Variety is the spice of life… Nesser’s The Darkest Day (Sweden), Viskic’s Resurrection Bay (Australia), Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died (Finland), Alias Grace & The Sinner (Canada/Germany/US)

I’m going through a phase where I want lots of variety in my crime reading and viewing. This is when having scandalously large piles of unread crime fiction and a huge backlog of TV crime drama comes in rather handy…

Håkan Nesser, The Darkest Day, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Mantle, 2017).

First line: When Rosemary Wunderlich Hermansson awoke on Sunday 18 December, it was a few minutes to six and she had a very vivid image in her head.

Håkan Nesser is best known for his Inspector van Veeteren series, but his second series, featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, has also enjoyed significant success, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. The Darkest Day is the first of the five Barbarotti novels to be translated into English, a happy development for all lovers of Swedish crime fiction.

The Darkest Day is a long, satisfying read, the kind of crime novel that’s a slow-burner and rewards the unhurried reader. The first 185 pages feel a bit like a Scandinavian version of The Corrections: we’re introduced to the Hermansson family, who have come together for a double birthday celebration at Karl-Erik and Rosemary’s house in Kymlinge on the darkest day of the year, and through the eyes of family members from three generations, form a wry picture of the complex dynamics between them. By the end of the weekend, two of the family have disappeared without trace, and Inspector Barbarotti and his team have very little to help them figure out what’s been going on. The resolutions to both cases are original and, thanks to the skills of the author, remain on just the right side of melodrama.

The existentialist Inspector Barbarotti also proves to be an interesting character. The product of a fleeting Swedish-Italian union, he attempts to navigate his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a dialogue with God (who is invited to prove his existence in various ways to the disillusioned policeman). All of this is handled with humour and a light touch, and adds wit and depth to the novel.

Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017 [2015]).

First line: Caleb was still holding him when the paramedics arrived.

Jane Harper’s The Dry recently woke me up to the quality of crime writing in Australia. Like The Dry, Viskic’s Resurrection Bay has won a host of awards and (remarkably) is the author’s debut novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and features a highly unusual investigative figure, Caleb Zelic, who for much of his life has been profoundly deaf. The novel opens with the aftermath of a murder – Caleb’s childhood friend, policeman Gary Marsden, has just been found dead – and we are immediately shown some of the difficulties Caleb faces when communicating with others, as well as his extra powers of perception in relation to details like facial and body language. Caleb, who is a private investigator, starts to look into Gary’s death. Suspecting that it may be linked to an insurance case he was working on, he follows a trail that eventually leads him back to his childhood town of Resurrection Bay.

For me, one of the major strengths of this novel was its characterization. Aside from Caleb, we’re introduced to a number of other complex and well-drawn characters such as Frankie (his work partner), Kat (his ex-wife) and Anton (his brother), as well as contacts within the worlds of policing and crime in Melbourne. The dialogue feels gritty and authentic, and if there’s the odd touch of melodrama, this is a minor drawback. Overall, Resurrection Bay is an absorbing and thrilling read.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line‘It’s a good job you provided a urine sample too’.

Antti Tuomainen is one of the most versatile crime writers around. I was first introduced to him via the novel The Healer – a dark, post-apocalyptic crime novel written in a beautifully poetic style. Since then he’s written a number of novels, each of which has a beguiling premise, but feels stylistically very different to the last. The Man Who Died is no exception: here we have a grimly brilliant starting point – a man whose doctor tells him he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is a question of when rather than if – which is developed into black, comedic crime of the highest order. The man in question is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. He sets about investigating his own murder, and quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects.

The narrative is related in the first-person, which is always tricky to pull off, but Tuomainen does a great job. Jaakko is a great character: placed in a truly grave situation, he very quickly has to decide how to react. The easiest course of action would be to give up, but instead he decides to get to the bottom of the matter with admirable pluck, determination and resourcefulness. Comparisons have been made between the novel and Fargo, which is spot on – the heroes and anti-heroes are all engagingly imperfect and human, and there are a couple of set pieces that perfectly capture Fargo‘s cartoonish black humour. It feels like it was great fun to write, and I can’t wait for it to be made into a film.

I remember George Peleconos – scriptwriter for the HBO series The Wire – explaining to a Harrogate audience one year why crime writers like him were increasingly drawn to writing for TV rather than film. Aside from greater job security, the main lure was the chance to develop characters and story-lines with much greater nuance and detail than a film would allow.

I do think we’re living in a golden age of crime TV drama (e.g. Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, The Code). ‘Netflex Originals’ are also helping to lead the way, with superb adaptations of literary crime and psychological crime fiction by outstanding women authors.

Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel of the same name, tells the story of a young serving woman, Grace Marks, imprisoned for her role in two notorious 1843 murders, and a doctor, Simon Jordan, who is commissioned to write a psychological report on her, but finds himself becoming inappropriately drawn to her as well. The series provides a superb but also extremely sobering insight into the class and gender politics of the period, and Sarah Gadon is outstanding in the lead role.

The Sinner is adapted from German writer Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 novel of the same name. I’ve seen the first four episodes and have been hugely impressed by the quality of the adaptation and its leading actors. The first (pretty harrowing) episode shows young housewife Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) stab a man to death while on a family outing to a lake. While it’s absolutely clear that she committed the deed, neither she nor anyone else has any inkling why. Rather than locking her up and throwing away the key, as would probably happen in real life, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is determined to understand what motivated Cora’s actions, and starts to dig around in her shadowy early life. The characterization is outstanding, and the exploration of the after-effects of the crime – particularly on Cora and her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) – are explored in a way that’s reminiscent of the first series of The Killing.

The Sinner is a top-quality, stylish crime drama that brilliantly questions the extent to which Cora can be labelled a perpetrator. If you haven’t yet read the novel, then do grab a copy of The Sinner, translated by John Brownjohn, from Bitter Lemon Press – it’s still one of my all-time top German crime novels nearly 20 years on. Perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers ever written?

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Eurotour Stop 4. Helsinki, Finland: “The tram made Siiri’s beloved curve at Kamppi”

Hei from Helsinki! Today’s extract is from…

Minna Lindgren, Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers; Pan, 2016 [2013]), 128-130.

Siiri sat in her usual seat on the tram and tried to see behind Eira hospital. That was where Villa Johanna was, a whimsical work by her favourite architect, Selim A. Lindquist, which you could see from the number 3 as it turned onto Tehtaankatu. She had a habit of concentrating on one building and trying to think of as many other buildings in Helsinki by the same architect as she could. Selim A. Lindqvist was easy: there were two buildings of his, side by side, on Aleksanterinkatu – numbers 11 and 13.

The number 3B tram changed to the number 3T at Olympia Terminal, and Siiri decided to take it as far as the new opera house. Then she could get on the number 4 to get back to Sunset Grove. She had already ridden around for more than two hours, using any favourite tram route or building she could think of as an excuse to put off going back home, because the mere thought of Sunset Grove gave her a very unpleasant feeling. She didn’t want to see Virpi Hiukkanen, she didn’t want to think about Irma’s confusion and growing suspiciousness, and she didn’t know how to bring up all these worries with Anna-Liisa […]

A talkative little girl was sitting with her mother next to the ticket dispenser, wearing a funny looking hat with bear ears on it. […]

‘Mama, why doesn’t everyone have kids? Why doesn’t grandma have kids? Why, Mama?’

‘Your grandma does have kids. Otherwise she couldn’t be your grandma,’ said a wino across the aisle. The little girl took an interest in this new acquaintance and got up to stand in the aisle, but her mother continued to stare at the rain hitting the window.

‘My grandma is Grandpa’s girlfriend and she’s much younger than my mother, so she could have kids any time she wanted, but Mama wouldn’t want her to. What are your children’s names? Do you have a job? Why not? What do you do, then?’

‘I sit in the park and ride on the tram.’

‘Fun! I want to do that when I’m big!’

The tram made Siiri’s beloved curve at Kamppi and the passengers pricked up their ears to hear the wino’s reaction to the little girl’s future plans.

‘What park do you go to?’ the girl asked. ‘I usually go to the one on Lapinlahdenkatu, but it’s pretty small.’

‘Me too, it’s a nice park.’

‘And Väiski, but only in the winter.’

‘I sometimes go and sit on the rocks at Temppeliaukio. There’s a nice view from there.’

Helsinki gallery

I’m cheating a little, as this is the entrance to Turku station (designed by Väinö Vähäkallio and Martti Välikangas). We caught the train to Helsinki from here after a lovely breakfast in the city’s market place. Finland has some amazing railway architecture…

This is the ticket hall in Helsinki Central station (designed by Eliel Saarinen). It’s a wonderfully beautiful, tranquil space.

Here’s Senaatintori (Senate Square) in the centre of town…

…and one of Siiri’s trams. We’ve been hopping on and off these with our travel cards – a fantastic way to see the city. And I swear I saw Siiri on the 3T…

Twice (in Stockholm and now in Helsinki), we’ve had the most delicious fish stew from indoor food markets for about 10 Euros. They’re hugely generous with the fish, mussels and prawns, and the rich, heady base has a hint of aniseed. The yellow blob is aioli. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Oh, and there’s unlimited bread.

Muumin (moomintroll) notebooks from my favourite bookshop in Helsinki.

Sunflowers are sold at all the outdoor markets at the moment. These were bought in Turku and travelled safely to our Helsinki base, where they sit in a beautiful Iittala vase.

Cinnamon and cardamom buns – divine!

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

Rucksacks at the ready! Time for a Eurotour of criminal goodness

It’s September and there’s European adventure in the air…

Swansea-Hamburg-Copenhagen-Malmö-Stockholm-Turku-Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga-Vilnius-Gdansk-Olsztyn-Poznan-Berlin-Swansea

Mr. P and I will shortly be donning our ancient rucksacks and heading over the Channel.

  • Destination: northern and eastern Europe.
  • Duration: one month.
  • Transport: train, ferry, bus, car, llama (well you never know).

Our Eurotour – aka the ‘Bollux to Brexit’ tour – will take us to a number of wonderful European cities (see image caption above).

When we reach certain cities, I’ll be posting a short extract from a crime novel or thriller focused on the place in question, giving an insight into the city’s geography, architecture, history, politics, food…

The featured cities are as follows:

  1. Hamburg, Germany
  2. Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Helsinki, Finland
  5. Tallinn, Estonia
  6. Riga, Latvia
  7. Olsztyn, Poland
  8. Berlin, Germany

Each extract will be accompanied by a few photos I’ve taken while out and about (I suspect there will be a bit of an emphasis on food…and beer…).

I won’t give away which crime novels I’ve picked out, but here’s a little teaser for you…

Our first extract, for the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, contains the following sentence: 

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. 

Just for fun: Who is the author? And in which novel does this elegant sentence appear?

And if you’d like some reading ideas for European crime fiction, then head here:

35 European crime novels

International delights at Newcastle Noir (plus my top three picks)

Crime fiction with plenty of laughter and cake: my first visit to Newcastle Noir at the beautiful Lit & Phil was a hugely enjoyable experience. This Geordie crime festival has been running just three years, but featured an impressive programme of 14 panels over two days (and that’s not counting the fringe events). All credit to organisers Dr. Jacky Collins (Northumbria University) and Kay Easson (The Lit & Phil) for creating such a vibrant and wonderfully friendly event.

Given the relatively modest size of the festival, I was struck by the high proportion of international writers who were there – thanks in no small part to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, who had ten authors with her, one of whom had flown in all the way from Australia. In order of appearance:

  • Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland)
  • David Swatling (US/Netherlands)
  • Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway)
  • Thomas Enger (Norway)
  • Nina von Staffeldt (Denmark)
  • Antti Tuomainen (Finland)
  • Cay Rademacher (Germany/France)
  • Wulf Dorn (Germany)
  • Erik Axl Sund (aka Jerker Eriksson/Hakan Axlander Sundquist, Sweden)
  • Johana Gustawsson (France)
  • Camilla Grebe (Sweden)
  • Paul Hardisty (Canada/Australia)

And then there were a number of British crime authors who set their works in foreign climes: Steph Broadribb (‘Lori Anderson’ series, Florida), David Young (‘Karin Müller’ series, East Germany), William Ryan (‘Korolev’ series, 1930s Russia; The Constant Soldier, 1944 Germany), Luke McCallin (‘Reinhardt’ series, WWII Sarajevo and post-war Berlin), and Quentin Bates (‘Gunna’ series, Iceland).

The Newcastle Noir bookshop had a distinctly international flavour

A major highlight for me was chairing two ‘German’ panels: ‘German Historical Crime’ with Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, and ‘German Noir’ with Wulf Dorn and Cay Rademacher. All the authors gave fascinating, thoughtful and eloquent answers to questions about writing historical crime fiction/psychological thrillers, their settings (1930s Russia; World War II Sarajevo and Germany; post-war Hamburg and Berlin; 1970s East Germany; present-day Germany), and the research they undertook while writing their works. Lizzy Siddal has posted a marvellous write up of the two panels over at Lizzy’s Literary Life – do take a look! And for further details of the authors and their works, see my post from last week.

From top left by row: the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel; Cay Rademacher answers a question; GHF panel group photo; Cay, Mrs P and Wulf Dorn thank the Goethe-Institut London for its support; William Ryan reads from The Constant Soldier while Luke McCallin listens; the ‘German Noir’ panel; David Young and Wulf fostering Anglo-German relations; David reads from Stasi Wolf.

Here are my top three international crime fiction picks from Newcastle Noir – all by authors who are new to me:

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner (translated by Bradley Schmidt; Manilla 2017). Elisabeth was the one who got away: she was due to appear on the ‘German Noir’ panel (replacing Sascha Arango), but was unable to make it due to problems with her flight. My consolation was reading The Cleaner, an extremely accomplished novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith works for a company that specialises in cleaning crime scenes, and comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood when she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read.

Luke McCallin’s The Man from Berlin (No Exit Press, 2014). I hadn’t read any of Luke’s work before being asked to chair the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel, and was extremely impressed by The Man in Berlin, the first in the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ series. Aside from the vast amount of historical research that’s gone into the novel, I particularly liked the unusual setting for a WWII series – Sarajevo of 1943. The city is beautifully evoked, and the complex politics of the time are deftly incorporated into the narrative (which is no mean feat). The novel sees conflicted military intelligence officer Reinhardt investigating the politically charged murder of a Yugoslav film star and a German military colleague.

Paul E. Hardisty, Reconciliation for the Dead (Orenda Books, 2017). Paul was on the ‘Action Thriller’ panel and is the author of the ‘Claymore Straker’ novels. While this is the third in the series, it can be read first, because it tells Straker’s origin story, focusing on his formative years as a soldier in the South African Army in the early 1980s. That narrative is framed by Straker’s return to Africa in 1996 to testify at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I hadn’t intended to buy this book, but after hearing Paul speak it became a must-read. I was particularly struck by the author’s willingness to present the novel as a serious attempt to get to the terrible truths of South African apartheid, and to depict them in as realistic and hard-hitting a way as possible. I’m two thirds of the way through the novel now, and can tell that it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

To finish off, here are some photos of beautiful Newcastle, the Lit & Phil, and some criminally minded friends. Looking forward to Newcastle Noir 2018 already…

With thanks to Susan at The Book Trail, Vic Watson at ElementaryVWatson, Ewa Sherman and other attendees for the use of some of these photos. 

The 2017 Petrona Award shortlist

Here we go!!!

Six outstanding crime novels from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2017 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today. They are… *drumroll*

THE EXILED by Kati Hiekkapelto tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

Finnish police detective Anna Fekete returns to the Serbian village of her birth for a holiday, but is pulled into an investigation that throws up questions about her own father’s death decades earlier. As well as exploring the complexities of Fekete’s identity as a Hungarian Serb who has made her life in Finland, this accomplished novel looks with insight and compassion at the discrimination faced by Roma people, and the lot of refugees migrating through Europe.

THE DYING DETECTIVE by Leif G.W. Persson tr. Neil Smith (Doubleday; Sweden)

Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffers a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery, he is drawn into investigating a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Expertly plotted and highly gripping, The Dying Detective features characters from a number of other crime novels by the author, but succeeds brilliantly as a standalone in its own right. You can read Mrs Peabody’s review here.

THE BIRD TRIBUNAL by Agnes Ravatn tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books, Norway)

Former TV presenter Allis takes up the post of housekeeper and gardener at a house on a remote fjord. But her employer is not the old man she was expecting, and the whereabouts of his wife are tantalisingly unclear. Isolated from other villagers, Allis and Sigurd’s relationship becomes progressively more claustrophobic and tense. A haunting psychological thriller and study in obsession that is perfectly complemented by the author’s beautiful, spare prose.

WHY DID YOU LIE? by Yrsa Sigurđardóttir tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton, Iceland)

Yrsa Sigurđardóttir is as adroit a manufacturer of suspense as any writer in the Nordic Noir genre, as this standalone thriller comprehensively proves. Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves the stories of a policewoman whose husband has committed suicide, a work group stranded by hostile weather on a remote lighthouse, and a family whose American guests go missing. A compelling exploration of guilt and retribution, which builds to a nerve-jangling finale.

WHERE ROSES NEVER DIE by Gunnar Staalesen tr. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, Norway)

Grieving private detective Varg Veum is pushed to his limits when he takes on a cold case involving the disappearance of a small girl in 1977. As the legal expiry date for the crime draws near, Veum’s investigation uncovers intriguing suburban secrets. In what may well be the most accomplished novel in a remarkable series, the author continues to work in a traditional US-style genre, but with abrasive Scandi-crime social commentary very much in evidence.

THE WEDNESDAY CLUB by Kjell Westö tr. Neil Smith (MacLehose Press, Finland)

This multilayered novel tells the story of how a crime is triggered following the chance meeting of two people in a lawyer’s office. While the narrative can be seen as a tragic individual story, it also takes on larger historical dimensions as it unfolds. Set in Helsinki in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, The Wednesday Club offers an insightful exploration into the legacy of the Finnish Civil War, and the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present. You can read Mrs. Peabody’s review here.

Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers!

The Petrona judges – Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and myself – had the following to say about the shortlist: 

“It was difficult to choose just six crime novels for the Petrona Award shortlist this year, given the number of truly excellent submissions from around the Scandinavian world. Our 2017 Petrona Award shortlist testifies to the extremely high quality of translated Scandi crime, with authors from Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden making expert use of police investigations, psychological thrillers, private eye novels and historical crime fiction both to entertain and to explore pertinent social, political and historical issues. We are extremely grateful to the translators for their skill and expertise in bringing us these outstanding examples of Scandinavian crime fiction.”

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia and published in the UK in the previous calendar year. The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 20 May during CrimeFest, held in Bristol 18-21 May 2017.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2017 Petrona Award. Enormous thanks too to Karen Meek (aka Euro Crime), for all of her excellent organisational work throughout the year!

For further information about the Petrona Award, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (Finland), Tuomainen’s The Mine (Finland), and Fossum’s Hellfire (Norway)

I’m spending a fair bit of time reading Petrona 2017 entries at the moment (our deadline is looming), so don’t be surprised if you notice a distinctly Scandi flavour to my posts over the next few weeks.

One of the many good things about being a Petrona Award judge is reading interesting crime novels you might otherwise pass over: the judging process means giving all of the submitted crime novels a fair shot, and looking past any negative first impressions a cover or sales blurb might give. The reward is sometimes a surprisingly satisfying read – as was the case with Minna Lindgren’s Death in Sunset Grove (trans. from Finnish by Lola Rogers, Pan 2016).

lavender-ladies-detective-agency-death-in-sunset-grove

This kind of cover would normally put me right off: it looks fluffy and twee, and presses two big commercial buttons via the ‘Lavender Ladies Detective Agency’ subtitle (a nod to McCall Smith’s ‘No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series) and the ‘Finnish Miss Marple’ tag. Both are in fact misleading – there’s no proper detective agency in the novel, and no sharp-as-a-tack Miss Marple at work. What we get is actually a lot more interesting: a meandering, rather unfocused investigation by a group of nonagenarians into a set of crimes at an old people’s home called Sunset Grove, and a bleakly comic exploration of what it means to get old.

The main protagonist is Siiri Kettunen, who is shocked when she hears a young cook at the home has died, and realises there’s some shady stuff going on. What follows gives readers a vivid sense of the trials and confusions of getting old, as well as the twin pitfalls of loneliness and elder abuse. I particularly liked the emphasis on the importance of friendship in old age, not least when your avaricious family lets you down. Siiri’s long tram rides through Helsinki and her appreciation of its architectural gems are also very engaging.

You can read an extract from Death in Sunset Grove here, which opens with this lovely line: ‘Every morning Siiri Kettunen woke up and realized that she wasn’t dead yet’.

the-mine

Antti Tuomainen’s The Mine (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books, 2016) is a gripping eco-thriller that explores corruption in the Finnish mining industry. Tuomainen takes what could be a slightly tired plotline (an investigative journalist placing his life in danger by poking around somewhere he shouldn’t) and elevates it through his exploration of a highly unusual father-son relationship and the choices parents make. There’s quite a bit of graphic violence and the odd implausible moment, but the author pulls it all off with panache. The novel also has an excellent sense of place, especially the portions set in the remote, frozen north.

I really like Tuomainen’s work. He’s written five crime novels so far, of which I’ve read three, and they’re always highly original and extremely well-written. My favourite is probably still The Healer (I have a weakness for apocalyptic crime), but all of them are multi-layered, interesting pieces of work. You can find out more here.

fossum

Karin Fossum’s Hellfire (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Harvill Secker 2016) is the twelfth in the ‘Chief Inspector Sejer’ series and one of her very best.

Fossum stands out among Scandinavian crime writers for her devastating dissections of murder and its repercussions. In this novel, Bonnie and Simon, a mother and her five-year-old son, are found murdered in an old caravan. Alongside the investigation in the present, the narrative depicts the lives of the victims and a young man before the event, and how their paths eventually cross. Fossum provides brilliant psychological portraits of her characters, and shows, in a completely plausible fashion, how myriad factors combine to lead to the killing. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a car crash happen in slow motion, and makes for a very difficult read, because Hellfire really does confront the reader with the realities of murder and its terrible effects. Simply outstanding.

I think I’ll need something a little lighter next…

Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

westo-wednesday-club

First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

1938_helsinki_scandal_race

This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

european-union-map-2013-from-europaeu-e1393721006447

New Year crime fiction treats from Denmark, England, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Happy New Year to you all!

I hope that 2017 has started well and that you have lots of lovely crime fiction lined up as we move into a new reading year.

One of the truly splendid things about a crime blogger’s life is being sent lots of fantastic books. The picture below shows my postbag for the last month, which contains some mouth-watering delights.

new-year-treats

As these crime novels come from a variety of publishers, it’s interesting to see how the contents of individual parcels combine. Quite a number in this consignment are entries for the 2017 Petrona Award, which I help to judge along with Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and Karen Meek. This explains the high ratio of Scandi crime, including novels by Norwegian crime writing stars Anne Holt (special guest at last year’s CrimeFest) and Karin Fossum. The latter’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ novel The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, tr. Kari Dickson) was shortlisted for the 2016 Petrona Award.

Another Petrona entry that’s particularly caught my eye is Finnish author Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club (MacLehose, tr. Neil Smith). This novel originally appeared in Swedish (one of Finland’s official languages), is set in Helsinki in 1938, and explores the legacy of the Finnish Civil War. Two of the other novels are set around that time as well (both from Harvill Secker): Danish author Simon Pasternak’s Death Zones (tr. Martin Aitkin / Belorussia in 1943) and Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District (tr. Victoria Cribb / wartime Reykjavík). The latter is a proof copy and a very exciting bit of post, as it marks the beginning of a new series from this outstanding author (pub. April 2017).

Ragnar Jónasson’s Rupture (Orenda, tr. Quentin Bates), the latest in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series, is also one I’m very much looking forward to reading: it features a cold case from 1955, which sounds right up my street. Other delights include the latest Eva Dolan and Fred Vargas novels (Harvill Secker), Watch Her Disappear and A Climate of Fear (tr. Siân Reynolds). Both Dolan and Vargas are excellent writers, albeit with extremely different styles and authorial concerns.

Lastly, there’s been quite a lot of talk about Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker, tr. Neil Smith). It features a highly unusual female protagonist and is definitely not going to be a boring read…

So, that lot’s going to keep me busy for a while.

Which crime novels are you particularly looking forward to reading in January? 

Summer musings on Walters (UK), Hykänen (Finland), and the visibility of women in crime fiction awards

After a busy few months, I’m looking forward to 1. writing up reviews of some excellent crime novels and 2. getting down to some quality summer reading.

A fairly random start: two very different novels I’ve recently enjoyed, and some musings on the visibility of women on crime fiction award longlists/shortlists.

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Disordered Minds (Pan Macmillan 2003). I picked up this plump psychological crime novel at Oxfam Books, and it turned out to be a perfect summer read. Two amateur detectives – Jonathan Hughes, a social anthropologist with a chip on his shoulder, and George Gardener, a middle-aged local councillor, find themselves drawn into investigating a contested old case, the murder of Grace Jeffries in 1970. Her grandson Harold was convicted of the crime, but new evidence suggests that the original investigation may have been botched.

I’ve not read anything by Walters before – a bit of an omission on my part – and am now keen to read more. Her approach to dissecting criminality reminded me of PD James and Ruth Rendell, particularly in its focus on British attitudes to race and class. A satisfying read with some lovely characterisation and interesting socio-political commentary (it’s set against the backdrop of the Iraq war in 2003), but with a slightly over-convoluted ending.

Nykanen

Harri Nykänen, Behind God’s Back, trans. from Finnish by Kristian London (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015 [2009]). This novel is the second in the ‘Ariel Kafka’ series (I reviewed the first here back in 2012). Aside from its Finnish setting, the most distinctive aspect of this series is its lead investigator, who is one of only two Jewish policemen in Helsinki. He views the world with a typically wry Jewish humour and allows readers to gain an insight into Helsinki’s small Jewish community, with which he has a slightly strained relationship as he’s not exactly a ‘model Jewish citizen’ – non-observant and stubbornly single.

The novel opens with the murder of a Jewish businessman. Kafka is tasked with figuring out whether the murder is racially motivated, a business deal gone wrong, or something altogether more complex… As was the case with the first novel, the plot got a bit complicated towards the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kafka’s irreverent, blokey company, and was very happy to go along for the ride. A superior police procedural.

And so to the subject of crime fiction longlists and shortlists.

Gold

My last post included the CWA International Dagger longlist, which I was disappointed to see included no works by women authors. Here it is again:

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

I started thinking about how this all-male longlist might have come about. Here are some possibilities, some of which are valid, some not. The answer probably comprises a few of these factors in combination.

  • No works by women authors were submitted for the award. Not the case: the list of novels submitted for this year’s International Dagger is available at http://cwadaggers.co.uk/cwa-international-dagger/. It shows that there were 45 works submitted, of which 13 were authored or co-authored by a woman. If my maths is right, that’s nearly 30%.
  • Fewer works by women were submitted, so the chances of these reaching the longlist were accordingly smaller. That’s definitely the case, given the 70% (male), 30% (female) split. And this kind of ratio seems to be typical. Translator Katy Derbyshire, writing in The Guardian, recently identified a twofold negative trend in relation to international fiction. Firstly, fewer women authors are published in their home markets; secondly, fewer still are selected by English-language publishers for translation. This means that works by international women authors in English are ‘a minority in a minority’. Their chances of winning prestigious literary prizes are thus pretty low.
  • However, even given those factors, the law of averages would still suggest 2 or 3 works by women could have made the International Dagger longlist. There were certainly some strong contenders on the submission list, such as Karin Fossum’s The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker), Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (Orenda) and Claudia Pinero’s Betty Boo (Bitter Lemon Press). Why didn’t they make the cut?
  • At this point we have to acknowledge that judging is a subjective process involving a number of factors and evaluations. So it may simply be coincidence that the longlist ended up being male-dominated (their novels happened to be the best this time round). Equally, however, there may be unconscious biases that drew the judges towards that particular set of novels. These *may* include a gender bias, but could also include others, such as a preference for a particular type of crime fiction (psychological, police procedural, thriller, whatever), or for crime set in a particular country (Sweden, Japan, South Africa)…

A swift look at some other recent longlists/shortlists shows the following: 

  • The 2016 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger features three women authors on its longlist of eight (37%).
  • The 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel (announced today!) features three women authors on its longlist of nine (33%).
  • The 2016 Petrona Award (for which I’m a judge) featured two women authors on its shortlist of six (33%). Our submission list had a worse male/female ratio to the International Dagger this year – 8 works by women authors on a submission list of 42 (19%).
  • The 2016 Man Booker International featured two female authors on its shortlist of six (33%). It was won by Han Kang – a woman author – for The Vegetarian.
  • A significant exception is the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, which features eleven women authors on its longlist of eighteen (61%). This award has also been won by women for the last four years (Denise Mina twice, Belinda Bauer and Sarah Hilary).

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

All the above has made me scrutinise my own reading practices and biases (not always a comfortable process). I’m keeping a list to check my own reading/gender ratio, which I know some other bloggers do as well. It’ll be interesting to compare notes.

Some thought-provoking articles on and around the subject

Katy Derbyshire, ‘Translated fiction by women must stop being a minority in a minority’The Guardian, 10 March 2016

Hannah Ellis Peterson, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds’, The Guardian, 7 April 2015 (particularly interesting contribution by Rob Spillman on tackling systemic problems)

VIDA, ‘The 2015 VIDA Count’, 30 March 2016. VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) is a US-based organisation that scrutinizes the representation of women in the sector (looking at interesting stats like the proportion of women reviewers on magazines).

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Renoir’s The Reader

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

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

Here are a few highlights.

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

Babylon Berlin

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

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

Trap

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

CFhighreslogo-2016

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

The full CrimeFest programme is available here.

CFIG launch book collage

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

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

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Yes! Erich the Bavarian duck will be at CrimeFest!