few other suggestions. My top non-crime recommendation is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Bleak, but strangely uplifting and hopeful.

7.   Still not sure… Just give me top-quality crime! No worries – have a browse through my Xmas recommendations over the years. These are effectively my annual best-of-the-best lists, so hopefully you’ll find something there that’ll hit the spot…

2014   2015   2016   2017   2018   2019

There’s also a list of trilogies here should you fancy a more ambitious reading project.

And if you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following indie publishers. They could all do with some love and support right now!

Bitter Lemon Press   No Exit Press   Orenda Books   Europa Editions

OK everyone – stay home – stay safe – save lives!

Please do add your own thoughts and recommendations below, or just drop by for a chat. It would be lovely to hear from you! Hugs and kisses xxx

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations! Each is one of my top reads 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…

Jane Harper, The Lost Man, Abacus (Australia)

This novel was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. An in-depth character study of a family and their community, it’s also a page-turner that will keep you completely riveted for hours.

Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote part of his cattle station by the so-called ‘Stockman’s Grave’. The mystery of how and why he got there, and why his car is so far away become the subject of a police investigation. Cameron’s older brother Nathan, who owns the adjacent property, and his younger brother Bub both had complicated relationships with him, and further complexities and secrets soon start to be revealed. This is the third of Harper’s novels, and has a neat link back to her first, The Dry but no prior reading or knowledge is required. If you’re feeling generous, leave both for your lucky reader under the tree.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2019 (Japan)

I’ve just read The Honjin Murders, and immediately knew I had to add it to this list, because it’s the perfect gift for any fan of classic crime fiction or locked room mysteries. As an added bonus, it’s set in Japan! Plus: it’s the first in master crime writer Seishi Yokomizo’s acclaimed ‘Konsuke Kindaichi’ series, and the first to be translated (beautifully) into English.

It’s 1937, and the grand Ichiyanagi family is celebrating a family wedding. But that night, the family is woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. It’s an impossible puzzle, but eccentric amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to figure it out.

George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown, Orion (USA)

This quietly powerful crime novel interweaves the stories of three individuals. Anna Byrne is a prison librarian, who tries to better the lives of inmates through reading, and to broaden their horizons through regular book-group discussions. One of her readers is Michael Hudson, a bright young man who has gone off the rails, but is keen to go straight. When he’s suddenly released ahead of his trial, he’s relieved but can’t quite understand why. The answer lies with Phil Ornazian, a private investigator who regularly flirts with danger when making money illicitly on the side. Pelecanos was a scriptwriter for The Wire, and his characterisation of each of these figures is superb. The novel is also a wonderful homage to the life-changing power of reading.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer, Doubleday 2018 (Nigeria)

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a plain, respectable nurse, who leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give anything else away, but suffice to say that this is an arresting read, which deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done and a lot of fun.

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, Viking 2019 (UK)

It’s such a pleasure to step back into le Carré’s world and to meet a fresh cast of beautifully observed, but very human spies. Shown weaving their way through the complexities of modern politics as best they can, they soon learn that they need to keep a sharp eye on their own superiors as much as their adversaries elsewhere. Our guide to all this is Nat, an agent runner at the end of his career who’s asked to take over The Haven, a lowly substation of London General. He and a colleague begin to plan an operation targeting a Ukrainian oligarch, but then something strange happens… Light relief takes the form of regular badminton games with young Ed, an affable but somewhat mysterious figure who may be more than he seems. A completely convincing and gripping depiction of murky espionage shenanigans.

M.T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, Macmillan 2019 (Sweden)

This accomplished novel tracks the fallout from a murder via the perspectives of three members of one family: a mother, a father, and a daughter who’s been accused of killing a well-connected, rich young man. An ostensibly ‘normal’ and respectable middle-class family – dad is a pastor, mum is a lawyer, and daughter Stella is unruly but bright – they are pushed to the limits by the stress of Stella’s arrest, detention and trial. The three points of view and family dynamics are beautifully handled, and there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader, even after the end of the trial. The novel is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room, Vintage 2018 (USA)

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes next. Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we’re shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to provide for her son Jackson. The novel explores the circumstances that shape Romy as an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as the justice system) shape her destiny. Beautifully written – and shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, tr. by Anne Bruce, Penguin 2018 (Norway)

The 2019 Petrona Award winner! The Katharina Code is one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Chief Inspector William Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her home twenty-four years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. This particular year, however, a development in another investigation finally moves the case on… An outstanding police procedural that takes established tropes – the cold case, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh.

Jess Kidd, Himself, Canongate 2017 (Ireland)

Himself takes us back to the good old, bad old days. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny rural village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her wild behaviour as a young woman, and who 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.

Happy reading, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Top TV crime as the nights draw in: Giri/Haji (Japan/UK), Guilt (Scotland) & Unbelievable (USA)

There are some outstanding TV crime series on our screens at the moment – just perfect for those dark winter evenings when going out feels like too big an ask.

These three are the top of my heap at the moment.

Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) – BBC 2 (Japan/UK) 

Giri/Haji is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities. A dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was hooked from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some really inventive use of film techniques and genres, like sequences that draw on manga. Thanks to my friend Morgan for alerting me to this series – it’s a keeper!

Guilt, BBC 2 (Scotland)

Guilt is a four-part darkly comic crime caper set in Edinburgh.

On their way home from a wedding one night, brothers Max and Jake (Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives) accidentally run over a pensioner in the dark. Rather than call for an ambulance or the police, the duo carry the body back into the man’s house and settle it into an armchair before leaving. But of course, they make mistakes… And in trying to cover up those mistakes, they end up making more…

There’s a great oddball chemistry between the brothers: short-tempered, impatient lawyer Max, and the more laid-back Jake, who runs a failing record shop. Add in the dead man’s niece Angie, who’s over from America to sort out dearly departed Uncle Walter’s estate but smells a rat, and you have a recipe for plenty of criminally good fun.

Unbelievable (Netflix / USA)

Unbelievable completely blew me away. The story of a serial rape investigation in Colorado and neighbouring states, it places the female victims squarely at the heart of its narrative, along with the tenacious and meticulous police-work of two women – Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Detecive Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

The story unfolds along two timelines: the first is 2008, when police are called to the apartment of 18-year-old Marie Adler (an outstanding performance by Kaitlyn Dever), who says she has just been attacked and raped. The second is 2011, when Duvall and Rasmussen spot similarities between the cases they’re investigating and start to work together. The series gives us a detailed insight into how police cultures and attitudes can shape rape investigations, for good and ill, and highlights the urgent need for police cooperation across county and state lines, to stop perpetrators who deliberately commit crimes over a wide area to evade justice.

Unbelievable is based on a true caseas you can read in detail here – although I would strongly advise you to watch the series first and read the piece afterwards. Compelling, illuminating and thought-provoking.

What are you watching right now? Any recommendations?

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (Japan) & the 2019 Booker Prize

The minute I saw this ravishing book cover, I wanted a copy. And – oh happy day – it’s turned out to be one of my most satisfying crime reads of the year.

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (trans. from Japanese by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon Press, out Jan 2020)

Opening line: What do you remember?

The Aosawa Murders is an fascinating exploration of a crime: the poisoning of seventeen people at a big family birthday party in 1970s Japan. The case was supposedly solved by the police, but as the novel immediately shows, a number of people have doubts that the truth was properly established – including the lead investigator. In particular, the enigmatic figure of Hisako, the blind daughter and sole family member to survive, is the focus of much scrutiny and speculation.

I loved this novel’s originality, intelligence and verve. Readers are invited to glean new clues about the murders from interviews carried out by an anonymous individual – a kind of Rashomon homage that sifts the memories of those close to the crime, such as local kids who visited the family home, the housekeeper’s daughter, the prime suspect’s neighbour, and the detective in charge of the case. One of these interviewees is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime eleven years after it happened, and who reports on the interviews she carried out back then, creating a kind of Chinese-box narrative on three different time levels (1970s,1980s, 2000s). As we move through the novel, more and more details about what people knew are revealed, along with the toll the crime has taken on them personally. Beautifully written and translated, with great characterization and sense of place, I was hooked from the first to the last page.

Many thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the preview copy.

Booker Prize news. As you’ve probably heard, the Booker Prize jury staged a ‘joyful mutiny’ and awarded the 2019 prize to two authorsBernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

I’ve yet to read Girl, Woman, Other, but can thoroughly recommend The Testaments, especially to fans of the Handmaid’s Tale and the excellent TV adaptation. It’s a surprisingly difficult novel to review without giving spoilers away, so I’ll resist detailed descriptions. Suffice to say that it’s a searing exploration of state-sanctioned crimes against women, and features one of the most complex and fascinating characters from the TV series, whose perspective provides fresh insights into the origins and workings of Gilead. It’s a book I’ll be reading at least twice…

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’